I miss the thoughtful political discussions on ‘Firing Line’

President Ronald Reagan meets with William F. Buckley, host of "Firing Line" in the Oval Office in 1988. Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library

President Ronald Reagan meets with William F. Buckley, host of “Firing Line” in the Oval Office in 1988. Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library

I have a bit of a confession to make: I simply can’t watch Fox News. An odd thing for a modern conservative to admit, I grant you, but I just can’t do it.

It isn’t that I’m particularly offended by the network’s news coverage. I’m not. In fact, contrary to their reputation with the angry progressive left, which has rather juvenilely dubbed it “faux news,” the actual hard news reporting by the network is typically quite good.

It isn’t that I have a problem with the ideological slant to the opinion programming shown in the evenings. The network is open about its conservative point of view, and you can count me on the same side of the fence as the network on most issues.

And it isn’t that I prefer another network, like the liberal alternative at MSNBC. My distaste for cable news and opinion programming extends across all ideological markers. Indeed, I have a much harder time watching MSNBC and CNN than I do Fox News.

I just can’t take the banality of it all.

At any moment in time, I can turn on any cable news program on any network, particularly the evening opinion shows, turn it on mute, and predict with great accuracy exactly what they are going to say, and how they are going to say it.

They speak in a style that makes me think of computing macros. In other words, a set of rules inside the host’s head that provide him specified outputs (statements and arguments) that are automatically repeated whenever the computer (the host’s brain) receives certain inputs (topics or subjects).

As though they can do nothing else, the opinion host will make a superficial, often emotionally charged point (because that is what gets attention and breaks through the oversaturated media environment) that is not only entirely predictable, but without much substance.

Worse, as media has proliferated and the market for news and opinion has gotten more fractured and cloudy, news and opinion hosts have begun to talk to and cater to a very specific core audience, making them more insular, sheltered, and less frequently challenged.

I yearn for a simpler time. A time when discussing issues, talking about policy, and debating the nature of the world was done by intellectual giants who sparred with one another for the sheer sport of it.

Sparring which, incidentally, was not a shouting match, nor a gimmicky soundbite-laden battle between two ideologues. Real, thoughtful, prolonged debates that sounded like high-minded conversations between brilliant people.

Take, for example, the Godfather of the modern conservative movement, William F. Buckley, and his public affairs show “Firing Line,” which ran for 33 years from 1966 to 1999.

One of the gifts of the modern world is that things you never thought you would see again are easily accessible online, including old episodes of “Firing Line,” which featured the host, Buckley, inviting a guest or two on the show to discuss a public affairs topic.

Buckley would have influential people on his show, and he would actually talk to them. Pepper them with questions. Explore weaknesses in their logic. Express his point of view, but then allow the guest to counter his argument.

The goal was not to get famous by railroading an ideological opponent, shouting them down, or publicly embarrassing them. Quite the contrary, he would often invite some of the most brilliant left-wing thinkers on his show and attempt to publicly deconstruct their brain, while making his opinion known.

Some of the most entertaining conversations were with figures like Noam Chomsky. In 1969, Buckley sparred with his counterpart on issues related to intellectualism and the Vietnam War, which is one of the most interesting discussions you will ever see relating to that topic.

Then there was a 1966 conversation with a very young Hugh Hefner, which involved a high-minded discussion of the sexual revolution and morality.

Or the discussion in 1984 with Christopher Hitchens, in which he discussed with the author much of his social criticism and the two discussed the problems with modern liberalism.

Or even the hour he spent in 1988 with Ron Paul, during which Buckley and Paul talked about the new concept of libertarianism. If you think conservatism and libertarianism are synonymous, go watch that debate.

None of these conversations were the empty rhetoric you hear today. Never were the arguments all that predictable. Rarely, if ever, would you see hostility or acrimony, yet Buckley was never ideologically moderate or in any way “sold out” to his guests.

That is the kind of public discussion that I crave to see today, and we just don’t have it anymore. I miss “Firing Line.”

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.