Someone (probably a journalist) once said: “Journalists make the best company.”
David Gregory, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press” and longtime NBC White House correspondent, certainly was “good company” when he spoke to about 500 people at Seattle’s Town Hall on Sept. 21, at an event sponsored by CityClub.
(Full Disclosure: The Washington News Council was a co-presenter of the event, so I got in free, had an information table in the lobby, and handed out invitations to our annual Gridiron West Dinner. Was I co-opted? You decide.)
Gregory was charming, funny, engaging, informal, low-key, down-to-earth, sometimes provocative and occasionally enlightening. Just the kind of guy you’d like to have over for dinner — or at least have a glass of wine or a beer with.
Before a crowd of fairly friendly fans, being “interviewed” onstage by Jean Enersen, KING5’s iconic anchorwoman (who asked mostly softball questions), Gregory seemed to relax and enjoy himself.
Known as “the firebrand in the front row” when he was covering President
George W. Bush as part of the White House press corps, Gregory is now staking his claim as the likable-tough-guy successor to Tim Russert on “Meet the Press.” Like Russert, Gregory regular nails his guests with embarrassing quotes and clips from their past, demanding that they explain themselves on the air before a national audience.
But I sometimes wonder whether Gregory – or any journalist, for that matter – could stand up to the same kind of tough questioning about their own job performance. How solid were their decisions under pressure? What mistakes did they make? What biases influence their work? Do they confess when they are wrong and apologize? Do they ever show humility? Journalists love to hold others publicly accountable, but who holds them publicly accountable?
Enersen’s first question set the tone for the evening. Noting that Gregory was “so tall” (he’s 6’5”), she asked: “Why not the NBA? Why politics?
Gregory quipped: “I could have played baseball, but I just fell a little short.” (Laughter.) “My career in journalism started out with a love for the news….I wanted to cover the world and was really drawn to the big stories.”
Enersen asked if he “missed being the firebrand in the front row?” Modestly, Gregory said: “No. I did it for a long time.” Then he declared: “This [Meet the Press] is the ultimate front row. This is the ultimate job….We try to set the agenda. We try to move the story forward. We try to make news – and we do.”
In response to Enersen’s pretty bland questions, Gregory had some pretty bland answers:
On the economy: “This is not just a downturn…. There’s a deep psychological wound…. It may be a generational change….I think there’s a lot of people who are angry….People are just really uncertain….There’s a lack of optimism, a fear of the future.” (Anybody disagree?)
On the Tea Party: It’s a “populist, conservative, small-government, anti-Washington [D.C.] movement,” upset with “bailouts” and “too much deficit spending.” Also: “And a real antipathy toward Obama that in some cases is racism.” (Easy to say. Any clear evidence?)
On Barack Obama: “Certainly President Obama is not as popular as he would like to be – or as he was expected to be.” Gregory said Rahm Emanuel told Obama that he “had to get close to Bill Clinton,” and Obama did that. “President Obama is not going to be big enough to call on President Bush all that often.” (The guy he blames for everything?)
On political “polarization”: “We’ve always been polarized,” and that is “compounded by a media culture that has become increasingly polarized….I just don’t feel like constructive engagement with the other side is something that’s celebrated anymore….There’s a big political center in this country but we tend to write them off.” (This from the “firebrand in the front row” whose current show delights in conflict?)
On the media’s role: Meet the Press’s mission is “accountability, relevance, constructive engagement, thoughtful discussion. It’s a place to ‘put it all together.’” But, he lamented: “There ought to be more outlets where we’re really listening to each other, not waiting to pounce. We don’t have enough intellectual spontaneity. I like to see people really wrestling with issues.” (But what would that do to the ratings?)
On the “other Washington”: “I think that the farther you get from Washington [D.C.], the more things get clearer….There’s a game in Washington [D.C.] – it’s a company town: the lawyers, the journalists, the lobbyists, and the politicians….People outside Washington [D.C.] say, ‘That’s clearly not working.’” (Aren’t they right?)
On his work/family life: “I do have a certain amount of flexibility, because as my wife says, ‘You only work one hour a week.’ I like to point out that there’s at least three or four hours more that go into that.” (Actually, the guy probably does work pretty hard.)
On the Blogosphere: “I like to see what the Zeitgeist is in that community, but even with millions of people it’s a limited community. It can be an echo chamber. It can be partisan in one way or another….Is there some good reporting that goes on? Of course. But there’s also a whole lot of crap. It’s not a monolith.” (He’s right about that.)
On being well-informed: “We are in an information age where there’s so much information out there to be an informed citizen….There’s still a lot of good journalism that is helping us to be well-informed.” (Absolutely right about that.)
The Q-and-A session, when people lined up at a microphone to query Gregory, had some interesting moments.
On Jon Stewart’s upcoming “Rally to Restore Sanity”: “He’s a comedian, but he’s also got a point of view. I think what they do is serious. It’s not a joke.” However, “They are part of the media polarization.” As for Stewart: “He asks tough questions. He does a great job. I admire him a lot.” (Would he say the same of Glenn Beck?)
On former Associated Press (CORRECTION: Thomas worked for United Press International, and then for Hearst Newspapers) writer Helen Thomas: “I think Helen lost her way. I don’t know when that happened….I thought she was miscast as the ‘dean of the press corps.’ She was a polemicist. Her views in the press corps were well known.” (Oh, really? Then why weren’t they reported somewhere? Shouldn’t journalists “watchdog” each other, especially if one is anti-Semitic?)
On the “gotcha” tapes that he uses on the show: “I really don’t see those as ‘gotcha.’” (Oh, come on, David! That why people love the show!)
On Afghanistan: “American prestige is on the line” along with “the fate of radical Islam….If you allow Afghanistan to become a failed state again, all kinds of bad things could happen. The question is, at what cost are we going to keep pursuing it? We have a long history in that part of the world, but we have been incredibly short-sighted. We’re going to have a big combat presence there for a long time.” (Give him extra points for candor.)
On his personal politics: “I’m a registered Independent.” (And that settles that.)
On being in Seattle: “An evening like this for me is really constructive….The common sense outside of Washington [D.C.] is real.” He said people often ask him, “Aren’t you embarrassed that you’re working in a town where so little is accomplished?” (No.)
Will Gregory take any lessons back to the “other Washington”? Who knows? Once they’re inside the Beltway, journalists tend to fall into the same predictable patterns, conventional storylines, easy stereotypes, gross oversimplifications, crass sensationalism, and incessant scandal-mongering that have made many people angry…at the press.
Maybe D.C. journalists should get out more often. Meet the People, for a change.