Meet the Brit Who Could Save Our Sunday Shows

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Adam Tiouririne Adam Tiouririne | Bio | Posts
15 Aug 2014 | 10:04AM

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, Britain’s central bank sought a new leader to face new challenges. But Governor Mervyn King’s successor as master of the Pound wouldn’t be a Brit: The UK chose a Canadian, Mark Carney, to lead the Bank of England. Analysts crowed that the “huge surprise” was a “very smart move”. And that unorthodox appointment gets me thinking about another major personnel change, closer to home.

A transatlantic infusion is just what America needs to revive an important political institution of its own: Meet the Press.

NBC’s public affairs flagship has hit rough seas. In the Sunday ratings, ABC’s This Week and CBS’s Face the Nation have sunk the once-dominant Meet the Press. Outgoing moderator David Gregory inspires a phrase I learned in Tennessee for someone who seems fine enough but just hasn’t quite cut it: Bless his heart. (Or his brain, which NBC was colorfully rumored to have psychoanalyzed back in April — a measure the network denies taking.)

As the anti-Gregory drumbeat turned deafening, NBC confirmed late yesterday that the host would be replaced by NBC News political director Chuck Todd — an exciting enough choice for a political nerd like me.

But while Meet the Press chatter rages in America, a placid retirement begins across the pond.

On June 18, 2014, ended the reign of British television’s aggressive, abrasive, brilliant, bearded (sometimes), sneering grand inquisitor, Jeremy Paxman.

For my uninitiated fellow Americans: “Paxo” (the British word for Paxman) joined The Beebs (the British word for the BBC) in 1972 and became presenter (the British word for host) of Newsnight (the British word for the BBC’s nightly newscast) in 1989. His famously forthright interviews have changed the trajectory of public debates, policy plans, and even entire political careers — a journalistic force long, perhaps always, missing from stateside TV.

June 27, 2012: Paxman interviews Chloe Smith, a Conservative MP and Treasury Minister, about the surprise cancellation of a planned rise in fuel duty (gas tax). Smith, at age 30 with just three years of Parliament service, would be justified to complain that she was thrown to Newsnight‘s shark too early. She was out of her Treasury post within months.
May 13, 1997: Paxman, in his most notorious interview, repeats the same question 12 times to senior government minister Michael Howard. May 16, 2002: Paxman confronts Prime Minister Tony Blair with a series of sensitive issues from Blair’s first five years in office. September 25, 2008: Paxman speaks with then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a sample of the rare intensity he would bring to Washington.

And now, retired from the BBC, Paxman is available.

Paxman’s openly adversarial style isn’t just foreign to the United States; its closest American cousins are actually derided as gotcha journalism. But if a politician truly believes that farmers shouldn’t serve in the Senate or that “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”, then he or she should certainly be gotten.

Instead of doing the getting, many of our television reporters give us unmoderated shouting matches and gently lobbed softballs and — I could go further but, in the words of America’s newscasters, we’re gonna have to leave it there.

We need less access journalism, and more gotcha journalism.

Piers Morgan’s ill-fated CNN run gave us a taste of British grilling (Morgan, for his part, is not a Paxman fan.) and legendary Meet the Press host Tim Russert offered an American flavor at times. But on Newsnight, Paxo did it consistently for a quarter-century.

With the rumors of David getting Chucked finally realized, we’re left to dream sweetly of the Meet the Press that could’ve been. Paxman’s next move is unclear. He’s displayed Hillary-esque coyness when pressed about joining BBC rival Channel 4. But NBC News President Deborah Turness, as a veteran herself of Britain’s ITV, would be the right leader to lure Paxman, 64, to Washington.

Recent polls show that Americans disapprove, more firmly than in decades, of not just Congress as a whole but also their own local representatives. Far from alienating viewers, Paxman’s unflagging skepticism might have captured the zeitgeist and catapulted Meet the Press back to its top Sunday spot.

One transatlantic transplant is already the head of Britain’s 300-year-old central bank. Sundays could’ve been even better with Jeremy Paxman as the face of America’s longest-running TV program.

Share your thoughts in the comments here, or tweet them to @Tiouririne. (Paxman himself, by the way, hates Twitter.)


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