Arts & Entertainment, Film and TV

Political panel shows place substance over sensationalism

Political newscasts are often reduced to a ratings game in which clicks and views spur profits. Recent popular programs consist mainly of sensationalist clips that further their political agendas. Whether it be alternative sources like PragerU or The Majority Report that stick it to the libs, or mainstream outlets like MSNBC and Fox News that speculate on conspiracies from Russiagate to birtherism, political media is becoming entertainment for entertainment’s sake. The current state of political media is grim, and if this reality persists, there must be an ethical medium that can inform and engage its audience and display multiple perspectives in a palatable way. 

Like TVOntario’s The Agenda or The Hill’s Rising with Krystal and Saagar, panel shows—programs that bring together people of different ages, backgrounds, or experiences to discuss political issues constructively—fit this mould. Like any program, however, panel shows can make the mistake of embracing entertainment over constructive discourse. Yet by sticking to analysis, a conscientious panel will contribute to the health of an informed, democratic public. Their popularity is an asset: In both Canada and the United States, panel shows on news programs receive high viewer rankings and attract wide audiences.

Arguably the most famous panel is ABC’s The View. Beginning in 1997 as Barbara Walters’s brainchild, it sought to bring together women of diverse backgrounds to discuss current events in America’s social and political landscape. Because of its wide-ranging viewer appeal and unique style, The New York Times later dubbed it television’s most important political show. 

The At Issue panel within the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Thursday night program, The National, is perhaps Canada’s most well recognized political panel. Moderated by the CBC’s Chief Political Correspondent Rosemary Barton, the program’s three panellists—McGill Max Bell School of Public Society fellow Chantal Hébert, The Globe and Mail’s Andrew Coyne, and the former Ottawa Bureau Chief for The Huffington Post Althia Raj, BA ‘05—use their independent analysis not to create an echo chamber, but to make political awareness as accessible as possible. 

In an interview with The McGill Tribune, Barton spoke about how At Issue’s long-standing success in the Canadian political landscape rests on its appointment-viewing status—wherein viewers build a personal connection to a show and set time aside to watch it live on a regular basis. At Issue is also non-partisan: The three panellists have no party affiliations and are transparent with their viewers. The show’s non-partisan format is embedded into its mandate, and At Issue has built its credibility on this neutral stance. 

“There is a role for those [partisan] kinds of panels,” Barton said. “They can be smart, informative, spicy. [But] for a weekly slot […] being as neutral as possible means that you get a range of opinions [that are] not from self-interest.”

Although they approach their topics seriously, At Issue’s panellists often incorporate dry humour and witticisms into their answers. Barton spoke fondly of the show’s entertaining tone.

“That is my approach to politics generally,” Barton said. “Politics is serious, [but it is] not deadly. You have to be able to have a laugh when warranted.”

Nevertheless, the show’s occasionally comical tone is most often a foil for its serious subject matter. Barton emphasized the careful research that goes into preparing each panel, mentioning producer Arielle Piat-Sauvé’s diligent observation of daily political matters. 

One of the questions in Canada’s political landscape is whether panel shows should bear the responsibility of advocating specific policies to their viewers. Hébert believes that different spaces require different speakers, and that panel shows can be an effective educational tool for political discourse.

“I do not go on political panels with partisan commentators,” Hébert said. “I do not think we are on the same playing field. [For me], there are these invisible walls that should remain in place.”

In a time where substantial debates have quickly unravelled into name-calling, Hébert emphasized the importance of looking beyond media coverage and into the real world.

“Look at the vaccine debate,” Hébert said. “[For] the chattering class, like [sensationalist] pundits, it is black and white. When you talk to normal people, they are much more moderate. This exaggeration business is because of fundraising […] combined with social media. There is more money to be had by convincing people that Justin Trudeau is a complete failure.”

With the right speakers, panel shows combat populist sensationalism by focussing on the substance of political issues and maintaining an informative—rather than a prescriptive—stance. Hébert stressed the importance of non-partisan shows giving the viewer autonomy in making their own decisions.

“It is not true that people want to be provoked [and] told how to think,” Hébert said. “My job is to present [viewers] with facts and leave them to make up their minds [….] I do not believe that voters do not understand the fundamentals of policy.”

This understanding of mindful and educated discourse counters the idea that Canadians are divided—a claim often used by radical speakers to polarize a democratic public. Hébert detailed her own experience straddling the prominent Canadian language divide and covering policy.

“What makes healthy political debate is that shock of ideas,” Hébert said. “A policy should be sturdy enough to be vigorously debated [….] Canada is a diverse country, [and] that leads to a variety of perspectives [….] My job is not to reinforce one side’s prejudices against the other’s.”

Although having those two opposing sides fight against each other sometimes makes for entertaining matchups, panels should also offer an opportunity for meaningful conversation on substantive issues. These productive conversations guide the panel podcast, Uncommons: Canadian Politics with Nathaniel Erskine-Smith. Erskine-Smith, the Liberal MP for Beaches-East York, Toronto, happens to be an independent partisan, yet stressed the need for engaging past political bubbles.

“In politics, we often talk past each other,” Erskine-Smith said. “When we are engaged in [the] substance of debates, [in] a politics of ideas, we can build relationships so the serious conversations can happen.”

Unlike most political programs hosted by current and former politicians, “Uncommons,” which features experts like Joseph Stiglitz, academics like Peter Singer, and Canadian officials across the political spectrum, encourages debate and nuanced conversations in longform on issues ranging from wealth taxation to privacy rights.

“We forget that we agree more than we disagree,” Erskine-Smith said. “Certain touchpoints are really challenging […] but it comes down to having conversations in good faith based on evidence instead of shouting at each other [….] You can’t boil down complex debates into a snappy talking point.”

While grappling with the dual role of being an active media presence and a political figure, Erskine-Smith highlighted the need to use one’s platform in creative ways. Pre-pandemic, this would have been through town halls and discussion events with experts.

“The podcast is one of those mediums that can get ideas across in the political discourse, but also inform me of how to do my job going forward,” Erskine-Smith said. 

The panel show may be an older form of media, but it remains a vital part of maintaining a healthy democracy, all the while challenging the idea that engaging with others on evidence, facts, and principle is unpopular. When done properly, a panel show incorporates a multitude of perspectives, not for feigning unity, but for remaining realistic and facilitating a positive political discourse. What could be more entertaining than that?

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