How to save Meet the Press
Last Sunday, there was a panel on Meet the Press that perfectly embodied everything that is wrong with NBC's faltering Sunday flagship. The subject was marijuana legalization, recently endorsed by The New York Times editorial board. The panelists were (aside from host David Gregory): David Brooks, Times columnist; Ruth Marcus, Washington Post columnist; Judy Woodruff, co-anchor of the PBS Newshour; and Nia-Malika Henderson, political reporter for The Post.
Here are the sum total of the substantive comments: Brooks argued that maybe marijuana should stay illegal at the federal level to coerce teenagers into not smoking, but that state-level experimentation ought to be allowed. Henderson said that in Colorado, revenues are rolling in and crime is up slightly. Marcus agreed with Brooks and said early marijuana use slightly lowers IQ (which has been disputed).
The rest of the panel (all three minutes of it) was taken up with juvenile giggling and Pleistocene-era jokes about "what they've been smoking" and what "they didn't inhale." Woodruff was completely incoherent. Nobody mentioned, for example, that current federal law is pretty much flatly incompatible with experiments in Colorado and Washington (and thus that federal reforms are probably necessary to allow the state-level experiments to continue on a firm footing), or the effect the war on drugs might have on the immigration crisis, or even the millions of yearly arrests for marijuana possession, a policy that is blatantly racist in execution.
It was short, dull, clichéd, and barely touched the subject on hand. In short, a pretty standard Meet the Press panel in 2014.
Since David Gregory took over the show after legendary host Tim Russert died in 2008, its ratings have been steadily declining, going from first to last among the big three Sunday shows and reaching unprecedented depths last year. And segments like this are why: It has become completely worthless, neither informative nor interesting. (Gregory flubbed an earlier interview with Paul Ryan.) These days, Meet the Press is where you go to find the same dozen or so tired D.C. insiders blithely opine on stuff they know little or nothing about, and rumor is Gregory is on his way out.
That has led folks like Simon Maloy to propose junking the program altogether. He makes a good case, but I think the program might be rescued. To see how, we need to turn back to the old days.
What that doesn't mean is trying to find another Tim Russert. Truth be told, Russert the Elder was never that great. His shtick of searching through an interviewee's previous statements and confronting them with any discrepancies, though far superior to Gregory's brainless projection of elite D.C. conventional wisdom, was cheap at best and downright ridiculous at worst.
No, we need to go back to the very earliest incarnations of the show. Meet the Press is the longest-running show in broadcast history, and for the first several decades of its run it would have a panel of journalists that would interview some public figure (thus the title). I think you could update this old format for today's more tabloid-y age by putting together some real journalists (not columnists) on particular national beats with public officials and subject matter experts.
Here are a few examples, off the top of my head:
NSA experts Marcy Wheeler and Ben Wittes interview former CIA chief Michael Hayden and Edward Snowden on surveillance.
Drug policy reporters Radley Balko and Ryan Grim interview Washington State "pot czar" Mark Kleiman and DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart on drug policy.
Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates and economist Jared Bernstein interview Paul Ryan on his poverty plan.
Health policy reporters Adrianna McIntyre and Philip Klein interview Jonathan Gruber and Nicholas Bagley on Halbig.
Now, these are just off the top of my head. You may notice a bit of "one left, one right," but the point isn't to choose one person from each side, it's to pair journalists who care about and understand particular subjects with people worth interviewing, with the object of creating segments that are actually interesting and informative. And give each segment at least a half hour; one of the biggest problems with Gregory is how his format flits frantically from subject to subject without allowing anything interesting to develop.
You'd probably need a moderator too, to keep things on track. The usual stipulation is "white guy who has hosted a Sunday network TV show before," and of those people, Jake Tapper, is about the only one who's any good. Chris Hayes would work okay too, but he's probably perceived as too liberal by the network brass. If it were up to me, I would strongly consider a woman — it was a woman after all who started the show in the first place, and there hasn't been one since.
But for God's sake, pick somebody who isn't completely captured by D.C. elite ideology, and get rid of the dang columnists. Nobody younger than 50 cares what the aging D.C. pundit class (or John McCain) thinks about the news of the week. Get some fresh blood in there.