Critic’s Notebook: Politicians Are Bad at Podcasting

There is plenty of like-minded confabbing — Mr. Sanders interviewing Elizabeth Warren, Mr. Duffy interviewing fellow Republican members of Congress — that makes everybody look right and good. And in “Chicago Stories,” with Mr. Emanuel, this combative mayor recasts himself as a kinder, gentler interlocutor of anodyne local figures, like brewery owners and spoken-word poets. It’s working. The Chicago Tribune has praised the podcast for showing “what can happen when a control-the-narrative mayor loosens the reins just a little.” You know, on the podcast he controls completely.

Excepting Mr. Duffy, this is largely a Democratic phenomenon, and not because people who listen to podcasts are more liberal. Podcast listeners are only a little more left-leaning than America at large: According to Edison Research, 27 percent of Americans identify as Republicans, compared with 24 percent of adult podcast listeners. And conservative figures like Sean Hannity, Steven Crowder and Ben Shapiro all run successful podcasts with sizable audiences.

But as President Trump (and before that Candidate Trump) has conquered the media landscape, commanding the agenda on issues big and very, very small, it makes sense that Democratic lawmakers would be most eager to seize alternate outlets to promote their political priorities. (“Off the Sidelines” from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and “Off the Cuff” from Representative Jared Huffman of California popped up last year; “We the Podcast” from Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, begun in 2015, was ahead of its time.)

All of these Democrats have taken a page from Mr. Trump himself. The president doesn’t have his own podcast (yet), but no other lawmaker has so successfully leveraged the internet to push out his own version of the news, whether through his Twitter account or through his weekly self-branded Facebook video news report, the “Real News Update” hosted by his daughter-in-law Lara Trump.

Traditional news media might be politically polarized — watch Fox News or MSNBC for different versions of the day’s events — but the internet has allowed for platforms focused on even more granular political preferences. Now, you don’t have to stop at supporting Mr. Sanders as a political candidate; you can get your news filtered through “The Bernie Sanders Show,” in your podcast feed or on Facebook Live.

The lawmaker podcast boom is just another way that our political news is becoming less accountable to the public and more personality driven. But that’s not the only thing wrong with it. The podcasts are also boring.

Efforts to showcase the lighter side of politicians rarely reveal the most interesting things about them. Mr. Emanuel’s podcast would probably be more captivating if he weren’t so focused on seeming supremely relatable and chill. And I’m sure Mr. Duffy has some interesting stories about what it’s like to be in Congress right now, under this president, but he’s instead ceding his time to interviews with other lawmakers about their educational and work backgrounds and what kinds of cheese they like best.

None of these shows are the optimal conduit for understanding the political issues of the day, unless you’re a big nerd for Congress or really hate conflict. Mr. Duffy has expressed interest in having the liberal California Representative Maxine Waters on as a guest in the future, telling the conservative website The Daily Caller: “Maxine and I don’t agree on much of anything,” but “I think Maxine is a nice person, I think Maxine is a good person.” Hopefully, they’ll get into those disagreements instead of just talking about how nice the other person is.

Part of the problem is that for lawmakers, podcasting is obviously a side gig. In the first episode of “Canarycast,” Mr. Brown tells his guests — a trio of Whirlpool workers — that he has to end the interview to cast a vote. Ms. Gillibrand’s podcast unexpectedly went silent in January after only six episodes. I guess she’s been busy.

The political figures with podcasts actually worth listening to are the ones who have left office. These are people who have relevant inside information about how our government works but who are now in a position to pull back the curtain. They also have more incentive to produce something truly interesting, as opposed to simply politically advantageous.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign podcast, “With Her,” became instantly more compelling after her loss; the two episodes she recorded in September reflecting on the election are riveting, even for those with Election 2016 fatigue. Freed from being vice president, Joe Biden is now lending his brand to an experimental audio news curation project, “Biden’s Briefing,” which is billed as a “skillcast” for devices like Alexa and Google Home but is also available to download as a regular podcast.

The highlight of the category is “Stay Tuned With Preet,” starring Preet Bharara, the former United States attorney fired by President Trump. Some speculated that Mr. Bharara might seek elected office, but instead he’s teamed up with his brother, an internet entrepreneur, and created a podcast that takes the contours of a thrilling and urgent civics lesson.

If politicians really want to excel at podcasting, maybe they should quit their day jobs. For lawmakers, the podcast is rarely undertaken in the legitimate pursuit of good content but is instead a dull, modern version of constituent outreach. These shows are an attempt to signal that they are listening to us. But that doesn’t mean that we should listen to them.

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