It's now official: Chuck Todd will be replacing David Gregory as host of the august NBC Sunday morning program Meet the Press, after a long period of declining ratings. If you're familiar with my previous criticism of the Sunday shows (see here or here), you might imagine that I'd encourage Todd to bring more substance and an eclectic mix of guests to the program, freeing it from the endless and deathly recitations of competing talking points that characterize the genre. But no.
In fact, I'd suggest that the path to success is to take everything that makes the shows so terrible, and do more of that.
Meet the Press had its heyday under the late Tim Russert, who was revered as "Washington's toughest journalist." After his death in 2008 at a relatively young age, Russert was given the equivalent of a state funeral, as though he were a president and not a TV host. While his death was certainly tragic, I sometimes felt like the only person who, while he was still alive, thought Russert was actually terrible at his job. He was obsequious to the people he was supposedly so "tough" on, forever distracted by the irrelevant, and one of television's foremost blue-collar poseurs.
But what is inarguable, however, is that Russert was hugely successful. He gave the Sunday show viewership exactly what they wanted, which was apparently a relentless insiderdom gripped by the conventional Washington wisdom, wrapped in a gossamer-thin veneer of tough-guy truth-seeking.
So if Chuck Todd wants to restore Meet the Press to its former glory, he'll have to do something like that. Forget about getting to what's important about policy, don't worry about how politics affects ordinary people's lives (unless you're using "ordinary people" as a content-free symbol to show you're connected to the common man, unlike the toff you're interviewing), pretend that accountability for public officials begins and ends with catching them in two contradictory statements (the only kind of accountability Russert promoted), and you just might be able to do it.
It's hard to find anyone who'll say a bad word about Chuck Todd. He's smart, knows a huge amount about politics, and seems less prone than your typical network talking head to be distracted by the shiny objects that make up so much political coverage. But if he's going to succeed, he may have to make Meet the Press even worse than it is now.
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