This is ostensibly a column about the Steele dossier. But it’s really a column about the media — or, rather, what we mean when we talk about “the media.”
You remember the Steele dossier, right? Just before Donald Trump’s inauguration as president in 2017, we learned that intelligence officials had briefed both Trump and outgoing President Barack Obama about a report that contained some lurid accusations. The most famous: that there was a video of Trump consorting with prostitutes in a Russian hotel room, which became known far and wide as “the pee tape.”
The golden age of cable news, in my curmudgeonly view, stretched from 1980, when CNN was founded, to 1996, when Fox News and MSNBC came along, ending CNN’s monopoly.
It’s not that I like monopolies. Competition is good. But after the one became three, the race to the bottom was on, with all of them going with opinionated talk shows in prime time rather than covering the news. It almost doesn’t matter that CNN and MSNBC are liberal and relatively grounded in the truth while Fox is firmly a part of the conspiratorial extreme right. The point is that if it’s news you want rather than hot takes, you need to turn elsewhere.
But if the golden age has long since passed, the green age only started to fade recently. From 2015 through Jan. 6, 2021, all things Trump drove cable news ratings and revenues into the stratosphere. So what’s next for cable news in the post-Trump era? As I wrote in March, the future looks uncertain, with cable news ratings — and, in fact, audiences for all news organizations — down considerably. When the news is more or less normal and inspires something other than horror and perverse fascination, well, maybe “Beat Bobby Flay” looks like a better alternative.
Earlier this week, Vanity Fair published a lengthy article on the state of cable news by media reporter Joe Pompeo. It’s filled with interesting details and insights. What’s depressing about it, though, is that there isn’t a single executive who’s quoted, either on the record or anonymously, who talks about how moving the focus away from Trump might give them an opportunity to serve journalism and democracy better than they do now. It was all about ratings before. It still is.
Pompeo quotes Rich Greenfield, a media analyst with LightShed Partners, on what the future is likely to hold:
It honestly feels like we’re back to the run-up to the 2016 election, like we’re going back in time five years to when cable news was really about old people. The volatility, the anger, the hatred that was spewed across cable news over the last few years, from both sides, clearly brought an audience. I would feel very comfortable saying I don’t think we’ll ever see sustained full-year ratings like we’ve just seen.
OK, so maybe that’s how cable news will serve democracy: by reaching smaller audiences.
At the beginning of 2019, I wrote a column headlined “Five Ways to De-Trumpify Your Life.” No. 4: Stop watching cable news. There are many superior sources of news and information. If there’s major breaking news taking place, sure, I’ll tune in to CNN. If Anderson Cooper is at the anchor desk, I might even stick around.
But the class of the television news universe is the “PBS NewsHour,” which has improved and toughened up considerably over the past few years. We record it every night; we rarely watch the whole thing, but we appreciate the intelligence and context, which you just can’t get elsewhere.
And yes, I’ll watch Rachel Maddow occasionally, too. She’s smart and well-informed, and her politics are pretty much the same as mine. But it’s entertainment as much as it is news, and what’s important isn’t always entertaining.
As described by Pompeo, it sounds like cable news is going to be the same as it ever was, only with fewer viewers. It’s a lost opportunity. But what did we expect?
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.
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.”
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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that MSNBC talk-show host Rachel Maddow, whose network recently took out a full-page ad so that she could tell U.S. Sen. Scott Brown that she’s not running for his seat, would actually be the best candidate the Democrats could put up in 2012.
It’s not that Maddow is so wonderful, although she’s pretty good. Rather, it’s that the death of Ted Kennedy exposed the hollowed-out core of a party that dominates state government, but that has failed to develop any new talent in a generation. The one exception: Gov. Deval Patrick. And he’ll be lucky to get re-elected.
I thought we’d begin this morning with Rachel Maddow’s scorching commentary about President-elect Barack Obama’s decision to ask the Rev. Rick Warren to deliver the invocation on Inauguration Day. It’s long, but some righteous anger is called for, as Obama — like so many politicians before him — has chosen to make gay and lesbian Americans the targets of his desire for political expedience.
Religious leaders obviously have every right to speak out in opposition to anti-discrimination measures, even in the degrading terms that Rev. Warren has used with regard to same-sex marriage. But that does not confer upon them the right to a place of honor in the inauguration ceremony of a president whose stated commitment to LGBT rights won him the strong support of the great majority of those who support that cause.
Obama shouldn’t have invited Warren. That said, there are some layers and complexities to this that are worth thinking about. In an open letter to Obama, the Human Rights Campaign asserts: “Rev. Warren cannot name a single theological issue that he and vehemently, anti-gay theologian James Dobson disagree on.” And, indeed, Warren was a leader in the fight to pass the loathsome Proposition 8 in California.
But to assert that Warren, therefore, is no different from Dobson is to overlook some inconvenient facts. Obama himself opposes same-sex marriage, though, to his credit, he also opposed Proposition 8. We can’t know what Obama is thinking beyond what he tells us. But I suspect his religious view of the world is rather more conservative than that of your typical secular liberal. In any case, I imagine that most of the very few evangelicals who voted for Obama hold Warren in higher esteem than Dobson, who isn’t just a hate-monger, but who’s genuinely weird.
What makes Warren interesting is that he may be on a journey of his own. (Or he may be talking out of both sides of his mouth. Or he may just be confused.) Earlier this week, Beliefnet.com posted an interview with Warren whose lowlights have gotten a lot of attention — that is, he compares same-sex marriage to pedophila and incest. Ugh.
Yet, at the beginning of the interview, when Beliefnet’s Steve Waldman asks Warren whether divorce or gay marriage “is a greater threat to the American family,” Warren calls the answer a “no-brainer” and says “divorce, no doubt about it.” And, as Waldman notes in the blog entry accompanying the interview, Warren appears to endorse civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, a stance for which a lesser-known evangelical leader just got cast out into wilderness.
But wait. As you’ll see, having seemed to stake out reasonably progressive ground, Warren backtracked (or clarified; take your pick), writing to Waldman that he meant no such thing:
I now see you asked about civil UNIONS -and I responded by talking about civil RIGHTS. Sorry. They are two different issues. No American should ever be discriminated against because of their beliefs. Period. But a civil union is not a civil right.
It gets worse.
Still, I’m reminded of something the late Molly Ivins once said about Ross Perot: “He’s the best right-wing populist billionaire we’ve got in Texas, so if you don’t like him, you’re out of luck.” Warren may be the best conservative evangelical minister we’ve got. So, on a certain level, it makes sense for Obama to have a relationship with Warren, who, as we’ve been told over and over, is fairly progressive on issues such as global warming, poverty and AIDS.
But you can see where this goes, can’t you? All I’m doing here is discussing the politics of it — that is, I’m taking the line that perhaps it makes sense for Obama to disappoint his gay and lesbian supporters and their allies momentarily in order to reach out to an evangelical leader, and perhaps even to push him to the center (or at least to less hurtful rhetoric) on cultural issues. Fine.
And, actually, no, it’s not fine. The problem is that it’s hard to make the case that Obama is taking a principled stand. The danger is that Obama’s outreach to Warren will be seen not as a wise move, but merely as a clever one. If Warren genuinely evolves over time, we may look back at this moment as an example of Obama’s wisdom.
If not, then it will only stand out as a moment that Obama outsmarted himself, and let down some of his most ardent supporters.