Journalism has always been intertwined with entertainment, but a few enterprising souls have been particularly gifted at turning the news into diversion. Chief among them was McLaughlin, host of The McLaughlin Group, who died today at age 89. A former Jesuit priest who defended Richard Nixon during the low point of Watergate, he became famous as the bombastic, mercurial news show host who quickly jumped from one topic to the next as he badgered his colleagues. Countless movies, including Independence Day and Watchmen, turned to McLaughin when they needed a cameo from a journalist.
Writing in The New Republic in 1986, Jacob Weisberg caught what was both positive and negative about McLaughlin’s legacy:
John McLaughlin is a television genius. His show is wonderful entertainment. But with its gimmickry and phony drama, its relentless emphasis on who’s up and who’s down, its pointless predictions and rankings of everything from one to five, “The McLaughlin Group” has contributed materially to the trivialization of Washington journalism. And being on programs like “McLaughlin” has become the measure of success for political journalists. “Appearing in print with good stones and being paid a good salary is no longer enough,” says Walter Shapiro of Newsweek. Everything is seen as being hopelessly tawdry and middle class if it’s not an entry to being on TV.” Although journalists get to speak only 30 words instead of crafting l,000 into an essay, most of the ones I spoke to mentioned that what they say on “McLaughlin” is quoted back to them more often than what they write.