Chuck Todd took over Meet the Press barely a month ago, and already the chattering class is nattering for his head. Apparently, the Goateed One is no miracle-worker, and the program remains in third place, behind ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos and CBS’s Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer.
But is it really possible that Jon Stewart could have saved NBC News’s ratings-challenged public affairs program? It seems NBC News President Deborah Turness believed so. According to a fresh report in New York Magazine, before settling on Todd—NBC News’s former White House correspondent and host of MSNBC’s Daily Rundown as well as the news division’s longtime political director—she desperately wooed the Comedy Central star to take over the broadcast network’s signature Washington Sunday show.
After politely considering the idea, Stewart declined, the magazine reported.
In some ways, the maelstrom of gossip still swirling around MTP’s future is reminiscent of (stay with me) a famous fable from the Torah. When Moses was a baby on Pharaoh’s knee—or so the story goes—he playfully snatched the Egyptian monarch’s golden crown, prompting a very alarmed Pharaoh to put his surrogate son to the test.
Two bowls were set before the infant—one containing gold and jewels, the other hot coals. If Moses reached for the riches, Pharaoh and his soothsayers reasoned, it would prove that he was a threat to Pharaoh’s reign, and must immediately be put to death. But if the little tyke grabbed the coals, he’d be allowed to live.
The baby was naturally attracted to the bowlful of gold and jewels, but an angel intervened and pushed his hand to the other bowl. He grasped a glowing coal—ouch!—put it to his lips, and burned his tongue. But, even with a pronounced stutter for the rest of his days, Moses survived.
Perhaps David Gregory—the former MTP moderator who was fired after five-and-a-half years in which the show sank from first place to third—will explore the deeper implications of the Moses anecdote in the book he’s said to be writing about his spiritual journey in Judaism.
For now, however, Turness can be cast as Baby Moses and Stewart as the bowl of sparklies (leaving Todd, I suppose, the unenviable role of a pile of coal). According to the latest report—which relies on “three television sources with knowledge of the talks”—Turness and her team were so keen on scooping up the late-night satirist that “they were ready to back the Brink’s truck up.”
It goes without saying that much stranger things have occurred in the television biz. My attempts to obtain guidance from NBC News have been met with silence, and Todd emailed that he had “nothing to add”—hardly a denial.
Acknowledging the obvious, that Stewart is “not a traditional journalist,” New York’s Gabriel Sherman wrote that “he can be a devastatingly effective interrogator,” and theorized: “It makes sense that NBC would make a run at Stewart. The comedian-cum-media-critic possesses something that broadcast executives covet: a loyal, young audience.”
It’s palpably true that Stewart and his team of a dozen-odd writers have built The Daily Show into a powerful Monday-through-Thursday franchise at 11 p.m. It’s also the case that his regular audience skews young—80 percent of them between 18 and 49, according to studies—and that Stewart’s smart, satirical, and often hilarious commentary is frequently cited by other media outlets and serves as an agenda-setter for the liberal-elite punditocracy.
And, while most of his interview guests are authors and fellow entertainers flogging books, movies, CDs and TV shows, Stewart has shown that he can get up for the game—and make real, not fake, news—when he lands a big Washington fish such as the president of the United States or the secretary of Health and Human Services. Stewart’s relentless dismantling of poor Kathleen Sebelius and her weak defense of the botched Obamacare rollout probably led to her early departure from the job.
In my humble opinion, grafting Stewart onto a Washington Sunday show—a 67-year-old one at that—wouldn’t have worked. Indeed, the body would ultimately have rejected the organ transplant.
There’s no guarantee that Stewart would improve on Todd’s numbers. In terms of raw ratings, Stewart’s current late-night audience is often smaller than Todd’s Sunday morning audience. The Daily Show’s high watermark of 2.4 million viewers is around the same as MTP’s low, and significantly less than Face the Nation and This Week.
It’s also a stretch to assume that younger viewers who love to watch Stewart and his team of comedic performers at 11 p.m., four nights a week, puncturing gasbags and calling bullshit on hypocrites, while tolerating the very occasional substantive policymaker interview, could be prevailed upon to tune in on Sunday morning to watch him grill members of the House and Senate, Cabinet officials, big-city mayors and the other usual suspects that populate MTP and its rivals.
While Stewart enjoys a young and loyal late-night audience, the Washington programs enjoy an equally loyal, if diminishing, much older Sunday morning audience which expects and demands that their favorite anchors grill members of the House and Senate, Cabinet officials, big-city mayors and the other usual suspects that populate MTP and its rivals.
For older folks whose viewing habits are deeply ingrained, it’s probably too early in the day for bleeped f-bombs, dick jokes, or Stewart’s fluttery sendup of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham as Scarlett O’Hara. Why, they might even switch to amiable, Texas-accented, 77-year-old Schieffer, the television equivalent of comfort food.
From my two decades in the nation’s capital toiling for The Washington Post, I can confirm that it is a cliquish, even tribal, community—The Post’s legendary editorial page editor, Meg Greenfield, famously compared it to high school—and it is often baffling to outsiders who are unfamiliar with its customs and ceremonies.
Consider the case of Iranian-born war correspondent Christiane Amanpour, who, for a miserable 15 months, parachuted into town to anchor ABC’s This Week before returning thankfully home to CNN.
Stephanopoulos, Schieffer, Fox Television’s Chris Wallace (who anchors the fourth-place Sunday show), and especially the late MTP moderator Tim Russert—who dominated the Sunday show scene until his death in 2008—are all creatures of Washington, steeped in its folkways. Russert was a top Democratic Senate aide and Stephanopoulos worked for the Democratic House leadership before serving as one of President Clinton’s top advisers. Schieffer and Wallace are supremely well-connected journalists.
While quick on his feet, funny, pointed and well-read, Stewart is a Manhattanite through and through. (Okay, call him a Jersey boy who lives in Tribeca.) There is no evidence that he has either the inclination or the patience to immerse himself in the politically parochial culture of Washington; indeed, the opposite is the case (see his famously lethal takedown of CNN’s Crossfire.) Can you imagine him happily presiding over a pundit panel, a Sunday show staple, teasing out the policy prescriptions of Joe Scarborough, Peggy Noonan and David Axelrod? I can’t.
So, for all the above reasons, and probably a bunch more, it’s a good thing that Deborah Turness, aka Moses, reached for coal instead of glitz. But whether she can lead NBC News to the Promised Land is another question entirely.