Mitt Romney on the "Late Show with David Letterman." (CBS )
Mitt Romney has yet to appear on the Sunday morning political talk shows of three major broadcast networks this fall, but the GOP presidential candidate front-runner has twice found time this year for David Letterman's late-night show, including a turn earlier this week in which he ribbed rival Newt Gingrich in a Top 10 list.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry also ran to Letterman's CBS show to poke fun at his famous memory lapse, but has declined invitations to hash out policy questions on the network's "Face the Nation." Perry also joked around on NBC's "Tonight Show" but has been MIA on that network's "Meet the Press."
Just four years ago, trips to the Sunday talk shows were all but mandatory for presidential candidates. Every major primary candidate endured that gantlet during fall 2007, some of them twice (Hillary Rodham Clinton, then running for the Democratic nomination, did all three networks on the same day). The late Tim Russert vetted candidates so exhaustively that "Meet the Press" was dubbed "the Russert primary."
But in an ever fragmenting television universe, the Sunday morning talk shows are witnessing their central role in the election process fade as candidates gravitate toward lighter programs where the hosts are more welcoming, the audiences younger and the questions usually softer. These pop culture shows, whose mandate is to entertain rather than inform, afford office seekers an opportunity to better control the discussion, to target the niche audiences of a 500-channel world, and to present a self-effacing, human image to voters.
So far, Romney and Perry have avoided "Meet the Press," "Face the Nation," and ABC's "This Week," though Fox News has had more success attracting the Republican candidates to their Sunday program.
"At one point of time, it was a rite of passage to go do Tim Russert and 'Meet the Press,'" said Chris Lehane, a political strategist who worked for Bill Clinton and Al Gore. "The Sunday shows have already begun to change."
Today, the Sunday shows function more like news magazines that review the past week for the Beltway's "political cognoscenti," added Lehane. "I don't think they're necessarily playing the same role that they historically did, in some part because people get access to folks in different ways, including late-night TV."
Historian Richard Reeves calls it part of the "dumbing-down of America," in which candidates bypass the potential grilling of Sunday morning for the friendlier confines of late-night and weekday talk shows like "The View."
David Gregory is one television interviewer who is acutely aware of the candidates' preferences — he took over "Meet the Press" after Russert's death in 2008. Getting presidential aspirants on his show has been very challenging, he said. The reason: "A lot of these candidates want to avoid a forum where they see too much downside; where they think they can make a mistake, where they think they can get tripped up."
But Lehane and other candidate handlers blame the Sunday shows themselves, which they contend have moved toward "gotcha" questions.
"Big-time presidential elections, assuming they're competitive, ultimately are character tests," he said, and it's easier to be likable on an entertainment show instead of a Sunday morning program where "you basically know you're going in there and they're going to throw a hundred pitches at your head, and it's considered successful if you allow none of them to hit you."
That doesn't mean that the entertainment route is necessarily risk-free. Michele Bachmann — who has appeared multiple times on the Sunday politics shows this fall — also agreed to NBC's "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon." The house band the Roots introduced her with a ska song called "Lyin' Ass Bitch." An incensed Bachmann later received an apology from Fallon and an NBC executive.
Some comedy hosts insist their programs offer information that is just as valuable as on more traditional news outlets. The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism studied "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" for a year and concluded in 2008 that its focus was very similar to that of cable news programs.
"The idea that an interview on Fox News or MSNBC is more serious than an interview on my show is silly," said Jimmy Kimmel, host of ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" "It isn't. I'm a person talking to another person, and so are they."
"The idea that these cable news networks have more gravitas than David Letterman does, I mean, that's ridiculous," added the late-night host, who first interviewed then GOP frontrunner Herman Cain about allegations of sexual harassment last month. "This idea that they're journalists — what does it even mean anymore?"