The McLaughlin Group is about to “celebrate” its twentieth anniversary. We might as well “celebrate” the discovery of anthrax.
The show flatters itself–and its corporate sponsor, GE–that it is providing some kind of public service. It’s even offered on PBS in many cities, and its website features such faux educational trappings as classroom guides and discussion-group questions, along with $50 golf shirts. And while ratings have dropped steadily and precipitously for the past seven years, that is due largely to the fact that it has very nearly taken over our media world. Entire cable networks are devoted to its ethos, and even the old reliables of respectable political discourse–like NBC’s Meet the Press and CBS’s Face the Nation–are dancing to its dissonant tune. Before McLaughlin, public affairs television programs were often dry and pompous, but with the exception of the painfully pompous Agronsky and Company, they were devoted to the proposition that reporters–like everyone else–should appear on news programs only when they’ve learned something of value of which most people are unaware (hence the word reporter). The McLaughlin Group transformed this essential qualification from specialized knowledge to salable shtick. Not only television but journalism itself has never recovered.
As evidence of how little education, expertise or good, old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting matters in this universe, consider McLaughlin himself. Before building his television empire, he earned his fame as a Jesuit sex lecturer. He ran a hapless Senate race in 1970 in Rhode Island as a McGovernite Republican–yes, you read that right–but still managed, with Patrick Buchanan’s assistance, to land a job in the Nixon White House. There, in priestly garb, he defended the Unindicted Co-Conspirator as “a moral man, thirsting for truth.” Nine days before Nixon’s resignation, McLaughlin predicted that Watergate would soon be viewed as a “mere footnote to a glorious administration.”
Aside from talk-radio and religious writings, McLaughlin’s most significant brush with journalism was a brief stint as Washington editor of National Review, where he would sign his own name to the work of the NR‘s interns and research assistants. But the show turned him into a superstar in Reagan’s Washington. He bullied and humiliated fellow panelists and terrorized his young staff members, at least three of whom felt themselves to be victims of his sexual harassment. According to the court documents of the lawsuit Linda Dean filed against him, McLaughlin told her that he “needed a lot of sex” and “would take care of every material desire” she had, as he fondled her “intimately and against her will.” Dean was fired, but her lawsuit resulted in a private settlement. (I guess this would be as good a place as any to plug the second edition of my book Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy from Cornell University Press.)