Free Rein

Greta Van Susteren Serves Up Softballs in MSNBC Debut

New channel, same Greta—in her first show since departing Fox News for MSNBC, Van Susteren brought back her patented ideology-free approach with John McCain and Reince Priebus.

01.10.17 6:00 AM ET

It’s way too early to render a definitive judgment on Greta Van Susteren’s new MSNBC show—the 6 p.m. lead-in to Chris Matthews’s Hardball—but Softball might not be a wholly inaccurate title.

The former Fox News host, who was one of Roger Ailes’s more zealous defenders before her abrupt departure from the right-leaning cable channel amid a contract dispute (and her later expressions of regret for publicly supporting the disgraced and defenestrated Fox News founder and questioning the motives of his sexual-harassment accuser, fired anchor Gretchen Carlson), seems a tad rusty after four months off the air.

“Remember me? I’m baaaa-aack!” the 62-year-old Van Susteren opened the Monday night debut of her Washington-based program, which is actually titled For the Record and is a reasonable facsimile of On the Record, the show she anchored for more than 14 years on Fox News. Indeed, the show’s percussive theme music is urgently Fox-like, and Van Susteren’s new studio is in the same building near the Capitol as her Fox News show, but on a different floor.

And in contrast to MSNBC’s reliably left-leaning, Trump-hating prime-time lineup—featuring Chris Hayes, Lawrence O’Donnell, and her unlikely drinking buddy, Rachel Maddow—Van Susteren is apparently attempting replicate her previous success with her patented ideology-free approach, a safe space for political actors of different stripes who might reasonably hope for respectful treatment from an experienced practitioner of access journalism (and maybe even lure some of her old fans from Fox News).

On Monday’s premiere, Van Susteren provided a conflict-free, relatively newsless hour, punctuated by too much boosterism for the Green Bay Packers, the Appleton, Wisconsin, native’s fave football team. There were also fulsome congratulations from her A-list guests, notably Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain; Reince Priebus, the incoming chief of staff of Donald Trump’s White House; top Barack Obama aide Valerie Jarrett; and, by phone, former Packers quarterback Brett Favre. Van Susteren allowed them free rein to mouth talking points—and, in Priebus’s case, tell a whopper or two—without the sort of sharp challenge one expects from a tough-minded anchor.

“You’re one of the true professionals I’ve had the opportunity of dealing with,” seven-term senator McCain flattered Van Susteren, in a typical bout of opening-night brown-nosing. “It’s an honor to be on your first show.”

Amid seemingly endless cheerleading for the Cheesehead team’s quest for Super Bowl status, Van Susteren let fellow Wisconsinite Priebus skate away from the serious ethical issues attendant to Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s senior White House adviser role in light of Kushner’s substantial real-estate holdings and deal-making ambitions. “It’s being combed over by lawyers,” Priebus offered in the pre-taped interview. Meanwhile, she didn’t bother to ask him, let alone press him, on whether accused plagiarist Monica Crowley will be permitted to become the senior strategic communications official on Trump’s National Security Council.

And despite the conclusions of an unclassified U.S. intelligence report that Russian cyberattackers, ordered by Vladimir Putin, hacked the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign to disseminate embarrassing emails via WikiLeaks and tilt the election to Trump, Van Susteren permitted Priebus to repeatedly blame the victims and claim that DNC officials recklessly refused to return the FBI’s allegedly frantic phone calls. (In fact, DNC officials met with FBI cybersecurity experts and, according to multiple press reports, the law-enforcement agency knew for months but delayed informing the DNC that it was being targeted by Russian hackers.)

Van Susteren, who tried and failed to get Priebus to agree that Trump’s constant tweeting is imprudent and “potentially dangerous” (“You can’t really communicate effectively in 140 characters,” she argued), didn’t demand to know why the outgoing Republican National Committee chairman is so darned sure that the Russians didn’t also acquire politically damaging emails from the RNC but simply withheld them to protect their preferred candidate. (When President Trump takes issue with Russian policy goals and starts to irritate Putin, we might finally get a solid answer to this intriguing mystery.)

McCain, a plucky 80-year-old, repeated his well-known worries about Putin’s meddling in American democracy, although he denied that it had affected the outcome of the election, and suggested: “Vladimir Putin happens to be one of the richest persons in the world—why don’t we reveal the sources of his wealth?”

“What’s stopping them?” Van Susteren asked.

“You are asking the wrong guy,” McCain demurred.

At another point, McCain expressed confidence that if Trump refuses to listen to reason about the Russian mischief and deploy aggressive counter measures, his designated secretary of defense, retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, and his choice for homeland security secretary, retired Gen. John Kelly, among other patriots, won’t stay silent.

“If they don’t think the right thing is being done, they won’t stay,” McCain predicted.

Van Susteren never clarified whether the senator has read the classified version of the intelligence report—which presumably contains the evidence for its conclusions that the unclassified version conspicuously lacks. And despite a later segment on the nuclear-missile ambitions of North Korea—featuring a journalist and George W. Bush-era ambassador—Van Susteren passed on the chance to make real news by asking the influential McCain his views on the subject.

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Similarly, in a ho-hum segment with Jarrett, she settled for rosy-scenario platitudes from the Obama loyalist—banging on about “the peaceful transfer of power”—and didn’t try to draw her out on what must be the departing administration’s deep distress over the current president’s successor.

The phone call from Favre—who Van Susteren insisted was “a surprise guest”—seemed staged to demonstrate what a warm and cozy friendship the diehard Packers fan enjoys with the retired quarterback and members of his family.

But Van Susteren was, at least in one respect, a refreshing departure from egomaniacal anchor mode during her inaugural star turn on MSNBC: She was apparently genuinely more interested in her guests’ answers than in in her own deftly elaborated questions, and the choice of camera shots, featuring a dearth of movie-star close-ups for the host, seemed to underscore the point—a potentially promising element, going forward, as the new show finds its feet.