Issue Date: September 23, 2005
Goodbye to "The Capital Gang"
By RAYMOND A. SCHROTH
I already miss The Capital Gang.
For those who dont know what theyre missing, The Capital Gang was, for 16 and a half years, a CNN Saturday night political talk show chaired recently by The Wall Street Journals Al Hunt and featuring Mark Shields, also seen on PBSs The Lehrer News Hour; Margaret Carlson, recently of TIME magazine; Kate OBeirne 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 FOXs Bill OReilly, 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 doesnt fit into the new CNN president Jonathan Kleins marketing strategy in CNNs 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 CNNs 775,000. Mr. Klein began by dropping Crossfire, which the Chicago Tribunes Julia Keller described as a nasty, red-fanged daily version of Capital Gang. The shows 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 EWTNs 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. Novaks conversion to Catholicism from Judaism was a feature story in the Gangs coverage of John Paul IIs death. Mr. Novak and his baptismal godmother Kate OBeirne show up on Mother Angelicas 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. CNNs 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. Ill 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 childrens 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 didnt. 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 didnt 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. Peters College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
National Catholic Reporter, September 23, 2005
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