Weak Week

Weekly Standard editor William Kristol was fired from ABC's This Week at the behest of the liberal media conspiracy. That, at any rate, is the contention of conservative columnist Mona Charen, who writes that "most chat shows have ratios of liberals to conservatives in the neighborhood of 3 to 2" and "the number of liberal producers to conservatives is probably 20 to 1."

This must be what they call New Math. Until recently, This Week featured Kristol, George Will, George Stephanopoulos, Cokie Roberts, and Sam Donaldson as its regular round table. In Charen's world view, Roberts, Donaldson, and Stephanopoulos formed part of a "liberal/centrist troika" whose slings and arrows Kristol and Will bravely endured each week. But even if, by some warped political logic, one accepts that Sam and Cokie are "liberals," they are hardly to liberalism--or even to centrism--what Kristol and Will are to conservatism.

Like all political chat shows, This Week teams up mildly liberal (Margaret Carlson, Eleanor Clift) or simply apolitical (a better description of Donaldson) professional newspersons with deeply conservative political operatives (Kristol, Will, and virtually the entire on-air staff of the FOX News Channel). As journalists who are worried about their professional credibility, the "liberals" generally come across as centrist and cautious on the air; you will rarely see a liberal bomb-thrower like Molly Ivins hurling grenades at big business. But though the conservatives are sometimes also columnists or writers, as Kristol and Will are, and frequently witty and entertaining, they also tend to be the sort of ex nihilo pundits who have political rather than journalistic backgrounds, feel no particular regard for normal reportorial ethics, and have no qualms about, for instance, coaching a presidential candidate whose debate performance they applaud the next day on Nightline (see Will, Ronald Reagan, 1980).

But This Week is a typical chat show in another respect: on air and off air, its staff includes members of what we might call the Bush Diaspora: former Bush administration people who, after Clinton's 1996 victory, scattered to careers in various high- and low-profile media outlets. Their ranks include Tony Snow, a former Bush speechwriter who now hosts FOX News Sunday; Laura Ingraham, another former Bush speechwriter who hosted MSNBC's Watch It! with Laura Ingraham, and will soon be dispensing her unique brand of political wisdom as a special correspondent for NBC News's "Decision 2000" coverage; Jim Pinkerton, who helped develop candidate Bush's Willie Horton attack ads and is now, ahem, "a specialist on ethical issues" for FOX News; and assorted others.

Similarly, This Week boasted not just Kristol--a top adviser to Dan Quayle in Bush's day, and the first person during Clinton's to mention Lewinsky's stained dress--but also Dorrance Smith, a talk show veteran and pioneer of the genre, who was let go from the show in September. Smith served in the Bush administration from 1991 to 1993 as a senior media adviser, and worked closely with Snow--prior to that an editorial writer for The Washington Times--to craft a sharper ideological image for the then-president. (At the Bush White House, Smith also became friends with a mid-level functionary named Linda Tripp.) After two years of running his own production company with fellow Bush Diasporite C. Boyden Gray, Smith rejoined This Week in 1995. He was eventually placed in charge of political coverage for ABC--coverage that, by most reckonings, became among the most scandalobsessed on network television.

Of course, deposed political flacks have always migrated to TV, usually mellowing into honorary Fourth Estaters as the years go by. What distinguishes members of the Bush Diaspora from other pundits is the pervading sense that their successors, in this case the Clintons, are somehow illegitimate--a sensibility that does much to explain This Week's remarkable consistency of anti-Clinton feeling. (Smith, for instance, is rumored to have kept ABC legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin off This Week because he was not sufficiently critical of Clinton. Neither Toobin nor ABC News spokeswoman Eileen Murphy was willing to confirm or deny the matter.) And it was that sensibility, combined with the general scandalmongering that overtook much of the mainstream press dur-ing 1998, that drove the relentless coverage of the Lewinsky affair, just as it drove the loose network of professional Clinton-haters tied to Paula Jones and Kenneth Starr--a network to which Kristol and Smith were intimately linked.

But television is driven by ratings, not politics: This Week has lost 25 percent of its audience since Roberts and Donaldson took over for David Brinkley in 1996, much of it to Tim Russert's Meet the Press on NBC. Smith and Kristol are gone, therefore, not because of their ardent conservatism or their vicious anti-Clintonism, but rather because the show's ratings were in the dumps.

And yet there's a sense in which politics did lead to the show's retooling, though not in quite the way that Mona Charen describes. The most likely explanation for the show's ratings slide is that during the impeachment saga, This Week became so overzealous, so censorious of Clinton, and--as a direct result--so out of touch with public sentiment that no one cared to watch it anymore. No, Mona, there is no liberal media plot. But with Kristol and Smith gone, perhaps This Week can regain some of its David Brinkley-era balance and credibility--not to mention some of its viewers.