Let’s be honest: Why should any sane person care who hosts Meet the Press? I haven’t watched any of the Sunday news shows in a quarter-century and have no intention of ever doing so again. Should anything newsworthy occur on one of these shows, their transcripts become available within minutes of the broadcast, but this almost never happens. They remain influential with the rest of the mainstream media and therefore offer a clue as to how its denizens define their job, but they are not really “news” shows at all; instead, they are branding exercises for network news divisions. This is why, before NBC fired Meet the Press host David Gregory and replaced him with Chuck Todd, the network forced Gregory to meet with a “brand consultant,” hoping to develop a marketing campaign that would boost his appeal.
Virtually everyone involved in this media melodrama played his or her part to perfection. A typically smarmy Dylan Byers article in Politico, replete with anonymously sourced character assassination, called Gregory “widely disliked within the organization” because “his ambition and vanity rubbed important colleagues at NBC the wrong way.” But, of course, it was money that talked. Under Tim Russert, Meet the Press sometimes bested its competition by as much as 30 percent, veritably printing money for the network. Under Gregory, on the other hand, the program fell to third place, which did not help the news division’s bottom line, much less its “brand.”
Gregory did deserve to be fired, but not for the reasons so widely discussed. In truth, he should never have been hired at all. He first came to the attention of non-TV-news viewers by, I kid you not, swaying like a drunken frat rat and looking like a demented member of Gladys Knight’s Pips behind Karl Rove during an excruciating “rap” performance at the 2007 Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner. NBC apparently considered this to be just the kind of “brand” representation its news division needed.
Gregory turned Meet the Press into a freak show. In December 2012, he brandished a thirty-round gun magazine on the air while interviewing the NRA’s chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, despite the fact that possessing such a high-capacity magazine is against the law in Washington, DC. An even more bizarre incident occurred not long ago when, while interviewing UN Relief and Works Agency spokesman Chris Gunness, Gregory demanded that his guest react to a video released moments earlier that purported to demonstrate that Hamas had fired rockets from a UN shelter in Gaza. (The Meet the Press host had just concluded a softball interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he’d previously anointed on the air as “the leader of the Jewish people.”) Unfortunately for everyone concerned, not only had NBC News failed to verify the video’s authenticity, but Gregory proceeded to seek a reaction on it from a guest who hadn’t even seen it. “Is this accurate?” he demanded. Gunness, who apparently understands the rules of journalism better than anyone at NBC News, looked as if he were trying not to laugh. “To be fair to me, to bring me on a live program and expect me to comment, live on air, on pictures I haven’t actually seen—I think anyone looking at this program would agree that’s really unfair.” Unfair, yes; but also unprofessional, to say nothing of idiotic.
No less egregious was Gregory’s famous grilling of Glenn Greenwald, in which he displayed further ignorance of his responsibility to inform the public, not to protect the powerful. “To the extent that you have aided and abetted [Edward] Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” he asked. (True, Bob Woodward has a roomful of Pulitzers for the unauthorized reporting of classified national-security documents, but never mind that.)
The news division’s new president, Deborah Turness, who has a background in tabloid TV in Britain, recently told The New York Times’s Bill Carter that Gregory had to go because “the show needs more edge…. We need more of a coffeehouse conversation.” Chuck Todd, the man she has hired as the show’s new host, launched his career at The Hotline, a prototype of insidery, horse-race-obsessed publications like Politico. In fact, Politico’s Mike Allen admiringly described Todd as someone with a “love of the game” who was likely to attract a loyal following among “newsmakers” and “political junkies.” So perhaps NBC’s numbers—and its balance sheet—will improve. But don’t expect any journalistic improvements: Todd appears to share with Gregory a myopic understanding of his profession’s purpose in a democratic society.
For instance, during the Greenwald episode, Todd wondered aloud on air (and without any evidence whatever): “Glenn Greenwald, you know—how much was he involved in the plot? It’s one thing as a source, but what, what was his role—did he have a role beyond simply being a receiver of this information?” On another occasion, Todd asserted that if the public was receiving misinformation about Obamacare, it was not the responsibility of the media to try to expose those lies or correct misimpressions. “What I always love is, people say, ‘Well, it’s you folks’ fault in the media,’” he opined. “No, it’s the president of the United States’ fault for not selling it.”
John McCain, who has appeared more times on Meet the Press than any other guest by a considerable margin, recently turned up on MSNBC to instruct Todd that he should “focus on the political dynamics that are going on in this country…rather than expand the scope.” My suggestion is this: just eliminate the middle man and name McCain as host. Who knows? Unlike the unlikable Gregory, the lovable old grump might actually shoot someone. Now that would be a “brand” worth watching.