March brought the end of MSNBC’s “Tucker,” the low-rated but spirited and quirky roundtable news show hosted by the once-bow-tied Tucker Carlson. I was awfully sad to see it leave the airwaves (full disclosure: I appeared on the program several times); it was a fun show that addressed the topics of the day without devolving into Lou Dobbesian agendas, Chris Matthews-like scream fests, Bill O’Reilly smears, or Wolf Blitzer droning snoozers. But I didn’t get mad about the end of Carlson’s show--cable television is, after all, a fickle mistress--until I saw its replacement: “Race for the White House,” hosted by President Bush’s favorite sparring partner himself, David “Stretch” Gregory.
After cutting his teeth on the O.J. Simpson circuit, Gregory began his White House press corps duties with the kind of gusto and drama rarely seen in the stuffy halls of power. Zachary Roth depicted a classic Gregory “hissy fit” in an otherwise flattering profile in this magazine last year in which Gregory famously called White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan a “jerk.” But Gregory has also initiated shouting matches in almost every exchange he had with White House Press Secretary Tony Snow and generally allowed histrionics to set the tone for his coverage. Despite his often piercing and on-point questions, this behavior has cemented David Gregory as a liberal-media-conspiracy incarnate in the eyes of conservatives and a kind of tough-questioning hero to many on the anti-Bush left. The conservative Accuracy In Media even started a letter-writing campaign aimed at shunning Gregory. But no matter your view--and no matter Gregory’s personal political beliefs--the decision to use the journalistic lightning rod further distances MSNBC from the cause of good political analysis.
It’s not hard to see the statement MSNBC is making: The frisky, Bush-tormenting Gregory is just the man to confirm the worst fears of conservatives everywhere and shore up any liberal bona fides Carlson may have cost the station. With flashy graphics à la Fox, sound bites spewed at an unnerving pace, and a dizzying constellation of floating heads orbiting Gregory’s own pate, the program looks more like an intergalactic “Nancy Grace” than the almost old-fashioned style of sitting down at a table with Carlson. Instead of the “Tucker” show’s use of analysts of every political stripe from every publication, think tank, or cause in Washington, “Race for the White House” relies on a stable of MSNBC regulars to regurgitate the opinions they have been expressing all day on other MSNBC shows. It’s a misuse of Gregory’s talents as well, which are better-suited to hard-hitting interviews than the crushing personality overload of “Race for the White House.” (Plus there’s this incredibly bizarre and somehow terrifying shot of the White House that is always hovering behind Gregory and drenched in Kool-Aid red; it’s like the Amityville White House.) Punditry: 1. Good discussion: 0.
Whatever bad memories you may have of Tucker Carlson’s “Crossfire” days, the most recent iteration of his show on MSNBC allowed him to return to expressing the kind of nuanced insight that first got him noticed as a young conservative writer. Carlson has certainly inflamed his share of liberals (among other things, he called the NAACP “a sad joke that should be shut down” and called Bill Clinton a “sanctimonious jerk”), but then he’s not exactly reliably conservative, either. In the olio of dependably left- or right-wing voices on cable television, Carlson went his own way--and it’s too bad the audience didn’t go there with him. He retracted his initial support for the Iraq war, believes gay marriage is good because the institution of marriage is good, is pro-life, anti-death penalty, and won’t abide any discussion of the sexual peccadilloes of politicians no matter what their side of the aisle. In the Obama parlance of our times, Carlson was “post-partisan.” It made him an excellent choice to exchange blows with opinion leaders on the topics of the day. Of course, this is also exactly why the iconoclastic Carlson doesn’t fit into MSNBC’s left-wing makeover.
Part of the reason the Fox News Channel is so thoroughly ire-inducing is that, under the guise of “fair and balanced,” the channel is nothing but a shill for conservative ideology. There are virtually no reported pieces, just mercilessly anti-intellectual punditry. Whatever one’s problems with CNN, it at least maintains a true interest in pursuing stories around the world as a journalistic enterprise--yes, with a full heaping of punditry and analysis to boot. But MSNBC is sticking to the Fox mold of cable news, matching their conservative punditry with its liberal punditry. “Race for the White House” is a lamentable thrust toward that end, a seizure of a show with little in the way of smarts featuring David Gregory, a good reporter but also an anti-Bush symbol to replace the sole conservative on the MSNBC roster. Which is a shame--for journalists, for liberals, and most of all for an audience terrified by a looming giant red White House.
Sacha Zimmerman is Special Projects Online Manager for The New Republic.
By Sacha Zimmerman