One of the stranger stories floating around Washington at the moment is the news, first reported in the Washington Post, that NBC is so concerned about the ratings collapse of its Sunday-morning talk show, Meet the Press, that it hired a “psychological consultant” to interview the friends and family of host David Gregory (in the words of a network spokesman) “to get perspective and insight from people who know him best.” What, exactly, NBC intended to do with that perspective and insight was not explained; but Meet the Press continues to fall behind its network competitors in the ratings.
The Scrapbook must declare that it has no interest in the outcome here. David Gregory is no more or less arrogant and self-infatuated than most of his on-camera colleagues; and while conservatives tend to be annoyed by his evident left-wing bias, this does not exactly distinguish him from the bulk of his brethren. If the problem with Meet the Press is determined to be David Gregory, then NBC will deal with the problem in the usual way.
What has intrigued us, however, is that almost every account of the David Gregory crisis compares him unfavorably with his Meet the Press predecessor, the late Tim Russert, whose long tenure on the program (1991-2008) is regarded as its golden age. No allowance is made for the rise of the Internet, with its alternative sources of news and information, or changes in TV viewing habits in the years since Russert’s death. It is not entirely clear, to The Scrapbook at least, that even Tim Russert could have succeeded where David Gregory is failing.
There is also the problem of Washington’s collective memory, which is seldom longer than a decade or so. In past decades, Meet the Press was dominant in the ratings because, unlike its competitors, it had been around for a very long time (since 1947) and, until the advent of Russert, had never strayed from the formula invented by its founder, sometime panelist, and host until 1975, a journalist named Lawrence Spivak. Spivak was an entirely unprepossessing individual—beak-nosed, bespectacled, with a slightly high-pitched voice—who regarded his mission as serving viewers, not exalting Lawrence Spivak, and asked questions designed to elicit information and clarify issues.
All of that changed when Tim Russert arrived at Meet the Press after years of service to various Democratic politicians. Like many late-blooming journalists of his generation, Russert tended to think of himself as a competitor rather than teacher or inquirer: The point was not to learn how Senator So-and-So thinks but to score points against Senator So-and-So in debate. Russert’s specialty was comparing past quotations with present positions, and demanding an explanation: If a politician changed his mind, he had not evolved, or been influenced by events, but had “flip-flopped”—evidently a bad thing. The focus of Meet the Press changed, over time, from issues and policy to its host’s omnipotent status.
Which, in the long run, is always dangerous for journalists. And makes poor David Gregory an unwitting victim of Russert’s success. Sure, he’s obnoxious and peremptory and tendentious and self-absorbed; but once upon a time, and very briefly, that was a winning formula.
Now we live in an environment where the number of David Gregorys is nearly infinite, and viewers/readers/listeners can pick and choose at will. This fact of modern life may not be evident to NBC’s psychological consultant, but Meet the Press’s ex-audience knows it well.