Sunday Star Wars: Political Talk Shows
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
ANNOUNCER: Face the Nation with CBS News Chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer.
TERENCE SMITH: They are Sunday services for the politically faithful.
ANNOUNCER: This Week with George Stephanopoulos.
TERENCE SMITH: For more than 50 years, through war and peace and 11 administrations…
ANNOUNCER: This is Meet the Press with Tim Russert.
TERENCE SMITH: Sunday morning for official Washington has begun with the political talk shows. Tim Russert moderates the granddaddy, Meet the Press, which has been on the air since 1947.
TIM RUSSERT: The Sunday shows are an oasis, that you have one hour on a Sunday morning where you can do an awful lot in peeling away the spin and the prefab answers. And in the end, that’s very, very important.
TERENCE SMITH: Veteran CBS newsman Bob Schieffer has anchored the 49-year-old Face the Nation since 1991.
BOB SCHIEFFER: My job is to, number one, let the spokesman say what he wants to say. But then after I let him do that, it’s my obligation to question him about it, to put it to the test.
TERENCE SMITH: George Stephanopoulos took the helm at ABC’s 22-year-old This Week last September.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: If people are paying more attention to the issues we talk about on Sunday morning, it means you have a more engaged and committed public, and I think that is good for the country.
TERENCE SMITH: And with war on the horizon, the shows have become televised versions of declassified national security briefings. The chief topic is, and has been for much of the last six months, the possibility of war in Iraq.
UNIDENTIFIED: With the war, I think the interest is enormous, both here and around the world. When you embark on something like war, the American people really do have a hunger, and I think that we have an obligation to provide them answers.
TERENCE SMITH: That hunger attracts an audience that is among the most highly educated and wealthy in television. Meet the Press, the longtime ratings leader, had an average of 5.7 million viewers during February. Face the Nation was second with 3.4 million, and This Week trailed with just under 3 million.
The low-overhead programs have become significant moneymakers in recent years. According to an NBC News executive, Meet the Press earns $50 million in annual profit for NBC News. Face the Nation and This Week make less, but are still profitable.
Week in and week out, the shows provide a public forum for top government officials to explain, attack or defend their policies. Famous faces appear, usually in systematic rotation, on the three network programs and two cable broadcasts: Fox News Sunday, hosted by Tony Snow, and CNN’s Late Edition, anchored by Wolf Blitzer.
The job of deciding which senior administration officials will appear on which broadcast falls largely to Dan Bartlett, the White House Director of Communications.
DAN BARTLETT: Very early in the week we begin thinking out loud with internal staff, and we also work and collaborate with the Sunday shows in the respect that it is a two-way street. They’re trying to have a successful program, and the White House is obviously trying to get a message out.
TERENCE SMITH: And does the president weigh in on the choice of messenger?
DAN BARTLETT: If we’re trying to accomplish certain goals from a communications standpoint, that we will inform him that as a part of that goal is we are going to put our foreign policy team, for example, out on the shows.
TERENCE SMITH: He will suggest who… which official might be right for which broadcast?
DAN BARTLETT: It’s somewhat rare, but at times, if we are discussing with him a broader objective we’re trying to reach, and he’ll say, “Oh, I think Colin Powell would be very effective in making that point.”
TERENCE SMITH: The anchors recognize that they are being used to some extent by the White House.
SPOKESMAN: Their mission is to stay on message, but you can only do that once or twice. It doesn’t help them to make their case by sounding like a parrot.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The first rule of the White House when dealing with the Sunday shows has to be “do no harm.”
TERENCE SMITH: George Stephanopoulos, who once held Bartlett’s job in the Clinton administration, understands better than most how the White House manipulates its message.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The Sunday show is a place to either set the week ahead, set the agenda for the week ahead, or clean up the mess of the week that just passed.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you feel an obligation to bend over backwards to demonstrate that you’re not partisan?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Not necessarily bend over backwards, but I am definitely conscious of making sure that I am objective, that I am posing difficult questions to each side.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: First I’ll read a statement, then take a few questions.
TERENCE SMITH: Stephanopoulos is not the only Sunday host with a political resume. Tim Russert advised two New York Democrats: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Gov. Mario Cuomo.
And Tony Snow, the anchor of Fox News Sunday, was a speechwriter for the first President George Bush. Jane Hall, a former media reporter for the Los Angeles Times who now teaches at American University in Washington, says the programs let viewers inside the political process, to a degree.
JANE HALL: If you’re from a small town, you get a feeling you’re in on the process– you’re in on, you know, the inner chambers of Congress. I mean, it’s not entirely real all the time because it’s fairly scripted, but I think it gives you the sense that you’re seeing the players and power, and that’s exciting.
TERENCE SMITH: There are still other audiences inside the beltway and inside the process. Politicians and the journalists who cover them watch intently, listening for the slightest modification of policy that might make a Monday morning headline. Bob Schieffer.
BOB SCHIEFFER: We’re well aware that the Washington insiders and the opinion makers are also talking to each other on these broadcasts.
TERENCE SMITH: Through these broadcasts?
BOB SCHIEFFER: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: Trial balloons?
BOB SCHIEFFER: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: Plenty of them?
BOB SCHIEFFER: Oh, you… you get a lot of them. I mean, this is the place you do trial balloons now. This is… this the launching pad.
TERENCE SMITH: Face the Nation was mission control last August.
BOB SCHIEFFER: I shall never forget the Sunday that Brent Scowcroft, the first President Bush’s chief foreign policy advisor, came on this broadcast and said that if we go into Iraq alone, if we try to do it unilaterally…
UNIDENTIFIED: It could turn the whole region into a caldron, and thus destroy the war on terrorism.
BOB SCHIEFFER: So there’s a case where us — U.S. policy was actually influenced and it… by what somebody said on one of the Sunday talk shows. And you see that happening over and over again.
TERENCE SMITH: With the recent departure of Cokie Roberts from This Week and Gloria Borger from Face the Nation, there are currently no women among the shows’ anchor corps. And despite high-profile diversity in the Bush administration, analyst Jane Hall says there is a distressing sameness to the programs.
JANE HALL: It’s too much officialdom. It’s too much guys interviewing guys, and even, you might even say, white guys interviewing white guys.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I think that’s a fair criticism. We’ve tried to pay attention to it. At some level, it reflects the power structure that we’re reporting on, so you can’t… you can’t create a debate that doesn’t exist. But I think within that restriction, we have tried to broaden out.
TERENCE SMITH: Inevitably, government voices get more airtime than dissenting voices.
TERENCE SMITH: How do you balance that with the journalistic responsibility to present other sides and achieve… when their prominence is so great as opposed to the opposition?
TIM RUSSERT: Well, you do your job. I have found that it is important to have both sides represented at the table and have debates, but we only have one president. Presidents’ megaphones are always bigger, but that’s why it’s the duty and obligation of the journalist to be the devil’s advocate and try to find out exactly what they have in mind for the country.
TERENCE SMITH: And each Sunday morning…
TIM RUSSERT: We’ll be back next week. If it’s Sunday, it’s Meet the Press.
TERENCE SMITH: …that debate is joined.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Until next week, that’s This Week.
BOB SCHIEFFER: See you next week right here on Face the Nation.