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Issue Date:  September 23, 2005

Goodbye to "The Capital Gang"


I already miss “The Capital Gang.”

For those who don’t know what they’re missing, “The Capital Gang” was, for 16 and a half years, a CNN Saturday night political talk show chaired recently by The Wall Street Journal’s Al Hunt and featuring Mark Shields, also seen on PBS’s “The Lehrer News Hour”; Margaret Carlson, recently of TIME magazine; Kate O’Beirne of The National Review; and syndicated columnist Robert Novak.

For an hour these five joined in relatively civil combat, interpreting the events of the week. Civil compared to FOX’s Bill O’Reilly, who tells his guests to “Shut up!” Like a teacher who knows better than to lecture for an hour, the Gang split its time into segments: an interview with the “newsmaker of the week”; a dialogue with a guest panelist, usually a politician; and the final enjoyable “outrage of the week,” in which each blurted out something that really made him/ her mad.

“The Capital Gang” must die because it doesn’t fit into the new CNN president Jonathan Klein’s marketing strategy in CNN’s race with FOX, the more sensational, right-wing, self-described “fair and balanced” network that now holds a prime-time audience of 2 million compared to CNN’s 775,000. Mr. Klein began by dropping “Crossfire,” which the Chicago Tribune’s Julia Keller described as “a nasty, red-fanged daily version of ‘Capital Gang.’ ” The show’s conservative pundit, Tucker Carlson, has since moved to PBS to aid its tip to the right.

I will miss “Capital Gang” because, even more than EWTN’s “Mother Angelica” programs, it was the most Catholic program on television. Mr. Hunt is an Episcopalian. Notre Dame grad Shields narrated a social justice film for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Margaret Carlson deals with hot Catholic issues in her columns. Mr. Novak’s conversion to Catholicism from Judaism was a feature story in the Gang’s coverage of John Paul II’s death. Mr. Novak and his baptismal godmother Kate O’Beirne show up on Mother Angelica’s EWTN.

During the 2004 campaign, Margaret Carlson wrote that by focusing on abortion and ignoring the other life issues, the bishops risked becoming just one more special interest group, “the NRA of the soul.” This July she skewered the conservative tactic of distinguishing between “good” and “bad” Catholics -- the “bad” ones begin the liberals. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, introducing Mr. Novak and Paul Begala as Catholics, quipped that Mr. Novak was “good” and “I am not sure about Paul Begala.” Ms. Carlson concluded: “I wait for the day when bad Catholics get their day, when bishops will condemn those public figures who vote against helping the poor or healing the sick or increasing the earned income tax credit. I’ll say a prayer.”

But will dumping the Gang make CNN a more professional news source? Unfortunately, Mr. Klein, while moving away from the shout fests on FOX, is not moving CNN in the direction of BBC. He has told his staff he wants more emotionally gripping narratives that will grab and hold the viewers who now watch Larry King on CNN and then flick off to FOX for more red meat and noise.

He has replaced the Gang on Saturday night with “On the Story,” a razzle-dazzle mix in which young CNN correspondents sit on a stage at the George Washington University auditorium while stories they have covered are projected on a screen and the audience asks them questions. Serious topics like Iraq urban warfare become discussions about “How does it feel to be under fire?

The worst segment I saw in three shows was a young woman reporter trying to make something of a children’s summer camp focused on Harry Potter books. She began by confessing she had not read the book but had seen the movie. A good editor would have killed the story right away.

On Sept. 3, I tuned in to see how CNN staff would adapt the “On the Story” format to the tragedy in New Orleans. They didn’t. They killed the scheduled program for a Special Report on the hurricane. There was Anderson Cooper in Waveland, Miss., which I knew well. He recycled the familiar corpses, helicopter rescues, angry citizens and swamped homes. I had followed the news for a week and struggled with the phone and e-mail to see if my New Orleans friends were safe. What I think the public needed was someone to tell us what all this means. Who is responsible for this debacle? What is it in our political system or even in the American character that allows us to foresee this calamity but not make the sacrifices to prevent it? CNN didn’t even try. Those four Catholics and one Episcopalian on “Capital Gang” would have had a lot to say.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is

Talking with Mark Shields

Do we provide enough for those who have too little?

Mark Shields took time out at the end of his Cape Cod vacation on Labor Day for some conversation with NCR. What stood out was his affection for the other members of the Gang: “ ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’ Al Hunt, who is thoughtful toward everyone, including so-called unimportant people”; the program’s founder Bob Novak, who insisted their operation would be collegial in contrast to the dictatorial John McLaughlin on PBS’s “The McLaughlin Group”; Kate O’Beirne with her “wicked sense of humor”; and Margaret Carlson, devoted to her family and Catholic/Christian values.

-- Raymond A. Schroth

Schroth: How should a journalist’s or politician’s Catholicism influence his or her work?

Shields: The question one must answer: Does your faith inform and determine your politics or does your politics inform your faith?

As one who was born a Democrat and baptized a Catholic, I believe that the Catholic in the public square -- journalist or politician or citizen -- has no better guide than the Gospel of St. Matthew. The origin of much of our debate and differences springs from the tension between the Judeo-Catholic ethic of community and the Protestant/American habit of lionizing or romanticizing individualism.

That difference is clear in the words of two representative American politicians -- Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt. The Gipper asked: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” FDR put it differently: “The measure of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, but whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” For the Catholic, I believe the question ought to be: Are we better off? Are the strong among us more just? Are the weak among us more secure?

If “Capital Gang” had still been on the air on Saturday, Sept. 3, what would you have said about the hurricane and the relief effort?

What Katrina/New Orleans did for the nation’s conscience is profound. It forced all of us to confront the fact that a lot of our brothers and sisters who are Americans do not “summer” somewhere, do not have a broker or a personal trainer or a cell phone on which to call comfortable relatives to tell them that because of the weather we’re going to crash in their guest bedroom for a couple of weeks. I am sick and tired of those who have never been forced to sleep on the beach telling those who have been that the economic tides of history must be respected.

As a result of the events in New Orleans, the poor are no longer invisible. They have families they love and they have hopes and they want their children’s lives to be better. We are forced to confront FDR’s test and to admit that we have failed our brothers and sisters, to vow to make amends and do justice.

National Catholic Reporter, September 23, 2005

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