The David Brinkley Era of Journalism
David Brinkley introduced the contemporary format for the Sunday morning talk show when he moved from NBC to ABC about a quarter century ago. He (or his producers) decided no longer to do a long interview with a single guest questioned by a panel of journalists. Instead, there would be one or more interviews with a wide assortment of public officials, some elected and some appointed, and then a roundtable of journalists to discuss what had been said and what had gone on in Washington the past week. NBC’s Meet The Press adopted that same new format not long afterwards.
These programs, I thought at the time, vastly increased the amount of information that could be gleamed from them. Not only could politicians appear to provide their views about some particular issue and so a sense of what was going on behind closed doors, but the reporters could offer their own sense of what were the new thoughts emerging on Capital Hill and in the White House and so some sort of triangulation could take place that allowed a viewer to peek into what was “really” going on: not what policies were being moved, but also a sense of where things seemed at the moment to be headed.
That has changed. The format has internally evolved to the point that it provides no information about what politicians are thinking or whether reporters have any thoughts at all, a more and more dubious proposition given the things that they say. The people who appear for interviews are carefully briefed by the director of communications at the White House or whoever does the briefing for the opposition party. That is clear because they all work off the same talking points, often repeating the same phrases, and so are only spokespeople, not people being sought out to express their own views of a matter. That they occasionally do on their own before Congressional Committees, as when Sen. McCain said he could not advise a young woman to join the military, something that would draw opprobrium if it came from any other source. (Jackie Robinson was a very brave man when he said much the same thing about young black men being reluctant to join the military in a nation still so segregated when he appeared before a Congressional Committee. Only his already established reputation as a baseball pioneer allowed him to get away with it, but I am sure it rankled.) But in front of the press, politicians toe the party line and if they do not, then you know they are, by definition, mavericks. Who decides what the party line is? For the past three congressional terms that has been the tea party for reasons, I think, that have to do with the fear John Boehner has of trying to corral them well enough so that he can win elections. That is why the Republicans may lose control in 2014 even of the Republican gerrymandered Congress.
So what happens on the Sunday programs counts as part of politics rather than as part of discourse about politics. Think no further than Susan Rice’s appearance on five different talk shows. Nobody comments on that, on whether more insight might be provided from different vantage points on what happened at Benghazi. No, there was a single set of talking points hammered out between State and the CIA and Rice delivered them in virtually the same words on each of the outlets. Why not just tape her answers and provide them to all the networks? Because each network wants to feel it is getting the headliner of the week and so to flatter them, Rice had to go through the same charade of answering questions live in all five venues. And this happens while we are in an age of technological marvels that would require no such thing.
There is no discussion of why it was necessary to arrive at talking points at all. After all, any official would know what a secret was and what wasn’t and so could be trusted not to say what he shouldn’t. And what difference would it make if what they said provided only a partial picture of what had happened? The Executive is just scared stiff of the power of the media to distort and to run with their distortions of a story for as long as they care to. Finally, they run out of steam when no incriminating information turns up, but that provides no reason for them to apologize and it eats up now nearly a month of the time left for legislating before election season sets in, which is to say, until governing closes down in favor of election politics, which now means all year round.
We have arrived in this country at the equivalent of the doctrine of “Permanent Revolution”: Every day is a day in which the parties jockey for position in the next election. Maybe that is a good thing in that the people are always consulted but it also means that the journalists do not convey information about anything about who might be in a better pole position in two years time. They report on polls taken far too early to make a difference even while insisting that it is too early to rely on them. So why report them?
The Brinkley Era roundtables have also been modified, especially in the past few years. First was added some over the hill politicians to give colorful versions of supposedly variant points of view, but John Huntsman and Newt Gingrich are merely glib because the first of the two may still harbor some intention of running for office or his excuse for sounding without content may be that he is without content and only seemed different from his competitors in the Republican primaries because he seemed to be reasonable while everyone else seemed either hysterical or totally out of it. Newt Gingrich may not have further political ambitions but he is still in the business of making money off of his celebrity, just as much as Donald Trump does, and he, like the Donald, likes to hear himself talk.
Then there are the political hanger-ons: the people like Michael Dowd and Donna Brazille who still have an ear for what is going on in their respective parties, and so can be counted on to relay what is the party line, however much they also happen to agree with it, and however much they may occasionally stray from it and so show their “independence”. And who can begrudge them a good pay check? Moreover, the political cable shows act as a holding pen for politicians not currently in office while they wait what may be their next chance. That is true not only of Fox News, which is notorious for being a fall back for conservative politicians who don’t want to go home to Alaska or Arkansas. It is also true of MSNBC where Michael Steele is about to make an attempt at Governor of Maryland and Ed Rendell is waiting for Hillary to call to help in the campaign and perhaps serve as her chief of staff in a Hillary Administration, just the sort of man Chris Matthews, who uses him regularly on Hardball, thinks should have the job.
And then, of late, there are included in the Roundtables people who should be on the other end of the interviewing process, players in their own right, and so advocates of a point of view rather than people who reflect on the point of view of others. An egregious example of that is Karl Rove, who has his own SuperPac and so whose opinions on what groups should have IRS exemptions may be of interest if he was interviewed about them rather than acting as a commentator on the IRS “scandal”. The line between who is interviewed and who comments has become frayed.
The result of all of this is that talk programs have no perspective. They run with whatever is in the headlines created by other journalists. David Gregory in his role as “moderator” of Meet the Press, no Tim Russert he, absent slides of quotes asking for rebuttals, asks David Axelrod, someone who was not too long ago the White House lead spokesperson, whether Eric Holder has to go, given the AP “scandal”. Axelrod, as a person still sympathetic to the White House and presumably briefed that very morning on what was to be said, says that the issue is a complex one having to do with the abstract issue of how to balance the needs of national security with the needs of the press. That is a valid point, however serviceable at this point to the White House. He might have pressed Gregory to come up with what is the evidence that the subpoena was unjustified? It should not be enough to claim that the press is sacrosanct and so cannot, by definition, have any bad apples who may indeed have either persuaded people in government to do what it was illegal for them to do, which is disclose secret information, or at the least know people who leaked and are not prevented from disclosing their names because other avenues to get the information have indeed been exhausted. How do the people on television know otherwise?
But Axelrod did not press back too hard because the White House seems to want the stories to play out long enough so that they will stand cleared well before the election. The AP story will go, they seem to be predicting, the way of Benghazi and the IRS. Axelrod might as well still be White House spokesperson. What Gregory did in response to the Axelrod remarks was, however, ridiculous. Sporting a shit eating grin, he said that yes, but should Holder be fired? He was not there to discuss things with Axelrod, to engage him in dialogue, which means recognizing the point someone else is making in the formulation of an answer to what was said, but just repeating what he had prepared as what he thought was the key question. These guys are on the air so much that they no longer know anything other than canned questions and canned responses.
That is the way it is with journalism at the end of the David Brinkley Era. God bless them, we need them, as they never stop telling us, invoking Thomas Jefferson. But can’t they at least be good at their erstwhile jobs, which is to provide information or relay information or let others provide information rather than go for gotcha moments and trick questions and prepackaged opinions. I am afraid that I will have to turn to other sources than the Sunday talk shows for my information. The Internet is full of blogs that give differing opinions, some more raw and outrageous than others, but none as stifling as what passes nowadays for network and cable journalism and, whatever its many faults, the New York Times at least tries to provide at least some information in its over bulked stories. I’ll use the older and the newer formats rather than the format whose era is coming to a close as a window onto politics.