Cable news in the age of McLuhan

McLuhan (right) in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall"

Could Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann have thrived in the days of fuzzy, black-and-white television sets? It’s a question I found myself asking after having introduced myself to the work of media theorist Marshall McLuhan earlier this year.

The result — my review of Douglas Coupland’s quirky “Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!” — appears in the new issue of Nieman Reports.

The O-and-O question comes about from McLuhan’s definitions of “hot” and “cool” media. To McLuhan, writing in the 1950s and ’60s, radio and movies were “hot” media because they were all-encompassing, leaving little to the imagination. Television was “cool” because the flickering images were so inadequate — that is, television was a participatory medium, forcing the viewer to fill in the missing information and thus requiring his active participation.

Thus, according to McLuhan, hot personalities who did well on radio were failures on television, which favored bland, soothing folks upon whom the viewers could project their own thoughts and desires.

In one of his two major works, 1964’s “Understanding Media,” McLuhan seemingly anticipated today’s flat-panel HDTVs, writing that “‘improved’ TV” would no longer be television as he understood it. My guess is that if McLuhan were alive, he would tell us that the talk-radio style of television that works on cable would have been a failure before technological advancements made it easier for the viewer to just sit back and vegetate.

Not to get carried away — after all, “The Beverly Hillbillies” was popular when McLuhan was writing — but one interpretation might be that the harder you have to work, the less willing you are to be told what to think.

You just can’t keep a bad word down

For those of us in the dwarfism community, it sometimes seems that the outside world is mainly interested in two things: how people with dwarfism are depicted in popular culture and the continued debate over the word “midget,” which is regarded as offensive by nearly everyone within the community.

Here is former New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt’s 2009 column in which he acknowledges that the “M”-word is offensive and would no longer be used in the Times.

Last week the “M”-word popped up when commentator Bernard Goldberg used it on “The O’Reilly Factor” while critiquing former MSNBC talk-show host Keith Olbermann. In observing that Olbermann’s relatively low ratings in comparison to Fox News were nevertheless higher than anyone else’s at MSNBC, Goldberg compared Olbermann to “the tallest midget in the room.”

My friend Bill Bradford, who’s the senior vice president of Little People of America, called my attention to it on Facebook, and we hashed it out a bit. My inclination was to give a pass to Goldberg on the grounds of his well-documented cluelessness. But another friend, Julie Holland, quickly discovered that Goldberg knew exactly what he was saying. Last February, in defending the use of such charming terms as “Negro” and “retarded,” Goldberg told Bill O’Reilly:

If you use the word midget, the little people community are going to jump all over you. I mean not literally, but they’re going to get on you.

That sound you hear in the background is O’Reilly snickering.

On Sunday, meanwhile, the Boston Herald ran a feature on a show at the Seaport World Trade Center charmingly called “Motorcycles, Midgets and Mayhem,” starring dwarf wrestlers called the Half-Pint Brawlers.

Another LPA friend, District 1 director Barbara Spiegel, is quoted as objecting both to the spectacle and to the use of the “M”-word. The story, by Renee Nadeau Algarin, is benign enough, and I’m not suggesting the Herald should have ignored it. But it’s accompanied by an extensive slide show and a come-on to buy reprints. The comments are about as bad as you would expect.

There’s no question that the way people with dwarfism are depicted in the media is far more positive than it was a generation or two ago. Reality shows such as “Little People, Big World” and “The Little Couple” have helped normalize dwarfism in the eyes of the public.

Yet in the more benighted corners of the media, it seems that things haven’t changed much at all.

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.

False equivalence at MSNBC

When Politico confronted MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann with campaign donations he’d made, he came clean immediately. Joe Scarborough? Not so much. So why did Scarborough get the same two-day suspension as Olbermann? Shouldn’t he have received — oh, three or four days?

Howie Carr writes checks, too

I’m late with this, but I want to point out that Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub recently reported that Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr donated $100 to Royall Switzler, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for state representative in his hometown of Wellesley.

Back in the day, Switzler was a legislative firebrand. But his political career came to a halt after he was caught exaggerating his military record while he was running for governor in 1986.

Carr, of course, is already hopelessly compromised because of his various speaking appearances on behalf of Republicans. Just click here.

Over at the liberal blog Blue Mass. Group, people are talking about Carr’s latest line-crossing in light of Keith Olbermann’s suspension and subsequent apology.

Not to repeat what I’ve said previously, but Carr’s activism on behalf of the Republican Party is not at all unusual for a radio talk-show host, which is why I stress his Herald connection. It is very unusual for a news columnist — especially one who, like Carr, still calls Democratic politicians for comment and snickers when they decline to call him back.

One final word (I hope) on Olbermann

Olbermann addressing his suspension last night. Click on image to see video.

One thing I could have made clearer in what has proved to be a fascinating discussion about Keith Olbermann’s political donations is that my support for the principle of journalistic independence should not be confused with support for the specific NBC News policy that tripped him up.

The policy, as reported by Politico, is absurd, as it cites the need to remain an “impartial journalist” as its justification, and states that employees may make contributions if they seek permission:

Anyone working for NBC News who takes part in civic or other outside activities may find that these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns or groups that espouse controversial positions. You should report any such potential conflicts in advance to, and obtain prior approval of, the president of NBC News or his designee.

No one would consider Olbermann to be an impartial journalist, and I can easily believe he had no idea he was violating policy when he donated to three Democratic politicians. Not to be belabor the point, but the principle that I think matters is independence, not impartiality. Check out the nine principles in Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s “Elements of Journalism.” You will note that two of them deal with independence, but objectivity isn’t even mentioned.

In his commentary last night, Olbermann implicitly described himself as a journalist by saying that the policy needs to be reconsidered in light of “21st-century journalism.” He is doing journalism of a sort. If you can find a meaningful difference between one of Olbermann’s “special comments” and Frank Rich’s Sunday column in the New York Times (one of my favorite reads), then you’re able to draw distinctions that elude me. And I don’t think anyone would argue that Rich isn’t a journalist.

Olbermann last night not only admitted he should have changed a “Worst Person” segment because of one of his donations, but he also quite properly pointed out the problems that would have ensued if he had contributed to Arizona congressman Raul Grijalva before having him on the show rather than after. That strikes me as a pretty good summation of why even opinionated hosts shouldn’t write checks to politicians.

A final observation: A number of people have criticized me and others for obsessing over Olbermann’s small contributions when Fox News hosts such as Sean Hannity routinely donate to politicians, and when Fox News major domo Rupert Murdoch has no scruples about giving $1 million to the Republican Governors Association.

They’re right, of course. Fox News is strictly a talk-show operation — the video equivalent of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. MSNBC aspires to something higher than that. To say that MSNBC is a mirror image of Fox News is akin to arguing that the Nation is just like the Drudge Report. Rachel Maddow explained the difference quite well on Friday. But I don’t think it’s necessary to say “of course, Fox is worse” every time I write about MSNBC.

NBC handled the Olbermann matter badly right from the start, though the final result — a two-day suspension — strikes me as fitting the offense rather well. I’m glad Olbermann is back. And I agree with him that NBC ought to take another look at its policy. I’d make it tougher and clearer.

Welcome back, Keith

And thank you for making my point. Toward the end of “Countdown” tonight, Keith Olbermann said he should have changed a “Worst Person” segment because he had donated to that person’s opponent. I can’t think of a better argument for insisting that even opinion-mongers like Olbermann maintain some independence from the people they comment on — and for banning MSNBC hosts from making campaign contributions.

Update: You can now watch the clip.

Another take on Olbermann’s donations

By Marjorie Arons-Barron

Keith Olbermann’s “indefinite suspension” for violating NBC’s policy barring donations to political candidates turned out to be just two days off the air. Which probably makes sense because his misstep was not in making the donations to three Democratic candidates but in not informing the NBC powers that be, as the network’s policy demands. Put in that context, the “punishment” was just a company’s way of showing who’s boss, of not letting an employee act “too big for his britches.”

The real question remains unanswered: should real journalists make donations to political candidates? The short answer to that is No. Not. Never. If you’re gathering and reporting the news, you need to project an open-mindedness and the ability to tell a story without bias. The Globe’s Brian Mooney and the Herald’s Jessica Van Sack would be sacked if they ever contributed to candidates, I am sure, and their writing would lose credibility.

Keith Olbermann is a journalist only in the broadest sense of the word, “a writer or editor for a news medium.” But the definition of journalism I grew up with was closer to Webster’s definition of one engaged in “the direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation.” That is not what Keith Olbermann is about. Given how clearly he states his political opinions and preferences, he is really more of a news entertainer, just like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity on Fox. If NBC really cares about separating news from opinion, it should bar Olbermann from anchoring coverage of election night returns.

Even when I earned my living as an editorialist, always writing and airing opinion, I would never contribute to a candidate because it would appear to compromise my ability to gather information (on which the opinion would eventually be based) in the most neutral way. I would hope that today’s editorial writers abide by that rule. For they are, in the best sense of the word, opinion journalists.

But in the cable news business, the pitchmen (and women) on Fox and MSNBC are shilling for their viewpoints and favorite candidates on a daily basis. As David Carr points out in Monday’s NY Times, that amounts to an in-kind contribution. Fox News has even had three presidential hopefuls (Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin) on the payroll as commentators. Its website headlines Christine O’Donnell, Carl Paladino, Meg Whitman and Joe Miller.

Fox is fine with all this (hey, Rupert Murdoch donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association). MSNBC doesn’t ban donations. It only wants those who donate to inform the higher-ups. This is a distinction without a difference.

In today’s cable environment, a defined point of view is part of the station’s brand. It’s why those inclined to the right tune into Fox and those on the left tune into MSNBC. What difference can it make at this time that their stars are donating to candidates? I may not like it, but, if I’m in the market for balanced and credible news, theirs are not the places to which I turn.

Marjorie Arons-Barron is president of Barron Associates Worldwide and the former editorial director for WCVB-TV (Channel 5). You can read her blog here.

Olbermann to return on Tuesday

That’s a two-day suspension, which sounds just about right. Olbermann has a reputation for being volatile and self-righteous, so I’m glad he didn’t turn this into something more. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Maddow on Olbermann and the Fox money machine

Let Rachel explain it to you. Brilliant stuff.