The second week of Rock Center with Brian Williams found the news magazine pursuing its mixture of wildly diverse stories, any one of which could have used a lot more time and a lot more reporting. Yet the host undercut his own enterprise by appearing most eager of all to conduct his in-studio interview with Tina Fey.
Fey was, as always, on point. Following Richard Engel’s report earlier in the hour about Greece’s economic problems and the European Union’s response, Fey noted that she is half-Greek, half-German, “and I am so tired of bailing myself out.”
As he did with Jon Stewart last week, Williams fawned a bit too much. And this week, he revealed a rather scary knowledge of the Real Housewives franchise. When Fey said she couldn’t watch The Real Housewives of New Jersey because its protagonists are “sub-human,” Williams feigned pain that she didn’t also watch — well, he rattled off a bunch of the Housewives cities quickly. When he got to Orange County, Fey interjected that watching that one is “like a fire at a wax museum.” She is funny. But is she “the preeminent woman in American comedy,” as Williams asserted twice? Seemed a little hype-y to me, and, indeed, to a suitably abashed-looking Fey. Williams was determined to get Fey to talk about what TV she watched while on maternity leave: “You’re a creature of the form,” he persisted, which made Fey sound like some odd beastie. It was pretty clear she spent most of her time just, you know, being a mom, but finally plucked a few shows from her memory. Extreme Couponing. Cake Boss. Scoop achieved, Brian.
The most serious story during the rest of the hour addressed the policy of forced sterilization that remained active and legal, the victims mostly against poor Southern women, through the 1970s. It wasn’t quite clear why this story was deemed suddenly newsworthy — the tale of the spurious theory of “eugenics” has been told and condemned for some time. Nonetheless, there was no denying the heartbreaking power of the story of Elaine Riddick, raped at age 13 and sterilized without her consent. But in the context of Rock Center, there is no context — it’s just one story among others in the something-for-everyone menu that all TV news magazines attempt. Viewers are left appalled and humbled by — and full of scores of unanswered questions about — what Riddick endured, but then Fey is brought out to lighten up the broadcast and send us off with a smile. I certainly can’t say Williams shouldn’t have done either of those stories. But the whiplash effect can be disconcerting.