Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Monday, September 8th, 2014.


Media: The Un-Meritocracy

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News Media

I knew there was no point watching the rebooted Meet the Press when I read last week that NBC had hired Joe  Scarborough as its senior political analyst and Luke Russert as a reporter and regular “roundtable” member. Seriously, how could it not be crap? And lo, the reviews of the first episode are in, and they are derisive. By most accounts Chuck Todd’s interview of President Obama remained true to his predecessor’s tradition of content-free banality. D.R. Trucker wrote,

Todd’s questions about ISIS and immigration showed precious little insight and imagination. At times, it seemed as though he was barely asking questions at all. Frankly, Todd came close to a Saturday Night Live parody of a Meet the Presshost. The entire interview reminded me of Gertrude Stein’s famous line about Oakland, California—“There is no there there.”

Of course, the Obama-haters are attacking Todd because he didn’t beat the president up enough. That wasn’t the main flaw with the interview. The main flaw with the interview is that the viewer gained nothing, learned nothing, felt nothing.

Not that David Gregory was any prize…but they got rid of him for this?

Charles Johnson provides a specific example:

Obama mentioned Syria specifically four times before Chuck Todd blurted out, “You’ve not said the word, ‘Syria,’ so far in our conversation.”

Arrgh.

On the other hand, Todd’s debut is getting warm reviews from Politico and the Washington Post. No surprise.

I dimly remember there was a time, years ago, I wanted to watch the politics talk shows, even though they were mostly infuriating. As far as the old Meet the Press goes I thought Tim Russert was overrated as an interviewer; his basic shtick was to slide around big issues, find a relatively small point to bore into and then grill his subject relentlessly on that. But at least he grilled them on something, and you got the sense he was actually listening to what the subject said and responding to it, and not reading interview questions off a teleprompter.

The real problem isn’t so much the hosts, I don’t think. The real problem seems to be that, pretty much across the board, Washington news media are run by people who got their jobs through insider connections and not competence. And “insiderism” is all they know. That’s the only explanation, I say. Simon Maloy writes,

The problem facing “Meet the Press” isn’t the person in the moderator’s chair, it’s the culture that all the Sunday shows operate in. They all provide slightly different versions of the same thing: mostly white, mostly male pundits, politicians and Beltway “insiders” arguing with each other about who’s “winning” and who’s “losing” in politics that week. And this isn’t going to change any time soon because everyone involved is far too sure of their own indispensable relevance.

Consider this exchange on Fox News yesterday morning between Chris Wallace, host of “Fox News Sunday,” and Howard Kurtz as they discussed why Sunday shows still matter:

WALLACE: We probably get 4 to 5 million people that are tuning in on Sunday to watch our interviews. We either finish first or second almost every week in terms of total audience, and that’s a lot of people. And it’s a self-selecting audience. I mean, it’s an audience of opinion makers, opinion shapers, people who are deeply interested in the news—

KURTZ: And that’s why the shows are important and have relevance. Because of the rather elite audience.

WALLACE: Exactly. And, you know, you look at the Monday morning paper – not to say that that is our goal, I don’t think it is. But it does really indicate the degree to which the Sunday shows can still set the agenda for the coming week.

It’s hard to think of a more elitist description of your own relevance – I’m important because people I think are important think I’m important. That’s the Sunday show mentality, and it will persist regardless of who sits in the moderator’s chair.

When the “insiders” setting the agendas only talk to themselves, where does that leave the rest of us?

You may have heard that CNN’s Crossfire is back, sort of. Apparently it airs sporadically and has been on hiatus since mid-July. Perhaps they couldn’t think of anything insider-y to talk about, what with all those messy news stories coming out of Saint Louis and Iraq and all.  

As the show’s been off-air, S.E. Cupp — the show’s conservative co-host who hasn’t run for president — has been in demand, appearing on “The View” in what may well be quasi-auditions for a new right-leaning panelist, and writing for the New York Daily News, most recently about how Jennifer Lawrence and other female celebrities ought not to have taken nude pictures of themselves if they didn’t want them leaked.

This is why no one misses “Crossfire” when it’s not on — because its hosts have nothing to say. A show in which hosts debate the issues of the day from differing perspectives could, if done well, be a hugely valuable asset to a news channel especially in a political landscape wracked by contentious issues (Ferguson, ISIS). That presumes, though, that its hosts would be able to keep their eye on the ball and avoid small-bore polemics, things that Cupp, as evidenced by her Daily News writing, is unable to do.

And it’s something “Crossfire” has proven itself uninterested in doing; at times when serious policy discussion is more needed than ever, the debate show indulged the same prattle as every other talk show. Before “Crossfire” left the air in July, segments included Bill Richardson disclaiming on whether Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren would win in a hypothetical 2016 Democratic primary. Cupp delivered a monologue over cable system customer service. This is neither offensively off-tone in a way that might spark some insight, nor is it — heaven forbid — providing any news value or public service. It’s just trending topics presented flatly.

Ultimately the fault for this incompetence is with the executives who make hiring and programming decisions which tells me the executives in charge of news have absolutely no idea what they are doing. One wonders how they stumbled into the MSNBC evening lineup, particularly Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow, who actually present,  you know,  content. It must have been an oversight.

A postscript — a little over a year ago NBC hired a British journalist, Deborah Turness, to be president of NBC News. She was recently quoted as saying,

“People in the organization from top to bottom recognized that NBC News hadn’t kept up with the times in all sorts of ways, for maybe 15 years. I think the organization had gone to sleep.”

Apparently the NBC News organization from top to bottom was outraged by these remarks.  So I guess they hadn’t recognized it. But on the whole I think she’s right, although it isn’t just NBC. But this episode suggests to me that Turness is being kept on a leash by somebody else, and she’s not being allowed to mess with the status quo.

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