Citizen cynicism and the softball insularity of “Meet the Press”


    In the midst of this frenetic holiday whirl, I’m flagging the news on the fly. Yesterday, I had just enough time to be stopped in my tracks by a passing remark on Meet the Press – a remark that framed the fundamental flaw of Sunday talk shows like Meet the Press.

    I doubt you watch that venerable NBC News institution. The ratings have waned over the years, in part, I suspect, because the show takes place inside the Washington bubble, which is heavily populated by the purveyors of conventional wisdom, and the same legislative gasbags week in and week out. A lot of the repetitive talking heads aren’t even in office anymore –  people like Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, Harold Ford Jr. (quick, name the last time Ford had a seat in Congress and did anything we care about). And perhaps worst of all, discredited dissemblers of the truth keep coming back, and are never called to account for their lies – Dick Cheney, of course, being the most noxious example.

    Anyway. Late in the hour yesterday, host Chuck Todd brought to the table three political satirists: performers Lewis Black and W. Kamau Bell, and writer Laura Krafft. I give Todd credit for trying something new; it beats having to listen to John McCain or Lindsey Graham again. Problem was, he kept suggesting that satirists like them are bad for America – that “the rise and popularity of political satire is creating a more cynical public citizen.” And, again, a few minutes later: “Should you guys be held responsible if people are cynical and think that government is broken?”

    Actually, a big reason for the cynicism is an insular show like Meet the Press, where people in power are treated with kid gloves, where dueling talking heads mouth predictable talking points that get us nowhere. Black basically said that. People are cynical, he told Todd, because they know that “Washington is increasingly in a bubble.” He then mimicked the typical Meet the Press guest babbling on and on – and marveled at the fact that Todd can just “sit there” without “barking” an assertive response to the BS.

    And in response to that, Todd let slip his big reveal:

    “We all sit there because we all know (that) the first time we bark is the last time we do the show – that, all of a sudden, nobody will come on your show. There is that balance.”

    Bingo. The show has to play it safe and be nice to its visiting bloviators, or else the bloviators won’t want to come back. Which explains why someone like Cheney gets indulged over and over, despite having lied on show – especially about Iraq, WMDs, and 9/11 – as far back as 2002. (Two weeks ago he lied yet again, insisting that U.S. tribunals never prosecuted Japanese soldiers for waterboarding Americans in World War II. Naturally, his lie went unchallenged.)

    Meet the Press is frequently lumped under the general heading of “liberal media,” but we’d be wise to ditch that canard and call the show what it is, a product of the “corporate media.” It’s a safe, centrist environ for people in power (and people who once had it), opining without fear of being seriously fact-checked, for a TV audience comprised mostly of affluent insiders who are coveted by corporate advertisers. That’s really the “balance” of which Todd speaks. It’s just one more reason why citizens outside the Washington bubble are so cynical.


    Speaking of broadcasts: I did WHYY’s Radio Times show earlier today, teaming for an hour with foreign affairs columnist Trudy Rubin to review 2014 and look ahead. It’s online here.


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