Cable pundits agree: Tuesday was a big night for Klobuchar and Buttigieg. Will it matter?

Amy Klobuchar earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Amy Klobuchar was having her moment. The Minnesota senator, an also-ran since entering the presidential race in the middle of a snowstorm last February, turned in her strongest debate performance Tuesday night. And now she was pressing her advantage, appearing on all three cable news outlets to repeat her message that Elizabeth Warren isn’t the only candidate with big ideas. Moderates can have them, too.

“There’s not just one idea out there. There are many,” she said on CNN. Klobuchar offered some pointed criticism of Warren as the night wore on, telling MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, “Her way or no way is how it feels every single time,” and Fox News’ Shannon Bream, “Your idea is not the only idea.”

Following Tuesday’s marathon Democratic debate, I spent an hour — 20 minutes each — with CNN, MSNBC and Fox News to get a feel for the instant take on what had just transpired. What I heard may or may not shape the conversation about the campaign in the days ahead. But the consensus was that Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg had a good night — and that, given Joe Biden’s continued inability to take charge of the race, one of them may emerge as the moderate challenger to Warren and Bernie Sanders, the leading progressives.

“To the extent that they gain, it could be at Biden’s expense,” Democratic analyst David Axelrod said on CNN. Added his nonpartisan colleague Gloria Borger: “In some ways Buttigieg explains Biden better than Biden explains Biden.”

On MSNBC, the message was the same, with Washington Post political reporter Robert Costa saying there was “a real impression tonight about Mayor Buttigieg trying to compete for that Biden vote.”

On Fox News, Bret Baier showed some clips of Biden’s “word salad” performance and said, “Joe Biden did not have a good night.” If Biden continues to fade, Baier added, Democrats will want to have the option of a moderate like Klobuchar or Buttigieg to go up against Warren or Sanders — who, Baier said (this was Fox, after all), are part of “the progressive far left.”

The big question is whether these predictions of a Klobuchar and/or Buttigieg breakout will become reality, or if they’re wishful thinking. Klobuchar may not even qualify for the next debate. The media thrive on conflict and a simple story line. In the most recent polls, Warren and Biden have established themselves as the front-runners, with Sanders not too far behind. A Biden-versus-Warren race satisfies the media’s desire for a clash between an establishment moderate trying to hang on against an insurgent progressive — but not if Biden can’t hold up his end.

Thus, Tuesday was the best opportunity for the second-tier candidates to emerge, with Klobuchar and Buttigieg making the most of it.

Buttigieg, oddly enough, had his best moment during the debate by going after Beto O’Rourke, who has been a non-factor in the campaign. O’Rourke is pushing a mandatory gun buyback plan that Buttigieg has called unworkable as well as a distraction from more modest measures that might actually get passed.

“Let’s … lead and not be limited by the polls and consultants and focus groups,” O’Rourke told Buttigieg during the debate — which brought a withering retort from Buttigieg.

“I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal,” Buttigieg said, a response that, among other things, was a not-so-subtle reminder of his military service.

During a post-debate appearance on CNN, Chris Cuomo tried to get Buttigieg to expand on his criticism of O’Rourke, but Buttigieg wasn’t going there. Instead, he stuck with his talking points that he is “the best positioned to beat Donald Trump,” and that Democrats win when they embrace generational change.

Klobuchar, on the other hand, was only too happy in her post-debate interviews to keep bashing Warren, for whom she has “a lot of respect.” (But of course!) In her interview with Chris Hayes, Klobuchar cast her own proposals to add a public option to the Affordable Care Act and rein in the pharmaceutical industry as ideas as worthy of discussion as Warren’s embrace of Medicare For All — and, ultimately, more practical. Of Warren’s oft-repeated contention that the moderates aren’t willing to fight, Klobuchar added, “I’ve really had it with that.”

Next it was on to Fox News, where Klobuchar repeated her criticisms in an interview with Shannon Bream. Klobuchar also made a pitch for right-leaning Fox News viewers who would presumably be out of reach for her more progressive adversary.

“There are a lot of moderate Republicans who agree with me,” she said, “and a lot of independents, and even some conservative Republicans.”

Thankfully, Klobuchar left out the right-wing conspiracy theorists who watch Fox’s prime-time lineup every night.

My own take? Warren was not perfect, but she was basically OK. The media are throwing a fit, not because she won’t answer their question about the tax increases that would be needed to pay for Medicare For All, but because she refuses to accept their framing. She’s answered the question: Medicare For All would result in lower overall costs for the middle class. She might be wrong, but you can’t call that an evasion.

Biden was so-so, showing some emotion over the false smears the Trump camp has directed at him and his son Hunter over Hunter’s business interests in Ukraine and China. Biden’s yelling at Warren and waving his hand in her face was, uh, interesting.

And Sanders, two weeks after suffering a heart attack, turned in maybe his best debate performance — making his points with his usual gusto, but also showing a warm and funny side, especially when Cory Booker noted that Sanders is in favor of medical marijuana.

“I’m not on it tonight,” Sanders responded.

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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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Georgia on their mind: Three long hours with cable news

The first results were coming in from Georgia’s special congressional election. And Tucker Carlson of the Fox News Channel had a theory to explain why Jon Ossoff, the Democrat, wasn’t heading toward a huge victory over his Republican opponent, Karen Handel: Ossoff was (gasp) a liberal elitist.

“Ossoff ought to be running away with it, but he’s not,” Carlson said. He sneered at Ossoff’s prodigious fundraising, saying that “all that money has come from angry liberals who live out of state.” As for whether Ossoff was capable of relating to voters in Georgia’s Sixth District, Carlson smirked, “He’s super-fit and way smarter than you are.”

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Why Brian Williams’ return will be a disaster for NBC News

Brian Williams
Brian Williams

I really don’t understand why the folks at NBC News think serial fabricator Brian Williams can be rehabilitated. CNN’s Brian Stelter reports that Williams’ second act could be announced as early as today.

Yes, Williams is receiving a significant demotion — he’s supposedly being shipped off to MSNBC, which had a nice run as the liberal alternative to Fox News before plunging into unwatched obscurity the past couple of years. But given that NBC News major domo Andrew Lack is reportedly seeking to revive MSNBC with an injection of actual news, how can a guy who set fire to his own credibility be part of that? As Jay Rosen put it on Twitter: “NBC has to explain how he’s lost the credibility to anchor the nightly news but still has the cred to do the news on MSNBC.”

Remember, we’re not just talking about Williams’ lies regarding his helicopter ride in Iraq. There have been multiple instances in which he overstated the facts or just made stuff up. The New York Times reports:

Almost immediately after the controversy erupted, NBC opened an investigation into Mr. Williams, led by Richard Esposito, the senior executive producer for investigations. Over the last several months it uncovered 10 to 12 instances in which he was thought to have exaggerated or fabricated accounts of his reporting, according to people familiar with the inquiry.

And just wait until one of Williams’ anonymous enemies posts a “closely held” clip reel on YouTube that is said to document his worst moments. The Washington Post has this to say:

The video, produced by the team of NBC journalists assigned to review Williams’s statements in media appearances, makes a vivid case against the anchor, according to people familiar with it, isolating a number of questionable statements Williams has made.

Professional cynic Michael Wolff told old friend Mark Leibovich recently that NBC never should have abandoned Williams in the first place. Rather, he said, the network’s executives should have done their best Roger Ailes imitation and defended him as aggressively as Fox News has defended its own business interests.

But this is stupidity masquerading as sagacity. NBC News is not the Fox News Channel. Fox’s product is right-wing talk. NBC News’ purported product is news, served up truthfully. In that market, Williams’ value plunged to zero or close to it within days of his exposure last winter. (The next person who says he would rather see Williams back in the anchor chair rather than Lester Holt will be the first.) I suspect Wolff knows that, but the man does enjoy being provocative.

As for Williams, he needs to leave journalism. And it’s not up to NBC to help him figure out how.

Photo (cc) by David Shankbone and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

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.

Conflicts of interest and the new media moguls

5790408612_8952178d3f_mWashington Post executive editor Martin Baron has rejected a demand by a group of left-leaning activists that the Post more fully disclose Amazon.com’s business dealings with the CIA.

Nearly 33,000 people have signed an online petition put together by RootsAction, headed by longtime media critic Norman Solomon, to call attention to Amazon’s $600 million contract to provide cloud services to the CIA. The Post’s owner is Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon. Here is the text of the petition:

A basic principle of journalism is to acknowledge when the owner of a media outlet has a major financial relationship with the subject of coverage. We strongly urge the Washington Post to be fully candid with its readers about the fact that the newspaper’s new owner, Jeff Bezos, is the founder and CEO of Amazon which recently landed a $600 million contract with the CIA. The Washington Post’s coverage of the CIA should include full disclosure that the sole owner of the Post is also the main owner of Amazon — and Amazon is now gaining huge profits directly from the CIA.

Baron, in his response, argues that the Post “has among the strictest ethics policies in the field of journalism, and we vigorously enforce it. We have routinely disclosed corporate conflicts when they were directly relevant to our coverage. We reported on Amazon’s pursuit of CIA contracts in our coverage of plans by Jeff Bezos to purchase The Washington Post.” Baron goes on to point out that the Post has been a leader in reporting on the National Security Agency and on the CIA’s involvement in the Colombian government’s fight against an insurgency, writing:

You can be sure neither the NSA nor the CIA has been pleased with publication of their secrets.

Neither Amazon nor Jeff Bezos was involved, nor ever will be involved, in our coverage of the intelligence community.

(Note: I first learned about the petition from Greg Mitchell’s blog, Pressing Issues.)

The exchange between RootsAction and Baron highlights the conflicts of interest that can arise when wealthy individuals such as Bezos buy in to the newspaper business. It’s a situation that affects The Boston Globe as well, as its editors juggle the lower-stakes conflict between John Henry’s ownership of the Globe and his majority interest in the Red Sox.

Baron himself is not unfamiliar with the Red Sox conflict, as the New York Times Co., from whom Henry bought the Globe, owned a minority stake in the team and in New England Sports Network, which carries Red Sox games, during most of Baron’s years as Globe editor.

The way the Globe handled it during those years was just about right: don’t disclose in sports stories, but disclose whenever the paper covers the Red Sox as a business. Current Globe editor Brian McGrory has insisted that Henry will not interfere. Henry, in a speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last week, said he would not breech the wall of separation between the Globe’s news operations and its business interests.

Of course, it’s not as though the era in which news organizations were typically owned by publicly traded corporations was free of such conflicts. (The Times Co., after all, is a publicly traded corporation, though the Sulzberger family calls the shots.) Media critic Danny Schechter noted in his book “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception” that MSNBC — then in its pre-liberal phase — was a cheerleader for the war in Iraq even as its then-corporate parent, General Electric Co., was a leading military contractor.

But the rise of a new breed of media moguls such as Bezos, Henry and Aaron Kushner of the Orange County Register, who buy their way into the news business with their own personal wealth, seems likely to bring the issue of conflicts to the fore. The same is true of a media entrepreneur of a different sort — eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who is launching an online venture called First Look Media with (among others) the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.

It is the very fact that these individuals have been successful that makes them such intriguing players in the quest to reinvent the news business. But disclosure and non-interference need to be at the forefront of their ethical codes.

Media Nation’s top 10 posts of 2012

be02f758328311e2b55612313804a1b1_7Work-force reductions at The Boston Globe. The end of WFNX as an over-the-air radio station. “Local” news from the Philippines. Possible bankruptcy at GateHouse Media.

These were a few of the top 10 Media Nation posts of 2012 as determined by Google Analytics and WordPress’ own internal statistics.

Most people who read Media Nation come in via the home page, which means that any notion of a “top 10” is dubious. Usually it means that a particular post got retweeted a lot on Twitter or was linked to by a popular media website such as JimRomenesko.com.

But the list isn’t entirely without meaning — and one takeaway for me is that Media Nation’s role as an aggregator and a curator may be its most important. I’ll keep that in mind in the year ahead.

Here is my top 10 for 2012.

1. The Boston Globe keeps on shrinking (July 23). Despite some encouraging signs in the form of rising digital-subscription numbers and a continued commitment to first-rate journalism, The Boston Globe, like nearly all daily newspapers, continues to struggle financially. Last summer Media Nation obtained a memo from Globe publisher Christopher Mayer announcing another wave of downsizing at the Globe and its sister paper, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester.

2. Donna Halper on the future of radio (May 17). Friend of Media Nation Donna Halper was kind enough to write a guest commentary, and her post turned out to be the second most popular of 2012. Halper wrote following an announcement by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group that it would sell WFNX’s broadcast frequency, 101.7 FM, to Clear Channel. Fortunately for local music fans, by the end of 2012 WFNX and the Globe’s RadioBDC were engaged in a spirited competition of online-only local music stations — the real future of radio.

3. Long-distance “local” journalism (July 5). The public radio program “This American Life” and the journalist Anna Tarkov reported extensively on Journatic, which helps community newspapers cuts costs by outsourcing some of their local coverage. At its worst, news was being compiled by underpaid Filipino workers writing under fake bylines. Dubbed “pink slime” journalism by one former practitioner, Journatic underscored what debt-ridden corporate chains will do to survive — and thus demonstrated the importance of independent local journalism.

4. And Joe Scarborough thinks “Morning Joe” is awesome (Jan. 1). A full-page ad in The New York Times for the wretched MSNBC program “Morning Joe” started the gears whirring when I noticed one of its celebrity endorsers was Tom Brokaw. Who, uh, appears on “Morning Joe.” I got to work, and soon found that Politico, which was quoted as praising the program, had an undisclosed partnership. The ad even stooped to using seemingly positive quotes from two reviewers who actually didn’t like it much at all. Disingenuous, to say the least.

5. More bad news for GateHouse Media (March 19). By now it’s not exactly news when executives at GateHouse Media, struggling with $1.2 billion in debt, pay themselves handsome bonuses. (Nor is that unusual at newspaper companies.) In 2012, though, there was a wrinkle at the chain, which owns some 100 community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts. Jack Sullivan of CommonWealth Magazine paged through the company’s financial disclosures and discovered that officials were openly raising the possibility of a bankruptcy filing.

6. David Gregory debates himself (Oct. 1). The host of “Meet the Press” was brought in to moderate the second televised debate between Republican Sen. Scott Brown and his Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren. Unfortunately, it was all about David Gregory. Good thing the candidates were forced to weigh in on whether Bobby Valentine deserved a second year as Red Sox manager. Warren blew the question but won the election.

7. From Newtown, a plea for media restraint (Dec. 17). I republished an open letter from John Voket, associate editor of The Newtown Bee, to his colleagues at the New England Newspaper & Press Association following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Voket wrote about “reporters and media crews invading the yards and space of grieving survivors, school staff and responders,” and asked editors “to remind your correspondents that most are still requesting to be left alone.” A heartfelt message from ground zero.

8. Calling foul on politicians who lie (Aug. 30). It would be hard to come up with a more falsehood-laden performance than U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention. Ryan’s lies prompted me to wonder how far the balance-obsessed media would be willing to go in labeling them for what they were.

9. At CNN, getting it first and getting it wrong (June 28). My instant reaction to CNN’s false report that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act. At least CNN executives flogged themselves in the public square. As we later learned, Fox News made the same mistake — and refused to apologize.

10. An unconscionable vote against the disabled (Dec. 5). My reaction to Senate Republicans’ rejection of a United Nations treaty on the rights of the disabled — a treaty modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act, championed by President George H.W. Bush, a Republican.

Ghosts of 2011. Oddly enough, the single most popular post of 2012 was one I wrote in 2011 — a fairly terse item on Jay Severin’s return to the Boston airwaves, a comeback that proved to be brief. As I wrote last year, I’ve put up several Severin posts that have generated huge traffic, and I have no idea why.

Brown’s reasons for rejecting debate make no sense

Tom Brokaw

This commentary is also online at the Huffington Post.

What we were talking about, in case U.S. Sen. Scott Brown’s diversionary tactics led you astray, was a televised debate, held before a neutral audience, to be moderated by Tom Brokaw. Everything else is baloney.

As you no doubt already know, Brown made two demands that had to be met before he would agree to a debate with his Democratic rival, Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren.

The first was that Vicki Kennedy, president of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, which would sponsor the debate, refrain from endorsing a candidate for “the duration of the Senate race.”

The second was that the debate be carried only by local media outlets and not by “out-of-state cable networks with a reputation for political advocacy” — clear reference to the liberal outlet MSNBC, which had been mentioned as a possibility.

Both demands were ridiculous because they were irrelevant. But when Vicki Kennedy rejected the first of those demands, that was enough for Brown to say no.

(At this point I suppose I should include a non-disclosure: I’m not related to those Kennedys.)

Brown might have been able to make a reasonable case for asking Vicki Kennedy not to endorse until after the debate. But demanding that she refrain for “the duration” was just silly. If the media consortium that includes the Boston Globe schedules a debate, will Brown insist that the Globe not endorse? And what will Brown say if the Boston Herald, as is its wont, puts together its own debate? Surely he won’t ask the paper to withhold its all-but-certain Brown endorsement.

As for MSNBC, the debate organizers could prevent the channel from carrying it live. Afterwards, though, Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and company would be free to show clips and comment on them whether they had carried the full debate or not. The fair-use provision of the copyright law guarantees that — not to mention the First Amendment.

And why did I say the debate would be held before a neutral audience? Because you can be sure the Brown and Warren campaigns would insist on equal numbers of partisans in the audience. So the Kennedy Institute’s sponsorship isn’t an issue, either.

I know some observers have questioned Brokaw’s alleged liberal bias. But since that hasn’t been raised by the Brown campaign, we have to assume he had no problem with Brokaw as moderator. When Brokaw moderated a debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, he seemed mainly interested in making sure neither candidate exceeded his allotted time. Liberal or not, Brokaw has earned his status as a fair-minded journalist who can be trusted not to throw the debate to either candidate.

It’s also hard to figure why Brown suddenly has a problem with Vicki Kennedy or the Kennedy Institute, given that he took part in a debate with Martha Coakley two years ago that was co-sponsored by the institute without setting any preconditions. As Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis points out, it was only a year ago that Brown couldn’t say enough good things about the late Ted Kennedy’s widow.

Globe columnist Scot Lehigh thinks Brown’s demands were “reasonable,” and he gives the senator credit for sticking to them. Yet Lehigh doesn’t tell us what Brown could possibly gain by failing to take part.

As my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder, an expert on political debates, puts it, “They’re making such an ­effort to portray Brown as someone with bipartisan credentials who can work with Democrats, and yet here’s this relatively mild example of cooperating with a Democrat, and they’re balking at it.”

Boston Phoenix political columnist David Bernstein wonders if Brown is trying to curry favor with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which has had its own issues with Vicki Kennedy.

Who knows what Brown and his advisers are thinking? Their political astuteness is generally beyond question. Maybe this will prove to be a smart move. Right now, though, it looks like a rare misstep, especially curious given that Brown initially made the Warren campaign look flat-footed with his rapid acceptance of several debate invitations.

My own bias is in favor of as many debates as possible, regardless of the venue. For instance, I don’t understand why Warren won’t say yes to WBZ Radio (AM 1030) talk-show host Dan Rea, who is conservative but is as fair as they come.

The candidates really don’t have anything better to do. How would we prefer they spend their time? Making television ads? Attending fundraisers? Of course not. They should spend as much time as possible side by side, talking about the issues. It’s not always the most edifying experience, but it’s better than any conceivable alternatives.

Photo (cc) by Michael Kwan and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

MSNBC slings it in full-page ad for “Morning Joe”

"Weird"! "Completely unnecessary"!

We can assume any advertisement that quotes selectively from what people have said about the product being touted is going to be at least somewhat deceptive. But I was so taken aback by one quote in a full-page ad for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in today’s New York Times that I thought I ought to do some digging. The ad, titled “The Most Influential Political Show in America,” appears on the back page of the Sunday Review.

I can’t say I’ve seen a lot of “Morning Joe,” as I’ve never been someone who turns on the TV set in the morning, even when I’m home. I caught a bit of it when I was recuperating from elbow surgery last year, and was put off by the smug, insidery tone. The participation of tired, predictable pundits like Mike Barnicle and Mark Halperin, Salon’s Hack of the Year (and the co-author of a book that used anonymous sources to slime the terminally ill Elizabeth Edwards), doesn’t exactly lure me in any deeper.

The quote in the Times ad that caught my eye, “the best morning talk going,” is from Tom Brokaw, which is innocuous enough — except that Brokaw is, well, a regular on “Morning Joe,” as well as a longtime member of the NBC family. Perhaps that’s not quite as bad as quoting Scarborough as saying that “Joe Scarborough is the sharpest political analyst on television,” but it’s close. So let’s keep going, shall we?

Politico, the ad tells us, wants us to know that “Morning Joe’s team has become the insider’s insider.” I cannot find that particular quote anywhere. What I can find, though, is a 2010 story from the Associated Press informing me that Politico and “Morning Joe” are business partners.

That same AP story is the source of yet another blurb from the ad: “An important wake-up call for political and media leaders.” The full quote doesn’t quite contradict that, but nevertheless places it in a rather different context: “An affiliation with Politico that began about six months ago helped cement the program’s status as an important wake-up call for political and media leaders.”

Speaking of different contexts, the ad also blurbs the phrase “appallingly entertaining,” taken from the New Yorker. I looked that one up, and here’s what Nancy Franklin wrote in 2008: “It’s a weird, completely unnecessary show, and it’s appallingly entertaining.” OK, not a 180-degree contradiction of “appallingly entertaining,” but you will note that MSNBC did not grab “completely unnecessary” for the ad.

Moving right along, the ad cites Forbes as referring to “Morning Joe” as “the hottest morning show.” I tracked that one down to a column written for Forbes.com by veteran journalist James Brady in 2008 — who sounded none too pleased with that development. Bear with me, because this one needs a little air to breathe:

Is the media now really the story? Are journalists now the stars? Is all this incestuous, or is it clever reporting? Just consider these recent examples, a few weighty, some trivial, others clearly absurd:

“Morning Joe,” a couple of hours of political dish on MSNBC hosted by a glib onetime congressman, is the hottest morning show around. Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live for a time was getting more ink than the candidates with her wickedly spot-on devastation of Gov. Palin. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post backs McCain and blasts Obama while Rupert himself calls Obama “a rock star.” Larry King gets interviewed and reveals to columnist Cindy Adams that his own first great interview was with Eleanor Roosevelt when her husband was still president. Since FDR died in April of 1945, we learn the precocious Mr. King interviewed the First Lady when he was 12.

It doesn’t seem to me that Brady is describing “Morning Joe” as must-see TV.

In 2009, Newsweek described “Morning Joe” as “a serious-minded evening show still wearing its bathrobe and its slippers.” The ad, naturally, does not tell us — as Media Bistro does — that the writer, Colter Walls, had previously worked for MSNBC; that Newsweek and MSNBC were content partners; and that the then-editor of Newsweek, Jon Meacham, was a regular on “Morning Joe.” The conflict-of-interest trifecta!

Some of the blurbs are legit. The New York Times and the American Journalism Review really did give “Morning Joe” a thumb’s up. And some of them are too wonderfully strange for me to want to check. For instance, when you see a quote from Parade imitator USA Weekend calling something “the thinking viewer’s choice,” you just want it to be true.

My bottom line: “‘Morning Joe’ is a … show about politics.”

Photo (cc) by Dave Winer and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

One from the heart

I’m not an Ed Schultz fan. And of course MSNBC did the right thing by suspending Schultz for a week for calling Laura Ingraham a “right-wing slut” and a “talk slut” on his radio show. But give him this: I can’t remember the last time I saw an apology as abject and sincere as Schultz’s. I hope we see a better Ed when he returns.

Ingraham accepts Schultz’s apology.