Paul Waldman’s brilliant piece on the evils of Tim Russert as debate moderate (and, of course, as Meet the Press host) unfortunately only scratches the surface of our problem, which is not so much Russert as it is Russertism. This, in turn, is built into the deeper structure of these things. The trouble is that someone discovered one day that Meet the Press or a primary debate could be very important even if almost nobody watched. The reason is that a clip might get picked up by shows that people do watch.
Under this new dynamic, the role of the moderate is not to play host to an interesting informative discussion but rather to maximize the odds that some particular 10 second snippet of an hour-long broadcast will be worthy of rebroadcast. Hence, the focus on inane questions designed less to draw out an illuminating remark than to trip someone up. The trouble, though, is that the more a broadcast is structured like this the fewer people will watch. Russertism has succeeded in creating a kind of political broadcast that even hard-core political junkies find difficult to watch. Indeed, the only way to make it tolerable is to step back and go meta, scanning the broadcast for signs of those telltale clips.
But the fewer people watch, the more the debate becomes about clip-generation rather than debate. And that only makes the debate more unwatchable! And down and down we go.
UPDATE: To be clear, it’s not even necessarily that I think a “wonkier” broadcast would attract higher ratings than the current sort of debates. Rather, I think that if they tried to produce an hour-long debate broadcast whose goal was to maximize viewership of the hour-long broadcast, rather than producing two-hour broadcasts whose goal is to maximize the odds of generating a signature “moment,” that the broadcasts would get higher viewership. It shouldn’t be that hard to produce a presidential debate that virtually every political junkie watches. Right now what they’re doing doesn’t even attract that audience.