I quite like most of the "unsolicited advice" that Jack Shafer, of Slate, has teed up for the benefit of incoming Meet The Press host David Gregory. Shafer's got a healthy disrespect for the Russertian style of press encounter, and a significant fear that the show could end up encasing that style in amber and prohibiting its evolution into the post-Russert age. I share his fear! After all, it was June 4th of this year that Tim Russert -- at last -- came to this epiphany:
But in an interesting way...it's a role I think the media can play in really trying to keep pushing this back to this big debate on big issues and not get caught up in a lot of this minor squirmishing that goes on and videotape that gets released where we just run wild with it and sit back and say, what happened? Why did we not cover some of these big differences like Iraq, like Iran, like negotiating around the world, like health care?
Naturally, Meet The Press had long served as a venue for all matter of "runnin' wild" with videotape and "minor squirmishes" transformed into great mountains of controversy. In a way, the best thing for Meet The Press to do to honor Russert's legacy is to make Meet The Press into a forum that serves the sort of journalism the late host was imagining in June. Shafer's advice, by and large, gets us started down that road.
Leaving aside his urging to Gregory that he's "gotta get a gimmick" -- advice best given to strippers from the vaudeville era -- Shafer's advice can help make the show more contemporary, more weighty, and more suited to Gregory's strengths.
1. "Get rid of the Russert regulars."
While I don't share Shafer's toxic opinion of Doris Kearns Goodwin, I have nothing but a loud "Hear, hear!" for this suggestion. If there's anything that regularly kills the panel segments on Meet The Press, it's the regular return of panelists who just huff and puff over the fumes of their former relevance. During the campaign season, there was a familiar foursome that particularly dulled the senses: Bob Shrum, James Carville, Mary Matalin, and Mike Murphy. All stood in as lame, de facto "surrogates" for candidacies and shop-worn ideas, and with the exception of Murphy, they all desperately need to be hauled off to a closet at the Epcot Center.
I except Murphy from this because he, alone, strove to be fully honest and of the moment. He was a conservative and a McCain admirer who sincerely believed McCain had driven his campaign off the rails. He said the exact same things when he was caught on an MSNBC live mike, speaking to Peggy Noonan, and unlike Noonan, didn't try to walk any of his commentary back later on. Essentially, Murphy will give you the same argument in any setting, which to me, exposes another flaw in the old-guard Beltway-insider class that shows up on shows like Meet The Press -- they've lapsed into a state where they've got an unfiltered opinion they share with the cocktail circuit and a second, "safer" set of beliefs they'll share with the public.
Brokaw advised Gregory this past Sunday to look to a new generation. Shafer offers a bevy of names that fit the bill, are contemporary, and are less likely to be selective about what they say when they are on camera. I'd only add that Washington, D.C. is full of even newer blood from across the political spectrum -- Ezra Kleins and Ross Douthats and Megan McArdles -- who have vital and thoughtful things to say about the issues of the day. Gregory should find himself in their company as often as possible.
2. "Add a reported segment."
Every Sunday talk show tries to generate news for the Monday newspapers by prodding a politician to say something interesting. The politicians know this, so the smarter ones know well enough to drop a bomb or bomblet and frag for the moderator. Instead of relying on guests for news, a Sunday show could break the mold by filing a reported story that makes news.
Really, why not? As Shafer notes, reported stories are more expensive segments to produce, but Meet The Press is supposed to be the dean of the Sunday Morning shows and a jewel in the NBC News crown. Why not make this kind of significant investment? It would relieve a lot of the pressure on Gregory to manipulate the interviews so that they churn out headline-grabbing pull-quotes, and pave the way for more substantive discussions (that could be all the more newsworthy).
Moreover, my biggest problem with Gregory has been that formatted news shows always seem to diminish Gregory's gravitas. Giving him the chance to anchor a reported segment right off the top would give him the opportunity to bear some weight, use his reportorial skills, and replenish that gravitas for the remainder of the show.
3. "Get out of the office and stay out of the office."
I'd have Gregory, who isn't bureau chief (and shouldn't be), walk the political beat all week in preparation for his show and not let his Today assignments get in the way of his real work. If he runs the show more like a reporter and less like a Washington institution, he'll already have a leg up on Russert.
One of the terrible things about this show that Gregory has minded at MSNBC over the past year, The Road To The White House / 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the confounding passivity on display, as heads in boxes spit unalloyed conventional wisdom and dull-edged talking points at Gregory, who's only active role was to turn the various faucets on and off. Shafer's vision for Gregory is active. Better yet: it's instinctual -- and with the right sort of instincts. The notion of a Meet The Press host working sources all week long instead of taking the temperature of the studio green rooms is very appealing, and it would really put more of Gregory's strengths on display.
Shafer puts it bluntly: "Note to Gregory: It's only a gig. Please get on with it." And that's true. But it's a pretty good gig, and with a change in hosts, there's no reason why it shouldn't end up being a better one.