The Magazine

The Man Who Started It All

Twenty-five years of John McLaughlin.

Dec 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 15 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Okay, if he won't mention it, I will: The year just ending marks the 25th anniversary of The McLaughlin Group, the landmark public affairs TV show founded by John McLaughlin. It's odd that McLaughlin himself hasn't made a bigger deal of it. A shameless showman, he's celebrated his earlier anniversaries with full-tilt hoopla--retrospective programs and public commendations and lavish parties held in the gilded ballrooms of downtown hotels.

About the silver anniversary, however, we've heard not a peep. I'm not sure why this is so, but--in tribute to the McLaughlin method of journalism--I will take a wild guess. The show has been in a long decline. Ratings are down, syndication is down, the panelists seem listless, the host himself often distracted or fatigued. The formula is now limp in the hands of the man who invented it. There's nothing to lift McLaughlin's famous bellow above the general riot heard round the clock from Fox, MSNBC, or CNN. Maybe McLaughlin figures that any reminder of the show's age would just invite stories of the "Lion in Winter" variety: The man who started it all fades away, unloved and unacknowledged. Even a publicity hound of McLaughlin's appetites would probably prefer to do without those.

Yet he did start it all, you know. That's why the Group's anniversary deserves some kind of notice. McLaughlin is the most influential figure in televised political journalism since .  .  . well, forever, probably. That he has become lost amidst the army of his imitators merely proves the size of his achievement. McLaughlin appeared at the dawn of the cable news era, when the orthodoxy of mainstream "consensus journalism" still seemed unassailable. That orthodoxy, as reinforced daily in the major newspapers and on the broadcast networks, was unconsciously liberal, resolutely self-important, and intensely boring. We now know that consensus journalism was an artifact of postwar mass media. Big audiences were needed to sustain the profits of broadcast networks and large-circulation newspapers. The bland, inoffensive journalism of the period was in large part a financial necessity, even if some of its practitioners convinced themselves that it was grounded in metaphysical notions of public service and social uplift.

McLaughlin saw through the consensus to other, richer possibilities. In TV commentary--"news analysis," as it was called--the orthodoxy was asserted in deadly chinwags like Agronsky and Company, which is now gone, and Washington Week in Review, which is still breathing, though barely. McLaughlin designed his Group to subvert the very premises of the Washington political conversation--by being, among other things, bizarrely amusing, even exciting. Droning was forbidden; no topic could occupy more than four minutes' airtime. McLaughlin bellowed at his panelists and the panelists bellowed back; feuds developed among them, alliances were formed and broke apart in a shower of insults. The 24 minutes of an average show zipped by at laser speed. Though the Group never topped the duller shows in the ratings, its reach and power left the others sputtering about a "decline in standards."

They were right about the decline, but they were wrong that the standards were worth preserving. As on Agronsky or Washington Week, the jibber-jabber on McLaughlin was pristinely pointless, but at least McLaughlin made it seem fun. It was gasbaggery unencumbered by pretension; all you needed to appreciate it was a short attention span. By the time cable television became the main supplier of political news, the orthodoxy had suffered a lethal blow. Commentary was demystified, and fact commingled shamelessly with opinion. As McLaughlin and his panelists became celebrities and grew rich from speaking engagements and road shows, punditry replaced reporting as the dearest aspiration of would-be journalists. Perhaps most important, antiestablishment conservatism became unignorable, for alone among the chat shows, the Group declined to treat right-wing ideas as though they were freakish anomalies smuggled into the capital by the Reaganite junta.

Whether this upending of the established order was good for us is, I suppose, a matter of opinion--in fact, thanks in part to the kind of journalism McLaughlin popularized, everything seems to be a matter of opinion these days--but you've got to admit, it was a lot for one man to accomplish. How did he do it? I worked for him once, in the early 1990s, and though my employment lasted slightly less than 24 hours, it was long enough for me to begin to answer the question. Through friends I'd heard McLaughlin was looking for a part-timer to help him research and write the lead-ins to each show's video segments. The money was pretty good and whoever got the job would also get an on-screen credit as an assistant producer. The show was still at its peak of influence and charm. I thought: TV!