Can the Sunday shows get better?

March 21

In the Washington media world, there’s no more rarefied spot, both for the host and the guests, than that of the network Sunday morning shows. So why are they so predictable, and predictably boring?

Most members of Congress would kill to be interviewed on one of the shows, since getting such an appearance instantly brands you as an important person whose opinions are worth listening to. But “Meet the Press,” the oldest and most venerated of the shows, has been struggling of late, falling behind “This Week” and “Face the Nation” in the ratings, leading to some rumors about David Gregory’s future. But as Michael Calderone reports in the Huffington Post, the network is “doubling down” on Gregory as it tries to gingerly step its way into the digital world. The problem, though, is what they put on the air every Sunday.

There’s a conceit about the Sunday shows, that they hold the powerful accountable. It’s where “newsmakers” come to be raked over the coals, unable to escape the probing queries of savvy and unrelenting interrogators. But it’s awfully hard to watch the shows and believe that’s true. What happens instead is that the powerful come on the shows, and the hosts try (and almost always fail) to trap them with various kinds of “gotcha” questions, which the powerful handle by returning again and again to their carefully planned messages. The result, even for those of us who love listening to and talking about politics and policy, is remarkably tedious.

In this, Gregory is no less ineffectual than his predecessor Tim Russert, who was in his day the most powerful journalist in Washington. Russert adopted a pose of faux confrontation while seldom asking truly probing questions — his favorite technique was to find something the interviewee had said years ago that contradicted the position they currently held, then challenge them on their hypocrisy, an accusation that was invariably swatted away with ease.

So what could the Sunday shows do to improve? Let me make a couple of suggestions I know they’d never consider. First, ban all party chairs, White House communication staff, party “strategists,” and anyone else whose primary objective is to spin from ever, ever, ever appearing on the show. Ever. To ask a question I’ve raised elsewhere: Has anyone anywhere in the United States turned off their TV and said, “Wow, that interview with Reince Priebus was really interesting”? Of course not, and the same applies to his Democratic counterpart, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. That’s because their job is to deliver talking points, and they do so with a discipline worthy of the Marine Honor Guard, no matter what questions they’re asked. And they get plenty of time on cable, so why waste valuable minutes on a Sunday show by letting them repeat the same talking points they’ve recited 100 times that that week?

And while we’re at it, why not go farther and cut down the interviews with elected officials and candidates by three-quarters or so? I’m serious. When was the last time you saw a truly edifying interview on a Sunday show with a senator or member of Congress? If you want to talk about what’s going on in Ukraine, I could hardly care less what John McCain (the shows’ most frequent guest) thinks about it, and I doubt I’m alone. He knows next to nothing about the situation, and as a minority party senator with almost no support among his colleagues, he’ll have precisely zero impact on the outcome of events. So how about, as a first rule, the people you bring on should 1) know as much as possible about the things you’re going to discuss, and 2) have little if any interest in spinning?

That’s really not a lot to ask. The producers have a whole week to put together the show. They could find all sorts of interesting people who could speak to the issues of the moment. They could get an eloquent and dynamic professor who studies the area, or a group of journalists who have reported from there, or former diplomats who can explain the international dynamics. But no. Instead it’s, “Well, let’s just bring on McCain and Durbin again, so we get the Democratic view and the Republican view.” The result is a program that’s predictable, boring, and doesn’t teach anyone anything.

In fairness, the Sunday shows do, every now and again, interview someone who actually has something interesting to say. But those are the exceptions. “People have seen a lot, they’ve heard a lot,” Gregory told the Huffington Post, “but the program is still a place where they want to sit back and hear, ‘What does it mean? And where is it going? And how does it work?’” That would be wonderful, but you seldom get that from them.

The Sunday shows have the audience and the prestige to be great. But week in and week out, they’re lucky if they can ascend to mediocrity. And nobody involved with them seems to have an inclination to change what’s worst about them.

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Greg Sargent | March 21