How Catholic is NBC News? Lets run down the major players, as weve done in the past. Anchor of NBC Nightly News? Brian Williams, Irish Catholic. Head of Meet the Press? Tim Russert, Irish Catholic. Official hood ornament for MSNBC? Chris Matthews, Irish Catholic. Ubiquitous commentator on all programs MS? Pat Buchanan, Irish Catholic. And whos the president of NBC? Bob Wright, Irish Catholic. Indeed, five years ago, in a profile of Russert, USA Todays Peter Johnson mentioned the religious bond that connects the NBC gaggle:
JOHNSON (11/1/00): Russert, a Roman Catholic, refers to his religion on Meet the Press and speaks reverentially about moderating. "If there's such a thing as a non-religious vocation, this is it." Colleagues say he shares a Catholic bond with NBC president Bob Wright and General Electric chairman Jack Welch.No, theres nothing wrong with referring to ones religion on the air. And theres not necessarily anything wrong with sharing a Catholic bond with ones employers—even if that bond seems to produce an oddly monochromatic gang of big players at a powerful network. But there was something wrong—something badly wrong—with last nights MSNBC programming, which mixed computer doves and lachrymose hymns with a papal pep rally so unbalanced and silly that the evening would have seemed out of place even on EWTN (Eterrnal Word Television Network). On and on the Catholic piety went, through hour-long shows by Matthews, Tucker Carlson, and Joe Scarborough. Did anything actually happen this week right here in your actual country? Youd never know it on MSNBC! For a taste of how silly the programming was, read Keith Morrisons endless, ghoulish report about how blue John Pauls eyes really were (on Carlsons program; at some point, theyll get around to posting the transcripts here). But we suggest you read the transcripts from all three cited shows to get a taste of where NBCs Catholic bond may be taking this news operation.
In this mornings Post, Jim Hoagland writes an intriguing column on the current uneasily shifting equilibrium between religion and politics, a disturbed equilibrium that was on display this week in capitals as dissimilar as Rome, Baghdad, Jerusalem and Washington. We thought of last nights offerings on MSNBC as we read Hoaglands column this morning:
HOAGLAND (4/7/05): Often a source of advancement throughout history, religion in its many forms has become a primary force of political backlash in the era of globalization. As social and economic change becomes more dramatic, intrusive and unpredictable, people seek out seemingly eternal certainties.Unfortunately, that global trend going in the other direction may be also be appearing at NBC News, whose assorted self-importants may be seeking out those eternal certainties.
Backlash is an engine of paradox. It is easy to confound reaction with action—to mistake a loud gasp of despair for a rallying cry, or to confuse the chicken and the egg. This could be particularly true for Americans trained to compartmentalize religion and politics but who confront global trends going in the other direction.
ONLY THIRTY MILES FROM THE STATES: For the record, Russert and the rest of the gang also share a Nantucket bond, as Sallie Brady once explained in a Washingtonian profile:
BRADY (8/03): Russert is part of the Nantucket NBC crowd, one of the cliques that fuels the isle's social engine. It was Jack Welch, the story goes, the 20-year chairman and CEO of NBC's parent company, General Electric, who drew network folk to Nantucket...And more good news! The whole gang is there! Matthews bought a $4.4 million home on Nantucket last year, the Boston Globe reported. Basking amid the swells of Nantucket, he can share their Millionaire Pundit Values—and their search for eternal certainty, a search which seemed to be on display in those lugubrious programs last night.
Russert's boss, NBC CEO Bob Wright, is also on the scene. Add to the cocktail chatter the latest tidbits from the Oval Office, care of White House correspondent David Gregory, who was married on Nantucket and returns with his wife, Beth, for vacations; celeb updates from Access Hollywood host Pat O'Brien, who retreats here; and Washington gossip from News 4 anchor Barbara Harrison, and the only ones missing from the NBC lineup are Will and Grace.
Although Welch retired in 2001, he's still a power magnet. He holds court from a massive gray-shingled home festooned with window boxes, near Sankaty Head Golf Club. It was there that Welch once played Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, only to discover that two of the richest men in the world routinely bet only $1 a round.
WASHINGTON AWOL (PART 4): A final quick thought about that Slate piece by Dahlia Lithwick. In particular, we want to make sure that we dont understate the important bit of common sense that undergirds Lithwicks reactions.
Heres our guess about the process which led to Lithwicks piece. First, Lithwick—a legal writer—noted that a book about the current Supreme Court was high on the best-seller lists. And, because the book is in her area of expertise, she did the obvious—she sat down and read it. And when she read it, she was surprised by its utterly clownish nature. Indeed, in her piece, she highlights the kooky clownishness of this latest kooky-con best-seller:
LITHWICK: I use the word "book" with some hesitation: Certainly it possesses chapters and words and other book-like accoutrements. But Men in Black is 208 large-print pages of mostly block quotes (from court decisions or other legal thinkers) padded with a forward by the eminent legal scholar Rush Limbaugh, and a blurry 10-page "Appendix" of internal memos to and from congressional Democrats—stolen during Memogate. The reason it may take you only slightly longer to read Men in Black than it took Levin to write it is that you'll experience an overwhelming urge to shower between chapters.Lithwick seems surprised to see that so fake a book is on the best-seller list. And she seems surprised by something else—she seems surprised that so influential a book is going completely undiscussed. Levins book seems to be leaping off the bookshelves, she notes. Yet it has been reviewed virtually no place and written up by almost no one. This reaction by Lithwick makes perfect sense; she seems disturbed when an influential-but-kooky book gets a free pass from the press corps elite. Many Americans are reading this book—and no one is trying to tell these people how utterly fake and how bogus it is. Lets make sure we compliment Lithwick for this sensible reaction.
In these matters, Lithwick is fully on target. She should be surprised by what she finds; she should be surprised when an influential pseudo-book gets a free pass from the press corps. But heres what she doesnt seem to know—this is completely standard press practice, engaged in by her colleagues for the past many years. Yes, kooky-con books from the kooky-con right have been getting free passes from the press corps for years. Lithwick may not understand this. But well assume that Kevin Drum does.
And yes, at the risk of engaging in that repeated and convulsive expression of more or less contrived outrage that Josh Marshall so piously warns us against, well say that yes, we find it disgusting when observers refuse to state obvious facts about the ways of the press corps. Lithwick probably doesnt know it, but the press has been dishing free passes for years. Lithwick deserves credit for a normal reaction; but in our view, Drum should be scored for refusing to say what he must know when he reads her under-informed reaction. The treatment now being handed to Levin is the norm from the mainstream press. Presumably, Lithwick doesnt know. Presumably, Drum does—and wont tell.
Will ordinary Americans ever see the day when careerist writers tell the truth about the ways of the mainstream press corps? Yes, it makes us sick when the Drums look away. Were sick of them. More on the morrow.
TOMORROW: Bungling Rather, grand finale