Media: The Un-Meritocracy

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.”


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.

17 thoughts on “Media: The Un-Meritocracy

  1. I stopped watching MTP when Buffalo Tim let Dick Cheney use him like a chew toy.
    I started again, to see how Gregory would handle the job. Uhm… Not well. I stopped after about a month.
    This time, I have no intention of watching MTP again.
    The only time I watch any of the Sunday bloviation fest’s, is when Paul Krugman is on.
    Which means, I pretty much never watch.

    As for the Sunday hosts, it’s the “get” that’s important.
    Not that he/she asks good questions.
    Or listen to what the “gotten” person has to say.
    “Hey Chuck had a great start! He “got” President Obama!!!”
    And people wonder why our Fourth Estate makes me drink a fifth of vodka a day.
    Ok, make that a liter…

  2. Oh, and UpChuck Toad and Cup O’ Schmoe aren’t bad enough, NBC decided to throw Puke Russert into the mix.
    The only panel he should be on, is the paneling in someone’s basement.
    Say what you will about either one of them, or both of them, but Puke’s parents weren’t stupid.
    His mom must have dropped Puke on his head several times when he was an infant.
    Either that, or Tim must have started giving his ‘half & half’s” to chase down his Irish Whiskey, when Puke was about 5.

    • The thing with Baby Tim is that he was shoved into a national media role before he had lived long enough to build a foundation of his own experience. I started to say “prematurely” but that assumes he might have earned a national media spot eventually, which is not in evidence. But if they’d let life knock him around for 20 years or so he might have something to offer. As it is, he probably never will.

  3. maha,
    Every time I see his ignorant pretty-boy puss on TV, I either turn it off, or switch channels.
    But, I don’t watch much TV anyway – except “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” Obama’s press conferences, and Stewart and Colbert, with my Mom.
    Oh, and some sports – mostly for background noise as I read and comment on blogs.
    I only turn on the news when something big breaks.
    And then I don’t watch after the initial reports, because after that, people who get paid big buck to opine, come on and opine – even when they know absolutely feckin’ nothing about what they’re opining about.

  4. This kind of puts me in the mood for a short rant. My apologies in advance.

    There is something about the current state our media that reminds me of an old psych experiment. The intent was to explore the concept of addiction. Rats were wired so that when they pushed a lever, the pleasure centers in their brains were stimulated. They learned rapidly how to operate the lever, and very soon after, they all sat immobilized pushing the lever repeatedly and as rapidly as their little rat paws were able.

    Once again, the market in its infinite wisdom has provided us with what we want. Evidently, we don’t want news. We want something called “news,” because we want to perceived as serious people, who do things like watch and discuss important events. But, most people, probably just want to have a few barbed “facts” or handy opinions that they can hurl at people on the other side of the political divide.

    I know people, who profess an interest in world events, but, judging from their behavior and their contributions to the dialogue, they have absolutely no interest in whether something is true, or reasonable, or well intentioned. They just want to piss certain people off, and gather accolades from their tribe. They want to be known among the members of their group, as a stalwart fighter and something of a “dangerous intellect.” In certain groups, this is quite easy to achieve. The main difficulty is to sound like you know what you are talking about and to convince others, and to an extent, yourself, that you do. A daily diet of talking points and boilerplate makes this mere child’s play.

    These things actuate our pleasure centers. We love being perceived as serious and intelligent. We love “vanquishing our enemies, and seeing them run before us.” We love it when our self image and worldview is validated, even though it is a collection of misinformation, prejudice, dross and dregs, shaped and confined by bounded rationality.
    A positive feedback loop can corrupt and destroy nearly anything. The market gives us what we want, but it gains advantage if it “helps” us decide what we want. So all the wild, improbable assortment of media caricatures spring to life as the embodiments of flaws and weaknesses in our psyches, made form the ribs of our narcissism. That’s why they piss up off so much. They are a set of funhouse mirrors that we discovered in the search for a more satisfying consumer experience.

    Okay, maybe that’s a little crazy, but, I feel a lot better.

  5. “particularly Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow, who actually present, you know, content. It must have been an oversight”

    I can’t watch either, they both have the annoying habit of taking ten minutes to provide background for a story or an interview that lasts only 5 minutes, it is mind numbing to me, get on with it already. If the question takes longer to ask than the answer then something is wrong. That old msnbc host Dylan something had the same bad habit he is no longer employed. I watch the last word, Lawrence covers all the news of the day and I like his quick sarcasm, it’s wicked awesome! That’s about all the cable news I can stomach on a regular basis.

  6. @ uncledad,

    I’ve noticed the same thing about Maddow and Hayes. I’m glad you noticed too, because I’ve often wondered if it’s just my ADD kicking in.

    On Maddow’s show, you can sometimes hear the guests’ exasperated breathing while they wait for her to finish setting up for the interview.

    Dylan Rattigan drove me nuts. Just a loud mouth. He may have expressed some good points, but he was so rude to his guests. And loud. Did I mention he was loud?

    I love me some Lawrence, though. You’re right about his sarcasm and his ability to cut to the chase.

  7. That’s exceptionally kind, Swami. I was appalled at my typos. Still, a cleansing rant, no matter how flawed, brings some relief.

    I haven’t had a functional television since 2001. But, the clips of Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow that I see on the web are a breath of fresh air. But then, I remember when David Brinkley was a young upstart and Robert Trout was barely hitting his stride. So, I seem to be something of an antiquity myself, with a different set of sensibilities.

    I have been getting a lot of my news from Le Monde and more recently, TV5monde (via their website), which seem to have a presentation that I feel much more comfortable with, despite my abysmal understanding. Long ago, the news had some element of real gravity. There were serious men and women, who seemed honor bound to deliver some understanding of what was coming to pass. They were professionals, there was a set of ethics. I loved that.

    I can indulge Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes for however long they want, as long as they deliver the goods, which is some reasonable insight and some motivation to keep looking. Comparatively, they do deliver the goods, for me, at least. So, even though I just catch the odd bit, I’ll keep listening.

    Well, dinner is almost ready, and, as you might guess, I have been enjoying an economical, but charming, brandy. It is time to move on. I raise a glass to the fine group of readers and commenters here.

  8. Great comments. I agree with most of what you all said. I must admit I miss olbermann. He could be rude and crude, but at least somebody stood up and screamed while most others cowered in a closet.
    I tried watching the Sunday shows this week. Nebulous propaganda would be a kind description.
    One more thing; NPR has gone rancid. With the exceptions of car talk and splendid table, which I don’t know are on any more, NPR is like eating puffed rice cakes.
    Yeah, I’m a bit cranky tonight.

  9. Chuck Todd’s comment that Pres. Obama had not mentioned Syria seems to be drawing no criticism of any kind. But that comment, together with the smirk on his face when he made it, show clearly that he was not listening to his interviewee; he was rehearsing zingers in his head, knowing that he gets brownie points if he skewers the president. What is not good enough for a high school journalism class is good enough for the Beltway insiders.

    Decades ago a cartoon appeared somewhere with a TV host saying something like, “Tonight on “Gasbag,” my prosperous white male colleagues and I will discuss the social problems of urban blacks, and why women get so emotional about abortion.” Wish I could find it again.

  10. I still listen to news on NPR, but I agree with erinyes. It seems like it started quite a few years ago. The decline wasn’t glaring, but it was inexorable, and the direction was clear, downhill and to the right. It’s just a shadow of what it used to be. It’s like the “death of a thousand cuts,” but self inflicted against the threat of right wingers cutting their funding. “How does that fit in with your right wing aggression agenda?”

    The classic display of decline was just after Barack Obama was elected. NPR was obsessed with “The Future of the Republican Party,” at least that seemed to be the subject of an endless series of discussions. It was almost laughable, except that it wasn’t funny at all. Republicans were given a huge amount of time to greave and to ruminate over their “ideas” and lost opportunities, while a comparatively tiny amount of time was given to discussing the agenda of the people who had been ELECTED. The news media, especially NPR, should have put away the horse race and focused on what we could do as a nation. But, the horse race won out.

    Sometimes it’s difficult to separate symptom from cause. I suppose nearly always, the distinction is artificial, and ideas and forces interact in a more organic way. We try to force them into a model and form that we have some slim chance of understanding. We’re deluding ourselves, but it is entertaining, and it’s an activity that defines who we are. Under the best of conditions, we have the capacity to muddle through and escape by the skin of our teeth. I suppose we’ll see what’s in the cards soon enough.

    Our local stations used to carry Michael Feldman’s “Whadd’yah Know?” Alas, it’s left the market.

    • The decline wasn’t glaring, but it was inexorable, and the direction was clear, downhill and to the right. It’s just a shadow of what it used to be. It’s like the “death of a thousand cuts,” but self inflicted against the threat of right wingers cutting their funding. “How does that fit in with your right wing aggression agenda?”

      I confess I haven’t listened to NPR for a long time, mostly because I rarely listen to radio, period. I just got out of the habit, for some reason.

      The thing with righties is that once they’ve decided you’re the enemy they never forgive you, no matter how many hoops you jump through to please them. There may be exceptions to that, but I can’t think of one. I run into wingnuts who are still convinced the Washington Post is run by a bunch of anti-Republican liberals because of its Watergate coverage. And I suspect a lot of those wingnuts are too young to remember Watergate; they are just repeating the Wisdom of the Tribe without actually thinking about it or noting that the current Washington Post is, um, different. Short of hiring Rush Limbaugh, I doubt there’s anything NPR could do to persuade the Right it is not the enemy. But by moving Right did it alienate old listeners? I did a quickie search and couldn’t find any data on ratings growth or decline, so I don’t know.

  11. Apparently Letterman nailed Chuck Todd last night for the Syria fiasco; at least one person is willing to swim against the tide of praising Todd on his interviewing skills.

  12. “The thing with righties is that once they’ve decided you’re the enemy they never forgive you, no matter how many hoops you jump through to please them.”

    Truer words were never spoken.

  13. I stopped watching the Sunday shows, especially MTP; I got tired of cursing and throwing stuff at the TV screen. MTP had John McCain on so much they should have renamed it “The Maverick Hour.” And every time he was on, they’d act as if it was such a coup to have him, and he in return would smugly sit back as if something irreverent was about to spill forth. What a laugh.

    The format has seen its day, for a lot of reasons, particularly the 24/7 news cycle. It might work if we really were “meeting the press” and they had journalists on from newspapers around the country to discuss the issues and share insights. But that’s the problem too, these shows have become nothing more than platforms for reaffirmation of Beltway “conventional wisdom.”

    The idea that they would attract viewers because of Chuck Toddler is really telling.

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