- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday morning + political talk shows + coffee.

The equation has been a vital ritual in Washington for six decades now, manned by a rarified fraternal order of newsmen who practice some very basic journalism.

It’s the David Gregory, Chris Wallace, George Stephanopoulos, Bob Schieffer hour of charm.

They ask questions, they get answers turning the well-coached politician or policy wonk into a genuine newsmaker, at least for a few hours, anyway.

The weekly format has remained essentially unchanged since NBC’s “Meet the Press” went on the airwaves in 1947. It remains the longest running TV show in history.

Yet in the frantic age of nonstop news with multiplatform delivery, the genre is no dinosaur. The combined audience of the Big Four is solid and consistent, and the shows continue to drive the national discourse and articulate issues of importance.

In media land, Sunday political talk shows are the ultimate survivors.

“I always felt that Sunday morning is the smartest time period on TV. The shows are still information driven. Our broadcasts are oriented towards making news and staying a step ahead. As my friend Tim Russert used to say, there are no bells and whistles. We sit people down, we turn on the lights, we ask questions,” said veteran newsman Bob Scheiffer, host of “Face the Nation” on CBS, which first aired in 1954.

The recent one-year anniversary of the death of Mr. Russert, who moderated “Meet the Press” for 17 years, was treated with great solemnity and poignancy by the Washington press community. They paused. There was self-examination and reflection as journalists remembered that Mr. Russert died of a sudden fatal heart event in his NBC office while preparing for his show. He died with his boots on.

“We’re going through a transition after the loss of Tim,” said David Gregory, who took over the role of moderator in December, ending months of parlor games and speculation over the much-coveted position. At any given time, a dozen high-profile names were bandied about in the news media. Who would fill Mr. Russert’s big shoes, they wondered?

Such things are not simple.

Some insiders said Mr. Gregory was too combative for the role, citing moments when he openly sparred with White House press secretaries during his tenure as NBC’s White House reporter in recent years. Others said his edge had been tempered by chatty, good-natured appearances on NBC’s “Today” show.

“Gregory is another journalist to rise through the ranks by bad-mouthing Republicans and defending the Democrats,” said Brent Baker of the Media Research Center (MRC), a conservative media watchdog.

But Mr. Gregory said he was “honored and deeply humbled” when he won the moderator derby. These days, he seems even more aware of the programs’ stature.

“This show has been an American institution, a treasured platform. I’m the new kid on the block, finding my voice, my comfort zone, trying to be faithful to what this program is all about,” he said.

Both the MRC and Fox News were also irked at George Stephanopoulos, who moderates ABC’s “This Week.” Reports surfaced in February that the newsman and one-time aide to former President Bill Clinton joined in on frequent strategy calls from the White House, chiming in with Democratic heavies James Carville, Paul Begala and Rahm Emanuel.

The MRC organized a petition against Mr. Stephanopoulos. He dallied with Democrats, the group said, “then presented himself as a credible journalist and nonpartisan commentator in reporting about the administration. Such a move crosses journalistic lines, is a clear conflict of interest and must be stopped immediately.”

Mr. Stephanopoulos said he simply keeps a steady eye on the task at hand.

“The expanding voice of the media, the flood of daily information it all makes our job that much more important on a Sunday morning. We have an extra responsibility to sift through that information and analyze it as sharply as we can. We want the audience to get a better handle on important issues,” he said.

There has been buzz, too, that ABC is beginning to edge up on NBC in the all-important ratings race.

“Meet the Press” has always been the top dog; it has placed first in 498 of the past 499 weeks according to the latest audience numbers from Neilsen Media Research. Yet Neilsen noted in late March that ABC had crept within 600,000 viewers of NBC, and its audience appeared to be growing.

Is something up?

“I have to give a ‘Bull Durham’ reply on this one. ‘Meet the Press’ is legendary. David’s a great broadcaster. But we’re going to give it our best shot,” Mr. Stephanopoulos observed.

“There’s competition. There’s no doubt that Tim’s passing has unsettled the landscape and viewers are still trying to figure out who to watch,” said Chris Wallace, moderator of “Fox News Sunday.”

Prognostication may have something to do with it, too. Each of the four Sunday shows has the same pool of newsmakers to draw from, the same blockbusters du jour to examine.

Much of the cachet in Sunday news hinges on that preparation, on divining big stories that have a decent shelf life or the issues that will still resonate with viewers when the coffee is cold and Monday morning looms. The practice was once called “news sense,” but exercising it has grown tricky in a media landscape that can be chaotic and fickle.

“It does create new challenges. Something is a very big story Monday or Tuesday and will have petered out by the weekend,” Mr. Wallace said. “When you do it for a while, you have a sense of what has legs. You get a visceral feel for what’s going to be hot, what’s building and diminishing. We still aim to make news on Sundays that helps set the agenda not only for Monday, but for the following week.”

Like news sense, dealing with the newsmakers themselves is also a tricky business. They are better at what they do. Deer-in-the-headlights moments on camera are rare, what with all the off-camera coaching. Guests show up with teflon-coated talking points. They’re telegenic, they can be slick and glib.

“There’s no question that in this universe of media ubiquity, politicians and policymakers are well trained and well prepped. We have to work that much harder to help viewers understand what’s going on,” said Mr. Stephanopolous. “One of the things people value about Sunday morning is the chance to join in extended conversation about a big headline or interview.”

Yet each of the newsmen must walk a fine line between being serious interviewer and suave emcee to ensure that they are not an audience distraction. That rule has been in place since the very beginning.

“The guests are still the stars, just like they were in the earliest days. And if we get a good interview out of them, we’ve done our job,” said Mr. Schieffer. “On cable TV in the evening, it can be about the anchors. It’s a whole different thing, and that’s fine. But on Sunday morning, the guest remains the focus.”

Indeed, style differs between broadcast and cable networks.

Sunday morning can be sedate compared to the traumas and drama on cable, where carping, yelling and whining are staples. Oh, there’s a little back-and-forth on Sundays. Gravitas, clever asides and occasional acerbic tittering are acceptable.

But the most desirable moment of all the piece de resistance is the Big Bomb, dropped with precision into the tight circle of erudite murmuring.

Maybe somebody’s running for president. Or not. They’re going to call for the immediate bombing of North Korea. Or not. Resignations, investigations, bold solutions or startling revelations can send the news cycle creaking forward a notch and provide fodder for almost unlimited commentary and spinoffs in the aftermath.

When the polished newsmaker is poised to drop the Big One, it is often done with great decorum, with a certain frosty, unblinking assurance. Emotions? Hah. These moments are presented as if they were already facts and often are void of any trappings that could undermine that impression.

The cunning Sunday moderator just sits back and lets it happen. But they also must ward off melees, affecting the old “voice of doom” from the Eric Sevareid era, keeping their guests on message, and on time.

“We don’t do it with all the screaming voices, the urgent deadlines. It might be a more civilized way for people to get their fix on what’s going on in the world,” Mr. Wallace said.

Some critics are vexed by the sameness of it all, however.

“We always refer to Sunday morning as the most segregated hour of broadcasting still left on the air,” said Carol Jenkins, president of the Women’s Media Center, a New York-based advocacy group. “We ask the same question. Where are the women, where are the people of color on these shows?”

When the search was on for a new “Meet the Press” host last year, the group organized a public effort to draft a female.

“These programs do what we call ‘stunting.’ They will have all women guests, or all black guests, and the viewers will say, ‘Oh, they’ve made progress.’ But next Sunday, it’s back to the same old thing,” Ms. Jenkins said.

The National Urban League, Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus have also complained about the lack of color in the Sunday morning talk landscape, particularly among guests.

Everybody has a point.

A Media Matters study in 2007 found that on all four shows, men outnumber women by four to one on average and whites outnumber blacks by seven to one. “Meet the Press,” the study found, “shows the least diversity of all. The NBC program is the most male and nearly the most white.”

Ironically, the show was co-founded 62 years ago by journalist Martha Rountree, who also hosted the program for the first five years.

“Meet the Press has always been an equal opportunity news program, with women playing a significant role right from the start,” NBC said in a statement on the issue.

Mr. Gregory senses a little change afoot, at least among the guests.

“We have a more diverse group of guests appearing now. The core is still politicians, policymakers and Washington insiders. But one thing that has not changed. The audience wants to see key officials have their feet held to the fire,” he said.

“Sunday mornings are not suited for the whole manly men genre alone,” said Mr. Wallace. “It’s suited for people who take politics and policy seriously and do their homework, and who are sharp, aggressive interviewers. And that knows no gender.”

All four of the moderators seem to have a higher calling, meanwhile, in touch with their inner scholars and well aware that Sunday mornings remain a bastion of discourse, reason and debate. Or they’re supposed to, anyway.

Aside from fancier sets or graphics, all four shows have resisted the siren call of confrontations and controversy, ginned up for the sake of ratings or notoriety.

“Somebody asked me if I planned to change what I do. And I said, ‘Are you nuts?’ I think all of us will do what we have always done, and that is to ask the good question,” Mr. Schieffer said.

“We’re not about getting the sound bite of the week, we’re taking on big complex issues that are ongoing, like health care or the soul-searching of the GOP. I don’t want to sound corny, but weekly ratings are not the focus. All of us are in it for the long haul, and for the big picture.”

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