"Meet the Press'" real problem: What to expect from the Chuck Todd misadventure

NBC wants to save "Meet the Press" -- but here's why chasing the same toxic "insider cred" isn't the answer

Published August 11, 2014 6:13PM (EDT)

Chuck Todd
Chuck Todd

After more than half a decade of permissive tolerance as David Gregory transformed “Meet the Press” into the unwatchable farce of a public affairs program that it is today, NBC has finally had enough. According to Politico’s Mike Allen, Gregory will be booted from the moderator’s chair at some point in the near future. And instead of doing the smart thing and just canceling the show altogether, the network will reportedly install Chuck Todd in David Gregory’s place.

The reasons for getting rid of Gregory are far too many to enumerate, so his departure is an unalloyed good. But if Allen’s report is to be believed, the higher-ups at NBC clearly haven’t learned from their mistake:

Chuck Todd, a political obsessive and rabid sports fan, is the likely successor to David Gregory as moderator of “Meet the Press,” with the change expected to be announced in coming weeks, according to top political sources. The move is an effort by NBC News President Deborah Turness to restore passion and insider cred to a network treasure that has been adrift since the death in 2008 of the irreplaceable Tim Russert. Although Todd is not a classic television performer guaranteed to wow focus groups, his NBC bosses have been impressed by his love of the game, which brings with it authenticity, sources, and a loyal following among newsmakers and political junkies.

There you have it. NBC took stock of the problems facing its “treasure” of a news program and the diagnosis was that it just didn’t have enough respect with “insiders.” Here’s the thing: “Meet the Press” already has a “loyal following among newsmakers and political junkies.” The show is a pageant of Beltway insiderism in which the least-credible, least-respected talking heads in the industry sit on pundit panels and blurp up conventional wisdom. “Insider cred” is the reason Gregory hung on as long as he did – he’s a member of the D.C. establishment and was able to survive a years-long string of failures out of deference to his own status. If that’s what “insider cred” brings to the equation, then it’s a problem to be solved, not a goal to be achieved.

In that respect, I’m not sure what, exactly, Chuck Todd brings to the table that Gregory doesn’t. He’s a Beltway insider, has a predilection for both-sides-do-it-ism, and exhibits the pundit’s knack for diving timeless truths from a poll’s cross tabs. Sure, he’s a “political obsessive” with access to sources and the attention of newsmakers and “political junkies,” but “Meet the Press” hasn’t lacked for any of those things. And if, as Allen’s report indicates, it’s generally agreed that Todd’s TV chops aren’t up to the level of Tim Russert’s (or even David Gregory’s), then what, exactly, is his appeal?

The problem facing “Meet the Press” isn’t the person in the moderator’s chair, it’s the culture that all the Sunday shows operate in. They all provide slightly different versions of the same thing: mostly white, mostly male pundits, politicians and Beltway “insiders” arguing with each other about who’s “winning” and who’s “losing” in politics that week. And this isn’t going to change any time soon because everyone involved is far too sure of their own indispensable relevance.

Consider this exchange on Fox News yesterday morning between Chris Wallace, host of “Fox News Sunday,” and Howard Kurtz as they discussed why Sunday shows still matter:

WALLACE: We probably get 4 to 5 million people that are tuning in on Sunday to watch our interviews. We either finish first or second almost every week in terms of total audience, and that’s a lot of people. And it’s a self-selecting audience. I mean, it’s an audience of opinion makers, opinion shapers, people who are deeply interested in the news—

KURTZ: And that’s why the shows are important and have relevance. Because of the rather elite audience.

WALLACE: Exactly. And, you know, you look at the Monday morning paper – not to say that that is our goal, I don’t think it is. But it does really indicate the degree to which the Sunday shows can still set the agenda for the coming week.

It’s hard to think of a more elitist description of your own relevance – I’m important because people I think are important think I’m important. That’s the Sunday show mentality, and it will persist regardless of who sits in the moderator’s chair.

By Simon Maloy

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