If it’s Sunday, I Miss Tim Russert

I also miss David Broder and a couple generations of guys who learned political reporting from wearing out shoe leather from the precinct level up. They knocked on doors to talk to actual voters and hung around with county party chairmen to understand which way the wind was blowing and why. They also practiced their craft on newspapers that permitted a bit of thinking before deadline and provided sufficient space to impart actual information.

Today’s TV trained reporters, by contrast, have spent weary hours on hair and makeup before standing in front of hay bales to tell us for 30 seconds what the candidate said 30 seconds earlier in Iowa. Their name is legion but the poster boy in my mind is David Gregory of Meet the Press who had the unenviable job of replacing Russert after his premature death.

Russert was a blue collar guy who got a cut rate law degree but whose worth was soon discovered by heavyweights like Sen. Daniel Moynihan and Gov. Mario Cuomo for whom he toiled. He then ran the NBC Washington Bureau for seven years before being given “Meet the Press.“

He was as far as possible from the TV pretty boy with a doughy face and beady eyes but he was smart and Jesuit educated which made him no stranger to aggressive and well-informed questioning. He brought that to the show along with deep knowledge of electoral politics and he planned for interviews exhaustively, including the ferreting out of earlier remarks at odds with a pol’s present positions. Guests expecting to get a softball interview were often surprised to meet a buzz saw.

The new boy, not so much. Gregory’s version of “Meet the Press” is more like “Pattycake with the Press.” It is the lightest weight of the Sunday shows, among which there are no heavyweight contenders. Too many guests are booked to allow actual give and take on any issue. Gregory’s most reliable remark when substance threatens to emerge is “we’re out of time.” The falsity of this is glaringly obvious when he returns after a commercial for another 20 minutes with the usual talking heads from left and right trotting out their usual talking points with no effort by Gregory to fact check or question premises.

As usual for TV news there appears to be a terror of any issue like health care, the budget, defense, foreign policy (really any issue) where specialized knowledge might be required. This is stigmatized as “getting in the weeds.” It is code for somebody might change the channel. The preferred alternative is partisan jousts as phony as tag team wrestling. Even more out of bounds is anything which might require the audience to understand math, except every four years how many electoral votes to become president is acceptable

All of this would be bad enough, but worse is the general out-of-touchness with actual American life. Russert was from a Rust Belt version of Podunk, Buffalo, NY, and proud of it. Gregory is from central casting. Last Sunday provided a classic Gregory moment. “Time ran out” on a fake duel on the difficult gnarly issues confronting the country so Gregory could look at the latest horserace polls about elections almost eight months away.

In other words, it was a discussion akin to that in high school about who should be prom queen. Are we on the right track or wrong track? Who is the fairest of them all, Republicans or Democrats? Is President Obama still your BFF or is somebody else the new cool kid in class?

In fact, the takeaway, as people like Gregory say, was that everyone polled thought we were sinking into ruination, didn’t trust any politician and used the poll to issue the kind of cry of pain you used to hear in dentists’ offices before anesthesia. This brought forth from Gregory the befuddled query, ”What are people so unhappy about?” To which his customary panel of party hacks and safe journalists replied with their prepared talking points on the vileness of Obamacare, the war on women, blah, blah, blah.

No doubt Gregory in his $1000 suit and his $200 haircut settled into his town car after the broadcast grinning his self-satisfied grin at another show well done. And this is exactly what the people polled are furious about. They are “so unhappy” about having lost their jobs or their pensions or half their net worth. They are unhappy that their kids schools stink and our international competitors are eating out lunch. They are unhappy that their past looks better than their kids’ future, and they are really unhappy that those elected to represent them don’t give a crap unless they can pony up a huge donation.

And if they thought about it, they might be really unhappy that alleged news guys like Gregory who are supposed to hold the bosses and the pols feet to the fire also don’t give a crap. Once there was a slim chance a news guy might comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Now somebody like Gregory is too busy having a lovely brunch with the rest of the comfortable to even consider he might occasionally ask a hard question of somebody in power. Russert would lose his lunch.

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