Sunday, July 01, 2007

Better Talking Heads

Staying in Washington when Congress goes home provides those of us who regularly observe the process to see what is usually excluded from public discourse. A case in point were the July 1 editions of two of the canonical "talking head" shows on Sunday morning television, ABC's This Week With George Stephanopoulos and NBC's Meet the Press.

These influential interview and panel discussion shows are must-see TV for Washington wonks and wannabes. News of the following week often enough resonates with the echoes of denials and reactions to statements by administration and congressional figures on these forums. The panel discussions often shape the thinking of time-pressed policymakers.

For example, inside-the-Beltway watchers knew Thomas Eagleton's goose was cooked when -- despite George McGovern's "1,000 percent support" -- a Democratic National Committee member told reporters on the Meet the Press that the Missouri senator should resign from the 1972 presidential ticket.

Nonetheless, these shows are pretty staid affairs, replete with men in suits trading conventional phrases. The interviewees are pros at dissembling and spinning and the panelists on the discussion round tables are the same tired pundits of always.

Imagine my surprise, then, on a sleepy Fourth-of-July weekend, to find George Stephanopoulos fielding the first all-female discussion panel I can recall. (See the video here.)

Here we had a female power team:
  • Cokie Roberts, NPR reporter, and as daughter of the late Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs and his wife Lindy, former Congresswoman and U.S. Ambassador, a hereditary Washington insider;
  • Donna Brazile, the longtime Democratic Party presidential campaign operative who unmasked George H.W. Bush's affair with State Department bureaucrat Jennifer Fitzgerald, Bush's denial of which I have never believed;
  • Ruth Marcus, the Washington Post's reporter covering the Supreme Court; and
  • Bay Buchanan, sister and former campaign manager of Pat Buchanan.
Admittedly, Buchanan amounts to scraping the bottom of the right-wing pundit barrel, but what can one expect on a slow weekend? Besides, Buchanan acquitted herself reasonably well as the voice of hard- ... OK, fanatical ... right-wingers.

Certainly, she's several notches above Charles Krauthammer, a Uruguayan-born yet bizarrely anti-immigrant hard conservative columnist who never misses the chance for a shot below the belt at his political adversaries. Bay is also plausibly more consistent than George Will, a grand salon conservative infamous for his Greco-Roman quotation researchers.

This was not all. The all-woman team scored presciently well and offered breezily fresh ideas.

Meet the Press, the staider and original of this kind with a TV history reaching back to 1947, offered two views and faces rarely seen on mainstream television:
  • David Brody, reporter for the Christian Broadcasting Network; and
  • Tavis Smiley, Public Radio International's talk show host and recently the moderator of the Democratic presidential candidates' debate before an African-American audience.
Brody hinted at likely challenges from unnamed evangelical leaders at the Republican convention if Rudy Giuliani makes it -- something no one in the mainstream press has even whispered about.

In discussing the rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Smiley became the first commentator to address the elephant in the room: Clinton, if elected (hell, even if nominated), will be making history. As will, more obviously, Obama.

Tim Russert, who hosts the show, would not be moved from the conventional dime. To him, Clinton has an "advantage" as a woman in a field of men.

What if we always had a variety of pundits, instead of just the white, male, centrist or conservative suits? What if a real diversity of opinion were aired every week?

Then we would never get back to business as usual in Washington.
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