MEDIA DISSENT: The Most Over-Rated Talking Heads
Set Your Remote to Avoid These Folks
Philip Nobile is the editor of Judgment at the Smithsonian, which
printed the banned Smithsonian script on the 50th anniversary
of the Bombs of August in 1995.
In the red zone of TV political talk success is a badge of suspicion. A few good men and women make it to the top without selling off their body parts (e.g., Ray Suarez, Barry Lynn, Charlayne Hunter-Gault). But the road to stardom is paved with convention and compromise, thereby creating a batch of luminaries with "over-rated" written all over them.
Tim Russert is number one with "Meet the Press" against weak competition, especially from the sleepy "Face the Nation" and the floundering "This Week." The show's fatal flaw is its clubby closed shop. Russert features the same white talking heads Sunday after Sunday (e.g., David Broder, Bill Safire, Bob Novak, Mary Matalin, James Carville, etc.) while generally excluding minority views and voices. To be fair, Clarence Page has made token appearances in past weeks.
Despite refreshing aggression in selected interviews, Russert is often less a journalist than an advocate of the ruling class. Take last Sunday's donnybrook with Minister Louis Farrakhan. Though ill-equipped to fence with a master of race politics, Russert predictably mau-maued his guest with questions about his antisemitism, even bringing up a ten-year old quote about alleged Jewish control of black athletes, artists, intellectuals, and politicians. The aroused host wanted satisfaction, and for the second time, having thrown the same quote at Farrakhan two years ago:
RUSSERT: Why can't you bring yourself to say, "I apologize for being antisemitic. It's part of my past. I want to move on?"
FARRAKHAN: Oh, Mr. Russert, this is very comical. The question should be, "Is what I have said the truth?" And if it is the truth, I don't need to apologize for telling the truth. The problem is you want me to apologize for being a man. You want me to apologize for speaking the truth. You want me to apologize for being bold and fearless. But you have never asked those who have lynched us, those who have discriminated against us, those who continue to deceive us to atone for their evils. ... The only thing I really can apologize for is not for telling the truth but maybe for the manner in which I speak the truth. Sometimes my manner will be caustic and harsh and it is this that God, I believe, is purifying my heart.
With this riposte Farrakhan gained the high ground and knocked his inquisitor off balance. Nobody in Washington talks back to Russert that way. But the Minister was right about Russert's tribal favoritism. When Pat Buchanan was on the show two weeks ago, an apology was not requested for his antisemitic, anti-gay and anti-black history. Instead, Buchanan's sneering dismissal of gay civic unions and greencards for gay partners passed by without a follow-up peep. Utterly squelched by Farrakhan and sticking to his hostile script, Russert exited the conversation by repeating his inept, whiteboy question with the same embarrassing boomerang.
Hypocrisy factor: Preacher Russert has yet to apologize for his and his wife's ugly homophobic banter on Imus. When I offered him a chance to atone in Columbia Journalism Review, he refused to take my call. (See "In the Kingdom of Imus, The Courtiers Are Silent," July/August, 2000.)
Jim Lehrer, a pillar of the Archer Daniels Midland set, is a one-man quagmire of blandness. His performance at the presidential debates was to journalism what George Bush is to Camus. Despite the "Newshour" hiring of Gwen Ifill, Lehrer's talking head repertory sports the same cultural range as Russert's (e.g., Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss, Haynes Johnson, Mark Shields and Paul Gigot).
Worst Kept Secret: Lehrer's admission that he has no political opinions.
Chris Matthews was a contender. He's quick, knowledgeable, smart and funny, Russert without the buffalo. But he has turned "Hardball" into a speeded-up gangbang with guests as lowbrow as Jerry Springer and Rush Limbaugh whom he treats with utmost respect.
Greatest Danger: Getting pegged as the John McLaughlin of the twenty-first century.
Bill Press cannot lose when facing the dragons of Mary Matalin and Bob Novak on "Crossfire." But like every other person that has ever occupied his slot, with the exception of David Corn, Press is not a leftist but just another centrist. His range is limited by his background in California's Democratic Party.
Style Tip: More irony, less bombast. Your colleagues are natural Savonarolas. You are not.
The Cast of "Capitol Hill Gang," that is, Shields, Novak, Al Hunt, Margaret Carlson, and Kate O'Beirne. They bring almost two hundred years of punditry to the table every Saturday night on CNN and it shows.
The Beltway Boys, that is, Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke, Fox New Channel's answer to no known demand. I'd rather be stranded on a desert island with Leopold and Loeb.
Peggy Noonan, now a regular on MSNBC's election chow line, is sooooo dramatic in post-debate analysis that she appears to be auditioning for The Cherry Orchard. Her transparent bias toward George Bush is amusing for its intellectual contortions.
Mike Barnicle, the comeback kid of talking heads, is living proof of the vast white boy network that knows how to launder its own miscreants. Rising from the disgrace of plagiarism and false reporting at the Boston Globe, Barnicle currently flourishes at the New York Daily News and sits with his pals Russert and Matthews on MSNBC panels. None of which I would begrudge him if he had an idea that I had not already overheard in the Blockbuster checkout line.
Published: Oct 19 2000