Meet the Press is the oldest and most treasured public affairs show on television. The program's host, merely by occupying the job, is a leader in broadcast journalism and in the Washington, D.C. community where the show is based.
This is why the ongoing silence of David Gregory and NBC News -- following his apparent on-air violation of D.C. gun laws -- is so disconcerting. By choosing not to comment, not only is Gregory diminished, but it harms the legacy of Meet the Press and leaves Washington, D.C. police with no opportunity to save face and move on.
The background to this mess is simple. On the December 23rd edition of Meet the Press, Gregory had a heated confrontation with Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association and held up what appeared to be a 30-round gun magazine.
As I discussed on my nationally syndicated radio and YouTube show Take Action News, which you can see in the YouTube video below, city gun laws prohibit possessing a "large capacity ammunition feeding device," -- defined as holding more than 10 rounds -- regardless of whether it is attached to a firearm and whether there are bullets in it. The misdemeanor is punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. (Shameless plug: you can subscribe to video clips from the show for free at Youtube.com/takeactionnewstv.)
According to Washington, D.C. police, "NBC contacted MPD (D.C. Metropolitan Police Department) inquiring if they could utilize a high-capacity magazine for their segment. NBC was informed that possession of a high-capacity magazine is not permissible and their request was denied."
In other words, somebody on Gregory's team was warned by D.C. police not to use the large capacity ammunition magazine... and Gregory ended up using it anyway.
Full disclosure: I worked at MSNBC/NBC News in Washington for eight years. I know David and many of his producers. I'm certain they had an inadvertent miscommunication and were misled by another law enforcement agency official, both of which contributed to the blunder.
None the less, Washington, D.C. police are now stuck. If they let David Gregory off without getting any acknowledgment from him that he made a mistake, police will be throwing "equal justice under the law" out the window. After all, would an African-American in Southeast D.C. who violated a gun law -- and wouldn't acknowledge it -- get a break? Of course not.
And yet, each day the Gregory investigation continues, D.C. police are wasting more precious resources and time.
I appreciate that NBC counsel have apparently urged David Gregory, his staff, and all executives not to say anything while the investigation continues. But in this case, the narrow interests of a company lawyer undercut the ethical obligations of Meet the Press to journalism and the city of Washington, D.C.
There is nothing that prevents David Gregory from showing some respect to those institutions right now by saying something like, "I am sorry that my actions have caused a police investigation. My team and I will cooperate fully with D.C. police and do whatever we can to help resolve this matter."
For now, however, David Gregory and NBC News offer only silence and "no comment."
This is unfortunate and hypocritical. Not taking responsibility is what Gregory himself accused the Obama White House of doing in October over Benghazi. Gregory said at the time, "the buck stops with the White House and the president on these matters."
The host of Meet the Press is not like the President of the United States. Still, a leader of any treasured institution has public and ethical obligations that go far beyond narrow legal concerns. Public confidence and respect is important, as I'm sure David Gregory appreciates.
Some of my journalism colleagues have raised good questions about the efficacy of using a visual "stunt" on a serious news program in the first place. Indeed, it's hard to imagine the giants of television news interview shows, including Ted Koppel or the late Tim Russert, waving a gun magazine at a guest. If Gregory never waves a prop again, perhaps at least some good will have come out of this entire episode.
But that's an issue for another day.
For now, David Gregory and NBC News should make a brief public apology and show some humility. It would give police some public leeway -- with the addition of NBC's private cooperation -- that will enable investigators to swiftly conclude things and move on.
The ongoing silence, however, represents the arrogance of corporate legal practices. It's not the image any of us who care about journalism want for Meet the Press or the show's host.
Follow David Shuster on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidshuster