Whenever the debate begins anew over David Gregory's value as a political journalist, it's hard not to think of this:
Yes, that's "Stretch" Gregory white-guy dancing next to a rapping Karl Rove at the Radio and Television Correspondents' dinner in 2007. If there were any justice at all in the universe, this image would've haunted Gregory for the rest of his days like some Lovecraftian glimpse into the eyes of the Old Ones. It at least should've precluded him from ever being taken seriously as an ostensibly unbiased political correspondent or host, but there's no accounting for standards or good judgment when it comes to the mainstream Beltway press these days. Gregory is more of a symptom than the actual disease, but he's admittedly a pretty nasty symptom.
Since taking control of Meet the Press, which is the longest-running show in TV history and a consistent castle keep for NBC in terms of respectability and revenue, Gregory has been the steward of a sinking ship. MTP isn't just number two, it's now number three in the ratings, well behind both CBS's Face the Nation and ABC's This Week. Maybe counterintuitively, it's the 77-year-old Bob Schieffer at Face the Nation who seems to be able to draw not only the most eyeballs overall these days but the highest numbers among the coveted "youth" demo. He's done it, seemingly, by staying the course and giving politically minded viewers exactly what they'd expect on a Sunday morning: in-depth interviews conducted at an easy pace. While the rest of the media landscape is speeding up to accommodate the decreasing attention spans of those coming up through the digital era, Schieffer has held steady and is surprisingly proving to be the tortoise that wins the race.
Gregory had it rough right from the start, suddenly inheriting MTP from the revered Tim Russert upon his untimely death. A lot of people thought he shouldn't have gotten the gig to begin with -- that he didn't possess the toughness, gravitas, or erudition to pull it off successfully -- and the unrelenting ratings slide has only increased the volume of the Gregory Death Clock's ticking over the past couple of years. And that's what brings us to a pretty shocking little story in yesterday's Washington Post. Paul Farhi reports that while NBC is still insisting it's got Gregory's back, the network brought in a "psychological consultant" to examine his friends and family last year. This might lead one to wonder whether NBC is concerned about the pressure Gregory's been under since MTP began its downward spiral, but the network is now balking at the report. It issued a "clarification" a little while ago stating that the expert it commissioned was actually a "brand consultant," and not a shrink. Farhi says that the network specifically said "psychological consultant" to him more than once during his interviews so, for now anyway, the piece is staying as-is with no retraction or change in language.
Gregory admits that Meet the Press is in the throes of a difficult downturn and has made some big changes in the hope of stopping the hemorrhaging. The show has, in fact, sped up. There are more specific segments featured each week and shorter interviews. (Granted, you'd have to assume that the welcome mat will always be out for John McCain; at this point they should just give him his own closing monologue, like Andy Rooney, to showcase whatever's annoying him this week.) The problem is that NBC is missing the point. It fails to understand why Face the Nation is a success while MTP is flagging. First of all, despite sometimes falling victim to Beltway Insider myopia, Schieffer is a stronger newsperson. He runs circles around Gregory -- simple as that. But what may also seem like stasis on the part of CBS is actually a pretty bold move right now: with the sheer volume of political media out there and the number of platforms they're spread across, on a Sunday morning people actually want both stillness and depth. CBS's entire Sunday morning lineup has been staking out that territory for years now and it's paid off for the network in spades, even as the world around it has sped up.
In the end, though, a lot of it really does come back on Gregory. This is his boat and if it continues to go down, he's going down with it -- and he's going to take the blame. It's noteworthy that on a network with a reputation for cutting even loyal veterans loose if they don't measure up in the ratings, Gregory somehow hangs on. In this case, NBC would be justified in jettisoning him and starting over. He just doesn't have the respect needed, outside of maybe a very tight old school Beltway circle, to be, as Russert once called himself, the "custodian" of Meet the Press. The Sunday political shows don't carry the weight they used to anyway, but if there's nothing that sets them apart from all the other political media noise, they're truly doomed. Gregory was a lousy choice from day-one. He doesn't need a psychological consultant or a brand consultant or any other kind of network fairy dust sprinkled on his head. What he needs is another job.