A Good Idea, In Principle But...

Last Updated by Madhulika Sikka on
In Principle Co-hosts Michael Gerson and Amy Holmes
Photo by Stephen Voss

We are living in a time of heightened rhetoric and political partisanship. 

It seems harder for people to come together to talk through our ideas, our convictions, our differences and how we might find common ground. 

Clearly partisan cable news channels are performing as well as ever as the audiences curl up with their favorite anchors every evening to assess the world through a particular lens.

Anything that tries to break through that bifurcated view of the world, that tries to foster conversations that are less heat and more light should be welcomed in our political discourse.

So, the idea of adding more news and information programming to the PBS schedule that tries to do that is, in principle, a good idea.

Which brings us to the recent announcement from PBS and producing station WETA introducing a new limited series "In Principle," which will start airing in April following the PBS stalwart, Washington Week.

The show will be hosted by Michael Gerson, speechwriter for former President George W. Bush, and Amy Holmes, a familiar face as a political commentator on TV and radio who was also once a speechwriter for former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

Given the pedigree of the two hosts it’s not surprising that the announcement was heralded by the press as the launch of a “conservative” show on PBS.

In Principle.jpg

David Bauder of the Associated Press quoted Gerson this way: “I think the Trump era has been a very difficult time for traditional conservative discourse…I think a lot of institutions and places have been co-opted in this era. I view conservatism not only as a belief but a state of mind, a respect for tradition but also a respect for facts."

I guess the press covering this story can be forgiven then for perceiving this as a “conservative” show. 

According to Executive Producer Dalton Delan that is not their framing.  In an email he told me, “We didn’t position In Principle as a 'conservative' show, but we recognize that given the prior work of the co-hosts some might choose to perceive it as such.”

And perceive it that way they are. 

Ben McConnell of Roanoke, Va., wrote, “Just read PBS is starting a conservative-voiced talk show called 'In Principle.' I am very glad to hear this. I rarely watch PBS news or talk shows as there are no true conservative voices to be heard or rarely heard.”

Brenda Hillyer of Hendersonville, N.C., is skeptical. “What a joke to say that PBS is offering a conservative talk show, when it will be hosted by two people who are certainly not widely considered representative of the conservative viewpoint.”

Sue Robinson from Camano Island, Wash., has even stronger feelings: “The new PBS ‘In Principle’ program is being billed as ‘leaning conservative.’ A former MSNBC commentator (Amy Holmes)? What a joke. Michael Gerson is not a conservative. He is a vocal Trump hater who attacked then candidate Trump continuously and nastily. He has never stopped.  He is at one with the radicals who would like to overturn the results of a legal, legitimate election.”

Russell Wilson from Portland, Maine, is also disappointed about the show, but from another viewpoint: “Our country is in the situation it is in because of overrepresentation of conservative views, and now you think it’s a good idea to add to that imbalance? Are three branches of government not enough influence?...How is it that there is always more room for the very people whose ideology excludes public broadcasting but never enough room for voices from the left who also support your mission?”

These responses are predictable and representative of the state of our discourse at this moment.  We support our side, we don’t have time for anyone else and we are not really open to hearing from a multiplicity of perspectives. And we have formed an opinion without actually seeing the show. 

Of course, a show helmed by self-described conservatives (of whatever persuasion) reinforces for critics that PBS is liberal and that this new show is about trying to redress a left leaning bias. 

Executive Producer Delan’s response is: “For those who may have a distorted view of PBS and want to label it on the spectrum of political thought, then I can only hope that this makes them rethink that myth and realize that we take deeply seriously our role as a 'broad'-caster, and that this program is just another piece of a jigsaw puzzle of smart, diverse news and public affairs programming that only PBS brings. It’s not a corrective, it’s an addition.”

That’s a valiant defense, but I’m not yet persuaded. I will reserve full judgment until the show airs and we have got a sense of what Gerson and Holmes end up doing. This is Holmes’ definition of the show: “We need a place where we can have thoughtful, reasonable, in-depth conversations about politics, policy, culture – you name it –where we’re really talking to each other instead of shouting at each other…It’s not about shouting, it’s about talking and listening and learning.”

Bauder’s AP story claimed that the show would be taking its cue from the show "Firing Line" hosted by iconic conservative thinker William F. Buckley that aired on public television for 33 years.

I’ve been watching some old episodes of "Firing Line" and though of their time, there is something quite interesting about watching them. 

In this trailer Buckley described the show as being conceived as “an exchange of opinion.”

The single host and (usually) single guest format, along with a few questioners at the end works extremely well.  It allows for civilized and engaging conversation without anyone looking to score points necessarily. 

What also strikes me is that the topics that are flashpoints today have been so for decades – immigration, race, economics, intellectualism, terrorism, Henry Kissinger were all topics that Buckley explored decades ago. 

Here's a conversation with Muhammad Ali from 1968:

This show with Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward just one month before the resignation of President Nixon caught my eye, too.

The format for "In Principle" is to have two guests each week. With two hosts and two guests in a 30-minute show (which actually means about 26-27 minutes) it’s going to be a tall order to match the distinction of "Firing Line" but, like I said, I’m going to reserve judgment until I actually see the work.

As public editor, Madhulika Sikka serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. She reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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