On Sunday morning, the faithful gather to receive the word. Not at church, but in front of the television.
The Sunday morning news shows are such a staple of presidential politics that it's more remarkable when a candidate has not appeared on them than otherwise. Each week, congressional leaders, campaign strategists and administration officials sit down for interviews under the lights of Meet the Press, Face the Nation, This Week, Fox News Sunday and State of the Union. Combined, they're watched by close to 10 million people — including virtually all the political apparatus of Washington — in what George Stephanopoulos, the host of ABC's This Week, calls a "civic ritual."
The ritual is largely unchanged since NBC's Meet the Press, the oldest show, went on the air in 1947. Watch a Meet clip from 1956 of diplomat Claire Booth Luce dodging questions about her political plans and it's not that different from, say, Obama chief of staff Jack Lew refusing to call the health care mandate a tax earlier this month during a grilling by Fox News' Chris Wallace.
What has changed is the rest of the political conversation. This year, in what Stephanopoulos dubs "the full Twitter election," the cascade of instantaneous, incremental news — driven by Twitter, news sites such as Politico and the Huffington Post, and the constant churn of communication from political campaigns — has cast the Sunday shows into the role of quote factories and meme generators, a jumping-off point for a week of political haggling. The Sunday shows provide not the last word in politics but the opening remarks.
"They used to be the place where you went to hear very important people discuss very serious issues and be cross-examined by serious journalists. Now that function is something that happens in political discourse in all kinds of ways, especially digital," says Alex Jones, head of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
University of Virginia political scientist and frequent cable talker Larry Sabato watches the Sunday shows and often tweets about them at the same time. "Those morning chat shows used to dominate the Sunday evening news and the Monday news cycle," he says. "In this rapidly moving Twitterverse, there are three or four news cycles just on Sunday."
In May, for example, on Meet the Press, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, called Obama's attacks on Bain Capital "nauseating," a comment out of step with the Democratic line. Booker's hasty backtracking went out on Twitter two hours later, and his rebuttal video was up on YouTube by dinnertime.
On July 15, amid a Democratic-fanned controversy over when Mitt Romney left Bain, Romney adviser Ed Gillespie went on two shows to say the Republican nominee had "retired retroactively," and by noon (as the Obama campaign happily reported), "#retroactively" was the top trend on Twitter.
They're still standing
The news cycle for all media has been obliterated by the digital revolution: newspapers and magazines no less than broadcast TV, but the Sunday shows are unique for their role in national politics. They provide a predictably timed, deep well of news from the most prominent people in public affairs, a heap of information and commentary that can be sliced and diced by news outlets and by the campaigns for days.