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Sunday Morning, Coming Down: Preaching to the Dire

The decline of Sunday morning TV news programs


Where have you gone Tim Russert? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

I've never missed Russert, who died in 2008, more than this political season. I was lucky enough to get to know Russert in the early 1980s. He was an aide to U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan, and I was cutting my teeth in a Buffalo television newsroom. Russert and I would swap rumors (usually at an Irish pub). But that's a lot of bourbon under the bridge.

Russert would go on to become the venerable and longest-serving host of NBC's Meet the Press. I can't help but think if Russert was still at the helm of MTP, he would have a field day deconstructing this year's presidential campaign—the most important (and most bizarre) political contest in a generation. Russert did his homework. He was a walking encyclopedia of just the right quotes and statistics to reveal the inconsistencies of anyone making false claims on the campaign trail. More important, Russert redefined the lexicon of modern American political discourse—he coined the phrase "red states and blue states." It's also significant to remember Russert never talked down (or up) to viewers, and he understood chasing news ratings was a fool's errand. (Ironically, the Russert-era of Meet the Press saw some of its highest Neilsen ratings).

There are too many political pundit programs across the broadcast spectrum to count, what with the monster that is cable news. Sadly, dear viewer/voter, there is no safety in those numbers, so while I continue to mourn the loss of Russert nine years later, here's an unofficial guide to what news talk shows may be worthy of your time in these final, critical months in the run for the White House. Let's start with the good news first (there isn't much):


With All Due Respect (weekdays, 4 p.m., MSNBC):

OK, I know this is not a Sunday morning news program (although NBC news would be well advised to add a weekend edition of With All Due Respect to a Sunday lineup on its flagship network). Here we have one of the most candid, in-depth political conversations currently on network television, and it's no coincidence that—much like Russert—the hosts are not groomed personalities. Instead, they're seasoned on-the-road journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, both of Bloomberg News. Prior to joining the MSNBC lineup, With All Due Respect previously aired on Bloomberg TV and MSNBC's decision to co-opt the program earlier this year was the smartest move the struggling network has made since, well, ever. DVR a week of this show and you'll be hooked.


Face the Nation (Sundays, 9:30 a.m., CBS):

This relic is one of longest-running chat shows on the air but through much of its six decades on CBS, it rarely generated any sparks under the considerable talents of Lesley Stahl, who hosted from 1983 to 1991, or Bob Schieffer, who was there for 24 years, 1991-2015. Not that a Sunday morning news program has to be animated, but for goodness sake, this isn't radio. The good news is that longtime print journalist John Dickerson (Time) has taken the reigns of Face the Nation. His style is even known inside the D.C. Beltway as "Dickersonian," with The Daily Beast writing of him, "He calmly, methodically incises a politician's carefully constructed facade until the mask falls away, revealing the scaly reptile beneath."


Fox News Sunday (Sunday, 7 a.m., FOX News):

I realize I'm giving this FOX News program a better grade than the ABC and NBC gabfests. Unfortunately, that says more about the news talk shows on ABC and NBC than it does about this one on FOX, hosted by Chris Wallace. To his credit, Wallace learned quite a bit from his old man, the late Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes. Chris, like Mike, rarely lets a politician off the hook and has been known to ask the same question three or more times until he gets an answer. Although Chris' panel of pundits sometimes includes cringeworthy input from Karl Rove or Liz Cheney, Chris more often than not keeps his guests and pundits on topic.


State of the Union (Sunday, 7 a.m., CNN):

This program is instantly forgettable. My sense is State of the Union's producers have struggled to keep someone in the anchor chair for any extended period of time. There have been three hosts of State of the Union in the past five years. Jake Tapper is the most recent—he was hosting as this story was going to print, anyway.


Meet the Press (Sunday, 8 a.m., NBC):

The longest-running program in U.S. television history, Meet The Press has had 12 different moderators since 1947, the best being Russert. NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd has hosted since September 2014, following an awkward six years when David Gregory hosted, taking the show to record low ratings. Todd's over-emphasis on politics makes him a lightweight when it comes to an examination of foreign affairs and particularly at a vulnerable time of global crises, i.e. the rise of ISIS. Additionally, Todd has a not-so-subtle and entirely time-consuming love affair with anything on a map. We appreciate the visuals but feverishly waving your arms around doesn't make something more essential.


This Week (Sunday, 7 a.m., ABC):

George, George, George. Mr. Stephanopoulos is oh-so-cuddly during those Good Morning America cooking segments and adorably charming when interviewing a contestant from Dancing With the Stars, but any illusion of political neutrality vanished when we learned Stephanopoulos was a regular contributor to the Clinton Foundation and, worse yet, he chose not disclose that to his employer or to his viewers.