To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Is David Gregory 'Too Jewish' For 'Meet The Press' Or Just Clueless About Catholicism? Let's Ask Jeffrey Goldberg

According to a recent report in the Washington Post, last year NBC News “undertook an unusual assessment” of Meet The Press host David Gregory, hiring a psychological consultant to interview his friends and even his wife in order to determine what might be behind MTP’s profound slide in the ratings.
The rather odd, deeply personal examination of Gregory, which has been characterized as a “psychological intervention” comes amidst a long decline in MTP’s popularity relative to the other Sunday newsmaker shows.
When Gregory took over in 2008 after the death of long time host Tim Russert, MTP had a whopping 40% lead on its nearest competitor, with an especially strong share of the critical 25 to 54 year old demographic.
Six years later, Gregory’s MTP is in the basement behind ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopolous and CBS’s Face The Nation hosted by Bob Shiefer, and is especially unpopular with that key 25-54 group. 
The show has responded to the ratings crash by replacing its longtime executive producer Betsy Fisher Martin with Rob Yarin, a veteran media consultant. According to the Post, Martin had differed with Gregory over “matters of style and substance.” With Yarin aboard, show segments are shorter and there are now video segments from the field, one of which is called “Meet America.”
MTP has also upgraded its online offerings, mostly with a series of short Q&A interviews  called “Press Pass.” 
The tweaks, largely designed to appeal to the young folks, don’t seem to be working. The Post pointed out the irony that the host of the number one rated “Face the Nation, is Bob Shiefer, who is 77 years old.    
The idea of interviewing Gregory’s family and friends was “to get perspective and insight from people who know (Gregory) best,” as network spokeswoman, Meghan Pianta, put it. Jack MacKenzie, an executive with Magid Associates, the company where Rob Yarin worked until coming to MTP, told the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove that using the discipline of psychology to help an on-air personality would hardly be exotic. Writes Grove:

The relationship between someone on television and a viewer in their living room is a complicated relationship.” MacKenzie said, noting that Magid has trained psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists on staff. “Our work has found historically that the more someone is perceived to be themselves on television, the better the chance they have of connecting with the viewer….If you can get more information about how David can be a better David, that makes sense. 

Instead of helping Gregory look inward to locate his missing mojo, NBC might more profitably spend its time and resources questioning whether Gregory has the gravitas, and the common touch, needed to appeal to the middle register of American society. It's not as much that Gregory is disconnected from himself.  It's that he, and the show, are disconnected from the concerns of the audience, and what it expects from serious journalism.   

Unlike Tim Russert, a working class Catholic from Buffalo who’d been New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s top legislative aide on Capitol Hill, Gregory comes across as a hothouse flower, an inside man who has spent his entire career at NBC News--- and doing so inside the Beltway. His on-air presence lacks depth and authenticity; his interviewing style is both shallow and unchallenging, especially compared to the determined way Russert used to nail guests who tried to wriggle away from a question or shift the focus of a debate. Russert was on television to practice journalism. As it's often been said, Gregory is on TV... to be on TV.
NBC might also benefit by examining the roster of prominent journalists who join Gregory for a  “roundtable” discussion of that week’s news developments and the way Gregory uses these panelists in the discussion itself---which ones he calls on, the questions he puts to them and what they have to say. Gregory not only introduces the conversation in journalistically reductive, clich├ęd ways, he can sometimes call on discussants who are ill-suited to answer the question he has posed to them.
Case in point: last Sunday’s discussion of the Catholic Church and the significance of the double canonization in Rome that very morning. Besides setting up the discussion with a reference to the Church’s “pedophilia problem,” which was inappropriate and snarky, Gregory turned to Jeffrey Goldberg, the show’s resident expert on the Middle East, for insight and analysis.
There are questions whether Goldberg should be MTP’s go-to guy on the Middle East. Although he has been called the “official therapist” of the US-Israeli “special relationship” Goldberg functions more as a shomer, the Hebrew word for a tribal guardian or defender.  He became a dual US-Israeli citizen after moving to Israel in the 1980’s,  serving in the Israeli Defense Force as Israel demands of all its citizens. Although he told a magazine interviewer last year he was going to renounce his Israeli citizenship, he won’t answer questions about whether he followed through, raising issues of credibility and transparency. Goldberg has also declared an emotional and ideological commitment to Zionism and has a long record of bullying and smearing as anti Semitic anyone who challenges his own view of the “special relationship,” especially if they are critical of the role that the Israel lobby plays in favoring the interests of the Jewish state over the broader national interest. Goldberg says his devotion to Israel hasn’t affected the integrity of his reporting. But it’s hard not to read the 2002 New Yorker piece he did on Saddam Hussein’s ties to Al Qaeda and to Saddam’s alleged WMD programs, which was cited in the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq, without noticing the Israel-centricity of Goldberg’s reporting--- and how wrong that reporting ultimately was.
But even if you don’t have problems with Goldberg’s regular presence on the show for analysis on the Middle East, you have to wonder why Gregory would call on him for perspective and insight on such a resonant Catholic event as a double canonization when Goldberg, a Jewish-American/Israeli, has no expertise at all about Catholicism or Church politics and in fact has belittled the Church in print in the past. And for Gregory to call on Goldberg while right across the roundtable was Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review, a magazine popularly regarded as the nation's foremost conservative Catholic publication. And to not let Lowry get a word in edgewise on that particular topic, even though he, above and beyond anyone at that table, had the qualifications to do so.
An odd journalistic reflex on Gregory’s part. And it's all the more strange for the way that another roundtable guest, Mallory Factor, an expert on the role of religion in American politics, affirmed the importance of the Catholic vote for both political parties. And for the way Gregory closed the show as a whole with a reference to his own Jewish background, recalling a memory of something spiritual he said he once heard in synagogue when younger.
Of course Gregory could have simply lost track of Lowry in the shuffle, especially when pressed for time at the end of the show. But I wonder whether Gregory might have a blindspot for the concerns and sensitivities of a sizable bloc of viewers---i.e. Catholics--- which is as important to network television ratings as Mallory Factor rightly observed it is to the “ratings” of Democrats and Republicans. 
According to a report in the Daily Beast from 2011, Gregory has “immersed himself in a midlife study of Judaism” which has “changed his life.” Other magazines have noted that Gregory and Goldberg are members of a Torah study group in Washington, along with such other journalistic luminaries as the New York Times’ David Brooks and the New Republic’s Franklin Foer as well as former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren and Martin Indyk, the former US Ambassador to Israel who lived in Israel before emigrating to America and working for AIPAC. Goldberg brought Gregory to this year’s AIPAC conference, introducing him to prominent Jewish and Israeli political and religious figures.
I have absolutely no problem with Gregory’s spiritual quest, nor with Goldberg playing the role of guru in their Beltway bromance. But for the spiritual and religious questions he raises for discussion on MTP, Gregory should look outside his somewhat insular ethnic circle. Goldberg doesn’t have all the answers---not nearly.