So Chuck Todd is taking over the helm of Meet the Press. Dylan Byers and Hadas Gold claim that Todd will have to prove that “a morning news show can still set the national agenda.” They describe the challenge this way:
Viewers expect more than political trivia from Sunday morning shows — they want a program that goes beyond the recitation of familiar talking points, network execs believe. Americans already believe that the political press corps is too cozy with the politicians it covers. They are hungry for someone who can hold their guests’ feet to the fire, they say.
Mark Leibovich, the author of “This Town,” a chronicle of Washington coziness, has said Russert’s success lay in his ability be “distinctive and combative.” “If you were a politician of serious ambition,” Leibovich wrote, “an invitation to his set was your rite of passage and your proving ground.”
If Todd hopes to restore even a semblance of Russert-era gravitas, Leibovich said, he will need more than just passion and smarts.
“Chuck’s obviously smart and ‘loves the game’ and all that. So did Russert. But Russert was also dangerous,” Leibovich said. “No Sunday host is remotely considered ‘dangerous’ these days, Chuck needs to make himself dangerous — dangerous, for starters, to the talking point whores who see Sunday invites as a ‘platform to get my message out.’”
As someone who would rather sit for three root canals in a row than go on TV for three minutes, I don’t pretend to have any idea how to make a show like Meet the Press work. But I’m not sure this diagnosis gets at the true nature of the challenge here.
The problem with the comparison to Russert is that it doesn’t quite get at just how much the landscape of political media has changed in recent years. These days, people who are looking for sources to aggregate and interpret political news for them — to tell them what they need to know and what they should think about it — have an enormous array of choices at their disposal. That’s an obvious point, but what is perhaps less broadly reckoned with is the nature of the choices people have. Far more so than in Russert’s day, they can go to interpreters and aggregators who share their preferences for policy and political outcomes — who share their preoccupations and hopes and political passions.
In other words, they can get their political fix from TV shows and websites and blogs whose purveyors openly care about what actually happens in politics, just as they do. Sure, you can’t beat the quality of the reporting that comes from the top news organizations, but all of these other sources have gotten really, really good at aggregating from all of that reporting to deliver to them the news they really are going to care about. And many of these sources also do their own reporting, which, crucially, is focused relentlessly on answering the specific questions their own communities want answered, in a way big news orgs just can’t.
This transaction is often derided by traditional journalists, as if it represents nothing more than rigid partisans getting told what they want to hear by equally rigid partisans who happen to have a platform. In reality, what’s really going on is that conversations are taking place that are organized around shared passions about politics. All indications are that people like getting their political news this way. For these and other reasons, the High Oracles of Political Media just don’t carry the sway they once did. Meet the Press is just no longer Mount Olympus.
No question, there is still a huge appetite out there for straight-up numbers crunching and nuts-and-bolts interpretation of electoral politics, and at this, Chuck Todd is as good as they come. But the fracturing of the political media has also created hyper specialization in this area, too, in the form of web sites and verticles focused on deep electoral and policy analysis, offering still more competition and complication.
What’s a Sunday show to do? As long as the Sunday shows remain constrained by conventions that require the High Oracles of Political Media not to openly care who wins elections or whether this or that enormously consequential legislation does or doesn’t pass, they will face extremely stiff competition from those who are allowed to care openly about these things. No question, Chuck Todd is deeply passionate about politics. But in the Sunday setting, caring about actual outcomes — the lifeblood of political passion — is still pretty much off limits.
So, perhaps the only hope is to break as much news as possible, make it all as informative as possible, put on a great show, and hope for the best! Okay, that’s not terribly groundbreaking. But luckily, I don’t have to solve the problem of restoring Meet the Press’ eminence and omnipotence. Chuck Todd does. Good luck, Chuck.