At the conclusion of yesterday’s Meet the Press, temporary moderator Brian Williams made an announcement:
Beginning next week, my friend Tom Brokaw has agreed to step in as moderator of “Meet the Press”, to get us through this election season. We’re fortunate to have Tom not only, of course, as part of our NBC News political all-star team, certainly a big part of our “NBC Nightly News” family.
The news—which “we think will please loyal viewers of this great broadcast,” BriWi noted—delicately skirted its subtext: that Brokaw will be merely the interim fill-in for Russert. As in, temporary replacement. Yes, temporary. To be clear, as Brokaw himself told the AP: “The plan is for me to be in place until they can find somebody who can take it over on a permanent basis.” And as he reiterated to Howard Kurtz: “My job is to get us to the election and let Steve make a decision. I’m very happy to hand this off to the next generation of NBC News personnel.”
The oblique lines of Williams’s announcement, ironically, bring the Russert replacement rumors—their whisperings given Official Voice last week, in a pair of articles about the BriWi fill-in by the NYT’s Jacques Steinberg—more directly into our mainstream discourse. (Too soon, some say—see the angry commentary on the matter from NBC News president Steve Capus—but if there were a Seinfeld-like show focused on the social mores of the media world, it would apparently advocate one week as the acceptable amount of time to wait between the death of a newsman and the public discussion of his replacement.)
Much like its political analog, the Veepstakes, the Russert-heir buzz makes a worthy conduit for a Bigger Conversation. Just as the Veepstakes gives us a convenient excuse to round out the edges of a presidential candidate and extend our conversation beyond those edges—parsing both the policy stances and the personal qualities the candidate doesn’t himself necessarily embody—the Russert rumors provide an opportunity to talk about the trite but ultimately instructive question of what we want in our newscasters.
Each suggested Russert successor—Williams, Brokaw, White House correspondent David Gregory, NBC political director Chuck Todd, Andrea Mitchell, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough—embodies something that we want (and, sometimes, need) in the person who will come to represent the “press” in Meet the Press. Todd, for example (who many say was Russert’s own preferred heir), offers extensive and detailed knowledge of politics, but lacks the authoritative presence of, say, Brokaw. Williams offers panache and big-picture political knowledge, though he lacks the everyday-guy aw-shucks-ness that helped make Russert America’s Sunday-morning sweetheart. Matthews’s, Olbermann’s, and Scarborough’s strengths generally lie in opinion-giving, rather than fact-gathering; each offers a kind of bloviatory élan that has proven immensely popular with viewers, not just on MSNBC, but on other networks, as well. Which combination of qualities will fit the times and the show that, in may ways, represents them?
One of the more interesting questions begged by all this, as far as I’m concerned, is that of the NBC-MSNBC divide—or, put less euphemistically, the divide between straight news and opinion in broadcast journalism. You don’t have to be a daily watcher of Hardball or Countdown or even Morning Joe to know that that divide is narrowing literally before our eyes. Our notion of “authority” in news is shifting, its root moving slowly away from objectivity and toward the opposite pole of conviction; impassioned opinion-mongering is increasingly the mode du jour when it comes to broadcasting. (See the success of shows like The O’Reilly Factor and its left-wing nemesis, Countdown.)