The Sunday morning talk shows once played a vital role in American politics. Shows like “Meet the Press,” “Face the Nation” and “This Week” used to facilitate opportunities for news-making interviews that would set the national political agenda.
Now fans are criticizing such shows for being too gossipy or hosting the same guests repeatedly, and these once influential programs might be dying out.
NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the way politicians and journalists are altering their use of Sunday morning programs.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW.
And it's not uncommon for those Sunday political talk shows to make news that sets the agenda for the week, but this week started with news about talk shows themselves, specifically NBC's "Meet the Press" with David Gregory, which has dropped to third place in the ratings behind ABC's "This Week" and CBS' "Face the Nation." The show has been struggling ever since David Gregory took over for the late Tim Russert, who died back in 2008.
NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik is here to talk more about "Meet the Press" and the other Sunday shows. David, welcome.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Jeremy. Good to join.
HOBSON: Well, let's start with "Meet the Press." And as we said, David Gregory replaced "Meet the Press" who was known as a tough cross-examiner on the show. I want to listen to a little bit of classic Tim Russert. This is from 1991. He is grilling the former KKK member and congressman, David Duke, who is running at the time for governor of Louisiana.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
TIM RUSSERT: Mr. Duke, please. In terms of economic development, the condition of your state, how many people in your state live below the poverty line?
DAVID DUKE: A great percentage, sir. We have the highest per capita percentage in the country just about - about the last five states of the country.
RUSSERT: How many?
DUKE: I don't have the exact numbers in front of me, sir. Sir, I don't carry around an almanac with me. I could guarantee you...
RUSSERT: Well, if I told you it was 25 percent of your state lived below the poverty line, would you believe me?
DUKE: I could believe you. Yes, sir.
RUSSERT: Aren't these the kinds of things the governor should know: who the largest employers are, how many people live below the poverty line?
HOBSON: David Folkenflik, is it possible that anybody who replaced Tim Russert would have lost in the ratings, that that style of interviewing just doesn't exist out there in the landscape today on television?
FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. No. I think pretty much anyone was guaranteed to lose that, in part because of the dynamic nature of Tim Russert. I mean, think of what we just heard there. There was a guy in an unusual moment, David Duke, an unusual candidate to be sure, but a moment at which Tim Russert was essentially serving as an arbiter in saying I'm going to referee the validity of this guy as a person fit for public office in a way where the parties were not quite capable of doing.
You know, David Gregory arrives at a time where, you know, the three shows combined on the major networks, the major old broadcast networks, if I'm not mistaken, themselves have about what Russert earned on his own in terms of an audience. So it wasn't going to be the same. We live in a more fractured age, and that takes place both on TV and other platforms as well.
But Gregory just doesn't have that same commanding presence. He doesn't quite have that same zest for the game. And there's a question and a conversation going on not only around him in the media space, but at his own network and his own employer whether he can be relevant, provocative, timely and meaningful enough to really carry the mantle of what is TV's oldest continuously running show.
HOBSON: Well, let's listen to him. Here's David Gregory interviewing Glenn Greenwald last year, the journalist who broke the Edward Snowden story on NSA spying. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
DAVID GREGORY: To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn't you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?
GLENN GREENWALD: I think it's pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themself a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies. The assumption in your question, David, is completely without evidence, the idea that I've aided and abetted him in any way.
HOBSON: David, that is probably the exception rather than the rule in terms of the style of interviewing that David Gregory does. Is that your sense?
FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. No. I think you've got it exactly right. And I think - I'm really glad that you played that clip. I mean, that was a moment in which Gregory at minimum wanted to be heard asking something that sounded like a very tough question. He was asking Glenn Greenwald, then of The Guardian, who helped lead, you know, that British and now American news organization to share in a Pulitzer for its exposure of stuff the NSA was doing, thanks to disclosures from Mr. Snowden. And, you know, he used aid and abetting, which has a legal meaning to it.
Certainly, there have been some conservatives, some national security hawks, that have accused The Guardian and The Washington Post of doing that, in a sense, of helping Snowden. But saying that really is - notion of that somehow journalists are acting in an espionage role, and that seems far and wide of the mark. And in reality, although it sounds like a tough question, what it's really doing is serving as a protective shield for uncomfortable questions that people in the national security sphere, in the Obama administration and in the Bush administration before it, questions that they would rather not have to answer for.
So, you know, it's one of these moments where in seemingly carrying out a journalistic enterprise and all people are open to all kinds of questions. But in seeming to do that, you know, what Gregory's actually doing is protecting the forces of the establishment in government at that moment when they should be the ones, in some ways, most held to account.
HOBSON: But one of the things that I have noticed about David Gregory's show, and I watch it occasionally, is that he has tried to get out of the inside-the-Beltway conversation at least to some extent and talk about other issues as well. He, of course, is from Los Angeles. But I remember Christiane Amanpour coming into ABC's "This Week" when George Stephanopoulos left to go to "Good Morning America" before he came back to the show. She tried to do a more international show, and it didn't work. Do people just want these inside-the-Beltway, Republican-Democrat back-and-forth conversations on Sunday?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think part of the problem is that that formula that you're describing is very tired. I don't really want to see the head of the DNC and the head of the RNC, the two party chiefs, as it were, you know, offering their kind of ritualized binary partisan talking points. It just doesn't do anything for me, and I'm somebody who is very interested in politics. I can't imagine that the public at large, which can get things from Firedoglakes and RealClearPolitics and The Weekly Standard and any number of other sources, really thinks that's going to be that fresh and new.
You know, by the same token, I do think opening it up for other topics, domestic, foreign, you know, the idea of confusing federal news is the only definition of national or domestic news is a mistake, right? It should be incorporated. But, you know, and David has tried some other things. He does this thing, Tweet the Press, where he sort of poses questions online.
But, you know, the freshest thing that I saw in this regard was when Jake Tapper was substitute hosting for a stretch on "This Week" for ABC News. And he incorporated PolitiFact's fact checkers where they come after the fact and fact-check the assertions made by various guests on the show. I thought that was real breath of fresh air. Of course, Jake is now an anchor and host on CNN. He left ABC more than a year ago, and to me, that was the biggest innovation, and that was some time ago.
I think that you're going to have to have a combination of the question of approach, of really shaking up the kinds of guests that you invite in and not simply trying to shake it up so that you have more incendiary statements on the air but perhaps different kinds of insights and different kinds of dissections, not necessarily these binary arguments that I think often don't yield that much.
HOBSON: Well, and a lot of people have been tweeting about this today about the idea that these shows, which used to have maybe one long interview or two long interviews in the whole hour now have turned into five minutes of this, then 10 minutes with the panel, then five minutes of this, then 10 minutes with the panel. They've broken up, gotten a lot different just in their format. David Folkenflik, NPR media correspondent, thanks so much as always.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.