Media Watch: The battle of television’s ‘experts’ and talking heads

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joe khalil THIS ONE
joe khalil THIS ONE

A recent study from the Public Accountability Initiative in the United States revealed that 22 different commentators on Syria had connections to the defense and intelligence industries. The report also revealed that out of 111 appearances on television or in op-ed pages, these connections were disclosed only 13 times. This conflict of interest, tainted credibility, and skewed opinions are plaguing our ability to make informed decisions about a rapidly changing world.

It is particularly daunting when these experts help shape public opinion about war. In fact, Iraq in 2003 and Syria today demonstrate that there are multiple ways of looking at wars: resistance, occupation, conspiracy, liberation, etc. It was only ten years ago that regional Arab channels started rolling wall-to-wall “experts” to explain, predict, and provide us with “news” we can use. To support these perspectives, television channels were in no shortage of “expert” opinions and their studios became platforms for some soon-to-become familiar “talking heads.”

With local, regional and international channels interested in talking about, from and to the Arab world, the battle of “experts” rages on between television channels – so much so that some Arab experts have signed exclusive contracts with channels while others have turned TV hosts, members of parliaments or communication advisors. The unfortunate ones still make the circuit of television channels.

Power and responsibility

The problem in the region, as in the U.S., is one of power and responsibility: the power to tell the viewers/readers what to think about (also known as agenda-setting) and the responsibility to offer them informed ways to think about these issues.

Just to be clear, an expert is a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area. As the term suggests, a “talking head” is jargon for a commentator or reporter on television who addresses the camera and is viewed close up. Even by Wikipedia’s (not-so-high) standards, an expert has “extensive knowledge or ability based on research, experience, or occupation and in a particular area of study” and that the knowledge comes “by virtue of credential, training, education, profession, publication or experience.” In other words, simply calling yourself an “expert” does not make you one, but a competition between television channels over an “expert” does not make him (because they are mostly males) one, either.

Television’s talking head experts are everywhere, anytime, and always ready to speak on almost any subject! Just try to recognize the following:

A “political expert” is a catch-all term used for politicians who have fallen out of grace, retired diplomats associated with a former regime, and particularly, directors of shady one-person-run think-tanks. They never cease to surprise me by their mastery of Arabic language, the breadth of their vocabulary, and their ability to say the same talking points in a hundred different ways. Perhaps more surprising is how they are ready to wave documents or magazines (usually in German or Russian or from some obscure publication) or showcase an artifact (a toy or a poster, for example) to prove a point.

A “military/security expert” is another popular category often called on to imitate a sports commentator’s play-by-play or as a referee to declare the victory of one group over another. They are ready to lose their uniforms but not their titles – you do not even need to know their full names, as calling them “General” will suffice. Groomed for TV’s general consumption, the general is not ready to lose his command and control of the situation—as evidenced by his authoritative tone, stern demeanor, and no-nonsense attitude. Combining Arabic with foreign terms, their sentences should be taught as tongue twisters in acting courses.

Too boring or too dramatic

To be fair, expert talking heads are every TV producer’s blessing and curse. Their ability to talk at length directly to the camera makes them excellent time fillers. Now, it does not hurt if they are loud, bombastic and occasionally curse or throw chairs, water or other objects at other guests. They create drama, and drama sells!

In contrast, talking heads can be boring, too academic, too technical, too calm and collected, and leave the audience with more questions and uncertainties than answers and data. Such talking heads often end up on the no-call list.

To be sure, there are conscientious producers who avoid the populist battle yet win the popular battle. A populist episode can be very tempting, as it usually inspires multiple YouTube versions, but a popular program can offer “food for thought.”

Unfortunately, the battle of “experts” rages on, as this is the nature of the beast that is 24-hour news channels. While it is the responsibility of producers to balance their choice of talking heads with their sense of social responsibility, audiences can, with their remote controls, curb television channels’ enthusiasm for certain “experts.” Just as they learned to vote for their “Arabs Got Talent,” hopefully audiences will vote off their screens those with dubious expertise.

Joe F. Khalil, Ph.D., is an associate professor in residence at Northwestern University and visiting research fellow at the London School of Economics. He has more than fifteen years of professional television experience as director, executive producer and consultant with major Arab satellite channels. He is co-author of Arab Satellite Entertainment Television: Opportunities for Public Diplomacy (2009) and co-author of Arab Television Industries (2010).