Thursday, November 01, 2007

Tiny Tim: Meet the Press and the undermining of American democracy

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Our must-read of the day is a fantastic piece by Paul Waldman at The American Prospect on Tim Russert -- who he is, what he stands for, and how the insider media culture he embodies is harming not just political discourse in America but America's very political process. Make sure to read the entire piece, but here are a few key passages:

Last month, near the end of the Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire, moderator Tim Russert -- known as "Washington's toughest interviewer" and perhaps the most influential journalist in America -- had one last chance to pin the candidates down with his legendary common sense, persistence, and no-bull style. This is what he asked, first to Barack Obama:

"There's been a lot of discussion about the Democrats and the issue of faith and values. I want to ask you a simple question. Senator Obama, what is your favorite Bible verse?"

When Obama finished his answer, Russert said to the other candidates, "I want to give everyone a chance in this. You just take 10 seconds." Predictable banality ensued. A foreign visitor unfamiliar with our presidential campaigns might have scratched her head and said, "This is how you decide who will lead your country?"

Indeed it is, because the process is controlled by Tim Russert and people like him. Russert's Bible question encapsulates everything wrong with him, and with our political coverage more generally. It seeks to make candidates look bad rather than finding out something important about them (if you want to explore a candidate's religious beliefs, you don't do it in pop-quiz form and give them just ten seconds to answer). It substitutes the personal anecdote for the policy position, the sound-bite for the substantive answer. It distills the debate into a series of allegedly symbolic, supposedly meaningful moments that can be replayed.

This type of debate question is not about what the candidate believes and would actually do in office, but about how clever the moderator is for cornering the candidate. And above all, it takes a genuinely relevant matter (a candidate's view of the universe) and crams it through a channel by which the thoughtful candidate will be pilloried and the shallow, pandering, overly rehearsed candidate will garner praise.

Russert claims -- and claims repeatedly, ad nauseam -- that he speaks for "Buffalo," the heartland, the working class, speaking truth to power, demanding answers from those in power, demanding on behalf of the people, Buffalo's man in Washington, at the Georgetown cocktail parties, tearing down the Establishment from within, a horse full of Greeks holding Troy at bay, ready and eager to strike, whenever necessary.

But -- not so much. What Russert is really about is not "Buffalo" -- he doth protest far, far too much, and it's all an act, a "well-designed" persona, artifice, a concoction, a performance -- but unaccountable self-glorification:

The two parties' nominees will be decided three months from now, and we can be sure that in that time, at least one or two candidates will have their campaigns upended by the answer they gave to an absurd question, delivered by Tim Russert or someone like him, about what their favorite Bible verse is, or whom they want to win the Super Bowl, or what kind of beer they like. "Aha!" the reporters will shout, as though they actually unearthed something revealing on which the race for the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth should be decided. The one whose tiny little mind devised the question will be praised to the stars for his journalistic acumen.

In Russert's "democracy," Meet the Press is supreme. Forget the nuances of policy, forget serious debate. What Russert would prefer, it would seem, would be for the candidates -- the presidential ones, for example -- to come on his show, face his "tough" questioning, his "gotcha" attempts, and stand aside while his fellow insiders, David Broder and his ilk, sit around the table and chit-chat in turn, one after the other, round and round, offering their snide remarks and shallow commentary, stewing happily in the permanent glory of their oh-so-telegenic, oh-so-brilliant selves, self-important to the end.

And then the voters -- you know, those beer-swilling football fans in Buffalo -- could select a candidate based not so much on how he or she performed for their host but rather on how his or her performance was judged by the telegenic and brilliant ones, the self-appointed (or Russert-appointed) arbiters of American politics.

And then: Go Bills! Just to seem oh-so-democratic, oh-so-in-touch with the people, those not privileged enough to live inside the Beltway, let alone to attend Georgetown cocktail parties.

You know, people like us.


This overt dislike of Tim Russert is new to me, more or less. I never minded him -- but then I never paid him much attention. I watch football on Sunday, not Meet the Press, figuring I'll get the highlights, whatever they are, later on. But, aside from that, he was, to me, relatively okay. And by that I mean he was (and still is) better than most of his colleagues. Say, the insufferable Chris Matthews, or anyone on Fox News.

But it is precisely Russert's importance, his lofty status atop the establishment, that makes him worthy of such criticism. In the end, who cares about Chris Matthews? Even about Fox News? -- we all know its ideological bent. But Russert, well, he's a self-styled man of the people without a clear ideological agenda, an insider who asserts neutrality and who has positioned himself as one of Washington's most important and influential figures. That position, combined with his media persona, has permitted him to wield enormous power over American politics, and to do so unaccountably. He will not have the final say over who wins the White House next year -- thankfully, there are still elections -- but he will certainly do his best, however much he may deny it, to influence the process. And hence the outcome.

And you'll be able to catch it on Meet the Press.

Me? -- I'll be busy.

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  • You may be the first person in history to refer to David Broder as telegenic.

    And you don't have to choose between Meet the Press and football. MTP is on in the morning. So I guess you may have to choose between it and church.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:09 PM  

  • great post, Michael.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:09 AM  

  • Anonymous #1: Yes, upon reflection, not the best choice of words. Perhaps "telegenic" not so much in terms of physical appearance but in ability to perform well in a Sunday-morning talk-show format.

    And, no I'm not choosing between MTP and football but between MTP and sleep/family/other far more important things.

    Anonymous #2: Thanks.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 4:12 PM  

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