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If It’s Sunday, It’s Meet the (1 Percent) Press | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

If It’s Sunday, It’s Meet the (1 Percent) Press

David Gregory

David Gregory with Brian Williams at a panel for NBC News in 2010 (Reuters/Phil McCarten)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

Alter-reviews:

Isabel Rose, “Trouble in Paradise,” (and live at the Stephen Talkhouse)
Junior Brown at City Winery.
Emore Leonard, Library of America

It’s hard to know exactly wha to make of Isabel Rose. Her promotional material asks “What happens when you toss Katy Perry, Ann-Margret and Bette Midler into a blender?” with the answer being Ms. Rose. I dunno. I love Ms. Margaret; can go either way on Midler and got off the bus long before Katy Perry got on. I do really like Rose though. Her cd, “Trouble in Paradise,” is a unique mixture of styles that do not always coalesce comfortably, but emerge in the end as a thorougly charming experience.

One thing I really (really) like about Rose is her willingness to stretch not only the conventions of cabaret style performance, but also the so-called “Great American Songbook,” which is undoubtedly great, but definitely needs extending beyond the pre-“Yesterday” era. Produced by Bob Rock and back by a big Vegasy orchestra, she breathes new life into some wonderful songs that you may not have remembered that you love. Among my favorites are:

Lot of Livin’ To Do
Things We Do For Love *
Reflections
Love Will Keep Us Together *

She closed her spirited set at the Talkhouse (in Amagansett) with that shlocky song and like most of the set, it was also pretty wonderful. Rose changed her glamorous outfits as often as Diana Ross, had a biggish band and back up singers who shimmied with her and played straight-woman to her double and triple-entendres. The place was packed—so packed that my seats were given away, alas—which surprised me, since the cd wasn’t even released yet, but her familiarity with the crowd gave the evening the feel of a strangely sexy bat-mitzvah—albeit with a killer band and an unforgettable chick singer. More about the lady and her music here.

The night before I took in an old friend, Junior Brown, at City Winery. I often think that the best thing about Texas is the way it travels east, though it’s also the worst thing about it. Anyway, Brown is very much a Texan, but the funny, open-minded laugh-at-himself kind. While not as funny (or as Jewish) as Kinky Friedman, he’s an incredible musician and his four-piece band (with his wife Tanya Rae on acoustic rhythm and a guy banging on just a single snare drum and occasionally one cymbal) he makes music that sounds twice as large as that. The songs are almost all funny and clever and usually danceable in a Texas by way of Hawaii kind of way. (A crowd favorite every time I’ve seen him has been “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead.”) Brown plays his patented “Guit-Steel”, a double-necked guitar combining standard guitar with steel guitar, allowing him to switch instruments quickly in mid-song while singing and gives his songs a sound that belongs only to him. Catch him if you can. Shows coming up at the City Winery, whether in the city, Chicago, Nashville or Napa, can be found here.

Finally, I’m jumping the gun on this a bit but perhaps you need something fun and fat to read in these final lazy, hazy daze of summer. If so, our friends at the Library of America have just the thing for you:  ELMORE LEONARD: Four Novels of the 1970s  edited by Gregg Sutter.  

I am quite proud of myself for having had the good sense to go see Leonard read at Barnes & Noble on his final trip to the city as he was one of the greatest living American writers until he was no longer living; also a quite charming man. He was, most importantly, one of the most prolific of novelists, and so this three volume series will be hard to pick.  (It was apparently done  in consultation with the author.)  When you’ve read as much Leonard as I have, it’s hard to match the titles to the stories. I’m pretty I sure I remember  Fifty-Two Pickup, less sure about  Swag, Unknown Man No. 89,  and The Switch , and the plot summaries don’t help much, because it’s characters that make the difference. And even the worst of them—I’m looking at you  Freaky Deaky —is still a lot of fun. The book also contains a newly researched chronology of Leonard’s life, prepared with exclusive access to materials in his personal archive. It’s a great addition to the LOA canon, but I’m still wondering why they appear to be insisting on waiting to do Ed Doctorow until he is no longer around to be celebrated for it.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

If It’s Sunday, It’s Meet the (1%) Press
by Reed Richardson

You almost feel sorry for David Gregory. To have your high-profile media perch so publicly and unceremoniously yanked out from under you has to be humiliating. After nearly two decades of working for NBC, this is the thanks you get? It speaks to the cutthroat, ephemeral world of TV news stardom, where, in the network’s eyes, if your career trajectory isn’t rising, it’s necessarily falling, and fast. Sure, with Gregory as host, Meet the Press’s ratings were down—waydown—but to not even get the dignity of an orderly transition, a farewell show? After nearly six years, to just be there one week and suddenly gone the next. Like I said, you almost feel sorry for the guy. Almost.

The reality is, Gregory needs no pity. He has plenty of reasons not to worry about his future— $4-million dollars worth of reasons , reportedly. That’s how much NBC News is paying him to opt out of his contact. To not do his job anymore. So, unlike pretty much every other 43-year-old laid-off TV journalist, who would struggle to ever find a decent-paying job in news again, Gregory gets to walk away with the kind of lucrative golden parachute usually reserved for CEOs and pro sports coaches. And, if you’re curious, average pay for a news reporter in the U.S. as of May 2013 was $44,360 , which means Gregory’s walk money is roughly equivalent to paying the full-time salaries of 90 journalists for an entire year.

To be clear, I’m all for companies honoring their contracts with labor as well as holding journalists accountable for the quality of their journalism. So, if NBC News agrees to pay Gregory all this money and he turns out to not be very good at this job, then the network deserves to feel the pain of its unwise choices. But Gregory’s abrupt, costly departure from MTP should also serve as yet another a reminder of the fundamental dilemma facing most TV news networks when it comes to how they value their Sunday morning shows.

Part of this is the undeniable opportunity cost of the host of Meet the Press or This Week or Fox News Sunday collecting a paycheck that could otherwise fund whole sections of a newsroom. In an era when mass layoffs and shrinking budgets are de rigueur , to pay any journalist a seven or eight-figure salary smacks of misplaced priorities . Of course, network executives try to justify these outrageous sums by noting that the Sunday news shows, like their morning chat show and nightly news show brethren, remain advertising cash cows. So, the argument goes, they compensate the personalities that helm those properties accordingly. Which means that Gregory’s case is hardly new: in 2012, NBC News flushed hundreds of potential journalists’ salaries down the drain to pay Today co-host Ann Curry $10 million to leave that show before her contract was up.

This personality-driven approach, news divisions claim, does pay dividends. For a decade-and-a-half, Today reigned over the morning ratings (and raked in cash) thanks to the rapport between Matt Lauer and Katie Couric. Likewise, a generation ago, Sunday morning viewers reliably tuned in to watch David Brinkley’s wry, erudite take on the issues when he hosted This Week. And Tim “Little Russ” Russert’s long-running, regular-guy, Buffalo Bills-obsessed shtick as host of MTP helped him become a perennial ratings champ and earn him unofficial status as “The Mayor” of the Beltway. (At its peak in 2007, MTP , with Russert as host, NBC pulled in $60 million a year in advertising.)

But when networks willingly place so much emphasis and so many resources on elevating and compensating the show’s host in sole pursuit of ratings, the show’s fortunes become too tightly intertwined with the who and not the what of its broadcast. This feeds a creeping arrogation of authority to whoever’s sitting in the host chair. Rarely does it make for better journalism, and Russert is perhaps the best example of how this approach compromises the premise of the show. That’s because, for all of his tough-guy, tough-questions legacy, Russert was, in reality, more of a willing enabler of government spin than a hard-nosed challenger of it. His trademark style of catching guests in the act of hypocrisy merely served as a fig leaf of accountability, one that too often left unasked more important policy questions.

As a result, most Sunday news show hosts serve as purveyors of the Washington conventional wisdom as much as, if not more than, the officeholders they’re purportedly covering. Meet the Press , and with it the whole Sunday morning news show genre, has devolved into a kind of cloistered, clubby, faux-accountability chinwag, one where a rich and powerful host mostly asks gentle questions of rich and powerful politicians about things that mostly only matter to rich and powerful viewers. (Or, even worse, rich and powerful journalists and pundits simply talk amongst themselves.) Voices and issues considered outside the mainstream—or in D.C. parlance, “not serious”—end up either marginalized or completely disappeared from the discourse. Need more proof? Look no further than the Sunday news show advertisers, a list of which is routinely populated by multinational conglomerates and defense contractors. ( Boeing exclusively sponsors the Meet the Press news app .) These companies know that the ‘programming’ they’re selling adjacent to on Sunday morning isn’t about to question the status quo.

While Gregory could never match Russert’s mega-watt screen presence, he nonetheless followed in his predecessor’s too-clever-by-half and insular journalistic footsteps. That’s why Gregory so publicly used his MTP perch to parrot 1% talking points about the need to cut Medicare and Social Security, so that regular Americans could feel more “pain.” That’s why one of his few notable attempts at confrontation— holding up a 30-round magazine to NRA chief Wayne LaPierre in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting —backfired into a PR debacle. That’s why one of his shows’ few real moments of newsmaking— the endorsement of same-sex marriage by Vice President Joe Biden —happened because of a guest intentionally going off-script rather than succumbing to Gregory’s tough questioning. That’s why by far the most memorable moment in Gregory’s tenure at MTP —and quite possibly his journalistic career to date—was his disturbing, thinly veiled attack on the kind of adversarial journalism that he never bothers to do.

Plenty of smart people have proposed good ideas for resuscitating the value of Meet the Press and its ilk. But the essential problem to be corrected can really be boiled down to making the Sunday morning shows more about the journalism and less about the journalists . It would require democratizing and diversifying viewpoints; more actual reporting, less speculative posing. Of course, to re-orient MTP ’s focus off of political palace intrigue would necessarily jeopardize the loyalty of the audience that lives and works in and around said palace. But recapturing such a prominent news platform for the interests of the rest of the country should be a risk worth taking for TV news organizations that enjoy the privilege of using public airwaves to make their money.

Unfortunately, we know which path NBC News has chosen to follow. Chuck Todd, the network’s named replacement for Gregory, currently works as NBC News’ chief political handicapper and launched his career in Washington working at The Hotline, a prototype of insider-y, horse race-obsessed publications like Politico. No surprise then that Politico Playbook blogger Mike Allen, pre-eminent Beltway tout and steadfast shill for corporate America , recognized in Todd a kindred spirit, admiringly describing him as someone with a “love of the game” that would attract a loyal following among “newsmakers” and “political junkies.”

Whether or not Todd can reverse the damage done to Meet the Press ’s ratings by Gregory remains to be seen. But when it comes to the impact of the new MTP host’s journalism, I have little doubt that the powerful in Washington will notice much of a difference.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

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