ON a scale of 1 to 10 - 10 being metaphysical certitude - how would you rate "The McLaughlin Group" as a talk show?
Oh, I dunno. 7?
WR-R-O-N-N-G-G!!! The answer is TEN!
Viewers of that program will instantly recognize the doomsday tone. It belongs, of course, to John McLaughlin, the avuncular, mock-nasty host of TV's most boisterous public-affairs forum.
Fans will also feel at home with the pedagogic approach, the semireligious ratings system - even the pedantic "certitude," mouthed by Mr. McLaughlin rather as if he were sucking a lemon.
They're all part of the pompous brow-beating he facetiously uses to guide his four recalcitrant panelists toward the ineffable wisdom of his own opinions. The regular columnists and correspondents include liberals like Jack Germond and Eleanor Clift, conservatives like Fred Barnes, and in-betweeners like Morton Kondracke.
The result is a show you'd rather not meet in a dark alley - or in a vulnerable moment, or when reflection and conciliation are in order. It's not so much a debate as a ferocious free-for-all of insider information and assertive analysis. When McLaughlin tosses topics into the melee, it's like throwing meat to piranhas. Panelists seize the subject to show what they know. They cut each other off, belittle each other, and shout all at once.
But amid the turmoil, ears are tuned. Is there an idea worth yielding the floor to - for maybe 15 seconds? Is someone speaking too loudly to shout down? A wolf-pack hierarchy of interruptions emerges, with one speaker dominating long enough to make a comment.
Timekeeper McLaughlin hustles his newspeople through the show, deliberately playing the pontificating bore at times. He's a learned and amusing fellow who seems more at home here than he would be in more rhetorically polite company. "Saturday Night Live," NBC's weekly satirical review, dealt with him and his group some time ago in one of its funniest and most pointed parodies. McLaughlin himself appeared in a later "SNL" broadcast as part of a follow-up sketch. But the spoofs barely managed to exaggerate
the original, since it was already so extreme in its rapid-fire pace and pseudo-anarchy.
Compare its harsh style, for example, to the discussion segment of ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley" on Sunday mornings. ABC bills it as a "free-flowing give-and-take" among Mr. Brinkley, George Will, Sam Donaldson, and a guest. But even with disagreements, and with Mr. Donaldson supplying his trademark challenges, the sessions are a tea party next to "The McLaughlin Group."
Yet the latter is now seen on almost 300 PBS station a week, reaching about 3.5 million people. In the top 10 markets, it has become the most-watched public-affairs program. These are impressive numbers for a serious-minded format that makes no effort to tailor its approach for "general" consumption. The show is definitely designed for news buffs and is watched with particular fascination in Washington.
Its success is the strange but inevitable product of the talk-show genre's long, windy evolution. "The McLaughlin Group" serves a special function: It corrects today's more plodding formats, even such compelling ones as Ted Koppel's "Nightline." "McLaughlin Group" is something to turn to when you've tired of the party-line answers often heard when sensitive subjects come up on "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation." McLaughlin's speakers feel little compunction to watch what they say, to couch their comm ents in politically correct phrases - and especially to "put their remarks in context." Thus when broad issues come up they tend to wade aimlessly through the shallows. Breaking political news is their meat. They ruthlessly rip through irrelevancies to make the one or two breathless points their merciless format allows on each topic.
That requires a kind of shorthand. When "McLaughlin Group" panelists speak, their factual references are terse almost to the point of being subliminal. They know they have to make a hit-and-run point before someone else jumps into the middle of their sentence. It's a tough arena, but a welcome antidote to today's overblown talk-show style.