Thursday, January 26, 2006

Luke, I am your father

Of course Tim Russert displayed a particularly icky Washington brand of elitism, insiderism and logrolling on Sunday's Meet the Press, promoting his college sophomore son Luke’s XM Radio show with James Carville. Russert's personal touches are well-known (at least to those who watch the show semi-regularly). He has made his affection for the Buffalo Bills an irritatingly regular feature. He wrote and promoted a book on his working class father's homespun wit and wisdom. When Bill Clinton was about to name his new dog in the late 1990s, a rumor circulated it would be “Luke” and Russert promoted the choice on the show (Clinton picked the more generic, less New Testament “Buddy”).

Some of this is aimed at lightening the show's inquisitorial tone, some to show that Russert is a regular guy. But the effect is the opposite: Russert, Carville and their families evidently inhabit a world alien to the rest of us, a world where you can have naming rights to the president’s dog and conjure “income streams” from thin air. And they like flaunting it. As Tim Noah wrote last week, if journalists want to have some claim on the truth, they must be conversant with the people they write and report on – so why do they broadcast their sumptuous riches to the world?

But the newer, more distressing feature here is not Russert’s evocation of Marie Antoinette, but the fact that he’s doing it for profit. With the media fracturing into a million tiny pieces, each with its own millimeter-sized demographic slice, everyone’s an entrepreneur. Old media are now launching pads for hundreds of new ventures. The media extend their “brand” into a new domain, and give a lift to obscure new enterprises – satellite radio, webcasts, podcasting, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this – the music must change, right? Except that the proliferation of hype cheapens the brand or otherwise screws it up (cf. the TimesSelect disaster). It also erodes credibility, the old media’s most precious and rapidly disappearing commodity. At the bottom of this slippery slope. each in its own niche, sit Fox News, US Weekly and Skating with Celebrities.