During his days as strictly a talkradio host, Ed Schultz has often boasted about being able to out-drink and out-shoot conservatives -- a big, boisterous lug of a guy who likes hunting and fishing and, oh, happens to be a liberal. Yet in the premiere of his new nightly (or on the West Coast, afternoon) program "The Ed Show," Schultz also seemed determine to prove that he could out-populist, out-loud and out-stupid them.
Schultz opened his show with an eight-minute "op-ed," during which the camera swooped and swirled promiscuously. It was difficult to tell if this was supposed to approximate the feel of a fun-house ride and create a false sense of excitement or if I was simply stroking out.
Actually, the answer is more basic than that: MSNBC clearly wants Schultz to be its Glenn Beck, countering the tearful Fox News Channel host, who's getting so much attention (and impressive ratings) for his lunatic antics. Schultz fits the bill in some respects, being a plainspoken type representing the heartland who talks relentlessly about jobs and the middle class. What he hasn't mastered yet -- and presumably might with time -- are the conventions of hosting a TV talk program, as opposed to a radio one.
Some of the opening-night glitches weren't Schultz's fault, like cutting to guest Larry Elder -- the former L.A. radio host -- getting his mic set up while Schultz conducted another interview. But everything else about the show screamed stupid (or perhaps more accurately, stoopid), including the relentlessly upbeat, hyper-caffeinated tone; the unchallenged pronouncements by the guests (radio host Lars Larson, for example, objected to President Obama suggesting that the United States isn't a Christian nation); and the blunt, ham-fisted nature of the regular segments. One of them, dubbed "Psycho Talk," allows Schultz to deride some comment by a well-known conservative (on Monday's hour, Newt Gingrich), but Schultz never really articulated an argument, so it came across as little more than juvenile name-calling. Like there's not enough of that in cable news.
Rachel Maddow has made the jump from radio to TV with a certain snarkiness, but her common attribute with lead-in Keith Olbermann is that both attempt to engage in policy discussions with a slightly elevated air. Whether or not one agrees with them (or appreciates Olbermann's jabs at his time-period rival Bill O'Reilly), these are serious conversations with real journalists and decision-makers about genuine issues. (For the purposes of this discussion let's ignore MSNBC's Chris Matthews, who is more than anything in love with the sound of his own voice.)
By contrast, Schultz seems content to mention issues -- the economy, health care, North Korea's missile test -- while barely scratching the skin, talking to people coached to speak with the kind of speed and urgency normally reserved for the gameshow "$100,000 Pyramid." "The Ed Show" might gradually right itself, but based on a first glance it looks like MSNBC has conspicuously stooped in its efforts to conquer.
MSNBC Postscript: Olbermann's show closed on a poignant note, with a lovely tribute regarding the death of his mother. It's always difficult for talent to address such deeply personal matters without sounding self-indulgent, but he managed to do so in an especially admirable and touching manner, and I send my condolences.