David Brancaccio on Self-Serving TV News, Jon Stewart Comparisons, and Being a Bill Moyers Pod Person

David Brancaccio (Courtesy “NOW”)

David Brancaccio joined PBS’s weekly newsmagazine, “NOW,” in the fall of 2003 and will take over for Bill Moyers as the show’s host beginning next month. Brancaccio spent 13 years at NPR’s “Marketplace,” first as the European editor and then, for a decade, as host. He has contributed to CNN, CNBC, and “Wall Street Week with Fortune” on PBS, as well as the Wall Street Journal and other print publications. He is author of the book Squandering Aimlessly.

Liz Cox Barrett: Bill Moyers, whom you will shortly succeed, is regarded as a one-of-a-kind progressive voice in TV news, helming a show that, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has been “TV’s toughest observer of the Bush presidency” and often a lightning rod for liberal bias complaints. Do you see your role as carrying on this aggressive progressive banner?

David Brancaccio: I can tell you this: The “NOW” team would be a tough observer of any presidency. Speaking truth to power is not a partisan issue. Mixed with our signature interviews is our hard-edged journalism and we’ve seen to it that the investigative work will continue in 2005. If a different member of a president’s cabinet is annoyed by our reporting each week, so be it. Public scrutiny is one of the prices of winning power in America.

Here is the key issue for me: I am trying to get people involved in their democracy so that they marshal their resources to make the country and the world a slightly better place. I am not trying to get one candidate or another elected.

LCB: In last week’s Village Voice you said that one reason Moyers brought you on board is your “ability to speak to a younger generation in its own semi-ironic tongue.” You also hinted that you strive to bring something of Jon Stewart and his “Daily Show” to “NOW.” Seems that’s what a lot of people have in mind for the ideal news anchor, a Jon Stewart sensibility — the Los Angeles Times made a reference to this yesterday in light of Tom Brokaw’s departure, and, back in October, the Times’ Patrick Goldstein actually called Jon Stewart “[Bill] Moyers’ unlikely soul mate.” So to your mind, what does this entail/how will you accomplish this?

DB: We will do it in part by relishing our topics and speaking in plain English. When I think of a goal for myself, I don’t think of Jon Stewart, fabulous as he is. I think of those few great professors in college who engaged the folks sitting around the seminar table with smarts, wit and an enthusiasm for new ideas. It’s the teacher who takes the topic seriously but not himself all that seriously.

LCB: With “Marketplace,” you tried to make business news interesting for a general audience, to bring in listeners of varied backgrounds. Is this something you will also try to do at “NOW,” to attract new sorts of viewers (perhaps younger, more diverse)? Apart from taking some plays from Jon Stewart’s playbook, how will you go about doing this?

DB: Enough with the Jon Stewart, already. I’m guessing Jon has also hit his limit on his name being invoked in discussions of the future of news. It’s a sign of how far things have tumbled. I’m betting no one asked Dan Rather when he took over from Uncle Walter in 1981 how much he was going to borrow from the playbook of SNL’s “Weekend Update.”

In 2005, “NOW” is going on the road. We will get away from the anchor-in-the-cloistered-studio stuff. The idea is for me to sit with a diverse set of women and men in neighborhoods across the country where issues and policies hit home. This simple principle of journalism led to some of my best work on “Marketplace” and “NOW.” You may recall my broadcasts about the problems and promises of globalization from a hair salon at a truck stop along Route 66 in a Missouri town called Cuba. In addition, it cheered me up to be able to put out a press release saying we were going to broadcast live from Cuba, without mentioning which Cuba.

LCB: “NOW” has done its fair share of media criticism — including criticism of the political press. Since you joined, there was a story about local TV stations failing their obligations to cover local politics. Moyers has criticized the press’ handling of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Where do you see that the political press went wrong/what did they miss during the presidential election? And where should reporters be looking during the second Bush administration?

DB: On the next four years: For Democrats a key issue is why when I visit a place like Buffalo, New York I meet economically struggling families who believe the Republican Party offers the best bet that they can get ahead. For Republicans, who now have it all, there is a different problem. Who can the conservative movement blame now when things go wrong?

As for the news media and coverage of politics: American journalism has, to a large extent, lost the ability to press senior politicians directly for the truth. Remember the correspondent for RTE in Ireland who asked tough questions of President Bush early in the campaign? The White House, apparently, was taken aback that her questioning was so firm, and reportedly complained through official channels to Irish authorities. Take a look at the questions British Prime Minister Tony Blair has to field from reporters on a regular basis. The questioning is very direct, Blair can take it, and the public is served. I have long admired broadcaster Jeremy Paxman in Britain who once asked the same question fourteen times to a politician until he got a straight answer.

Why can’t the American media be more tenacious with senior politicians? Because our viewers, listeners, and readers may not let us. They no longer believe journalists operate in the public interest. Television news is a major reason for this. Watch a newscast salted with supposed “news stories” hawking some reality TV show elsewhere in the network’s schedule and you get a sense of why the audience doubts we are engaged in noble work. We too often are seen as self-serving.

LCB: The New York Times ran a column yesterday by Maureen Dowd about the “anachronism” that is the white male news anchor, in which Dowd refers to Tom Brokaw’s successor, Brian Williams, as a “Tom pod person.” How, if at all, are you a Bill pod person and how are you not?

DB: An Italian-Jewish guy like me from Maine who majored in African Studies and was born during the 1960 presidential primaries is never going to fill the “pod” of a great Texan who was there with the president the day the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed into law. But Bill Moyers also has a career using broadcasting to help us understand what is important in life and what it all means, and that is a tradition I feel I’ve honored during my 28 years in the business and stand ready to continue to honor as “NOW” moves into 2005.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.