It’s become justifiably routine to dismiss the five Sunday morning political shows as talking point amplification systems disguised as pressure cookers, to the point that we’ve somewhat mythologized the shows’ previous function as gatekeepers of truth. But two segments Sunday morning showed the heights and depths of the genre, and a quick study illustrates exactly where political punditry goes so wrong.
George Stephanopoulos’ masterful interview of Indiana Governor Mike Pence (R) is the closest any major host has come recently to what might be called Russertism: an informed, sustained unspinning. Pence approached the interview prepared to blame the media, his political opponents, and anybody else he could think of; in a word choice that bordered on trolling, he said he was there to “clarify.” But Stephanopoulos kept focus on the issue at hand. The bill’s supporters clearly felt it allows businesses to claim a religious exemption from serving gays and lesbians. Does it?
Stephanopoulos asked Pence that question, by my count, six times. In fact, he never asked any other. He didn’t focus on optics; he didn’t focus on the political fallout; he didn’t ask how it would affect the 2016 GOP primary, or Pence’s own potential presidential ambitions, or whether it would give Democrats ammunition against the GOP, or any other side approach that would allow Pence a chance to duck or deflect. Stephanopoulos simply asked, over and over again, whether the bill was discriminatory in effect, exposing Pence’s dodges for what they were. Stephanopoulos was able to hoist Pence upon his own petard: if Pence wanted to “clarify” the bill, why wasn’t he taking this opportunity to do so.
He even got Pence to say some statements he’ll probably want back — among them that the LGBT community is seeking “preferential rights,” a canard from the days when it was easier to score political points off gays and lesbians than it is now, and that people questioning the ramifications of the bill simply “didn’t understand it,” quite a statement for someone who wouldn’t answer yes or no questions about it.
It was a devastating interview, one that should only increase pressure upon Pence to amend, rather than simply clarify, the bill. Which is to say it not only extracted truths the interviewee wanted kept buried, but might alter the legislation going forward. You couldn’t ask for a better measure of impactful television.
Over on Meet the Press the exact opposite occurred. A panel featuring mostly professional pundits considered the latest development in the Hillary Clinton email story, and ended up yelling, to the extent that it was impossible to make out any of what the three or four people talking were trying to say. It got so bad even host Chuck Todd could no longer control it. Yet for all that hollering, no real point was made; whether anything was learned depended on what you knew of the story going in; whether any side was advanced or defended depended upon your ideological preconceptions.
Why was it so bad? For starters, the survey style necessitated by a panel, in which each member gets a separate question they must answer as quickly as possible before someone else interrupts, structurally abdicates the sort of sustained examination Stephanopoulos carried off. It may be great for creating a pull quote, but it also provides a quick exit for anyone who wants to avoid a question; you simply need to run out the clock, something Pence was unable to do.
There’s also the inherently political nature of Todd’s questions, which focused on the potential refraction of the story through the media on hypothetical elections twenty months away. You could park a car in the room Todd gave Neera Tanden with his question, and she did. Contrast this with the exacting nature of Stephanopoulos’ questioning of Pence, which allowed him no wiggle room.
Last, the partisan line-up of the segment doomed it. Tanden is a professional Clinton defender; Scarborough is partisan talking head who was around for the Clinton impeachment. These two understand political issues as point-scoring, hence the persistent interruptions, the raising voices, the need for the last word. There are legal, ethical, and political issues at play in Clinton’s wiping her server clean; dispassionate experts could have been found to speak on any one of those factors. Instead we got a food fight. Given the above factors, a food fight was almost inevitable.
This is not to say This Week is better than Meet the Press — indeed, the former holds weekly panels as well — or to say anything about the development of the latter in its post-Gregory phase. It’s merely to remind that these shows have value — when they’re allowed to.
Watch the two segments below:
Clip via ABC’s This Week:
Clip via NBC’s Meet the Press:
[Image via screengrab]
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