Nostradamus of the Obvious
When she died this past September at seventy-five, Cokie Roberts, political commentator for NPR and ABC News and well-connected member of D.C.’s “little village,” as it’s known to Washington’s inner circle, was lauded as a pioneering female journalist who gate-crashed the boys’ clubs of broadcast news and political punditry. Her friend and fellow NPR reporter Nina Totenberg remembered her as “always polite” yet “willing to ask the impolitic question if necessary”—“impolitic” questions being the equivalent, in NPR’s ASMR-inducing atmosphere of timorous “civility,” of the caning of Charles Sumner.
To be sure, she was a tart-tongued observer of the misbehaving schoolboys in Congress, armed with the sort of inside-baseball knowledge of Capitol Hill you’d expect from someone whose parents both served in the House of Representatives. (Her father, Hale Boggs, a Democrat from New Orleans, made it to majority leader; when he was presumed dead in office, Roberts’s mother, Lindy Boggs, ran for his seat, won it, and held onto it for nine terms, from 1973 to 1991.) But she was also a Nostradamus of the Obvious, a mouthpiece for conventional wisdom who channeled the worldview of the D.C. elite for drive-time audiences. As such, she provides an invaluable civics lesson. Putting the class loyalties of the strenuously non-partisan pundit on full display, Roberts showed us how the commentariat heads off challenges to the status quo: by policing the boundaries, in public discourse, of what’s reasonable and what’s beyond the pale.
When Totenberg eulogized her colleague, multimillionaire, A-lister at Sally Quinn’s dinner parties, and fond friend of Bush Senior, as “always the voice of people with less power,” listeners familiar with Roberts’s reliably smug, often snide dismissal of any candidate or policy proposal a millimeter to the left of D.C. orthodoxy rolled their eyes so hard they could barely dislodge them. Roberts “never met a liberal to whom she could not condescend,” asserts Eric Alterman in What Liberal Media?, a critique of the conservative canard that the media tilts left.
For a “founding mother” of “liberal” NPR, Roberts had an incurable addiction to uncritically swallowing and regurgitating conservative bunkum.
It was the habit of a lifetime. In 1994, when Bill Clinton canned Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders for matter-of-factly observing that masturbation is a normal part of childhood—Roberts tsk-tsked that Elders was “a sort of off-to-the-left, out-of-the-mainstream, embarrassing person.” A cheerleader for George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, she prophesied doom for the Dems if the pro-war Senator Joe Lieberman were to be unseated in 2006 by his anti-war challenger, Ned Lamont. “Pushing the party to the left, which is what’s likely to happen,” she warned, on ABC’s This Week, “is pushing the party to the position from which it traditionally loses in presidential elections.” (As was so often the case, Roberts’s Olympian detachment belied just how far to the right she was of public opinion: a week earlier, a Gallup poll found that the majority of Americans thought the United States “made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq.”) On a 2015 episode of This Week, she poured scorn on Bernie Sanders, “a seventy-four-year-old Democratic Socialist who is too far to the left to win a general election.” By mid-2016, when comrade Sanders hadn’t had the good grace to fall on his sickle so the establishment favorite, Hillary Clinton, could proceed without incident to her coronation at the Democratic convention, Roberts was apoplectic. In a May 29 column co-authored with her husband, the journalist Steven Roberts, she lambasted Sanders as a far-left nutter who “has promised his followers a leftist ‘revolution’ that [is] never, ever going to happen” because “this is a center-right country.” All he was doing was “helping elect Donald Trump president” by sowing division in party ranks.
For a “founding mother” of “liberal” NPR, Roberts had an incurable addiction to uncritically swallowing and regurgitating conservative bunkum. On This Week With David Brinkley, she repeated the GOP fabrication that wealthy retirees are gaming the Social Security program, never mind that two-thirds of the nation’s elderly rely on the program for the lion’s share of their income. She echoed the GOP wisdom that the Dems are weak on terrorism, an Achilles heel exacerbated, she thought, by Obama’s deplorable lack of military service. She applauded Bush Senior’s “pro-civil-rights record,” a comment that mystified the media critics Martin A. Lee and Norman Solomon, who wondered “how someone could be ‘pro-civil-rights’ after serving as Vice President for eight years in an administration [Reagan’s] whose Supreme Court appointees had provided the winning margin” for a slew of anti-civil-rights rulings.
Wealthy, Catholic, and securely perched at the pinnacle of D.C. society and the gasbag business, Roberts was a traditionalist at heart, true to her class. A true-blue support-our-troops type, she was willing to put “patriotism” before press freedom: when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld clamped down on journalists’ access to military operations during the Iraq War, Roberts fell into line, declaring herself “a total sucker for the guys who stand up with all the ribbons on and stuff and they say it’s true and I’m ready to believe it.” Let fly the lapdogs of war! When the liberal media criticism site Media Matters conducted a study in 2013 whose results showed that the four major broadcast Sunday shows hosted men 75 percent of the time, with women guests making up 25 percent on each program, Roberts, staunch defender of a vaguely feminist feistiness, was airily unconcerned, casting doubt on the study’s findings—“It doesn’t look that way to me”—while simultaneously suggesting that, if there was a disparity, it was the result of pure chance as opposed to, you know, the ineradicable sexism of Beltway bros. “It seems to me that the attempt is always to have a little of this, a little of that,” said the master of both-sides-ism. “Someone just has to balance whatever, whether it’s a conservative slot that needs to be filled or a minority slot that needs to be filled. It’s the luck of the draw how any given week goes.”
As a news analyst and political commentator, Roberts was a prominent architect of public opinion, framing current events in accord with establishment narratives. That role stood starkly revealed when she derided the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election as much ado about nothing, virtually sighing with relief when the Supreme Court stepped in to hand Dubya victory over Al Gore. It was on display, too, when she harrumphed over the fury unleashed at town halls in the run-up to the Affordable Care Act by constituents angered by their representatives’ unwillingness to take on the health care industry. “It’s so unpleasant!” she huffed. The problem, she told the rest of ABC News’ “Roundtable,” wasn’t the lobbyists who for decades have thwarted a single-payer solution; it was the ill-bred rabble, whose bad manners, the devoutly Catholic Roberts thought, were the result—I am not making this up—of “the shortage of nuns.”
Off-camera, she was a world-class buckraker, pocketing stratospheric fees on the corporate lecture circuit—an inconvenient truth that compromised her objectivity as an opinionator (or would have, if any of her bosses or colleagues had been indiscreet enough to mention such conflicts of interest). According to Alterman, she and her husband “commanded $45,000 for a joint appearance at a banking conference . . . They also accepted a paid gig from the Philip Morris tobacco corporation, though Cokie claimed to be sick at the last moment and Steve went alone.” A journalist who thought Roberts’s corporate-speaking gigs deserved closer scrutiny was curtly informed by her publicist that her fees were “not something that in any way, shape, or form should be discussed in public.”
Also Never To Be Discussed in Public was Roberts’s openly skeptical cross-examination, during a 1996 broadcast of Nightline, of Sister Dianna Ortiz, an American-born nun who claimed she saw an American among the members of the government-supported death squad that raped and tortured her in Guatemala in 1989. (The United States was providing military aid to Guatemala at the time.) “The voice of people with less power” insinuated that Ortiz was lying, although the nun’s account was later borne out by the facts in her lawsuit against a Guatemalan general—a case she won. By odd coincidence, the law firm the Guatemalan regime had hired to burnish its international image was Patton, Boggs, and Blow, whose partners included Roberts’s brother, Tommy Boggs, a powerhouse D.C. lawyer and lobbyist. “To keep [U.S. aid] dollars flowing in, and to refurbish its dismal human rights image, Guatemala spent more than $650,000 for Washington lobbyists and public relations experts,” writes Pamela Brogan in The Center for Public Integrity report The Torturers’ Lobby: How Human Rights-Abusing Nations Are Represented in Washington. “No one in Washington received more money from Guatemala than Patton, Boggs, and Blow.”
In the week after Roberts’s death, NPR listeners were subjected to days of fulsome, three-hankie tributes. By all accounts, she was a big-hearted mentor to younger newswomen, and she deserves her fair share of recognition for helping to shatter the glass ceiling in a male-dominated industry. But shouldn’t we weigh that historic accomplishment against how she used her power once she summited the heights of network punditry?
I asked the veteran media critic Jack Shafer what he thought Roberts’s real function was on the American Scene, as Mencken called it. Shafer writes for Politico these days, but his 2009 Slate column, “Perfectly Obvious Cokie,” is the definitive Roberts takedown:
If Roberts’s vacuous [Monday morning NPR] segments seem phoned-in, it’s probably because they are. She does them from her home. . . . I can think of no comparably sized media space that’s as void of original insight and information as Roberts’s. Her segments, though billed as “analysis” by NPR, do little but speed-graze the headlines and add a few grace notes. If you’re vaguely conversant with current events, you’re already cruising at Roberts’s velocity. Roberts doesn’t just voice the conventional wisdom; she is the conventional wisdom.
A wry observer of the fourth estate, Shafer has no illusions about the value added by that wisdom. “There’s a whole universe of TV journalists whose job it is to calm the public, steady the rudder, smile, and then tut-tut at anybody who ‘misbehaves,’” he told me by email. “She was the queen of that action. . . . Her great accomplishment is evident in her obituaries, which peg her as legendary and insightful without disclosing the source of her legend or examples of her insights.”
Washington’s permanent ruling class knew they had an indefatigable ally in Roberts.
Roberts was the consummate insider, raking in a fat salary and jaw-dropping speaking fees while maintaining a perfect batting average of never saying anything that would fog George Will’s monocle or make NPR’s pledge-drive faithful do a spit-take into their Morning Edition coffee mugs. Washington’s permanent ruling class—plutocrats, good ol’ boys whose congressional seats are so unassailable they amount to lifetime appointments, machers like her lobbyist brother Tommy, “the King of K Street”—knew they had an indefatigable ally in Roberts.
Her job was to make the elite perspective sound like common sense to the millions out there in NPR-ville and ABC Land, and to ensure that progressive ideas got no traction and progressive voices got no airtime, laughed offstage as “off-to-the-left” and “out-of-the-mainstream.” She wasn’t the first Beltway bobblehead to play that role, but her trademark combination of oracular knowingness and kitchen-table chattiness, studded with the occasional nugget of wonky political trivia, led the way for today’s crop of PBS and NPR political commentators and news analysts: hot-air ventilators whose studied “neutrality,” false equivalencies, and shameless establishment bias are depriving us of the damning facts—and moral outrage—we need at a moment when our democracy is a dumpster fire. Cokie-ism didn’t die with Cokie; it’s alive and well every time one of NPR’s or PBS’s commentators takes a gratuitous swipe at liberals or Lefties; parrots a disproven Republican talking point; manages, while opining on the 2020 presidential race, to mention every candidate but Bernie Sanders (because: socialist); or engages in the both-sides-ism that was a Cokie trademark, such as lamenting the “do-nothing” Congress as if both parties were equally to blame despite Mitch McConnell’s chortling declaration of his intent to prevent debate on a towering stack of bills passed by the House, bipartisan ones included.
If the flood of tears and treacle that poured out of NPR and ABC is any indicator, most of Roberts’s colleagues in the establishment media think her coziness with pelf and privilege was a good thing. In a better world, where journalists and pundits took to heart the notion of an adversarial press, practicing that self-serving blather about “afflicting the comfortable” that j-schools preach, a world where reporters and even commentators really were “the voice of people with less power,” it would have been a leper’s bell.