Cokie Roberts, 1943-2019

Someday, when historians document how a once great nation was brought down by corruption and hackery, I do hope some of them note the enabling role played by Cokie Roberts.

The best obituary for Roberts was written by Eric Alterman back in 2002, on the occasion of her supposed retirement:

Call me sentimental, but I’m going to miss the old gal. With no discernible politics save an attachment to her class, no reporting and frequently no clue, she was the perfect source for a progressive media critic: a perpetual font of Beltway conventional wisdom uncomplicated by any collision with messy reality.

Lippmann/Dewey fans will remember that the very idea of a watchdog press breaks down when the watchdog starts acting like–and more important, sympathizing with–the folks upon whom he or she has been hired to keep an eye. With Cokie, this was never much of an issue. Her dad was a Congressman. Her mom was a Congresswoman. Her brother is one of the slickest and wealthiest lobbyists in the city. Her husband, Steve Roberts, holds the dubious honor of being perhaps the only person to give up a plum New York Times job because it interfered with his television career. And together they form a tag-team buck-raking/book-writing enterprise offering up corporate speeches and dime-store “Dear Abby”-style marriage advice to those unfortunates who do not enjoy his-and-her television contracts.

Cokie came to public attention at NPR, where she developed some street cred as a Capitol Hill gumshoe, but apparently grew tired of the hassle of actual reporting, which only helped her career. With no concern for the niceties of conflicts of interest, she and her husband accepted together as much as $45,000 in speaking fees from the very corporations that were affected by the legislation she was allegedly covering in Congress. Moreover, she claimed something akin to a royal prerogative in refusing to address the ethical quandary it obviously raised. (A spokesman responding to a journalist’s inquiry said that Queen Cokie’s corporate speaking fees were “not something that in any way, shape or form should be discussed in public.”)

Apparently, nobody ever told Cokie that the job of the insider pundit is to at least pretend to be conversant with the major political, economic and intellectual issues in question before putting these in the service of a consensually derived story line. The pedantic George Will and the peripatetic Sam Donaldson at least give the impression of having considered their remarks ahead of time, either by memorizing from Bartlett’s or pestering politicians. Not Cokie. Once, when a reporting gig interfered with one of her many social and/or speaking engagements, she donned a trench coat in front of a photo of the Capitol in the ABC studios in the hopes of fooling her viewers. She was not a real journalist; she just played one on TV.

Roberts was nothing but a mass of class privilege. She had no real interest in policy, facts, ordinary people, or anything that happened west of the Potomac. Her brand of gossip-columnist punditry took up space where real information was needed. Do read Alterman’s column all the way through for more examples.

Today, I’m seeing all kinds of headlines identifying Cokie Roberts as a “journalist.” Even in death she’s corrupting the news media. Remarkably, Roberts often was identified by the Right as a “liberal hack,” even though I would argue she helped the Right more than hurt it. She was the sort of content-free spaceholder bobblehead that cable news shows liked to book to “balance” screaming right-wing hacks. But Roberts didn’t represent the Left; she represented class privilege and insiderism. She made the Right look good.

I understand that over the next few days we’re going to be subjected to fervent odes to Roberts’s canny political commentaries and her trailblazing role as a woman in journalism. I suggest stocking up on Pepto Bismol.

Update: Another of Cokie’s Greatest Hits.