SUPPORTING GREAT TELEVISION

No Need to Know Need to Know

In Commentaries on February 14, 2011 at 6:00 am

Alison Stewart and Jon Meacham, the humorless hosts of “Need to Know.” (Photographer unknown; courtesy PBS)

Last September 10, Jon Meacham appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and offered a personal plea as he began a live interview with Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who was threatening to burn Qurans on 9/11.

“I would appeal to you as a fellow Christian that the course you’ve suggested is going to be incredibly dangerous and would ask you to desist in the name of New Testament theology,” Meacham told Jones.

The interview ended there; Jones was never given a chance to respond, and for the next day or so, critics debated whether Meacham was taking a principled stand against using media to elevate an obscure bigot or just showboating.

Regardless of his intent – I suspect Meacham’s heart was in the right place – I wondered: Why doesn’t he bring this kind of verve to Need to Know, the weekly PBS show he co-hosts with Alison Stewart?

Don’t know Need to Know?

Don’t worry: You haven’t missed much.

Since debuting in May, the hour-long newsmagazine, which most PBS stations air Friday nights, has become public television’s ho-hummiest show.

According to the series’ website, Need to Know “cuts through the noise of nonstop news to bring you the most compelling stories of the week.”

If only.

To its credit, Need to Know reports on issues that commercial TV ignores without apology: the effect of state budget cuts on the developmentally disabled, the cost of fixing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, the Sudanese elections.

The problem is that most “stories” on Need to Know aren’t reported at all – they’re talked about.

Because this is penny-pinching public television, Need to Know fills airtime not with taped reports from the field, but by having Meacham and Stewart conduct in-studio interviews with talking heads.

This might be tolerable if the hosts offered dazzling on-air personas, but these two don’t.

Meacham and Stewart are absolutely humorless: She wears a perma-scowl; he appears to be afflicted with the same unfortunate syndrome that plagues Rachel Maddow – both always look as if they smell something foul.

And while I’m sure Stewart is bright, it seems she sometimes fails to grasp the issues at hand.

During a January roundtable discussion about a federal commission that investigated the 2008 financial crisis, she was fascinated that the panel’s conclusions broke down along partisan lines.

She asked: “Is this about partisan politics or is this about people who genuinely have a different view of how to handle the economic future of the country?”

Gee, I wonder?

When Need to Know does offer field reports, they’re usually unimaginative and always too long.

The first six minutes of correspondent Maria Hinojosa’s recent 17-minute (!) piece on the impact of budget cuts on the disabled was devoted to a single case in Indiana – an anecdotal lead that, for the longest time, seemed to be leading nowhere.

In television, length doesn’t always equal depth, and watching serious people sit around and gab about serious topics isn’t necessarily smart television – two lessons that Need to Know needs to learn.

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