An Open Letter To NBC
An Open Letter To NBC
By Tony Palmeri
From the July, 2008 edition of The Scene
Dear NBC News Division,
I’ve been a regular watcher of “Meet the Press” (MTP) since the Bill Monroe days in the 1970s. When Tim Russert assumed control of the show in 1991, I was just starting to produce and host my own public access television newsmaker interview program in Oshkosh, WI. Mr. Russert’s preparedness, probing style, ability to hold politicians accountable to their past statements, and civil tone with his guests were all very influential to me. I considered it a great compliment whenever anyone said that my show felt like a local Meet the Press.
Mr. Russert’s untimely passing last month places you in the unenviable position of having to produce a new MTP. I hope that the outpouring of emotion on Mr. Russert’s behalf doesn’t blind you to the program’s shortcomings and your responsibility to address them. Moreover, I hope you give serious consideration to transforming the program from its current posture as the “voice of the establishment” to a more inclusive “voice of the people.”
Allow me to mention a few shortcomings of MTP. Though Tim Russert was undeniably an outstanding interviewer and engaged citizen, the program really should have been called “Meet Tim Russert.” No one person, however skilled, can be representative of the entirety of diverse viewpoints and worldviews that is the modern press. When “the press” did participate in the show, it tended to be establishment figures exclusively: David Broder of the Washington Post has appeared 396 times on MTP, while Robert Novak of the Chicago Sun-Times clocks in at 247.
Similarly, the choice of regular guests on MTP seems establishment to the extreme: as of this month, the top 5 guests are Bob Dole (63 appearances), John McCain (52 appearances), Joe Biden (41 appearances), Dick Gephardt (41 appearances), and Dick Lugar (36 appearances). Mr. Russert’s occasional trotting out of Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gwen Ifill, and other establishment women and minorities surely did not represent a meaningful step toward “diversity” on MTP.
But the major shortcoming of MTP under Mr. Russert was that the establishment power brokers always knew that while Tim might make them upset with some pointed questions, he would never upset the apple cart on which they feast. This criticism was brought across powerfully in the Daytona Beach News Journal by award winning writer Pierre Tristam:
“The truth is that on any night of the week Jon Stewart's ‘Daily Show’ does more in a two-minute segment to show in politicians' own words how venal, dishonest, contradictory and just plain dense they can be than Russert did in his Sunday services. Russert's master was always the political structure he grilled, but never fundamentally questioned. You always knew whose side he was on: power, not truth -- and, by power, I don't mean his own, of which he had plenty, but the powerful men and occasional women he invited to his Versailles. I mourn his death. But I wish I could mourn the death of the journalism he represented. To the detriment of journalism and malinformed citizens, that parody lives on.”
Tough words, but well worth contemplating if your intent is to provide the viewing public with a MTP appropriate to our modern times when the Internet and alternative media generally call into serious question the credibility of “establishment focused” programs. And since it would be unfair to any new host to expect him or her be another Tim Russert, I urge you to use this opportunity to change the format and focus of the program.
Why not bring the press back to MTP? The program could continue to feature interviews with Washington “insiders,” but they should face questioning from a diverse panel of interviewers that represent a genuine “Left-Center-Right” spectrum. Here’s my suggestion for a “dream panel” of interviewers:
On The Left: Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. An authentic, independent, left-leaning journalist known for her stinging critiques of establishment power and the press.
Representing the Blogosphere: Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic Online. One of the first mainstream journalists to experiment with full-time blogging, Mr. Sullivan would bring the voice of the netroots to MTP in an articulate, provocative way. Though conservative, Mr. Sullivan’s independent and intellectual style has generated quite the liberal and progressive following.
Representing the Center-Mainstream: Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post. Respected inside the beltway, Mr. Robinson recently called Russert the “outsider’s insider.” Given his insights and civil tone, I think Robinson could serve that same role for MTP.
On the Right: George Will of Newsweek/The Washington Post. You’d have to lure him away from ABC, but a thoughtful, establishment conservative like Mr. Will on the platform with Goodman, Sullivan, and Robinson would make for great television and enlightening debate.
My dream MTP panel would be perhaps the most politically diverse group of journalists ever to appear regularly on a broadcast network. Guests like John McCain and Barack Obama would be subject to a litany of questions from a variety of perspectives representing the divergent viewpoints existing within the press and the public at-large. You honor Mr. Russert not by looking for an exact replacement, but by solidifying your commitment to producing the best MTP possible.