For more than three months now, MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayeshas been experimenting with a new format: hosting the show in front of a live studio audience on Friday nights. Although other networks have also recently begun incorporating more live audiences into their news programming, as Variety's Brian Steinberg notes, All In with Chris Hayes, at least for now, is the only primetime cable news show to be hosted regularly before a live audience.
The show's new format marks another milestone for its 40-year-old host, whose ascent has taken him from an editor at the Chicago-based socialist magazine In These Times to Washington editor of The Nation and then — thanks to the mentorship of Rachel Maddow — to the host of the ninth-highest-rated cable news show in America. Time will tell whether other networks decide to follow All In's lead when it comes to a live audience but, in the meantime, when watching Hayes's new Friday shows, a few things stand out.
The first is how the new format makes obvious what many of us have long suspected: that much of what we call "news" is really more entertainment than anything else. Hayes' new format is another step towards the ruse being up for good. He bounds in like Conan O'Brien to a hooting-and-hollering audience and launches into his monologue. Like any late-night show host worth his salt, Hayes later brings in guests who sit on comfortable seats and half-joke, half-explain what they've been up to. Sure, politicians might replace actors as guests, but many of the guests chosen are political celebrities, such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Unlike the late-night shows, however, Hayes's producers don't invite even the occasional guest who might ruffle his audience's feathers. And, most telling of all are reports that Hayes's Friday night audiences have been warmed up beforehand by an actual comedian.
Another feature of Hayes's show that is striking is its absolute, unwavering focus on covering presidential politics. As is frequently observed, earlier generations of Americans, particularly those born before the inexorable rise of "the imperial presidency," would be astonished by how much of American national discourse focuses on our head of state. This is true on both the Left and Right. Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple may have been sensing this very point when describing how a relaunched Human Events was positioning itself to become a "MAGAzine"; the implication being that a news outlet coming onto the scene in 2019 has a simple choice to make: praise President Trump all day or incessantly critique him.
So, unlike Human Events, Hayes opts for the latter and invites a parade of guests who condemn President Trump to the point that no particular charge they make stands out from any other. For instance, one of All In's first Friday guests was former Obama administration photographer Pete Souza. The part of that interview that would be brought into focus was Souza saying how he'd never work in a Trump White House because he doesn't respect President Trump and doesn't believe "he's a decent human being."
Closely related to this point is a slightly more general one: that Hayes's Friday shows, much like the rest of the news landscape, are overwhelmingly person-centric, rather than idea-centric. All In is a parade of names and faces, with only the occasional look at the details of an actual policy. Even Hayes's November 15 guest Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seemed to pick up on this when she bemoaned how "mass media" would be unlikely to give her an "8 p.m. timeslot" to discuss her plan for carbon dioxide emissions and public housing. Instead, the studio's screens flash with images of Representative Adam Schiff, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, and, of course, President Trump.
Sure, impeachment might be the talk of the town in late 2019, but there are other things to talk about. In our hardly bipartisan age, the President just signed a federal animal cruelty bill into law, and not a single member in either house of Congress voted against it. What about Hong Kong? And, for an audience interested in hearing criticisms of President Trump, why not critique the administration on its policies regarding the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, a tragic situation that has seen — over the past year — an estimated 6,872 civilians killed; "the majority by Saudi Arabia-led coalition airstrikes"? This terrible situation is finally attracting attention on Capitol Hill, particularly among Democrats, but it would benefit from even a fraction of the airtime that is given to far less urgent matters.
But the final and most important point regarding Hayes's new format is directly related to the presence of the live studio audience. Although Hayes occasionally pushes back on his guests' claims, such as when he briefly challenged Representative Ocasio-Cortez's characterization of White House senior advisor Stephen Miller as a "white nationalist," the presence of a live audience disincentivizes disagreeing with the proverbial "temperature in the room." Good journalism requires telling hard truths, but no one wants to disappoint a Friday night crowd; and no performer — whether trained as a journalist or otherwise — can resist searching for the approval of the audience in front of him. It's no surprise that, at present, the applause lines (and the laugh lines) are so frequent.
With respect to Brian Steinberg, who pointed out in his Variety review, "Some may get them angry. No matter what you hear, [Hayes] reminds them, keep in mind one rule: No booing," there's little danger of that. The show's content is tailor-made for its audience's approval. This is the case despite the fact that the best journalism tends to leave people silent or unsettled — not laughing. In this sense, then, Hayes' new format might actually be providing something of a public service in making crystal clear that much of what we refer to as "news" is far more entertainment than it is journalism.
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