Paul Ryan in the Firing Line

Posted by Madhulika Sikka on



A few weeks ago I previewed the reboot of Firing Line, the show hosted by the conservative intellectual and polysyllabic William F. Buckley that aired on PBS stations for 33 years.

Mr. Buckley was famous for his rapier wit, rigor and obvious delight in intellectual sparring all wrapped up in a patrician exterior and more than a whiff of noblesse oblige.

When I met with Ms. Hoover the first thing she wanted to make clear was “I do not see myself as William F. Buckley.”

That’s a good thing. But when you take on a show seeped in legacy, you take on the risk that people are going to pounce, because let’s face it, that seems to be our favorite sport these days.

The show started on presenting station WNET and after three weeks started airing on stations across the public broadcasting system.  According to WNET, Firing Line is now available to 90% of the public television viewing audience.

A few of you have caught the show and have things to say.  Almost all the criticism has been focused on Ms. Hoover’s interview with outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

Ron Blachman of Kensington, Calif., did not mince words:

“I've been auditioning the new 'Firing Line with Margaret Hoover'. This is not thoughtful programing. I watched her tonight interviewing Paul Ryan. It could have been interesting but it wasn't. The problem begins with Ms. Hoover's sycophantic introduction in which she attempts to beatify the Speaker, to pre-excuse every arguable policy or utterance he's ever made by telling us how.... what? how misunderstood he is? How well intentioned he was? By pre-determining the relative effects of various historic poverty programs rather than treating them as matters for inquiry and critical discussion?”

Maria Hrabowski, Norwood, Mass., also raised the issue of the working poor:

“She was using this program to let Paul Ryan horrid propaganda without mentioning even that many people on food stamps work!!!!!!!!! That many poor people work and they are still poor. She doesn't know it, he doesn't know it, but PBS should know it.”

Alice Bebout, Lambertville, N.J., added:

Re Firing Line with Paul Ryan: No even mildly challenging questions whatsoever from Margaret Hoover. For example, she didn’t even mention the many very hard-working working people who are on food stamps because their salaries are so low. Meanwhile Ryan went on and on about the people on the ‘sidelines’ as if that’s the only problem. Hoover did not bring up the growing income inequality in our nation. And Ryan of course talked about entitlements as if that is the main thing that needs to be addressed (as opposed to big tax breaks for the wealthy.)”

It’s interesting to me that the only complaints about the show so far have been with regard to this particular interview. 


Speaker Ryan's interview was actually the first episode taped of the show, and was the debut for its distribution locally.  For the national audience it was the third episode of the show.

While I’m not sure that I agree with these specific criticisms, I do think that the interview with the speaker was a missed opportunity. This is a politician who is now a lame duck and so I would have thought it would have been an opportune time to probe Ryan beyond the politics.  He is someone who is often held up as a Republican who is interested in questions of poverty. Is this actually true?  If so, where did those ideas come from? How did he think about these issues as a young man? Does his Catholicism play a part in his thinking about poverty, and, if so, how? How did his thinking have to change when faced with the reality of governing? 

Speaker Ryan is a polished politician who has never deviated from the talking points and sadly this was no different.

I asked Ms. Hoover to respond to the specific emails I’ve highlighted and here is some of her response via email:

“The intention of that kick-off show was to demonstrate an important premise: that 52 years after William F. Buckley Jr. made the case on his first recorded Firing Line that the War on Poverty was ill conceived, liberals have largely won the argument.  These programs are still with us, and now conservatives are trying to improve them, rather than dismantle them.

"I believe I presented the Speaker with questions that conservatives rarely ask other conservatives, including the racial history plaguing Republicans on welfare reform and poverty program reforms, with respect to the term 'welfare queen' and challenging the self proclaimed 'deficit hawk' on increasing funding for the work requirement support by ten-fold.  The aspiration was to shed light on a part of his work that is less understood by the public. Here are some quotes:  

"MH: … So there’s one other criticism of the work requirement, and I want to ask you about it because it’s something that’s plagued Republicans for decades now, right, because when you hear the term ‘work requirement,’ there are some Americans who hear a dog whistle.  There are some Americans who, in their mind, go back to 1980, and they hear Ronald Reagan campaigning against welfare queens…

"PR: Yeah.

"MH: …and that there is, sadly and unfortunately for conservatives, a racialized history related to the term ‘work requirement’ and what that’s about, and I wonder how you think about that and try to get around that as you sell these policies.”

Ms. Hoover also responded on the question of income inequality:

“To the viewer who expressed concern that the show pre-determined 'the relative effects of various historic poverty programs rather than treating them as matters for inquiry and critical discussion,' I'd say that we made an editorial choice to focus the subject matter of the show – not on an analysis of effects of the many individual federal poverty programs– but on the Speaker’s federal anti-poverty efforts, which get less attention in national media.  Because of this narrow focus we didn't explore the vast topic of income inequality —a program that deserves at least one episode entirely and will receive further attention in the future.” 

And on the question of SNAP recipients?:

“To the extent that the viewer feels that this 32% of working SNAP recipients were treated unfairly by not being recognized for their efforts to support themselves, I hope they can at least take comfort that the tone and the tenor of the show was one of sincere compassion to the plight of Americans living in poverty, both working and unemployed, who struggle with food insecurity and economic instability.” 

I appreciate and thank Ms. Hoover for spending the time to address these viewer questions directly and thoughtfully.

I’ve watched several more episodes and it seems that Ms. Hoover is warming to her task.  She strikes me as a polite person who is never going to be aggressive in her manner of challenging a person but does want to probe.

The strength of the show is that it has a single guest, and I think in the long run that is what is going to help it distinguish itself. 

Compare her interview with Governor John Kasich with the one he did for In Principle and you see the advantages of a single host with a good length of time for back and forth versus two hosts with one guest for a short amount of time. The conversation on Firing Line was loose and a little more freewheeling, allowing the governor more time and allowing the interview to breathe.

The same with Ms. Hoover’s conversation with Gretchen Carlson, who was also a guest on In Principle but shoehorned into a show with several other guests. I frankly didn’t know as much about Ms. Carlson as I perhaps should have and was glad to learn more.

My point isn’t really to compare Firing Line with In Principle but to point out the advantages of a single guest show with time.

It’s something that is sorely lacking on our airwaves these days.

Since the unexpected victory of newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over veteran Congressman Joe Crowley in the Democratic Primary in New York’s 14th district, you’ve probably seen a lot of people talk about Ms. Ocasio-Cortez.  But how much time have you seen her speak about who she is, what she believes in and how she sees her place?

I actually learned a lot from her appearance on Firing Line, which speaks well for the show’s prospects.

Even the guest herself appreciated the conversation.

I’m curious to see the show develop and a lot will clearly depend on who they decide to have on as guests.

As Ms. Hoover herself writes:

“As we achieve lift off for the revival of Firing Line…there is always room for improvement and I appreciate viewer feedback and I will absolutely take it into account.

I've moved past the Paul Ryan interview and have been tuning in with interest as the show continues.  I recommend that you, the audience, watch a few more episodes, too, and see how the show develops.

Posted on July 20, 2018 at 11:15 a.m.

As public editor, Ricardo Sandoval-Palos serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He 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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