My evening with Rachel and Sean; or, how cable makes polarization worse

Photo (cc) via Torange.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Rachel Maddow was excited. The host of cable news’ top-rated show could barely contain her glee Wednesday night over the news that President Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had proven to be such a cooperative witness that special counsel Robert Mueller was recommending no jail time.

“Another few shoes are going to drop soon,” she told her viewers. She also pondered the mystery of why Trump never says anything critical about Flynn. “Not a peep about Mike Flynn since Flynn plead guilty and became a cooperator more than a year ago,” she said, adding, “There must be something else going on here. And, “The only other person he treats like this is freaking Putin!”

It was a different story on cable news’ second-highest-rated program. Sean Hannity was in full dudgeon over Mueller’s decision to go after Flynn for what Hannity called minor “process” crimes. Hannity instructed his viewers that Mueller had persecuted “a decorated military hero” for the sole purpose of building a phony case to drive Trump out of office.

“This is how desperate and how pathetic Robert Mueller is,” Hannity said, running through the reasons why Flynn might have decided to cooperate: finances ruined, his son facing possible jail time. “Is this,” Hannity asked, “what justice in America is supposed to look like to you?”

Welcome to the 2018 edition of the National Conversation. With the Mueller investigation on the verge of a possible denouement, I thought I’d spend Wednesday night watching “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “Hannity.” Hyper-polarization may be tearing us apart, but at the cable news outlets, it’s good for business. According to Adweek’s TVNewser, Maddow’s program on MSNBC this past Tuesday drew nearly 3.5 million viewers, more than anyone else on cable news in prime time (8 to 11 p.m.). Hannity, on Fox News, gathered just under 2.9 million.

And surely it’s no accident that that MSNBC, which leans left, and Fox, which has embraced the hard right, are dominating prime time while CNN brings up the rear. Though CNN, like MSNBC, is harshly critical of Trump and regularly draws the White House’s ire, the network has attempted to maintain at least some of its former image as a nonpartisan purveyor of actual news. MSNBC and Fox, bound by no such scruples, are free to toss bleeding chunks of raw meat to their aging viewers.

It should be noted that all three cable outlets employ actual journalists who do good work. It’s just that they are rarely seen during prime time, especially on MSNBC and Fox. Instead, the three networks offer a full line-up of talk shows, nine hours a night. And the queen and king of those talk shows are Maddow and Hannity, whose 9 p.m. programs have become appointment viewing for political partisans of the left and right.

Lest I be accused of false equivalence, let me make it clear that Maddow, for all her opinionating and speculating, helms a show that is grounded in facts. She’s smart, and you often learn something. Over at Fox, though, the Trump presidency has pushed Hannity and other hosts into an alternative universe of dark conspiracy-mongering in which the Mueller investigation is nothing but a corrupt attempt by the “deep state” to destroy a great president because of his willingness to stand up to the establishment.

Thus did Wednesday’s edition feature a conversation between Hannity and John Solomon, an investigative columnist with The Hill, who this week reported on an “email chain”purportedly showing that former FBI director James Comey and other officials had obtained a FISA warrant under false pretenses so that they could surveil Trump associate Carter Page. Inconveniently, Solomon admitted to Hannity that he hadn’t actually seen the emails, although they have been “described” to him. All right, then.

Hannity was apoplectic, calling Solomon’s story proof of a “conscious fraud upon the court” and saying it showed that Comey was trying to tilt the election toward Hillary Clinton — never mind Comey’s late hit on Clinton, when he reopened the investigation into her emails and found nothing, a move that may well have cost her the election.

The rest of Hannity’s hour was taken up with a visit from Newt Gingrich, who called the Mueller investigation “an anti-constitutional effort by the organized left” and who congratulated Fox News for being the only media outlet willing to tell the truth; an immigration “debate” with fellow Fox host Geraldo Rivera (Hannity and Rivera both support Trump’s wall, but Rivera, unlike Hannity, would do something for the Dreamers); and, believe it or not, an update on the war on Christmas, perhaps Fox News’ most enduring creation.

Maddow’s program was considerably less toxic than Hannity’s but not necessarily any more nutritious. Other than Flynn, her main interest was the fate of Maria Butina, an accused Russian operative who, we learned, stood up at a Trump event in 2015 and apparently became the first person ever to ask the then-candidate whether he would lift sanctions against Russia. (Trump responded that he’d strongly consider it.) Butina, Maddow observed, may be the link uniting Russian money, the Trump campaign, and the National Rifle Association.

Maddow was also visited briefly by the ubiquitous Democratic congressman Adam Schiff of California, who will soon become chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Alex Isenstadt of Politico, who broke the news earlier this week that a foreign government had hacked the email accounts of several top Republican campaign officials.

Significantly, neither Maddow nor Hannity spent much time on the funeral of George H.W. Bush, which has brought a sense of unity to much of the country even if praise for the one-term president has been somewhat overwrought. Maddow, at least, provided a respectful overview of the day’s events. Hannity’s main interest was to bring on New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin and former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer so they could whine that Democratic praise for the late president was just another way of trashing Trump.

Cable news has long been a wasted opportunity. So much airtime. So little news. Imagine how it might be different. How about at least one hour of prime time combining news and analysis without any partisan overlay? I’m thinking of something like Anderson Cooper’s CNN program, only with more actual journalism. Or the “PBS NewsHour” with a zippier pace and better production values.

But no. Instead we have ideological talk-show hosts exploiting the passions of their audience for ratings and profits. It’s a sorry state of affairs — but one that perfectly reflects our deep and seemingly unbridgeable divisions.

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The Stormy Daniels interview moves her story to center stage. How will Trump react?

Stormy Daniels and Anderson Cooper. Photo via CBS News.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

For those of us who follow this stuff obsessively, there was little new information in the “60 Minutes” interview with porn star Stormy Daniels. The alleged physical threat against Daniels if she told anyone about her alleged 2006 dalliance with Donald Trump? Her lawyer leveled that charge on CNN more than a week ago. The possibility that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s $130,000 payment to Daniels just before the 2016 election violated campaign-finance laws? That had already been reported by The Washington Post, among others. For that matter, many of the details we heard Sunday go back to The Wall Street Journal’s original story of Jan. 12.

But that doesn’t mean there was no news value in Daniels’ sitdown with Anderson Cooper. For one thing, there was the simple fact that we were hearing all this for the first time from Daniels herself. For another, in an era when it is increasingly difficult to be heard above the media din, “60 Minutes” remains one of the few outlets in which it is still possible to reach a mass audience. Viewers who knew little about this before learned a lot. Daniels’ story has now moved to center stage.

The question now is whether the Stormy Daniels affair will eclipse all the other ugliness surrounding and involving President Trump — or if it should. Even given Daniels’ allegation that she was physically threatened, her one-time consensual encounter with Trump — still denied by the president — hardly rises to the seriousness of the numerous credible claims by women that Trump sexually assaulted them. Then, too, there is special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, which appears to be moving ever closer to the president. A possible $130,000 campaign-finance violation is trivial when seen in that light.

CBS News posted the transcript of the interview while we were all waiting for the basketball game to end, so I had a chance to read it and then watch. Several aspects of the interview struck me as worth pondering, and we’ll see how they play out in the days ahead.

• Daniels said Trump told her she reminded him of his daughter Ivanka. Trump’s sexualized talk about Ivanka has been remarked upon for years, but repetition makes it no less vile. In 2004, Trump said to Howard Stern that it was all right for Stern to call Ivanka “a piece of ass.” The future president assessed the quality of his daughter’s breasts, too. There are other examples I could cite, but I’ll simply note that, just last week, Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who says she had sex with Trump, told Anderson Cooper in a CNN interview that Trump said she was “beautiful like her” — that is, like Ivanka. This is deeply disturbing behavior if true.

• Daniels has some serious credibility issues. I found Daniels to be believable — articulate and composed, with no obvious holes in her story. But that’s not the same thing as being credible. Cooper bore in on her and her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, noting that she had signed a nondisclosure form Cohen gave her and took the $130,000, and had signed statements on other occasions saying she’s never had sex with Trump. “How do we know you’re telling the truth?,” Cooper asked Daniels. Her response: “’Cause I have no reason to lie. I’m opening myself up for, you know, possible danger and definitely a whole lot of s***.” Avenatti, speaking of his client’s past denials, conceded: “I think there’s no question that it calls into question her credibility.”

• Anderson Cooper is a first-rate interviewer. It’s too bad that Cooper’s CNN gig has been reduced to presiding over panels of empty — sorry, I mean talking — heads. He’s a fine journalist, and he did a calm, professional, and thorough job on Sunday. He managed the difficult task of letting Daniels tell her story without seeming to endorse it in any way. As I said, he pressed Daniels and Avenatti hard on the credibility issue. He also questioned Avenatti on his (distant) past as a Democratic operative. Cooper got experts to discuss the possible campaign-finance violation, and viewers came away understanding that it’s not at all clear whether that aspect of the story is especially important — although it could be.

Daniels was a tease on perhaps the most titillating question of the night — whether she has videos, photos, or other records that would prove embarrassing to Trump. Under the nondisclosure agreement, she was supposed to turn over any such documents. But she’s already violated the agreement (she and Avenatti say there is no agreement because Trump never signed it), so who knows what might come next? As The New York Times noted over the weekend, Trump has never tweeted about Daniels. We may speculate on the reasons for that.

The most likely effect of the Daniels interview is that it will feed into Trump’s towering rage and the utter chaos that is surrounding him, as reported in another Times article on Saturday. If nothing else, Daniels’ decision to wage a public battle with Trump could very well lead the president to lash out in other directions. It’s a frightening prospect, but we live in dark times.

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The debate’s big losers: CNN and new media platforms

Photo by xx
Photo (cc) by Gregor Smith

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

My view of the winners and losers in Tuesday night’s Democratic debate is pretty much the same as what I’ve seen from other observers. Hillary Clinton won with a strong, polished performance (and was likable enough). Bernie Sanders was uneven but had his moments. And Martin O’Malley emerged as the only real alternative to the two front-runners, as Jim Webb fizzled and Lincoln Chafee popped.

So let me turn instead to the biggest loser of the debate: CNN, which for whatever reason just can’t seem to get its act together. Moderator Anderson Cooper is a smart, authoritative presence, but during the debate he was both too authoritative and too present. He interrupted constantly. Every candidate’s answer, it seemed, played out against a backdrop of Cooper trying to get him or her to stop. Sometimes a strong hand is needed. But politics ain’t beanbag, as Mr. Dooley instructed us. Let them mix it up.

Far worse was CNN’s weirdly tone-deaf wallowing in racial and gender stereotypes. It was well into the debate before we heard from a black journalist, Don Lemon. So naturally he drew the assignment of asking about the Black Lives Matter movement. As “Beat the Press” contributor Justin Ellis of the Nieman Journalism Lab tweeted:

Later on, the first question about immigration came from — yes — Juan Carlos Lopez of CNN en Español. After that, someone on Twitter wondered sardonically if Dana Bash had been designated to ask about abortion rights. Not quite. But Bash did ask Clinton about family leave, which prompted an exchange on the challenges faced by working mothers. Hey, CNN: minority and female journalists are capable of asking about gun control and campaign-finance reform, too.

It was not a great night for new media, whether you’re talking about new new media (Snapchat), old new media (Twitter) or ancient new media (Facebook). Facebook actually co-sponsored the debate, but I couldn’t find anything especially compelling. I did run across one amusing video on CNN’s Facebook page (flagged by local social-media guy Steve Garfield) on a behind-the-scenes look at debate preparations. As it ended, the host, Chris Moody, turned toward the camera and said, “It’s been real. Thanks, Snapchat.” Realizing his mistake, he turned to others and repeated his mistake. “I said Snapchat.” A pause. “Bye, Facebook. Sorry, Facebook.” To quote a famous debate moment: “Oops.

Twitter is still the go-to place for real-time conversation during a news event. But I kept checking a running story on the debate that was posted in Twitter’s brand-new Moments section, and what I found was pretty weak. It was too mainstream; tweets were posted in chronological rather than reverse chronological order; and there was little of the sense of unexpected discovery that draws me to Twitter. As described by Mathew Ingram of Fortune, Moments is supposed to be a curated news experience aimed at users who find “real” Twitter too confusing and time-consuming. Maybe it will catch on, but I just didn’t see much value in it.

As for Snapchat, well, better luck next time? At a recent appearance at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Snapchat’s chief journalist, Peter Hamby, waxed enthusiastic about the Live Stories the mobile-only service posted after the two Republican debates. Maybe we’ll have to wait until Wednesday, but as I write this — around midnight on Tuesday — there’s nothing. And CNN’s Snapchat channel is still devoted entirely to a preview of the debate.

Again, we’ll have to wait for Wednesday. But I could sneak back downstairs and watch post-debate reaction on my old-fashioned TV. Isn’t online media supposed to offer a sense of immediacy that legacy platforms lack?

 

Why Murdoch could prove to be the savior of CNN

Rupert Murdoch at the 2009 World Economic Forum.
Rupert Murdoch at the 2009 World Economic Forum

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Could Rupert Murdoch turn out to be the savior of CNN?

Not directly, of course. After all, his Fox News Channel is a blight upon the civic landscape — a right-wing propaganda machine whose elderly viewers are, according to a 2012 Fairleigh Dickinson study, even less well-informed than people who watch no news at all.

Nevertheless, I felt my pulse quickening last week when I learned that Murdoch is trying to add Time Warner to his international media empire. Among Time Warner’s holdings is CNN. And according to The New York Times, Murdoch would sell the once-great news organization in order to appease federal antitrust regulators.

(Murdoch’s acquisition would not affect Time magazine, a diminished but still valuable news outlet: Time Warner recently set Time adrift after stripping it of most of its assets.Time’s future is far from secure, but at least Rupe won’t have a chance to put Fox News chief Roger Ailes in charge of it.)

As you no doubt already know, CNN in recent years has fallen into the abyss. When I Googled up its increasingly ironic slogan, “The Most Trusted Name in News,” I was taken to a page at CNN.com dating back to 2003, complete with photos of former CNN hosts such as Aaron Brown, Judy Woodruff and Larry King, the seldom-seen Christiane Amanpour and others who evoke a better, more substantive era.

These days, unfortunately, CNN is known mainly for its endless coverage of the missing Malaysian jetliner and for a series of embarrassing screw-ups, such as its misreporting of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act in 2012 and its false report that a suspect had been arrested in the Boston Marathon bombing (to be fair, CNN was not alone on either mistake).

Then, too, there have been a series of mystifyingly bad hires, such as the talentless yipping Brit Piers Morgan to replace Larry King and the creepy Eliot Spitzer to cohost a talk show. Even solid choices like Jake Tapper seem to disappear once brought into the CNN fold. Of course, it’s hard not to disappear when your ratings are lower than those of Fox and MSNBC.

Is CNN worth saving? Absolutely. Its journalistic resources remain formidable. It’s still must-see TV when real news breaks, which certainly has been the case during the past week. Folks who are able to watch CNN International (I’m not among them) tell me it remains a good and serious news source. Anderson Cooper is among the more compelling figures in television news.

But domestically, and especially in prime time, CNN has utterly lost its way — starting at the top, with its self-congratulatory president, Jeff Zucker, who wants us to believe that everything is proceeding according to plan.

The time for a complete overhaul is long overdue. If Rupert Murdoch can help usher CNN into the hands of a new owner that might actually know what to do with it, then bring it on.

Photo (cc) by the World Economic Forum and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

The courage of Lara Logan

Lara Logan

Esquire’s Chris Jones has written a thoughtful post about the hazards of journalism following revelations that CBS News reporter Lara Logan was beaten and sexually assaulted during the celebration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last Friday. I recommend it highly.

I think we tend to take the courage of celebrity television reporters for granted. Though we might understand that a newspaper reporter traveling outside the glare of the camera is running risks, TV reporters — with their crews, equipment and live feeds — can seem pretty much invulnerable. That is clearly not the case. As we know, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC News’ Christiane Amanpour had some hair-raising moments in Cairo.

Let me join those who are praising Logan not just for her courage and dedication in reporting the story for the benefit of us viewers at home, but also for letting it be known that she was sexually assaulted.

It’s a detail she could have kept to herself, and I suspect a lot of women would have done just that. But it’s important to our understanding of what happened, and she should be saluted for sharing it with us. (Via Don Van Natta Jr.)

U.S. Army photo via Wikimedia Commons.

NU graduate among journalists detained in Egypt

Leila Fadel

Leila Fadel, the Washington Post’s Cairo bureau chief and a 2004 graduate of Northeastern University, is reportedly among a number of journalists who have been detained by Egyptian authorities. According to the Post, Fadel, staff photographer Linda Davidson and a translator who was working with them have been taken into custody. (See update below.)

“We understand that they are safe but in custody, and we have made urgent protests to Egyptian authorities in Cairo and Washington,” Post foreign editor Douglas Jehl is quoted as saying. “We’ve advised the State Department, as well.”

Mubarak’s Egypt is surely not Iran or North Korea, but the situation for reporters has been deteriorating in the past few days. In one high-profile incident, CNN’s Anderson Cooper was assaulted. Journalists at Al Jazeera, whose coverage has been invaluable, have come under attack and harassment as well. The New York Times reports:

The attacks on journalists started almost as soon as violent clashes began on Wednesday near Tahrir Square, as orchestrated waves of pro-government forces swept in, using rocks, bats, and knives and Molotov cocktails against the anti-government protesters.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has a round-up of incidents involving journalists. Says CPJ official Mohamed Abdel Dayem: “The Egyptian government is employing a strategy of eliminating witnesses to their actions.”

More from Reporters Without Borders.

Update (2 p.m.): Fadel tells the Washington Post that she and Davidson have been released. Several local Post employees remain accounted for and are believed to be in custody.

What’s next in the cable news wars

Rachel Maddow

Three quick hits on the continued fallout over Keith Olbermann’s departure from MSNBC:

1. It looks like MSNBC’s response has been to give promotions to everyone rather than consider what might work best. The network is feeding Lawrence O’Donnell to the wolf (i.e., Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly) at 8 p.m. And Ed Schultz at 10? Really? Aren’t all his viewers in bed by then?

If I were MSNBC honcho Phil Griffin, I’d move Chris Matthews to 8. Matthews is much maligned (I’ve maligned him myself), but he’s still weirdly compelling after all these years. His energy and passion are likely to hold Olbermann’s losses to a minimum. Let Schultz have the 7 o’clock hour and see what he can do with it.

I agree with Griffin’s decision to keep Rachel Maddow at 9. I realize she would do better against O’Reilly than anyone else, but she’s now the franchise, and protecting the franchise is important. If her ratings were to drop below Olbermann’s, it would demoralize the whole operation. And I’d keep O’Donnell at 10, too.

2. CNN, which has slipped behind MSNBC in the prime-time ratings, has an opportunity to take advantage of the Olbermann mess. I’ll confess I haven’t seen Piers Morgan’s new talk show yet, but the clips look very promising — a huge step up from Larry King.

I’ve always liked Anderson Cooper better than “Anderson Cooper 360.” Whatever’s wrong with the show can be fixed. And here’s what’s wrong: inconsistency (you never know whether you’re going to get a solid newscast or tabloid trash) and the two-hour length, which has led CNN to use much of the 10 o’clock hour to flog what’s coming at 11.

The solutions are fairly simple. Cut the newscast to an hour, rebroadcasting Piers Morgan at 11; and up the intelligence quotient.

CNN executives will still need to deal with the toxic-waste pit that is “Parker Spitzer” at 8. I’d move John King’s politically oriented newscast to that slot and cross my fingers.

3. Barring any unexpected bombshells, Bill Carter and Brian Stelter’s take on why Olbermann left seems pretty definitive. But though Comcast, the incoming owner of NBC Universal, appears to have its corporate hands clean, my expectation is that at some point the company will blow up MSNBC.

Maybe it will happen soon. Maybe it won’t happen until Comcast wants to curry favor with a new Republican administration in the White House. But it will happen.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Maybe CNN’s ratings aren’t the real issue

Following a report earlier this week that CNN’s prime-time ratings were continuing to crater, there’s been quite a bit of talk about how to get the original cable news net back in the game against the Fox News Channel and MSNBC. My “Beat the Press” colleague Kara Miller has some thoughts, and, as previously noted, Michael Calderone of Politico interviewed a bunch of media observers, including me.

But here’s a counterintuitive idea. Maybe we’re all making a category error. As former CNN host (and Media Nation favorite) Aaron Brown tells Calderone, CNN remains a “highly profitable business.” CNN posits itself as a news alternative to the partisan, opinion-driven talk-show line-ups offered by Fox and MSNBC. In that sense, maybe the three cable news nets aren’t really competitors at all.

The problem, of course, is that CNN’s prime-time line-up also consists mainly of talk shows, though not very good ones. The other night I briefly tuned in the best of the bunch, “Anderson Cooper 360,” and saw Dr. Phil talking about the Phoebe Prince tragedy. I nearly injured myself in my haste to change the channel. (By the way: I like Cooper, but think he’s being misused.)

What I’d like to see is a smart, analytical approach that makes sense out of all the news tidbits we accumulate throughout the day, unafraid to call out lies and misrepresentations but nonpartisan in its overall approach. Something, frankly, like Brown’s old program, “NewsNight,” canceled to make way for “AC360.”

And, yes, it’s time for Larry King to get his gold watch. No Larry-bashing from me: the man has a lot to do with the success CNN has enjoyed over the years. But all things must eventually come to an end.

Given that CNN continues to make money, maybe everyone would get off the network’s back about its poor ratings if it were offering not just an alternative to Fox and MSNBC, but one that is compelling and smart.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.