The media fuss wasn't so much about the importance of who was good enough to sit in Russert's chair but—like the over-coverage of Russert's death, funeral, and memorial service—another demonstration of the Washington press corps's extraordinary high regard for itself. All the conjecture reinforced the notion that the people who ask politicians questions are so very, very important. But Meet the Press draws an average of only 3.7 million viewers, making it a TV flyspeck compared with ABC's Dancing With the Stars, which recently drew an audience of 21 million....
The most difficult aspect of a Sunday-morning show is source maintenance. Until Sunday show moderators obtain subpoena power, they've got to keep politicians feeling good about themselves or else they won't come on. Russert was a master of source maintenance, which made his show a destination for politicians. For all his legendary hardness as an interviewer, most of Russert's pitches were hittable. For example, throwing up on a screen those trademark graphics that proved that his interview subject had flip-flopped was completely overrated. A politician had contradicted himself? Is a hypocrite? Double wow. As Tom Carson wrote for Esquire in 2004, "Russert rarely shows much interest in which position is wrong." This shtick was completely beatable.
I HAVE no idea why it is that moments of close agreement so often bode ill. It's like your table is on its third round, and some guy says, "You know, Katherine Hepburn is the most overrated actor in the history of cinema," and you're just about to permit yourself to think that he might have some depth heretofore hidden, when he adds, "Let's all strip down, coat ourselves with Crisco, and get arrested while urinating on her grave."
Look, Jack: you came so close to the target there that there can't be any question of your recognizing it. For almost twenty years Russert played the Monday Headline game. He dedicated an hour of the nation's airtime each Sunday morning--ostensibly the one hour remaining on the nation's air devoted to in-depth political discussion--to an endless search for the sort of stupid gotchas he tried to pull on Hillary Clinton using a quote from her husband (later excused on the grounds that "the Press always gangs up on the front-runner", remember?). He was an educated man in a powerful position, not just the clowning moderator for a measly 3.7 million viewers. He was the VP of NBC News and its Washington Bureau Chief through a period where severe staff contractions, plus his gargantuan ego*, made him seem like the voice of NBC News--particularly after the equally vacuous Tom Brokaw left--and as MSNBC turned into Russert's own children's choir. And yet, with a place on some portion of the American power grid lasting a quarter-century, Russert never once seems to have questioned whether this is the way politics ought to proceed. Gotcha! He's the most massive tuber inside the Beltway, but it never occurs to him that bartering The Game for access is wrong or unnecessary.
So, tell us, Jack: what should the new guy do about it?
Get rid of the Russert regulars. Who hasn't heard enough from James Carville and Mary Matalin by now? Hasn't plagiarist Doris Kearns Goodwin run out of gas? Doesn't William Safire phone it in? Can't NBC do the right thing and give Andrea Mitchell her own show?
Quick, somebody hide the Crisco! I'm gonna hope that your Inner Kathy Griffin took over there. "The right thing" regarding Mrs. Greenspan is for some NBC insider with a shred of human decency to turn over the evidence so it can be put before a Grand Jury. As for the rest, y'know, I think a better suggestion is that we Get Over people Getting Over people. The problem with the above--maybe excepting Safir(e), since his problems are legion--is that they basically can be guaranteed to play right along with the supposed middle ground of American experience while giving the illusion of wide-ranging opinion. Well, that and Matalin's buggy as August ditchwater. Please, let us stick to the analysis and rid ourselves of people because they've settled comfortably into a role we do not need, and never did, not because some guy I'm tired of is tired of them.
And why does the mere sight of David Broder, Bob Shrum, E.J. Dionne, or Peggy Noonan on television make me want to kill myself?
Well, sometimes we oughtn't fight our impulses, but, y'know, I hope it's because they're all professional clowns, not simply the number of times they've been on or an unfashionable age bracket, as defined by someone younger who'd like one of those seats.
Blacklisting these usual guests from the Meet the Press round table and recruiting a younger band of participants would mark the passing of an era and acknowledge the arrival of a young president. It's not even a very radical step. Russert was known to experiment with formula, adding Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh to the mix
[emphasis mine]The Crisco's locked up, right? Jesus, how 'bout recruiting a panel of mulattoes? Or people with prominent ears? Maybe secret Muslims. And yeah, more shake-'em-up ideas like adding Drudge and Limbaugh, which, in any reasonable world, would have landed Russert in prison.
Invent a great gimmick. Russert had a dozen gimmicks. He had the flip-flop graphic. He had Buffalo. The Bills. His blue collar. The whiteboard. His dad.
Three-point-Seven Million Americans Can't Be Wrong!
Gregory needs a similar signature, and I've got just the thing. Good politicians are evasion artists, able to field a difficult question without answering it and making it sound as though they did. When confronted with such maneuvers, Gregory could pursue his prey with three follow-up questions. If the politician didn't answer satisfactorily, Gregory could give his best grin and say, "Senator, that's three and you're out" and move on to the next question. If deployed artfully, "That's three and you're out" could become the most feared phrase in political reporting and just maybe it could get politicians to respond truthfully.
Okay, let's just stop, since, among other things, it's obvious that we've written an article with advice for David Gregory, and we ran out of ideas before we reached #2. How about this: we blow up everything that is vile, double-dealing, fatuous, fallacious, and unnecessary about Russertism, Jack Welch worship, Sunday "news" thumbsucking, and "American journalism" in general, and, in acknowledging not the Shining Promise of a New President but the horrific consequences of the Old One, his party, and the cozy relationship with the mainstream Press that made it all possible, we try to atone for that somewhat? Say for thirty minutes out of every unnecessary hour? That we find people who were willing to criticize Russert while he was alive, not sling shit about his funeral; that we have newspaper reporters function as newspaper reporters, instead of inept semi-entertainers; that we look up from our expense vouchers long enough to recognize why it is people turn to the internets and--even at their current pathetic levels--away from The Sundays and the nets in general, and start putting everyone on notice? We play this shadow game of fact-checking politicians who're speaking extemporaneously, but we never quizzed Tim Russert about his carefree approach to epistemology. Three strikes and you're out? Could we have booted Timmeh from that October debate for making the whole thing about Hillary? Kicked him off his own show for going on about Louis Farrakhan long after he'd thrown four straight in the dirt? Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh got exposure at Meet the Press. When did their filthy stinking lies ever get exposed?
Maybe, forty years after the birth of Happy Talk news and Faux Balance and America is a Center-Right Country ™ Brand reportage, we could experiment with covering the news again. Maybe we could ban the trivialities and the tabloidisms, and ban anyone who doesn't observe the ban while we're at it. Three-point-seven. That's about as many Americans as watch the average network program because they can't find the fucking remote in order to change it. Maybe we could forget all about how much slucing is required to get the average lying politician to agree to appear, and see how many Americans would tune in for some truth for a fucking change. How's that for a gimmick? Maybe, just maybe, we could try solving the problem of "rarely show[ing] much interest in which position is wrong." by, I dunno, showing an interest in it.
Look, it ain't about fashion, and for fuck's sake it ain't about minor failings and too much cozy insiderism, or a long fascination with Bill Clinton's dick. Not any more. Russert fucking screwed the pooch with the aluminum tubes story; he stovepiped the Cheney/Judy Miller/Jack D. Ripper business. With thousands, hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of lives in the balance, he sat at his desk and waited for a phone call that never came. And that's his story; like a bad movie trailer, that's the best the man could do. For godsakes, the fucking story was attributed to unnamed White House sources; you wouldn't buy a small appliance under those circumstances, and you, unlike Mr. Insider Washington, had no way of knowing that Scooter Libby was Judy Miller's Aspen clone. We're talking about something which should have been a Klaxon for skepticism, even though skepticism needed no warnings in that environment; yet Tim Russert waited for his phone to ring. (And who, knowing enough to debunk that story that morning [and the reality is it didn't take much] would have bothered to call Tim Russert? (Here's the Moyers piece at Crooks and Liars; the video, unfortunately, cuts off Bob Simon appearing immediately after to explain how easy it is to pick up a telephone in this day and age. The full program is here.)
I'm sorry, but the idea that careerist journalists, who seem not just immune to questions about their own performance over the last two decades, but willing to pass out Gold Stars for achievement, are going to change their own culture is like my thinking that yelling into my own hat will do it. The difference there being that I don't pretend it will.