Where Do Media Reputations Come From?

Earlier this month, NBC and its affiliates marked the one-year anniversary of the untimely death of their former colleague Tim Russert, the long-time host of "Meet the Press." It seemed a bit odd even to mention such an anniversary, but I suppose that one of the perks of being in the media is that you can celebrate your friends whenever you like. When Keith Olbermann devoted an entire segment of his show to another round of over-the-top eulogies for Russert, however, this was too much. It reminded me of an extremely harsh -- but completely accurate -- take-down of Russert by Lewis Lapham in Harper's (available here) that was mostly devoted to describing the almost comic public displays of grief over Russert's passing last summer by the national media and political establishments.

The problem is not in grieving the death of a fellow human being, of course, but in the completely baseless claims made by Russert's eulogists that he was a steely media conscience who forced the powerful to admit their wrongs and who called them on their many lies. This was nonsense. Russert's show was fluff dressed up as serious discussion, and no one ever feared Russert's ability to get them to break down and confess, since he possessed no such ability (or, if he did, he refused to take it out for a walk). As one of Russert's eulogists actually admitted (as if this were a good thing),
politicians thought of "Meet the Press" as "a place to be loved." Another excellent, honest review of Russert's work (also in Harper's) is available here. Al Franken's The Truth, With Jokes also exposed Russert's uselessness as an interviewer.

The complete disconnect between Russert's performance on his show and his reputation as Edward R. Murrow reincarnate might have been exacerbated by reactions to his death and the natural tendency to speak well of the dead, but his reputation in life was similarly, oddly wrong. It was simply one of those things that people would repeat as a known truth. Galbraith's conventional wisdom was never more conventional.

A current example of this phenomenon is the frequently repeated claim that Newt Gingrich is a font of ideas. Even supposed liberals will say that, love him or hate him, one must admit that Gingrich is an idea man. Recently, for example, the Times's Gail Collins wrote: "
The two biggest names [currently being mentioned as possible Republican presidential candidates] are Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, one of whom has too many ideas while the other has no ideas whatsoever." Again, where did this bit of conventional wisdom come from?

When it comes to "ideas," of course, one must be especially careful (and not just in light of Gary Hart's empty "new ideas" campaign in '84), because even people with genuinely innovative ideas will admit that there are no new ideas under the sun and that their own ideas are simply built on those of others. For Gingrich, though, it is not a matter of new versus old ideas. What exactly are the ideas that he is so widely credited with holding? The Contract on America was a hash of standard Republican talking points that every politician already knew by heart. Even if we give Gingrich credit for having the idea of putting those old ideas together into a Contract that the party could sell in an election, however, what has he done since 1994 that makes him anything but a one-hit wonder?

As one commentator put it, Gingrich's current persona is based on what we might call "partisan Tourette's," causing him to say anything that comes to his mind to criticize Democrats (even when Democrats are saying things that Ronald Reagan once said -- or for that matter, things that Gingrich himself has said at other times). That is an attack dog, not an idea man. Is Gingrich's reputation based on his holding a Ph.D. in history? Surely not. Plenty of people in Congress have had advanced degrees in areas other than law, but only Gingrich is said to be this great idea machine.

Some narratives do make sense, of course. It is easy to see why Joe Biden has a reputation for shooting off his mouth, such that everything he says (even the wholly unexceptional) is now run through the "There goes Joe again!" story line. Back in the 70's, Gerald Ford's reputation as a clumsy oaf was completely inaccurate, but a couple of incidents (tripping on some stairs, hitting a few errant golf shots) at least were the traceable basis of a conventional wisdom that Chevy Chase rode to fame.

The Russert and Gingrich situations are different, howver, because there does not seem to be any basis for their reputations. Even outside politics, such story lines often take hold. Despite a regular supply of behavior that proves the contrary, for example, one can hear any sports reporter on any day talk about what a great "team player" LeBron James is. His press agent definitely deserves a performance bonus.

My complaint is not that I find Russert, Gingrich, and James less pleasing than others do. Differences of opinion are inevitable. It is when we are told that "one must admit that ..." something is true -- that Russert was a tough interviewer, Gingrich is an idea volcano, and James cares only about winning -- when it is either clearly not true, or at least highly contestable, that I protest.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan