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12.01.08

NBC Finally Stops Dithering and Picks Gregory

NBC finally stopped dithering and picked Tim Russert's successor at Meet the Press last night.

UPDATE: Huffington Post, Politico and others have reported that trusty inside guy David Gregory will get the job. The encouraging part of that is Gregory's penchant for ripping various Bush press secretaries a new one. Let’s hope he keeps it up on Sunday mornings and doesn’t let the format turn him into an establishment grandee. NBC has not yet officially confirmed.

The suits at NBC are doing far more agonizing over who should fill Tim Russert’s shoes on Meet the Press than Obama is over appointing his cabinet. They're taking more time over it, too. I guess that’s because the president-elect has something the NBC front office doesn’t have: self-confidence. Unlike him, they’re so terrified of making a mistake they can't make a decision.

That’s why they have tortured the long-suffering Tom Brokaw—who has gallantly occupied the transition chair—with a refusal to let him go back to his ranch in Montana and work on a book. Brokaw has done a stately job of holding the show together for the last five months but now that the election’s over you can see the boredom flaring from his iconic nostrils as he quizzes Senator Joe Lieberman or former Secretary of State James Baker while he waits for the brass to make up their goddamn minds.

One of the problems for NBC that was showcased during Russert’s media version of a state funeral in June is the way the chair of Meet the Press has become above all a Washington social and status position and only secondarily a journalistic assignment. Russert himself was not a journalist. He came from politics. His interviews either promoted his subjects or subjected them to opposition research. He was the Washington élite’s staff man, stoking their prejudices, whims, and attitudes. His regular-guy persona flattered the élite by making them imagine they were regular guys too.

There's been an Obama effect in every sphere of business from General Motors to network TV.

Russert’s key gotcha device was to produce those laborious read-along quotes chosen to expose the hypocrisy or flip-flopping of whoever was in the hot seat. But did these quotes ever elicit interesting answers? They were always so long the interviewees had time to compose whole paragraph-long rebuttals from their store of mental talking points. Brokaw hasn’t retired this device but the next incumbent should.

NBC seems to be paralyzed by the sense that whomever they chose has to be another Russert. Not so. Russert defined an era, but that era is over. It’s as if in the months since he died the hands of the clock have spun with accelerated speed, leaving us all with a desire for reinvention. There's been an Obama effect in every sphere of business from General Motors to network TV.

Meet the Press has to change not just the host but the show itself. It may be successful now, but the winds of change could suddenly engulf it as they have the giants of print.

Brokaw’s interview yesterday with Laura Bush—flanked as a safety measure by Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S., Said Jawad—was exhibit A in a form of TV whose day has passed. The only things viewers wanted to know from the First Lady were (a) what medication got her through the last eight years, (b) how it felt being married to a walking catastrophe, and (c) what she really thought about Michelle Obama when she came to the White House. If we really want to know about Afghanistan, is Laura Bush the first name that springs to mind? Wouldn't we rather hear from someone steeped in knowledge of the place who could advance our comprehension?

Anyway, TV isn’t about information, it’s about character—and characters. Lou Dobbs, your blowhard uncle. Bill O’Reilly, the overbearing bully at the office. Keith Olbermann, the guy who buttonholes you at the bar, makes you laugh, and then goes all serious and sincere on you.  The genius of Stephen Colbert is to understand that truth about TV and carry it to its illogical conclusion.

The Meet the Press panel needs fewer David Broders and more Christopher Hitchenses—irresponsible wits who can challenge the B-list senators and warhorse commentators who trundle on and download all that sonorous received wisdom. It needs fewer "Washington insiders" and more genuinely informed outsiders. (Fareed Zakaria last week did an electric  interview on his CNN foreign affairs show with the young Brit historian Niall Ferguson on the financial meltdown which was better than any slog round the course with Chris Dodd.) And for the top spot, how about going way outside the box? How about bringing in the cool forensic skills of a David Boies? Or the fresh intelligence of a web star like Josh Marshall or Glenn Greenwald? Or the political/policy smarts of a journalistic intellectual like the Guardian’s Michael Tomasky?

Or how about… a woman? Since NBC has not heeded my last suggestion to appoint either the unsung cable Rottweiler Greta Van Susteren or a reinvented, post-Palin Katie Couric, I say give Meet the Press to Rachel Maddow. She’s smart. She’s quick. She’s witty. She does her homework. And she listens to what the person she’s talking to is saying. She doesn't just go to the next question on her list.

If Obama is post-racial, Maddow is post-gender—divested of hair-frosted femininity in the anchor genre and more appealing because of it. Like him, she’s a calm, unflappable new era phenomenon. Sure, she’s a lefty, and in the past week she's been swinging away at Obama's cabinet choices, but I suspect she's ambitious enough to dial it back if she had to. (She also has that weird TV gene that’s so hungry for air time she’d probably insist on keeping her five-day job at MSNBC. Russert himself was on every show except Project Runway.)

But maybe this kind of seismic move asks too much of NBC brass. The president-elect himself has gone for retread professionals from the Clinton era to staff his own cabinet, but he appoints them with such firm bravura he makes them seem the obvious choice. Which brings us back again to the NBC standbys whose names keep popping up, people like David Gregory, Andrea Mitchell, and political director Chuck Todd. The rap on the smart, analytical Todd is that he’s not enough of a character, but he probably would be over time. As the years went by his goatee would become the characterological equivalent of Russert’s extra twenty pounds.

If all else fails and they want to keep it in the family, they can always recruit Alec Baldwin from 30 Rock. He’s not completely ignorant of public affairs. He’s already in the building. And he’s not just a character, he knows how to play one on TV.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown . She has written for numerous publications, including The Times of London, The Spectator, and The Washington Post.