D.C. Talkers: Bookers Stick to Party Lines

Mar 8, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The votes have been cast and counted in TelevisionWeek’s third annual ranking of the most sought-after guests on political news and talk shows, both on broadcast news outlets and on the cable news networks.

We asked a dozen-plus producers, moderators and news executives who book guests and host shows to dish honestly and provocatively about their most important guests, in return for a promise of complete anonymity.

So here is our no-holds-barred list of the best and worst, the hardest-to-get and the hardest-to-deal-with guests on the TV shows, whose agendas-and booking efforts-are determined and defined by power, politics, perception and other issues that make things go ’round inside the nation’s capital.

It is no surprise that the party in power usually dominates the discussion on the Sunday newsmaker programs-NBC’s “Meet the Press,” CBS’s “Face the Nation,” ABC’s “This Week,” “Fox News Sunday” and CNN’s “Late Edition”-and other television shows that focus on politics and governmental issues.

It’s the natural order of things, because the “in” party controls everything from committee chairmanships to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It is especially true in the current situation, where the Republicans have a majority in both houses of Congress as well as holding the presidency.

As one executive producer put it, “The `out’ party usually is there to occasionally give a contrary opinion.”

Yet in recent months, the Democrats frequently have dominated the discussion on the Sunday shows. That is in part because of the primary season, in which only the Democrats had a contested election to discuss. However, to an even larger extent, it has happened because of Bush administration policy. The White House has effectively taken its players out of the game in recent months. Under the Bush regime, every appearance, down to the lowest functionary, must get prior approval. And for the most part, no one is easily made available.

A Contrast to 2003

All of which adds up to a stark contrast with this time last year, when the major story was the marshaling of U.S. and allied forces and public opinion for the impending in Iraq. If it was Sunday, the newsmaker shows were headlined by Bush administration officials and Republican leaders from Capitol Hill articulating the White House’s case. The growing number of Democrats who were beginning to marshal their troops for a run at the White House was the secondary story.

Then the White House and its top surrogates seemed to go into hibernation for the winter. “Week after week, the White House is saying we’re not going to play now. The story continues to be Iraq, and the news is not good,” the executive producer said.

Except for the occasional diversions (the R-rated halftime show at the Super Bowl, same-sex marriages, gaffes and friendly-fire tell-all books, “The Passion of the Christ”), Sunday mornings have revolved around Democrats in recent months.

That may soon change. “Republicans are usually better at feeding the beast during presidential campaigns,” said another veteran D.C. producer.

Now, with the White House clicking into campaign mode, the president went one-on-one with Tim Russert for the hour Feb. 8 on “Meet the Press”, and Vice President Dick Cheney recently made the cable news rounds.

One other figure has also been making the rounds. First lady Laura Bush racked up serious TV face time promoting heart health for women in February. She is considered effective at representing the president and helping to humanize his image. She generally evades tough policy questions, but in her recent appearances even she has had to field some difficult ones.

Calling Cheney

When the White House wants to get a message out, Vice President Cheney is usually the top surrogate. As Super Tuesday rolled around last week, he was suddenly made available to all three cable news channels for taped interviews, which the White House stipulated should run in early evening on Super Tuesday but could be excerpted throughout the day and into the night.

One school of thought said the chief motivation was to step on the Democrats’ message just as they were making it all but official that Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is the party’s presidential candidate. The other school of thought was that the White House chose to dispatch Mr. Cheney to deal with prickly questions-from same-sex marriage and the proposed defense-of-marriage constitutional amendment to Iraq and Haiti and the allegations that the U.S. deposed Jean-Bertrand Aristide-on a day when Cheney’s message was likely to get stepped on by the Democrats.’

Between the war, the economy, the indecency issue and the nine Democratic candidates in the primary election, there has been a great deal to talk about on the political talk shows. Now that the Democrats have effectively made their choice, however, things are likely to slow down until the political nominating conventions this summer get closer-barring any extraordinary events. As one political talk show producer put it, with a sigh: “The party is over soon and we’re going to be scraping by” for topics.