Whether it’s Fox News or MSNBC, the phrase “cable news” comes to mind and probably brings with it a certain connotation: sensationalism. People on two sides of a split screen yelling at each other. Guests billed as Democratic and Republican “strategists,” even though they’ve likely never strategized for anyone. Cliched argument segments that are over in two minutes. Pure, grandstanding ideology. And an obsessive focus on the “horse race,” in which policy implications are no consideration and literally every piece of information is filtered through how it affects presidential election polling.
But there’s one show on cable news that’s literally the polar opposite of all that. It’s Up With Chris Hayes, and it brings illumination and complexity rather than grandstanding and noise.
The show, which debuted last September, airs on MSNBC from 8 to 10 a.m. each Saturday and Sunday, hosted by Hayes, a 30-ish blogosphere veteran and former Washington editor of The Nation, who got his start in TV sitting in on Rachel Maddow’s show.
The format is that Hayes hosts a panel of four guests for the entire show plus the occasional single-segment guest. But if this sounds like The McLaughlin Group, it couldn’t be more different, and not only because the average age of panelists on Up is younger by several decades.
The show goes in depth, usually devoting the entire two hours to discussion of either one issue or two or three. The guests, usually either journalists, bloggers or academic types, are often unknown and certainly not mainstays of cable news shows; there are no dubious “Democratic strategists” to be found. One guest a few weeks ago was an atheist filmmaker, Jamie Kilstein, who appeared on the show with visible arm tattoos; had Kilstein gone on The O’Reilly Factor, Bill O’Reilly probably would’ve slapped him.
Now Hayes is certainly an unabashed liberal, as are the majority of guests, and there’s no question the show has a left-leaning tilt. But if you think Up is two hours of propaganda or Obama hagiography, you’d be wrong. The show is full of esoteric policy disagreements and more often than not, the discussion veers toward topics that aren’t even on the radar of national politics. And it certainly touches on topics no other cable news show does.
The last few weeks have featured shows on everything from atheism to drug decriminalization. I’m not an atheist, and I have mixed feelings about the legality of drugs. But I sort of like that there’s a place on TV where there can be a two-hour discussion of such things, especially with multiple allusions to the “Hamsterdam” arc on Season 3 of The Wire. Up has also featured some of the most potent discussion of the Trayvon Martin case that I’ve seen in any medium.
The show’s shining moment may be Hayes’s response to the Mike Daisey/This American Life controversy. Daisey appeared on Up just a week or two before the scandal arose over the inaccuracies in his piece for the radio program on Chinese Apple factories.
On the following week’s show, Hayes delivered an amazing response in which he both admonished Daisey for lying and held up parts of Daisey’s monologue as powerful and important.
That’s the sort of nuance you’re not ever going to get from Sean Hannity or Lawrence O’Donnell.
Aside from the occasional viewing of Anderson Cooper or Rachel Maddow, I stopped watching cable news long ago; I feel like when I watch it, I enter knowing less about what’s going on than I did before I watched. But Up is a welcome and overdue diversion from all that.