Meet the 21st Century Press

Tina Brown thinks that NBC needs to update the flow on the dominant Sunday morning show:

Russert’s key gotcha device was to produce those laborious read-along quotes chosen to expose the hypocrisy or flip-flopping of whoever was in the hot seat. But did these quotes ever elicit interesting answers? They were always so long the interviewees had time to compose whole paragraph-long rebuttals from their store of mental talking points. Brokaw hasn’t retired this device but the next incumbent should.

I never really hated Tim Russert the way some people did, largely because I tought there were a lot of peopl who were far worse than Russert, and at the end of the day Russert at least understood politics to be somewhat informative in the right format, but this strikes me as being a very important point. Russert’s patented “gotcha” was not only rather ridiculous in that it was easily dodged by the talented kind of politician who attains the high offices that give you real access to power, but because the underlying premise that public officials can never change positions over time, was downright dangerous in its implications.

Not to defend abject flip-flopping, but there’s nothing inappropriate over a politician’s opinions changing over a long period of time. Even if we don’t accept that people inherently change, conditions most certainly do, and policies that may have been improper 10 years ago might be proper today and vice-versa. One of the highlights of John Edwards’s campaign was pointing this out;, when asked why he supported universal healthcare despite having opposed it in 2004, he said simply that the state of the country had changed, and it was necessary now. On some level, you’d think that that kind of blunt response might have challenged the foundation of the gotcha logic, but that would have shaken the very foundation of Russert. As Brown points out, television news is still television, and television has to have characters. Which is great for the networks’ ratings, but not necessarily the best way to get your news. And while the press certainly needs to be “tough” on politicians, they ought to do that in ways likely to enrich their audience, instead of in ways designed to create controversy tha plays well on screen.