Obama changes the media narrative — in Romney’s favor

In my latest for the Huffington Post, I argue that, contrary to what Obama supporters will tell you, the president’s poor performance in Wednesday’s debate will matter a great deal in the days ahead.

Blame Jim Lehrer’s comatose moderating style and Mitt Romney’s falsehoods all you like. Obama could have risen to the occasion, and he didn’t.

Warren needs a better answer on asbestos case

Coming out of Thursday night’s WBZ-TV (Channel 4) debate between Republican senator Scott Brown and his Democratic rival, Elizabeth Warren, I thought the issue that could have the most resonance was Brown’s accusation that Warren profited from a legal case that harmed victims of asbestos exposure. Warren didn’t handle the question well, and the matter was left hanging.

Boston Globe reporter Noah Bierman wrote about the case in May. It is convoluted, to say the least. In essence, though, Warren was paid $212,000 by Travelers Insurance to argue that the insurer should be immune from future asbestos lawsuits in return for setting up a $500 million trust fund to compensate victims. The liability belonged to Travelers because Johns-Manville, the company that actually manufactured the asbestos, had gone bankrupt.

Later, after Warren no longer had anything to do with the case, another court ruled that Travelers did not have to pay out the $500 million. So the victims got nothing. Warren told the Globe:

My heart goes out to the victims of this terrible, terrible disaster. It’s heart-wrenching that there are new victims every year…. I think they should be compensated. That’s it for me. That’s what this is all about.

She added that the principle she was fighting for — a provision in bankruptcy law that would allow the establishment of trust funds for victims in return for no further legal liability — was “a critical tool for making sure that people who’ve been hurt have a fair shot at compensation.”

Brown is scheduled to discuss the asbestos case with reporters later this morning. Warren needs a better answer.

Overall, I thought Warren came across well — focused, substantive and calm, if a bit repetitive. Brown was snide and personal. Moderator Jon Keller began by inviting Brown to comment on Warren’s character, and Brown chose to go all-in on Warren’s claim that she’s part Native American. Senator, there are people who will do that for you — and have been doing that for you.

Here is my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder, writing for the Huffington Post:

The opening debate between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown … at times felt like the classroom dynamic between an earnest, soft-spoken high school English teacher and the defiant jock who plants himself in the back row and makes sour faces until the bell rings. Although the teacher never quite subdued her student, neither did he manage to get the better of her.

And how good a moderator is my friend Keller? Other than keeping the conversation moving, you barely knew he was there. In other words, a first-rate job.

Advertisement via Wikimedia Commons.

Getting pumped for the Brown-Warren debate

Like all political junkies, I’m looking forward to tonight’s U.S. Senate debate between Republican incumbent Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren. (Assuming it comes off.)

The first debate is often the most important in terms of drawing the biggest audience and establishing a story line. So I’m glad that this one will be moderated by political analyst Jon Keller of WBZ-TV (Channel 4). Keller, a fair-minded centrist who doesn’t mind delivering an occasional zing, is good at keeping things moving while not cutting people off. Among the things I won’t miss: a panel of journalists and a timer.

Recent polls have been all over the place, showing Warren unexpectedly taking the lead or Brown maintaining his months-long advantage. All are within the margin for error, so the race is essentially tied. That could change starting tonight.

If you’re live-tweeting (as I’ll be) or just following along on Twitter, search for #wbzdebate. The action begins at 7 p.m.

Photo (cc) by John Atherton via Wikimedia Commons and published here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Live-blogging the Republican debate

The first Republican presidential debate to feature new frontrunner Rick Perry just ended. I saw two plausible presidents up there — Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. Huntsman at this point is on nothing more than a personal ego trip.

Can Romney stop the Perry juggernaut? In large measure it depends on whether Perry’s ignorant, offensive performance tonight comes to be understood as ignorant and offensive. His anti-science views on global warming, his “Ponzi scheme” remarks on Social Security and his stumbling, almost incoherent speaking style should all be disqualifying. They’re not, and that says a lot about the modern Republican Party.

As for Romney — he’s simply not a smooth public performer, and I suspect it’s because he knows he’s surrounded by extremists and doesn’t dare say so.

I live-blogged the debate, which follows.

8:11 p.m. We begin with Mitt Romney and Rick Perry mixing it up while the other candidates are bystanders. Perry says Michael Dukakis created jobs at a faster rate than Romney, and Romney responds by saying the same was true of George W. Bush. Given who the audience is, I’d say Perry got the better of that exchange.

8:19. The backdrop is red, pink and orange. Very disconcerting.

8:20. Herman Cain was the first candidate to invoke God, and Newt Gingrich was the first to say “socialist.” Shall we have a drinking game? Maybe a glass of milk everytime Romney says “gosh”?

8:22. Romney’s explanation for why Massachusetts needed a health-insurance mandate is identical to President Obama’s explanation for why the U.S. needed a mandate.

8:28. Romney is getting creamed on health care. No good deed goes unpunished. It would be interesting if he turned to his fellow candidates and asked, “Why won’t you admit that the health-care mandate was a Republican idea?”

8:30. Far be it from me to defend the news media. Their behavior at these forums is frequently farcical and worse. But Gingrich’s rant against the media’s attempt to stir up trouble among the Republicans was as cynical and ludicrous a ploy as we’re likely to see all night.

@TPM puts it better: “Gingrich to moderators: Stop trying to make us debate!”

8:36. My former Guardian editor Richard Adams is writing a hilarious liveblog about the debate. One quibble: he refers to Gingrich as an “idiot loser.” Technically, he hasn’t lost yet.

8:45. No one has laid a glove on Perry. And Romney has disappeared.

8:50. Attacking Social Security has always worked so well for the Republicans. Good to hear Perry go there. Here are the facts about Social Security.

8:56. Well, this is interesting. Romney made an effective case for Social Security, and took it right to Perry — who responded with a semi-meltdown in which he doubled down on his “Ponzi scheme” nonsense and whined about being attacked. Perry’s stance is wrong and irresponsible on the merits, of course, but it won’t matter unless this gets highlighted as an important moment. (And no doubt everyone is dying to hear more from Cain about “the Chilean model.”)

Oh, good grief. Perry now is saying he feels like “the piñata at the party.” Does this guy have a glass jaw or what?

8:59. What Romney is thinking (I think) on Gardasil: Every one of you is nuts to oppose a simple measure that would protect the health of teenage girls, but I don’t dare say it in front of this crowd.

9:04. The skies have been remarkably safe in the 10 years since 9/11, and all anyone wants to talk about is abolishing or changing the FAA.

9:07. Would someone please vote Newt off the island?

9:08. Now we know why the debate couldn’t be held in Arizona.

9:12. Ah, illegal immigration. I miss Tom Tancredo. Remember his double fence, so that anyone trying to hop over the border would get stuck in the middle?

9:15. Has anyone noticed how much better Michele Bachmann is at this than Rick Perry?

9:19. Every so often, Ron Paul sounds like the most rational person up there. His remarks on illegal immigration were humane and sensible — in stark contrast to everyone else up there. Unfortunately, you can’t have that Ron Paul without the Ron Paul of the $300 silver dime.

9:26. Perry joins the rest of them in saying he would reject a deficit-cutting detail that specified $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. Now Huntsman is saying “no pledges.” Didn’t he make the 10-to-1 pledge in the last debate?

9:31. “Keynesian theory and Keynesian experiments are now done,” says Perry. Every one of these people is an economic illiterate except for Romney, and even he’s pretending to be illiterate. Nearly all mainstream economists agree that the problem with the stimulus was that it was too small and too tilted toward tax cuts. Most of the money that did get spent merely offset cuts to state and local government. You can’t say Keynesian economics doesn’t work when it hasn’t been tried. And thank you, Ms. Bachmann, for endorsing Muammar Qaddafi.

9:40. When I hear Perry stumble through his ignorant answer about global warming, I find it’s much healthier to focus on how nice Brian Williams’ new haircut looks.

9:44. The crowd loves death.

9:46. I’ll give Brian Williams and John Harris credit: they have concentrated on forcing Perry to defend the full range of his nutty and offensive views. We’ll see whether it makes any difference.

9:49. Russell Contreras: “As a reporter who covers immigration among other things, I gotta ask…why they gotta have the Latino reporter ask the immigration question during the GOP debate?! Why not have him ask about, I dunno, space exploration.” Great observation.

9:50. And that’s a wrap.

An anti-Nixon mole in the control booth?

Just because Richard Nixon was paranoid doesn’t mean they weren’t out to get him.

There is a surprising (to say the least) passage near the top of the New York Times’ obit of movie director Arthur Penn this morning:

Mr. Penn’s direction may have also changed American history. He advised Senator John F. Kennedy during his watershed television debates with Richard M. Nixon in 1960 (and directed the broadcast of the third debate). Mr. Penn’s instructions to Kennedy — to look directly into the camera and keep his responses brief and pithy — helped give Kennedy an aura of confidence and calm that created a vivid contrast to Nixon, his more experienced but less telegenic Republican rival.

George Will, eat your heart out.

I couldn’t find anything amplifying on the Times’ parenthetical aside. But it stands as yet another battle in the decades-long war between Nixon and the media.

Update: Steve Stein solves the mystery.

Where was Jill Stein?

I don’t understand why WTKK hosts Jim Braude and Margery Eagan would moderate a gubernatorial debate that featured only three of the four candidates. If it was their call, they were wrong. If it was management’s call, they should have refused to have anything to do with it.

If ‘TKK’s aim was to have a debate between the two major-party candidates, Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick and Republican challenger Charlie Baker, I would have fewer objections — though still some. September is too soon to start excluding anyone.

But there was no logical reason to include independent candidate Tim Cahill, who has no chance of winning, and exclude Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein, who also has no chance.

Not only was it unfair to Stein, it was unfair to Baker. Every time Cahill is given oxygen, he hurts Baker with the conservative base Baker needs to secure if he is to defeat Patrick this November. At the same time, nearly all of Stein’s support comes from people who might otherwise be persuaded to vote for Patrick.

She also happens to be as thoughtful and substantive as any of them, but I suppose that’s beside the point.

Free the candidates from the media consortium

Jill Stein

The media consortium that is sponsoring two gubernatorial debates may exclude Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein because she hasn’t raised enough money, according to the Boston Globe, which is a member of the consortium, and the Boston Herald, which isn’t.

That raises a question: What are debates for?

Let’s start with the obvious. Only one of two things can plausibly occur on Election Day this November. Either Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick will be re-elected or his Republican opponent, Charlie Baker, will beat him. Neither Stein nor independent candidate Tim Cahill is going to win.

Given that, it’s ludicrous to believe that Cahill should be invited because he’s met the fundraising threshold while Stein should stay home. We should hear from both of them — or neither.

My own preference is that everyone be invited, at least when it’s early in the campaign. Give the longshots a chance to make their pitch and force the major-party candidates to react to their ideas. As we get closer to the wire, I think it’s legitimate to use polling in order to exclude candidates with no chance. I’d like to see Baker and Patrick debate one on one, but not yet.

Last Tuesday’s non-consortium debate, expertly moderated by WBZ-TV (Channel 4) political analyst and friend of Media Nation Jon Keller, showed it’s possible to let Baker and Patrick go at it while still giving Stein and Cahill a chance to have their say.

The biggest problem, I think, is the very existence of the consortium, which comprises the Globe, WCVB-TV (Channel 5), WHDH-TV (Channel 7), NECN, WGBH (Channel 2 and 89.7 FM) and WBUR Radio (90.9 FM).

The consortium was formed in 1994 to pressure U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy to debate his Republican rival, Mitt Romney. The gambit worked — and the fumble-mouthed Kennedy’s unexpectedly strong performances were a key to his re-election that year.

These days, though, there is never a shortage of debates. So, rather than a consortium, why not have media and civic organizations put together debates as they please, as Keller and WBZ did? You could have some debates featuring all four and others with just the two major-party candidates. You could even have a Cahill-Stein debate, which would be pretty interesting.

Let each group that wants to sponsor a debate set its own rules. The candidates can decide whether they want to participate, and the public can decide whether it wants to pay attention. But by all means, lets put an end to the media consortium and its attempts to control the political conversation.

Photo from JillStein.org.

An undercovered gubernatorial debate

Old friend Mark Leccese has an interesting blog post at Boston.com about the first televised gubernatorial debate, hosted Tuesday evening by another old friend, WBZ-TV (Channel 4) political analyst Jon Keller.

Leccese — God bless him — took in all of the local television coverage to determine how much attention the debate got. And he concludes that the debate was all but ignored, with the exception of NECN and, of course, WBZ.

The city’s two dailies, Leccese adds, gave it plenty of coverage.

Leccese wonders whether the lack of coverage was due to television executives’ wanting “to play down the story of the debate because it was on a rival station” — or if, instead, “local TV newscasts don’t find debates among the four people from whom the voters will choose the most powerful person in state government particularly newsworthy.”

My suspicion is that it’s a little bit of both.

If you missed the debate, you can still watch it online here. It’s also being broadcast in Spanish.

I caught about two-thirds of it in my car, and then watched the last 20 minutes. With the exception of a weird question about President Obama’s aunt, dropped in toward the end, I thought Keller turned in his usual fine job. He got out of the way and let Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick and Republican challenger Charlie Baker really mix it up, while still giving Green-Rainbow Party candidate Jill Stein and independent Tim Cahill a chance to make their case.

The debate was a ratings hit, too, writes the Herald’s Jessica Heslam — it came in third during the 7 p.m. time slot, not far behind the Red Sox and “Chronicle.”

Who won? I thought Patrick came off as by far the most personable of the four, and Baker scored some points on substance. As Michael Levenson reported in the Globe on Thursday, Patrick was wrong in claiming that Harvard Pilgrim Health Care was bailed out with “state aid” when Baker was its chief executive, an overreach that could come back to haunt the governor.

Perhaps the key was that Cahill, the state treasurer, proved to be a more effective debater than the substantive but sound-bite-challenged Stein. Since the conventional wisdom is that Cahill takes away votes from Baker and Stein from Patrick, perhaps Patrick (who really overdid it in sucking up to Cahill) was the winner by default.

Photo from wbztv.com.

Quick thoughts on the Senate debate

Three quick thoughts on last night’s Senate debate:

• It was by far the best and most energetic performance I’ve seen from the major-party candidates, Martha Coakley and Scott Brown. They really had a chance to mix it up, and though we learned nothing new, it was interesting nevertheless. Apparently Brown has decided he’ll live or die with his sneering references to “constitutional rights.”

• Joe Kennedy struck me as fringier than he has in previous appearances — especially the WBZ debate, where he was quite good. This time, he came off as Ron Paul with an even worse haircut.

• Two cheers for moderator David Gergen, who did an excellent job except for a longish segment in which he kept insisting that the candidates support cuts in middle-class benefits. What does the Gergen agenda have to do with the Senate race? Coakley finally put him in his place by reminding everyone of the tens of billions of dollars spent on Wall Street bailouts.

John Carroll’s got a nice take on the debate. And MassLive.com notes that “Massachusetts” is misspelled in a new Coakley ad attacking Brown (via David Bernstein).

Analyzing the Senate debate — and iMovie ’09


Following last night’s Massachusetts Senate debate on wbztv.com and wbz.com, I sat down with the moderator, political analyst Jon Keller, to get his thoughts on the debate and on the fine art of keeping such events on track.

My purpose, which Keller was generous enough to indulge, was to get some good news footage for my first experiment with iMovie ’09.

The basics are ridiculously easy. Inserting B-roll via iMovie’s cutaway command almost feels like cheating — you just drag and drop, and the software takes care of the rest. I had gotten to be relatively facile with iMovie 6, but B-roll on ’09 is much simpler and faster.

After separating the audio from the video, I was also able to start with Keller talking during the opening screen. But because iMovie ’09 lacks the precision timing of iMovie 6, I had to guess where to cut the video. It’s sheer luck that the audio and video are in reasonably good sync at the beginning of the piece.

Another annoyance: there doesn’t seem to be any way to add titles to B-roll photos and video. I tried to drop them in where they would make the most sense and where people’s identities would be obvious from the context. But that’s not always going to be good enough. Unless there’s a way to do it that I haven’t discovered, it’s a step down from iMovie 6.

The new iMovie really shines when it comes to uploading to YouTube — it handles the process automatically. No more futzing around with settings to see what looks best.

Overall, iMovie ’09 is a quantum leap over the wretched iMovie ’08, and I’m looking forward to working with it with my students next semester. I still like iMovie 6. But since it’s no longer available, I’m glad Apple has finally beaten its successor into reasonably good shape.

Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy Keller’s characteristically sharp analysis.