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Does David Gregory have an addiction problem?

March 14, 2013
David Gregory and Jeb Bush on Meet the Press

David Gregory and Jeb Bush on Meet the Press

By John F. Kirch

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush received a great deal of attention this week when he called Meet the Press host David Gregory and other journalists “crack addicts” for being so obsessed with politics.

Despite his poor choice of words, Bush made an important point about the problem that has plagued all of the Sunday talk shows for at least the last decade: Their penchant to frame almost every public policy issue in the context of the next election.

For those who didn’t see it, Gregory invited Bush onto the venerated NBC news show to ostensibly discuss a new book Bush had written about immigration reform.

However, of the 12 questions Gregory asked Bush during  the interview , all but two focused on presidential politics. None attempted to tease out any specifics of the governor’s remedy for so-called illegal aliens.

In fact, the very first question Gregory asked was, What do Republicans need to understand if they are going to win the 2016 presidential election.

Gregory’s last question — the one that got an exasperated Bush to use the misguided “crack addict” phrase — centered on who Bush thought was the hottest Florida politician: himself or Sen. Marco Rubio, another prospective GOP presidential contender.

Other ridiculous questions included:

  • Would Ronald Reagan be considered a liberal in today’s Republican Party?
  • Would Bush disappoint his mother if he didn’t run for president?
  • Would the country be willing to accept a third Bush presidency?
  • And the kicker: How will history treat Bush’s brother, former President George W. Bush? (Jeb said history would treat W kindly. What else would you expect him to say?)

When it came to immigration, Gregory again framed most of these questions in presidential politics. He asked:

  • Where does Bush see himself on the spectrum between the ideals represented by the Statue of Liberty and those who would impose quotas on certain immigrants?
  • Why did Bush flip-flop in his position on a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants?
  • Would the Republicans be handing the Democrats millions of voters if they allowed illegal aliens to become citizens?
  • Should a candidate for public office be disqualified if he or she ever hired an illegal alien?

That’s right. Less than two months after Barack Obama was inaugurated for a second four-year term, Gregory already had his sights on the 2016 president election. The NBC host had 12 minutes to talk to Jeb Bush and maybe shed some light on immigration reform, but instead he squandered that time asking questions that most Americans could care less about.

There are at least three reasons to explain such terrible journalism.

First, Gregory and the other Sunday talk show hosts know very little about actual public policy. This is not to say that they are completely ignorant, but the truth is that they do not have the time or wherewithal to study the specifics of issues like U.S. immigration law, Social Security, Food Stamps, foreign affairs or any other government policy.

Their main interest and expertise is in the sport of politics. They operate under the notion that political discourse is nothing more than fodder in the contest between the two major political parties.

Second, many Washington TV reporters have massive egos that are fed more by promoting themselves than informing the public. What better way to attract attention at a Georgetown cocktail party than being the reporter who tripped up a politician on national television or “uncovered” some small kernel of news that might get a headline in the Monday newspapers? Today, it is the host’s job to be provocative and look tough so as to maintain those million-dollar contracts.

And third, reporters like Gregory have lost sight of their audience. While they all compete hard to maintain large viewership, the interviews conducted on the Sunday talk shows are geared more toward political leaders, other journalists and network executives. The American public is left out.

The problem does not rest completely with the journalists, of course. The politicians who come on these shows are playing the same game, trying to get as much attention for themselves while making sure not to say anything that gets them into hot water. It’s safe to say that Jeb Bush made the Sunday talk show circuit last weekend to promote his book, not to engage the public in a detailed debate about immigration reform.

But Gregory and the other members of the Washington press elite have a bigger responsibility here. Public policy is not a game. It has real effects on real people. If reporters fail to take these issues more seriously, the Sunday talk shows will continue their slide toward irrelevancy for the average American.

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