The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Can Christiane Amanpour breathe any life into the Sunday morning news show format?

August 3, 2010 | 12:02 pm

Christiane_amanpour Call me crazy, but I've never been able to shake the habit of watching the Sunday morning news shows, even though you can go weeks on end without ever seeing any real news. So, of course, I had to watch Christiane Amanpour's much-ballyhooed debut Sunday on ABC's "This Week," ever hopeful that the fearless globe-trotting foreign correspondent might breathe some new life into the ossified world of Washington news chatter.

If you watch these Sunday programs, you know that they're a lot like "Law and Order." The faces may change, but the format stays exactly the same, whether it's Jesse Martin taking over from Benjamin Bratt who arrived after Chris Noth left, or Amanpour replacing George Stephanopoulis or David Gregory taking over at "Meet the Press" after the death of Tim Russert. The format is as rigidly structured as a Jerry Bruckheimer action film, opening with a newsmaker interview or two, followed by a lengthy panel discussion, much in the way that, in a Bruckheimer film, a brief comic interlude is followed by a visual-effects studded action sequence.

In interviews promoting her arrival, Amanpour acted as if she were going to shake things up, but judging from her debut, there was no such shaking going on. She started with what was billed as an "exclusive" interview with House speaker Nancy Pelosi -- which was about as much an exclusive as a YouTube appearance by Justin Bieber -- followed by another "exclusive" chat with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Of course, these weren't really exclusives, since both Pelosi and Gates are on the Sunday morning shows all the time. Even worse, Amanpour didn't make any news. Part of the fun of watching these shows is seeing how pros like Pelosi and Gates adroitly fend off even the most blunt questions, never offering anything but the usual bromides and platitudes.

Amanpour didn't get a glove on either of 'em. In fact, she seemed so frustrated by their bland responses that she amped up the volume of her questions, becoming shrill and somewhat hectoring. As my colleague Robert Lloyd so eloquently put it: "She speaks loudly and intently, as if she has not lost the habit of yelling over heavy artillery." The rest of the show was devoted to the usual round-table discussion, which had all the same insular Washington chatter that you can hear on every other show. You know you're not breaking any new ground when the big excitement is seeing the curmudgeonly George Will treat NYT columnist Paul Krugman with the same bemused condescension that Steve Carell gets from most of the attendees in "Dinner for Schmucks."

I'm still willing to cut Amanpour some slack, but if she really wants to reinvent the cobwebby news show format, which is even older than the three-camera situation comedy, she should get the hell out of Washington, as far away from all these tedious pseudo-newsmakers as possible. Politicians make for horrible interviews, since they're even more obsessively on message than Hollywood stars at a movie junket. Christiane's never going to break through their media armor -- they're too well trained in the art of deception. She should take the show to New York and London or Shanghai and the Silicon Valley, where she could interview the savvy, often quirky entrepreneurs and capitalist buccaneers who really make the world go round.

Washington is a quagmire full of partisan hacks, who only make news when they squabble and snipe at each other. It's abundantly clear that the real news in the world is happening elsewhere. Amanpour should take the show out on the road and find it.   

Photo: Christiane Amanpour at the ABC bureau in Washington, D.C.

Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times