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Chris Hayes's Challenge

When unserious subjects happen to serious journalists

David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons

Last week, on the second night of his new MSNBC show, "All In," Chris Hayes began the program with a discussion of Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor and perennial punch line. Sanford had just won a Republican congressional primary: A very conservative constituency, opposed to gay marriage, had put its hopes in the man who had disappeared during his gubernatorial term to conduct an affair in Argentina. And now he would face Stephen Colbert's sister in a general election. The moment was ripe for either less-than-gentle mockery and biting humor—one could imagine Keith Olbermann and Jon Stewart salivating—or some confrontational journalism. Witness, for example, Jake Tapper’s demolition of Sanford and his opposition to gay marriage in this interview.

But Hayes does not trade in mockery, much less demolition. He spent two entire segments on Sanford. He showed video clips, spoke with seriousness but without censure, and repeatedly broached the question of the media’s role in covering scandal. By the end of the segment, Hayes concluded, rather earnestly, that “we apply a standard I think of titillation as opposed to any kind of moral framework of what the transgression is, and who the transgression is to, whether it's a violation of the public trust, whether it's a violation of a private contract or private relationship that we view negatively. Obviously, I'm not excusing it. But I don't think, I think we think purely in terms of titillation and then we turn around and call it something more elevated and moral in our judgment.” He seemed to be making an argument against hypocrisy and partisanship at precisely the moment when some entertaining partisanship was called for. His gravity and the subject matter made an odd fit.

This discussion displayed what makes Hayes's new show such a tricky balancing act. Cable news should be either fun or informative, but the danger for the frequently substantive "All In" is falling somewhere in the middle. Hayes's earlier weekend show ("Up with Chris Hayes") would probably not have led with Mark Sanford, whose hard news value is limited. But Hayes is in primetime now, and the eight o'clock hour demands sexy topics and big guests. Hence the muddle of having a tabloid topic debated by partisan flacks (David Axelrod was part of the Sanford panel)—but then focusing on the lofty implications of the issue, and doing so in a leisurely, respectful way where the host never interrupts the guests.  

There is no easier target for high-minded television viewers than the bloviating, impatient talk-show host, and there is no better embodiment of this type than Bill O'Reilly. The Fox News anchor, whose show has been the top-rated cable news program for more than a decade, has perfected this approach: he badgers, he lectures, he scolds, and, most importantly, he interrupts. The news value of his show is negligible—or rather negative—but the entertainment quotient is consistently high.

When MSNBC chose to replace its own blustery host, Ed Schultz, with the 34-year-old Hayes in March, the cable channel seemed to be going in a new(ish) direction. Schultz is hardly an O’Reilly clone—he lacks both O’Reilly’s screen-presence and demagoguery—but he was another “populist” type who liked to rant and exude anger. Hayes, who hosted an MSNBC weekend morning show, was, according to The New York Times, someone who was known for “allowing long, thoughtful conversations about politics and public policy, the kind rarely seen elsewhere on television.” MSNBC’s bet was that he could bring this wonkishness to primetime, and, with his appealingly nerdy personality, manage to mix news and entertainment in a way that few cable hosts have managed. 

Give Hayes credit for his show's focus on serious subjects. And sometimes his inherent politeness works. On the fourth night, he conducted a remarkable discussion about fast-food workers who wanted to unionize in New York City. It was the kind of conversation that is incredibly rare for cable news, and, more importantly, it was conducted without any phony populism of the O'Reilly variety. He interviewed actual workers, and talked to a labor historian. When he questioned someone from the New York State Restaurant Association, he was both generous and astute: “In the restaurant industry’s defense, right? It’s not their job to raise wages for any other reason than being forced to raise them, right? I mean, in some ways, that’s the point of striking, that’s the point of minimum wage. They’re not going to do it because we sit here on cable news, right? They’re going to do it when they have to do it.” Hayes managed to spotlight an important issue, explain both sides, and argue, in a mature way, for organized labor’s rights. Superb television.

Opinion shows are often critiqued for “preaching to the choir,” which has always been a silly complaint. Hayes is a progressive with well-considered views, and he wants to advocate for them. He should. In the first week, he hosted discussions about gun politics, energy policy, and the cheating scandal in Atlanta’s schools. Each issue was dealt with thoroughly. The guests were almost universally liberal. Conservative opinion was generally not canvassed—let alone showcased—but I didn’t notice any demagoguery or dishonesty, either.

The problem is that if you are preaching to those who agree with you already, you should probably try to do one of two things: educate viewers on a subject about which they are only hazily aware of (the labor rights of fast-food workers, e.g.), or present them with a well-trod subject in a fresh and fun way. Hayes is much better at the former. As someone who basically agrees with his worldview, for instance, I don’t need to hear another conversation about Congress’ inability to pass gun control legislation, especially one that is deadly serious and dull. Last Wednesday, however, Hayes led with a big conversation about congressional gun inertia. His guests were all liberal, the points were all ones I had heard before, and the conversation was pretty much what you would expect. Why not mock Wayne LaPierre, or get angry, or host someone you disagree with and—dare I say—interrupt his or her nonsense? If you are expressly aiming to reach people who agree with you, then have some fun doing so.

A discussion of Roger Ebert—another possibly ripe subject but one without inherent news value—was similarly unenlightening. Hayes's guests were reverential, and he let each one speak … at the cost of not pushing them in interesting directions. There was no debate or conflict, which, given the subject matter, meant the show felt neither nourishing nor entertaining.

And that’s where the challenge will be for Hayes and for MSNBC. Hayes' ratings during his first week were solid but unspectacular; if he wants to succeed, he should stick to substance. Bill O'Reilly couldn't host a serious show if he tried, but he is a talented showman. Hayes isn't. He is quirky, seemingly polymathic, un-demagogic, and generally more serious than ironic. His show might become less worthy and fail, but there is a better option: sticking to subjects that clearly interest him. Perhaps there is an audience for high-mindedness—or at least an audience bigger than Ed Schultz’s. Hayes will never work as an entertainer, and thus his show might be the rare case of something that can only succeed by being serious. The show hasn't, uh, gone all in on that notion yet, but the more Hayes embraces his seriousness, the better he'll do. You don’t need Chris Hayes if all you want is a good time.

Follow Isaac Chotiner on Twitter @IChotiner.