John McLaughlin, the Jesuit priest/presidential speechwriter/political columnist/syndicated TV series producer-host whose death was announced today, is widely credited with dragging TV political punditry into its current state of shout-festiness.
The McLaughlin Group debuted in April 1982, typically featuring two conservatives and two liberals who debate, talk over and insult each other – in case you’re wondering who really is to blame, Jon Stewart. In later years, the show took to branding itself as “the American Original,” to make sure it got the credit, and not all those Crossfire-ish copycats. It’s a style McLaughlin once described to the Associated Press as “the acquisition of knowledge need not be like listening to the Gregorian chant.”
More recently, McLaughlin told Howard Kurtz “The intensity of the environment is such so that if people are hesitant to say something, they find themselves saying it anyway.”
“My theory is people say under pressure for the most part what they really mean. In a confrontational situation, you’ll get their gut. And I want their gut! And that’s why people watch this show!” he told Kurtz for his 1996 book, Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time.
In his more highfalutin moments, McLaughlin described the program as being “like a diamond cutter.” Speaking to C-SPAN in 1984, he elaborated, saying his job is to get issues “out in front of the American people” and “if he hits it at precisely the right angle, with precisely he right percussion or beat or thrust, that can explode into a brilliant illumination, and that is what we try to provide on the program.”
Dan Schmidt, president and CEO of the show’s PBS presenting station WTTW Chicago, said today that The McLaughlin Group “is emblematic of public media’s dedication to political commentary and discussion.” (WTTW this afternoon said it does not yet have details about plans for the show, which is carried on about 94% of PBS stations, “but we expect to hear in the next day or so.”)
Non-fans, meanwhile, savaged the show as a celebration of unpleasant posturing and abhorrence of complexity. They dismissed it as a program in which mostly old white guys foamed over on topics about which they did not know much, the AP noted.
In his 2000 book, Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy, Eric Alterman snarked that The McLaughlin Group panelists “always seemed to have just gotten off the phone with the guy in charge.”
At the height of McLaughlin and his program’s pop-culture relevance, the host and panelists played themselves in such films as Mission: Impossible and Independence Day and on media-oriented TV series like Murphy Brown.
McLaughlin was skewered with some regularity on Saturday Night Live, particular attention being paid to his booming voice cutting through the blah-blah-blah to dismiss a panelist, with “WRONG!” or to announce he was done/bored with that issue and moving on to the next: