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.

16 thoughts on “Cokie Roberts, 1943-2019

  1. 'Any person's death diminishes me…'


    'Ask not for whom the bell tolled, it tolled for Cokie…

    And not for me or thee.'

    With apologies to John Donne.

    Look around today's DC.

    This is definitely Cokie's village.

    And every village has its idiot. 

    DC has many of them.  But Cokiewas the one who helped pave the "both-sides" road that cuts through our capitol.

    Having said that, condolences to her family.  But she won't be missed.

  2. Cokie's legacy takes up space alongside that of David Broder, a paladin of the DC elite and king of bothsiderism.  

    Unfortunately her passing does not signal the end of an era.

  3. Poet not, I offer only this odd ode.

    For all of the times I watched Cokie,  I have only one clear memory.  It was of her pointing out how corrupt Louisiana politics was, using family references and connections as her main source of this wisdom.  

    Sam Donaldson and George Will formed the round table with her.  I do remember my partner at the time referring to them as Mr. Diarrhea and Mr. Constipation.  My partner was not a trained in Freudian Psychology, and I was amazed at the intuitive insight into the anal expulsive and anal retentive personality types Sam and Will consistently displayed.  One can only assume that both seriously suffered from differing parental incompetence during toilet training if one gives any validity at all to Sigmund's theory.  I just assumed Cokie was included to represent the views of one not obviously improperly toilet trained.  Kind of rounded out the old round table discussion in a way.  An early day attempt at fair and balanced one might think.   

  4. Cokie Roberts is a perfect emblem of the 1980s. Those of us familiar with her straightforward appearances on The MacNeil Lehrer News Hour raised eyebrows when she showed up on ABC wearing splashy clothes, looking as though she'd spent 8 hours in a makeup chair, and having abandoned her neutral style to a sort of delighted, chirping delivery. Her timing was impeccable.

    Reagan's was the decade of springtime for frivolous elitists. Armies of war, equal rights and civil rights protesters, environmentalists, and peoples' movements in general had been banished by a cheerful, avuncular B movie veteran. His background, malleable and none too intellectual nature made him perfect to act out a new meta script written by the likes of Lee Atwater and Jeffrey Lord in association with the television industry and countless PR firms. Conservatism, money, militarism and corporatism regained status as the true American gods. Media culture filled with stuff like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Rush Limbaugh, and disco.

  5. She might have been nice to cats and children. I don't know. She was repugnant as a 'reporter' whose prowess at clutching pearls never included pearls of wisdom. She may be missed by the cat's and children who knew her better than I, but I never regretted her retirement because I usually choked on her reporting.

  6. Correction: Disco was already dying in the late '70's, though Studio 54 didn't close until 1986. The music itself wasn't as annoying as the celebrity high fashion crowd it came to represent.

  7. Thanks for this. I knew little about Cokie Roberts and don't understand all the fawning attention she's getting at this time, although I've heard her unusual name many times over the years. To me, she's emblematic of "Nice, Polite Republican" (and vapid) radio. It was eviscerated with the rise of Reagan.

    I was reading comments somewhere yesterday, and someone remarked that they sort people out by whether they're fans of Fox News or not, avoiding them if they are. I almost feel the same way about NPR. There are probably good shows on NPR, but I know quite a few smart people who are fans of NPR and who are utterly clueless about the world, and I tend to have little or no connection with them – due to nothing of any significance to talk about.

  8. NPR and PBS weren't always as dismal as they are now. They were another casualty of the rise of the right because their budgets depended on an appropriation from Congress. Conservatives had always seen public broadcasting as an affront to free markets even though PBS had offerings like William Buckly's Firing Line. After 1980 public broadcasting started becoming irrelevant for news and opinion.

    Worse, in 1987 the FCC Fairness Doctrine that had been in place since 1949 was eliminated, again in the name of market freedom, allowing aggressively partisan outlets like talk radio and Fox News. It's hard to see how public discourse has benefitted.

  9. I first realized what a waste of space Roberts was during the 1992 election campaigns. There was a televised debate with Democratic candidates for the nomination. I remember Bill Clinton, Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey, Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown, maybe a couple of other people.  They had what I thought was an interesting and substantive discussion on several policy issues. And, of course, Clinton would go on to be president for the rest of the 1990s, which was kind of a big deal. When the debate ended the program shifted to one of those roundable pundit discussions. The first person to comment was Cokie Roberts, who rolled her eyes in dismissal of the debate and suggested the pundits talk about what was really important — would Mario Cuomo run? And Mario Cuomo was all they talked about for the rest of the segment. Roberts clearly believed the crew who had debated were inconsequential peasants not worthy of her interest. I never again had any use for her and I still don't understand why people thought she was a "journalist." 

  10. I hope I'm not chipping in too often here, Maha, but Roberts' coverage of Iran-Contra on MacNeil Lehrer won an Edward Weintal Prize for Diplomatic Reporting. Before she turned into one more bit of Reagan's 1980s gilded fluff, she was actually a fairly good reporter.

    • She had her moments, which came fewer and farther in between to practically nil from Reagan onward. 

      But as reporting goes, Roberts was more like Sally Quinn than either McNeil or Lehrer.

      • Agreed. I had to look up Quinn. Apparently she was a Goldwater girl. There can't be less of that soon enough.

  11. Cokie never had even close to an Edgar R Murrow moment.  She is not in the same league as the Miami Herold journalist Julie K. Brown who exposed Epstein.  Another writer William Langewiesche has written a fabulous NYT piece on the Boing Airline crashes.  For anyone who doubts a need for an Elizabeth Warren a link follows.  Here is a sample of his writing: (pardon the segue from the main topic)

    If you were to choose a location in the developing world in which to witness the challenges facing airline safety — the ossification of regulations and in many places their creeping irrelevance to operations; the corruption of government inspectors; the corruption of political leaders and the press; the pressure on mechanics, dispatchers and flight crews to keep unsafe airplanes in the air; the discouragement, fatigue and low wages of many airline employees; the willingness of bankers and insurers to underwrite bare-bones operations at whatever risk to the public; the cynicism of investors who insist on treating air travel as just another business opportunity; and finally the eagerness of the manufacturers to sell their airplanes to any airline without restraint — you would be hard pressed to find a more significant place than Indonesia.  

    So you have in Indonesia business, government, government regulating agencies, and reporters all in bed together.  Perhaps you can think of another country hell bent to do the same. That would be a kookie kind of thing to do.

    Warrning, not a quick read but worth it.  

  12. I once saw her on the David Letterman Show commenting on the Iowa Caucuses.  That's fine,  but then she spoke of Iowans in such a condescending, demeaning manner that Dave & the audience were clearly uncomfortable.  Such snobbishness & no manners.  She's part of the limited D.C. beltway which leaves her unenlightened.

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