D.C. Talkers: Bush the Man for TV Pundits

Mar 7, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The results are in for TelevisionWeek‘s fourth annual survey in which political show insiders dish about which politicians, elected officials and government figures are as powerful on TV news and talk shows as they are in the corridors of Washington.

As always, the president of the United States is the most sought-after guest, and the one most likely to make news, which is a key goal for the major Sunday political-public affairs shows, including top-rated “Meet the Press” on NBC. That is why they are known as newsmaker shows: The scramble for a mention in Monday newspapers or on other networks’ news programs is as ferocious as the quest for ratings.

These same things matter to these shows’ guests, because when they have a message, they want it heard. They want it to register with and be regarded as news by the largest possible audience.

During the Clinton years, as with most past administrations, it was not unusual to have several representatives making the rounds of these shows on any given Sunday. The Bush administration, however, prefers to designate one messenger to appear on as many shows as possible.

That makes it harder for the shows to distinguish themselves in the Bush era. “I think that’s more of a challenge,” said another producer who has seen more than one administration.

The comments in this article and the information in the categories that follow are the result of an informal, unscientific poll of political show producers, bookers, moderators and news executives. As always, they were guaranteed anonymity in return for participating in TVWeek’s annual survey.

Some TV politicrats believe the Bush White House is, in the words of a veteran of the TV political beat, “the most closed administration in memory.”

“The only way to deal with it is to take one day at a time,” added the veteran producer. “Keep pestering the administration for guests until they give in … or beat you down.”

A D.C.-based news executive said that while some discipline was lost with the exit of long-time Bush counselor and confidante Karen Hughes in 2002, the current masters of White House communications “still have a strong choke chain with spikes around it.”

“These guys want to stop the leaks and stop the bad stories more than they want to see their faces on TV,” one producer said.

One of the veterans in newsmaker circles believes that “each administration is more sophisticated than the last in managing information. … The result is that we have one of the tightest lids ever.”

“The biggest change I’ve seen is that the spokespeople at the Pentagon and the CIA used to be quasi-professional. They understood that those are not political posts. That’s gone,” said another long-timer.

Others feel that, as another political beat veteran put it, “They are no better and no worse than other administrations. [The push and pull] is just a fact of life. If they do not cooperate, you book someone else. There is no difference in administrations in that regard.”

It is frustrating for the producers, who just want the best guests. Bottom line: “We’re looking to book their newsmakers. They want to get their message across,” said one newsmaker staffer.

Each year the lineup of top newsmakers shifts as the result of elections, resignations and new appointments. A shift of party and committee leaders on Capitol Hill means new go-to people are likely to emerge as issues take shape.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell is among those whose departure at the beginning of the second term of the Bush administration left a hole in the capital landscape. The issues surrounding the war in Iraq have also been a big factor.

Right now the war has evaporated as a week-to-week issue for debate. Meanwhile, Social Security reform is still in the stage where the Republicans don’t want to get ahead of President Bush on specifics and the Democrats don’t want to give any ground accidentally, so discussion of the latter tends to be more about political maneuvering than substance.

New stars do emerge. Former Presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush, paired in efforts to support tsunami relief, are widely judged the most appealing odd couple since Oscar and Felix.

New Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., are polishing their acts and getting good reviews from many of those who produce, book, moderate and oversee the shows on which the politically connected guests are expected to (a) discuss public policy and issues, and (b) make news and get ink in the next day’s newspapers.

For that reason, the assessment in political TV circles about relations with the Bush Administration is not as negative as among beat reporters who cover the White House and other branches of the government. They have done a lot of complaining that the gulf between the press and all the president’s men and women has never before been so wide or so treacherous.

D.C. Talkers: Most Likely to Make News