Unsolicited Advice for David Gregory
Upon taking the wheel at Meet the Press.
Instead of dissipating, the cult of Tim Russert has only swollen in the six months since his death. One measure of the cult's staying power has been the media's incessant speculation on who would replace him as host of Meet the Press. Would it be NBC News' political director, Chuck Todd? An "ensemble of hosts" led by Todd and correspondent/MSNBC anchor David Gregory? NBC had approached Gwen Ifill about the job, the network was said to pine for the return of Katie Couric, and even Ted Koppel was being considered as a long shot. And though nobody asked him, USA Today founding editor Al Neuharth nominated Bob Costas for the slot.
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.
Having finally settled on David Gregory this week as the new moderator, NBC News brings much-needed relief to a harassed nation of news consumers. Yet the cult lives on in the utterances of Gregory, who genuflected toward his predecessor, telling the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz that "[s]ucceeding Tim Russert is humbling" and the Los Angeles Times how "daunting and humbling" the new assignment is.
Note to Gregory: It's only a gig. Please get on with it.
Gregory seems to be a fine choice as moderator: Although a pathetic dancer, he has a reputation for being a tough, fair reporter. If you have a reputation for being tough, it makes it a lot easier to be tough, which I reckon he will exploit on Meet the Press.
But what kind of tough? 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 Esquirein 2004, "Russert rarely shows much interest in which position is wrong." This shtick was completely beatable.
Gregory comes to his post at an opportune moment. After an engaging presidential campaign, the whole nation remains fired up about politics. An activist Congress stands ready to change all the rules, and the economy has gone MIA. All we need is a new war some place in the world and the table would be completely set.
Gregory won't shake up the show right away. He'll both avoid impersonating St. Russert, lest anyone make unfavorable comparisons, and lull the loyal Meet the Press audience back into its comfort zone. After getting them there, he should begin remaking the show. First step:
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? 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?