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Inner Circles

by Russ Baker

November, 2000 / / December, 2000

Columbia Journalism Review


LENGTH: 2692 words

After a month of Sundays with the news programs, a reporter finds himself semi-informed and greatly in need of some fresh political air

Like the good westerner that he is, Dick Cheney was up early the morning of August 27. But he wasn't out riding, hunting, or fishing. He was diligently answering questions from his Wyoming home via satellite with Tim Russert of NBC's Meet the Press. Later that morning the newly anointed GOP vice presidential nominee made himself available to rival networks' political interview programs -- CBS's Face the Nation and ABC's This Week (other Bush spokespeople appeared on CNN's Late Edition and Fox News Sunday). Whether Cheney really wanted to do this -- and he sure looked like he'd rather be gargling vinegar -- he was well aware that no serious candidate for high national office can afford to skip the circuit. The Sunday programs may air when most Americans are in bed, at church, or at brunch, but they play a key role in defining the nation's political discourse.

"They're the most serious efforts left at the networks to do public interest news," notes a former NBC News president, Lawrence Grossman. They are watched, at least occasionally, by one-quarter of "highly likely" voters, according to a study commissioned by The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Yet it's the quality, not the quantity of their audience that gives the Sunday news programs their clout.

Together, they attract news junkies across America, as well as a loyal audience of political insiders along the Washington-New York power corridor, people who can pick apart a politician's performance with the deftness of a master sushi chef. "Sometimes you glean things, you see who is better at spinning," says Richard L. Berke, the New York Times political reporter. Berke got his first inkling that Cheney might not be a big plus for the Bush ticket after watching him on three of the shows: "He was on the defensive. He had nothing proactive."

In offering what amounts to a review of the prior week in politics, the Sunday programs have the potential of illuminating some of the complicated issues behind the evening news's sound bites. But what turns on the very attuned may not be all that useful to the ordinary American who wants help in making rational choices on election day. To see how close they come to realizing their potential, I watched all five programs each Sunday during the month of August. This was not a scientific survey, nor is it projected as formal research, but I did get quite an education. Just not the sort I was expecting.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the five interview programs is how similar they are. Considering that they are competitors, one would expect the shows to strive to distinguish themselves. But like candidates jostling to occupy the political center, the Sunday broadcasts seem to expend a lot of time tramping in the same woods. They compete to bring on the guests who are closest to the center of the week's political events or white-hot controversy. Interviewing newsmakers is a fundamental task of journalists. But by cleaving tightly to that formula, these programs risk becoming co-opted by the public relations juggernauts that steer today's politics.

That is true much of the time, but it was amplified in the heat of a presidential campaign. In August, the programs' budgets heavily leaned to politicians, their campaign managers, spokespeople, and surrogates, all merrily spinning the message of the week. David Bianculli, the New York Daily News television critic, says the spinners remind him of a performance on the old Ed Sullivan variety show. A juggler would start a number of plates spinning on sticks, then run around keeping them in motion: "On election day," Bianculli says, "whoever has the fewest broken plates wins."

The programs do elicit a measure of insight and candor. But all five Sunday interview shows displayed an excessive tolerance for spin, a frequent failure to follow up a good question with another good question in the face of obfuscation; and to keep the conversation focused on matters of lasting import.

Maybe part of the problem is the programs' eagerness to try to elicit "news," or at least a notable quote that might be picked up by the newspapers on Monday morning when editors are starved for copy. A hunger to make some news has been apparent since the first Sunday interview program, Meet the Press, debuted in 1947, when the fledgling medium of TV news was eager for publicity and validation from the traditional print outlets. Av Westin, a former ABC News executive, now a Freedom Forum fellow, believes that TV news still suffers from a "massive inferiority complex."

Today, it is common to see snippets of Sunday programs airing on the same network's evening news, and even on competitors' broadcasts. The programs watch and cite each other, the candidates track and challenge one another's on-air performances, and the whole enterprise has the feel of a sealed system, living on its own exhausts when it should be letting some fresh air into the political arena.

During August, the players in the rotation included Donna Brazile and William Daley (campaign manager and chairman of the Gore campaign), and Karl Rove and Karen Hughes (Bush's chief strategist and communications director, respectively). They are, as is usually the case with the guests on these programs, professional spinmeisters. And they have their own need to generate news -- headlines that reflect their agenda.

No matter who was appearing on which program, there was often an air of complicity between the journalists and the guests. Howard Rosenberg, the Los Angeles Times television critic, describes the pact this way: "We've got time, we've got space, you've got a message to deliver, so let's get together."

The lets-get-together spirit was detectable on August 6. ABC's Cokie Roberts, going through the motions of trying to learn who Gore's vice presidential choice would be, posed this coy question to campaign chairman Daley: "John Kerry, like Al Gore, went to St. Albans, [an] exclusive prep school here in Washington. So did Evan Bayh, another person on the so-called short list. Do you think there's a constitutional provision that you can't have two people from St. Albans on the ticket?" Daley appeared amused at sharing a joke with the daughter of two former members of Congress, one who herself attended an exclusive high school. But when Roberts then wondered about the possibility of a woman on the Gore ticket, asking whether one dark horse might be "a filly," Daley summarily cut off further questioning. "I think we ought to probably just end this whole speculation," he said. "It'll be over soon. We should get on to other things."

On CNN's Late Edition, Wolf Blitzer quizzed Daley about why the Democrats would consider John Edwards, the North Carolina senator, for the vice presidency, when his entire experience in government was limited to seventeen months in the Senate. When Daley lamely cited the former personal injury lawyer's "life experience," Blitzer did not press him further.

Yet follow-up is critical in this format. When moderators throw out thoughtful questions or zingers, the well-primed guests often offer the stock response from their inventory that most closely matches the question -- and that advances the campaign's message-of-the-week. They often answer a question that wasn't asked. On August 6, Fox's Tony Snow challenged Rove about the Bush campaign's implicit message that Gore inherits the questions about character that always trailed President Clinton. "Let's be honest, aren't there real differences in their personal behavior?" The spinmeister simply converted the premise: "No, there's no difference between them as far as the tone that they want to set in Washington." With no resistance from Snow, he continued to answer a question, about Gore/Clinton policy similarities, that had not been asked, instead of the one about character differences.

Easy as pie for guys like Rove. Andrew Tyndall, publisher of The Tyndall Report, a newsletter that monitors nightly network newscasts, notes that "the interviewees are so well-rehearsed and drilled that they'll give new information if they feel like giving it -- if they want to provide the guy with a scoop. But if they don't want to, they won't. And it won't matter how you ask the question. The newsmaking function is in the hands of the guests, not in the hands of the journalists."

Clearly, some formats work better than others. On August 27, Tim Russert sought to explore differences between the Gore and Bush tax plans through an impromptu debate between Senator John Kerry and Representative John Kasich. Many industry observers describe Russert as the best of the Sunday morning hosts. He is prepared, and he makes effective use of lead-ins and video clips that can force guests to face up to prior statements. But in this case, Kerry and Kasich both proved so masterful at self-serving spin that we never got close to learning which tax plan was better for which Americans.

Later that morning, CNN's Blitzer found a better way to get at an answer: borrowing from print. He displayed a graphic from the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche (as published in Time), showing that low- and moderate-income Americans save more under the Gore plan, while the wealthiest taxpayers benefit heavily from Bush's. The numbers left the Bush representative, Senator Chuck Hagel, saying he hadn't seen the study -- but finally falling back on a more controversial, interesting, and probably more authentic statement of conservative philosophy: that those who pay the most should get the most back.

On his August 20 program, Russert sought to draw attention to Gore's spending plan and its reliance on a rosy economic forecast. How, he asked chairman Daley of the Gore campaign, could the candidate base a budget on expected surpluses yet oppose privatizing Social Security as "too risky?" Aren't both dependent on a strong economy, and therefore risky? Credit Russert with a good try, but these are complicated matters, and this quickie stab involved comparing mangoes and kiwis. No concession emerged from Daley and no new understanding of Gore's fiscal model.

On August 27, along with CBS's Bob Schieffer and ABC's Sam Donaldson, Russert took Cheney to task for some of the Bush campaign's assertions that the U.S. had lost its edge in military readiness. Bush had claimed that two army divisions were not prepared for combat. But the hosts were able to cite statistics and contrary assertions from high-ranking military figures, that these divisions are indeed combat-ready (and always were). Cheney tried to squirm out of this, but was unable to dispute that the Bush campaign had in this case relied on some outdated information.

Notably less effective were Donaldson's efforts on August 13 to raise legitimate questions about Senator Joseph Lieberman's ties to the very same pharmaceutical and insurance companies that the Democratic ticket was bashing on the campaign trail. Lieberman expertly deflected the inquiry, saying that while there were differences between his and Gore's approaches to patients' rights, they were not big and would be resolved in private. Donaldson never pursued the issue to find out how Lieberman felt about the influence of such companies and their contributions on officials such as himself. Nor did he expand the discussion to the larger, more important issue of campaign finance reform.

Faced with such well-coached guests, the most important thing a moderator can do is press for specifics and challenge inadequate answers -- in short, follow up. Russert, who comes from a background in politics, is one of the best at follow-up. But in August it seemed to be Fox, periodically accused of journalistic bias and sometimes not taken seriously, that showed a bulldog's tenacity.

In one particularly good exchange on August 6, Brit Hume asked Rove how Bush (who made much of his dislike for "negativity") could insist that he was not attacking Clinton when he talked about "restoring honor and integrity" to the White House. Rove spun. Hume fired again: "But 'restoring' implies you're bringing something back that isn't there. Is that not inescapably a reference to Bill Clinton?" When Rove began to repeat his previous answer (a sure sign that a reporter is onto something) Hume jumped in again: "But how can it be anything else? And what's wrong with saying it?" Overall, Hume proved the most aggressive, persistent, no-nonsense host and demonstrated a willingness to listen carefully to his guests and respond accordingly.

ABC's polite, amiable, almost familial Cokie Roberts was consistently ineffective on follow-up questions. During a short interview with Ralph Nader, she asked the consumer advocate about criticism that his platform stressed economic issues and corporate power to the exclusion of more controversy-provoking matters like guns, abortion, and gay rights. Nader offered a short and incomplete reply, but rather than follow up, Roberts moved on to another question, and then declared herself to be out of time. The program was not really out of time, but was moving on to other, softer portions of the broadcast -- including a pundit discussion of how a focus group liked Tipper and Karenna Gore.

In fact, there is usually plenty of time to either grill the spinners at greater length or offer more substantive analysis. The NBC, ABC, and Fox shows are all sixty minutes long; CNN runs ninety minutes; only CBS squeezes the political give-and-take into a half-hour. What eats up a lot of this time are the discussion among the journalists and pundits themselves, which are sometimes valuable for their insights, often less so.

On August 13, for example, Donaldson wanted his pundits to explain Gore's supposed inability to persuade the public that he is his "own man," and Bush's greater effectiveness at image projection. If you think about it, those questions are just as much about the media and the nature of image-shaping -- including image-shaping on Sunday morning -- as about the candidates.

These programs are probably not prepared to accept the thought that they may be part of the problem. Protesting the media's persistent emphasis on Gore's style rather than his substance, Jack Germond, a Meet the Press regular, asked on August 20, "Why does he have to be scintillating? Why do we have to be theater critics?" Instead of responding to the substance of the complaint, host Russert shot back "Jack Germond, how about the kiss?" (a reference to the Al-Tipper post-coronation smooch). And the delighted pundits were off and running.

Not all are the same. I used an informal system to help my evaluation, weighing the quality of questions, follow-through, demeanor, preparedness, thoroughness, and substance. Brit Hume was the most impressive. A well-prepared Tim Russert followed, with the rest grouped more or less together, except for Cokie Roberts, who has work to do.

As a steady diet, the Sunday interview programs have a certain eat-Chinese-food-be-hungry-an-hour-later quality. The bottom line is, while they are intermittently entertaining and sporadically penetrating, they ought to be better: demanding clearer, more accurate answers, halting spin in its tracks, and taking the time to tease out an issue and increase understanding. The hosts, commentators, and producers could invest more resources in researching claims and creating effective visuals -- including charts and graphs -- to illustrate the relevant facts. They could decide which issues matter and raise them energetically and relentlessly rather than be chained only to the utterances and events of the previous week. Newsmakers are a necessary part of the diet. But the programs could risk putting on some wise but less recognizable observers and analysts to escape the spin cycle. Most of all, they could recognize the central role that the media have played in freezing ordinary citizens out of American politics, and start asking themselves a few tough questions.

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