Sunday, December 7, 2008

"Meet the Press" gets a new moderator, but it's still stuck with its 60-year-old format

The new moderator of "Meet the Press" -- the successor to the late and venerated Tim Russert -- is David Gregory. Gregory is articulate, well informed, convivial and probing. When he feels he's being spun, he can be waspish. Early on, President Bush gave him the White House Press Room nickname "Stretch," in recognition of his 6-foot-5 height. But after what Bush seemed to think was one too many assaultive questions, he cut the NBC correspondent down to size with the new nickname "Little Stretch."

Given all his qualities, Gregory would seem to be destined to be a successful successor to Russert. But is that what's desirable? Astonishingly, "Meet the Press" has changed very little in its 60 years. The format is (usually) a top government official being grilled by the moderator. Russert pumped some new life into the creaky format by displaying sometimes embarrassing and even contradictory quotes by the guest (in block letters or even video), and then, prosecutorial style, asking the quotee to explain.

Transitional "Meet the Press" host Tom Brokaw did just that Sunday morning with President-elect Barack Obama. But Obama knows how to cool down the hot seat. Brokaw tried to get Obama to say something for the record about whether he supported a "pre-packaged bankruptcy" as a condition for federal loans to General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Obama, shrewdly, refused to step into a trap that would launch a flurry of stories that would force him into defensive explanations over several days that undermined his President-elect maneuverability. When Brokaw persisted, Obama just kept moving the issue to other areas of discussion.

I don't see how Gregory will be able to extract much more from his subjects. He is, of course, younger (38), hungrier and more energetic than Brokaw (who, in his 68th year, would prefer to be fishing in Montana) and, as he's shown at Bush's White House press conferences, can throw some sharp darts when he thinks he's being spun. But Obama and his communications-savvy team will be ready for the darts. Other potential "MTP" guests, Democratic or Republican, also have learned how to cope with the "gotcha"-tuned format.

"Meet the Press Executive Producer Betsy Fischer should use the transition from Russert to Gregory to take the program to a whole new level that reflects the radical changes that have come to how the media and the public relate in a world where the consumers of news can be producers as well. "Meet the Press" is, to be blunt, out of date with its 60-year-old format. One obvious post-Russert change it could make would be to display not only the sometimes embarrassing or contradictory quotes of the interviewee, but comments by "MTP" viewers, who would be invited to contribute their thoughts as the program is being broadcast live Sunday morning. Those on-the-fly comments would give Gregory a rationale to be persistent when his subject tries to change the subject -- as Obama did, and successfully so, with Brokaw Sunday.

Uinterview -- whose subject is the entertainment world -- is one example of how to turn passive audiences into active, and productive, participants -- no green room required.

Maybe "Meet the Press" needs a new name -- "Meet the Press & the Public."

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