Behold how little substance NPR's Cokie Roberts can pack into four minutes of airtime.

Media criticism.
May 1 2009 6:50 PM

Perfectly Obvious Cokie

Behold how little substance NPR's Cokie Roberts can pack into four minutes of airtime.

Cokie Roberts. Click image to expand.
Cokie Roberts

Each Monday, NPR Senior News Analyst Cokie Roberts trades four minutes of on-air blather about politics, the economy, and world events with whichever unlucky Morning Edition host has drawn the short straw.

If Roberts' vacuous segments seem phoned-in, it's probably because they are. She does them from her home. In 2000, she told the New York Times that her "dog barking during a show" presented the "biggest problem" doing the early-a.m. spot, adding that her pup's NPR airtime had made him "something of a cult figure."

If only the dog barked a little more—the segment might have more going for it. I can think of no comparably sized media space that's as void of original insight and information as Roberts'. Her segments, though billed as "analysis" by NPR, do little but speed-graze the headlines and add a few grace notes. If you're vaguely conversant with current events, you're already cruising at Roberts' velocity. Roberts doesn't just voice the conventional wisdom; she is the conventional wisdom. Give a listen to her March 9, 2009, chatter:

Some [Republicans] say the president is doing too much, what he's doing too much about things they don't necessarily want him to do right now—healthcare, education, energy. And they're worried that he's using this crisis for big changes that they don't want. And, of course, that is the case. The administration will try to do that. But they go between saying that he's a socialist, and the president did seem to feel the need to call a New York Times reporter after an interview this weekend to say he's not a socialist. And the Republicans are saying he should—some Republicans—that he should nationalize the banks. So it is, you know, it is all over the place.

And then some say he should be doing more. Others say he's mortgaging our children's future. So I think that they're just trying to get their voices out there, mainly trying to drown out Rush Limbaugh's voice as the voice of the Republican party.

If you can find an original thought in there, you're welcome to it.

Don't despise Roberts' journalism just for what she says but for how she says it. The most irritating of her collection of tics is declaring a specific news topic "interesting," "very interesting," or "really interesting." Yet her declarations almost never signal the approach of anything notable: It's her way of squid-inking the waters so she can say something completely superficial and escape before the listener can think it though. Examples:

"It's interesting, Harry Reid is also somewhat crossways with the president on the issue of earmarks."
March 2, 2009

"Well, you know, what is interesting is when you talk to Republicans in Congress, they say, look, we know we're not voting with [Obama]."
Feb. 23, 2009

"Senator Gregg is an interesting choice for commerce secretary."
Feb. 2, 2009

"Each side [is] trying to make bi-partisanship a partisan issue. You know, I'm being more bi-partisan than you are. And that's an interesting dynamic to see play out."
Jan. 25, 2009

"But one thing I found really interesting is [Bush] said he didn't feel isolated in this job, which you've heard from other presidents."
Jan. 12, 2009

"But Bob Gates is a very interesting character."
Dec. 1, 2008

"Well, there's this interesting scenario that both campaigns have spun out, that they could each end up with 269 electoral votes, a tie, and each would need one more to get to the 270."
Oct. 6, 2008

"So it's going to be interesting to see how [the Palin nomination] plays out."
Sept. 1, 2008

If you were being grilled on national radio by a top anchor, you'd probably resort to a similar crutch. But Roberts isn't being grilled—hell, she isn't even being interviewed. Her Monday-morning segment is what they call a "two-way" in radio land, a conversation that's supposed to sound spontaneous but that's as choreographed as a bus schedule. The standard defense of two-ways is that they provide a quick and economical way to present a news story or a timely commentary. But that dodge only works when the two-way edifies the audience, which Roberts' rarely do.

Blame NPR for the segment's wretchedness or Morning Edition hosts Renee Montagne and Steve Inskeep for pitching her nothing but giant, slo-mo softballs like:

"So, what does that good will, that running room, buy the president in the coming months?"
April 27, 2009

"And what do you think, is Congress going to go along with the president's big plans?"
April 20, 2009

"Well, can the Republicans, Cokie, with a straight face, really mount a campaign against red ink, given the Bush administration pushed deficits to record levels?"
March 30, 2009

"Cokie, let me ask about a Democratic senator, one of the new ones; Roland Burris, the appointee from Illinois, seems to be in a little bit of trouble."
Feb. 16, 2009

No, softball isn't the right sports analogy, if only because Roberts never puts wood on the questions. The segment really unfolds like a brief set of air tennis, with Roberts and a host play-acting a vigorous volley. Drained of controversy and conflict, the Cokie minutes provide perfect editorial balance if your idea of balance is zero. This is journalistic Ambien, narcotizing people who've just woken up.

The only time Roberts has come alive on radio in the past year was last month, during a Weekend Edition appearance. She wasn't there to analyze the news but to participate in what, for all intents and purposes, was a four-minute, 36-second infomercial for the updated edition of her 10-year-old book We Are Our Mothers' Daughters. But even that spot was filled with platitudes, clichés, and the obvious.

Roberts has had a good, long run on NPR. It's time for her to surrender those Monday minutes to someone new with verve and bite. Do you suppose her old dog is still around?

******

Or, she could start a new NPR show called Coasting With Cokie. Thanks to Slate intern Molly Redden for research assistance. Tweet provided by Twitter. Reader e-mail courtesy Gmail (slate.pressbox@gmail.com). (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Cokie in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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