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The Loudest Voice…

“Imagine a NASCAR driver mentally preparing for a race knowing one of the drivers will be drunk. That’s what prepping for this debate is like.”

It is hard to find a parallel in American political history when one news organization – perhaps I should put that word “news” in quotes – has played such an outsized role in determining who gets covered and ultimately who gets nominated by one of the major political parties.

Roger Ailes, the Big Boss at Fox News

Roger Ailes, the Big Boss at Fox News

For good or bad much of the Republican presidential primary process is now largely in the hands of Fox News boss Roger Ailes, a profoundly partisan fellow who displays a deft touch for marketing the outlandish and who has built a brand and banked a bundle by zealously appealing to the shrinking band of very conservative older white voters who will decide who wins the Republican nomination in 2016. Ailes will ultimately determine which of the GOP candidates crowd on to the debate stage in Ohio on Thursday just as he will decree who watches from the wings.

There have been occasions in American political history when one media big foot or another have wielded disproportionate sway over a nomination or a candidate, but there has never been anything like Fox News.

William Loeb made his Manchester, N.H. paper both feared and hated

William Loeb made his Manchester, N.H. paper both feared and hated

Crusty old William Loeb ran his hard right Manchester Union Leader newspaper in New Hampshire like the tyrant he was and often shaped the outcome of his states first in the nation primary. Loeb used his front-page editorials to call Democrats ”left-wing kooks,” John Kennedy ”the No. 1 liar in the United States,” Nelson A. Rockefeller a ”wife-swapper” and Dwight Eisenhower a ”stinking hypocrite.” Loeb wasn’t above publicizing a phony letter designed to diminish Maine Senator Edmund Muskie’s 1972 candidacy. The letter was later shown to be part of a “dirty trick” effort promulgated by Richard Nixon’s campaign, which not incidentally employed Roger Ailes to help Nixon win in 1968. Loeb, a bully with barrels of ink, even attacked Muskie’s wife. It was one of the great smears in American political history and it worked.

In earlier decades press barons like McCormick and Hearst controlled their home state delegations and fancied themselves kingmakers, but none had the national reach of Fox and the personal sway of Roger Ailes.

Fox and Republicans Captives of Each Other…

Fox has become the Republican brand and vice versa, which seems to delight the most passionate and most conservative voters, but also means the network and those favored with its air time are mostly preaching to the Tea Party choir – 30 or so percent of the American electorate that thinks the last great president was Barry Goldwater. As if to underscore the tangled lines among Republicans and Fox News, Governor John Kasich over the weekend “walked back,” as they say, which is to disavow the pithy tweet from his strategist that begins this piece. John Weaver’s comment was funny, aimed it would seem at both Donald Trump and Fox and had the added benefit of being true. You won’t be surprised to know that Kasich did his walking back during an interview on Fox.

Meanwhile, a fascinating new report from the Shorenstein Center for the Media, Politics and Public Policy explains in vivid detail how conservative media in general and Fox in particular, “shapes the agenda of the [Republican] party, pushing it to the far right – at the expense of its ability to govern and pick presidential nominees.”

Geoffrey Kabaservice

Geoffrey Kabaservice

Fox fans will instantly dismiss the informed critique as the work of eastern elites – the Shorenstein Center is at Harvard, after all – but it’s difficult to dismiss comments like this from academic Geoffrey Kabaservice: “These people,” Kabaservice says in speaking of right wing media in all its forms, “practically speaking, are preventing the Republican Party from governing, which means they’re really preventing it from becoming a presidential party as well.

[Kabaservice is the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. He is a Republican.]

The Shorenstein report was authored by one of the better “old media” political reporters Jackie Calmes, a New York Times national correspondent, who did a stint as a fellow at the Center.

No Incentive to Bother With Reality…

Here’s one quick take from her report where she quotes a Republican staffer on Capitol Hill, “who has worked in the top ranks of congressional and presidential politics, but, like some others, asked to remain unidentified lest he provoke the far-right messengers against his current boss: ‘It’s so easy these days to go out there and become an Internet celebrity by saying some things, and who cares if it’s true or makes any sense. It’s a new frontier: How far to the right can you get? And there’s no incentive to ever really bother with reality.’ Or to compromise: ‘There’s no money, ratings or clicks in everyone going along to get along.’”

sean_hannity_024In other words, the Fox approach, exemplified by the self righteous bomb-thrower Sean Hannity, as well as dozens of others on right wing talk radio and in the blogosphere, is to crank up the outrage meter, pour ideological gasoline on any smoldering fire – immigration, Benghazi, Obamacare, shutdown the government, Iranian nuclear deals, etc. – and stand back and watch the flames scorch anyone left of Ted Cruz who might offer a sane, moderate, middle ground approach. The influence of right wing media on hard right and more moderate Republicans has served to substitute indignation and anger for anything like a real political agenda. Real policy that involves anything other than saying “NO” in a very loud voice is as foreign to Fox and friends as are real facts.

Calmes asked one Capitol Hill Republican if he could offer examples of legislative outcomes affected by conservative media. His response: “Sure. All of ‘em…the loudest voices drown out the sensible ones and there’s no real space to have serious discussions.”

Export-Import Bank: the Latest Litmus Test…

Take, for example, the current controversy involving re-authorization of the Export-Import Bank, a little known government agency that provides loan guarantees for foreign purchases of American goods. Tea Party-types – read Fox News viewers – see the program as a prime example of “crony capitalism” even though as New York Times columnist Joe Nocera points out the bank “generated enough in fees and interest to turn over $675 million to the Treasury. Why would anyone in their right mind want to put such a useful agency out of business?”

Why indeed, but you need look no farther than the right wing media to see the issue is perfect for the politics of outrage that are the staples of Fox, Rush Limbaugh and a hundred others who have made it difficult – if not impossible – for a Republican Congress to actually make sensible decisions, embrace the occasional compromise and, well, govern.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) gestures as the key speaker at the annual Reagan Republican Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, Friday, October 25, 2013. (David Peterson/MCT via Getty Images)

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) gestures as the key speaker at the annual Reagan Republican Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, Friday, October 25, 2013. (David Peterson/MCT via Getty Images)

“This is a battle,” Ted Cruz proclaims, as he attempts to elevate his presidential candidacy with a constant stream of attention getting hyperbole. “Do you stand for the rich and powerful who corrupt Washington,” the senator asks, “and use this institution against the American taxpayer, or do you stand with the taxpayer?”

Don’t debate the facts, the hell with nuance, Cruz knows “there’s no incentive to ever really bother with reality.”

In the Import-Export Bank issue Cruz is, by the way, standing with the no taxes, ever Club for Growth, the billionaire Koch Brothers, the Tea Party Patriots, the Senate Conservatives Fund and Heritage Action for America. All are fervent practitioners of the politics of outrage and a governing strategy based on “NO.” The “corrupt Washington” Cruz attacks includes such obviously rotten Americans as Boeing, GE, the United States Chamber of Commerce and a small business guy by name of Michael Hess in little Malad, Idaho.

Hess wrote recently in the Idaho Statesman that the demise of the Export-Import Bank will damage his and other Idaho small businesses. “We’ve been mining, processing and distributing pumice in Idaho for almost 60 years,” Hess wrote. “And with the bank’s insurance, we’ve been expanding our business abroad. Our products are now distributed in 23 countries across six continents. Since 2009 alone, the bank has helped Hess Pumice generate more than $16 million in sales. That new revenue enabled us to hire more employees and further support the local economy.”

And Hess correctly nails the ideologues in his own Congressional delegation, elected officials more and more afraid or unwilling to stand up to the outrage caucus, which more and more takes its marching orders from conservative media. “Despite the bank’s obvious benefits,” Hess pointed out, “some critics want to keep it shut down. Senators Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, along with Representative Raul Labrador, are in this camp, contending that Ex-Im represents an unnecessary government intrusion into the private sector.”

It is worthy noting that Idaho’s other federal office holder, Congressman Mike Simpson, has not be part of the effort to stop the Ex-Im Bank. Simpson, the one Idaho Republicans to actually face a Tea Party-inspired opponent, who he beat handily, has often stood up against the most far out elements in his own party and attempted to be a legislator who governs. For that Simpson deserves bi-partisan praise.

Right wing media, particularly Fox, have created a political environment on the far right that disdains the type of reality that small businessman Michael Hess represents. Otherwise sensible people like Mike Crapo, who must know better, embrace the extremist line afraid to buck the hard, hard right and not surprisingly the wheels of government crank to a halt.

The Loudest Voice in the Room…

Reviewing Gabriel Sherman’s book on Fox and Boss Ailes last year in the New York Review – the book is appropriately entitled The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News – and Divided a Country – Steve Coll connected the dots this way: “Fox owes its degree of profitability in part to its most passionate, even extremist, audience segment. To win national elections, the Grand Old Party, on the other hand, must win over moderate, racially diverse, and independent voters. By their very diversity and middling views, swing voters are not easy to target on television. The sort of news-talk programming most likely to attract a broad and moderate audience—hard news, weather news, crime news, sports, and perhaps a smattering of left–right debate formats—is essentially the CNN formula, which Fox has already rejected triumphantly.”

When you tune into Thursday’s debate – how can you not tune in – in order to monitor the vitriol from Trump and Cruz and Walker and the rest, Roger Ailes, the majordomo of the outrage wing of the Republican Party, will be nowhere to be seen. But he’ll be there determining who plays and under what rules. He’ll be calling the shots, pouring the gasoline and fanning the fire. Like a good ventriloquist, Ailes no longer needs to move his lips in order to get the words to leave the mouth of an outraged Republican.

“Even inside Fox,” as New York Magazine reported last week, “some are awed that a presidential race is being influenced by a television channel. ‘Crazy stuff,’ another personality told reporter Gabriel Sherman, ‘you have a TV executive deciding who is in — and out — of a debate!’”

Who is the Dummy Here?

Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy

Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy

Crazy stuff? Of course it’s crazy, but it’s also the reality Republicans have bought into by handing policy development and candidate vetting to Roger Ailes and a handful of other outraged voices who make a living trying to blow things up. Jackie Calmes’ Shorenstein report quotes another exasperated Republican as saying of the right wing media, “they don’t give a damn about governing.”

Edgar Bergen, the brilliant and elegant ventriloquist of my youth, had his Charlie McCarthy, a wisecracking dummy sitting on his knee. We all knew Charlie was just a wooden prop given life and opinions by the man with the hand in his back, but it was still an entertaining act. Roger Ailes now has his Republican Party in pretty much the same position. I leave it to you to complete the analogy as to who plays the dummy.

Art Imitates Politics

Kevin-Spacey-says-House-of-Cards-proves-TV-smarter-than-musicBarney Frank, the shy and retiring retired Congressman from Massachusetts, who has his name and political legacy attached to the controversial Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation has been in the news this week, not as a political pundit, but rather as a television critic.

In an Op-Ed piece – it’s always an Op-Ed piece, isn’t it, where news is made these days – Frank allowed as how the hit show House of Cards, with the excellent Kevin Spacey as uber-Congressman Frank Underwood, really isn’t how politics in Washington (or the USA) really works.

House of Cards,” Frank writes, “has no stronger relation to political reality than the ratings given by Standard and Poor’s to packages of subprime mortgages had to economic truth.

“Having watched several episodes, I agree that it is well acted. My problem is that it might mislead people into thinking that this is the way our political system actually works. It is not.”

Really?

OK, granted that Rep. Frank makes it clear that no one member of the current Congress is as powerful or successful as Rep. Frank Underwood and that nothing is quite so easily manipulated as what he accomplishes in 60 minute bursts.  Still, one only has to check out the daily headlines to confirm that shows like House of Cards and other politically themed shows of the moment, including The Newsroom and The Veep, offer story lines that almost seem quaint when compared to the real thing.

Let’s consider Sen. Ted Cruz, but only for a minute.

How is this for an episode of House of Cards? Rep. Underwood, always thinking three steps ahead of the White House and his opponents, discovers that a potential rival who may one day be a candidate for president and has made his brief national reputation opposing immigration reform was actually, wait – suspend your disbelief – born in Canada! Our make believe Rep. Underwood, using his vast contacts in the D.C. media, leaks the whole story causing the rival to renounce his heretofore unknown dual citizenship, produce his birth certificate and, not incidentally, look like a hypocrite. The rival, let’s cast him as an upstart U.S. Senator from Texas, is left to mutter that politics has entered “the silly season.”

Spoiler alert: when all a politician can say regarding his predicament, whether on the big screen, small screen or in “real” life, is “this is the silly season,” he has been had. But, back to Barney Frank. My make believe episode of House of Cards involving an upstart, anti-immigration reform Texas senator is just too far out to pass the D.C. smell test. I get it.

But how about cooking up a story line about a certain New York City mayor’s race? Forget the Tweetting Twit Anthony Weiner (and wouldn’t we all like to) and let’s talk about the new frontrunner in the race to succeed the billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is only mayor because he manipulated the electoral system in the Big Apple so that he could win a third term. No Kevin Spacey/Frank Underwood-like intrigue in that, right? Moving right along.

So, the latest front runner is a fella named Bill de Blasio who jumped to the head of the crowded field just as it was revealed that he is a life-long Boston Red Sox fan, which to many New Yorkers is about as politically correct as saying Benito Mussolini was just a misunderstood Italian. But, wait, there is more. It turns out that de Blasio’s wife Chirlane McCray is, well let’s allow the stylish Maureen Dowd explain, as she did in her New York Times column:

“Last spring,” Dowd wrote, “McCray did an interview with Essence magazine about her feelings about being a black lesbian who fell in love with a white heterosexual, back in 1991, when she worked for the New York Commission on Human Rights and wore African clothing and a nose ring and he was an aide to then-Mayor David Dinkins. With her husband, she was also interviewed by the press in December and was asked if she was no longer a lesbian, and she answered ambiguously: ‘I am married. I have two children. Sexuality is a fluid thing, and it’s personal. I don’t even understand the question, quite frankly.'”

Let’s see, add that plot line to Weiner’s tweets of private parts and to the former front runner Christine Quinn’s storyline as married lesbian without children who is now defending “childless families” and I guess a “real” campaign just has nothing on television drama.

Anything else? OK, turn the dial to The Newsroom, the Aaron Sorkin-created HBO drama about a cable news operation that stars Jeff Daniels as the Republican anchorman who finds himself constantly at odds with the Tea Party wing of the GOP. Any similarity to Morning Joethe MSNBC show that stars a former Republican Congressman, is strictly aimed at making Barney Frank dizzy. Such things simply don’t happen in the “real” world. Trust me.

Which brings me to Roger Ailes who has fired his long-time PR guy, Brian Lewis, at Fox News the other day. As the understated New York Daily News put it, “When the ax fell on the senior flack — who was Ailes’ chief adviser and oversaw public relations for Fox News, Fox Business Network, Fox Television and Twentieth Television — security staff escorted him out of his Sixth Ave. office, according to the Hollywood Reporter.” Move along, people, nothing to see here. This is too crazy for mere art. It doesn’t pass the test of being anything like the way the “real” world works. Nope.

OK, how about this as a story line: One the world’s richest men, a technology entrepreneur who owns a huge company that exists to sell things to customers who provide lots of personal information over the Internet, buys one of the nation’s most politically important newspapers in the capitol of that nation where government officials can regulate his business? Crazy, right? Wait, how about we add that the tech guy’s company is a big government contractor who sells technology services to the government at a time when government spy programs are all over the news and he seems to be something of a Libertarian? No way that makes it into a Sorkin script for The Newsroom. No way. Way too unbelievable.

But, back to the former Barney Frank. Here’s part of his Op-Ed take down of House of Cards.

House of Cards demeans the democratic process in ways that are unfair, inaccurate, and if they were to be believed by a substantial number of the public, deeply unfortunate.

“The character is wholly amoral. He has no political principles, either substantive or procedural. There is no issue about which he cares; no tactic he will not employ, no matter how unfair it is to others; and he is thoroughly dishonest.

“I have never met anyone in a position of power in Congress who resembles that caricature.”

Barney is spending the summer in Maine. Maybe he’s eaten too much lobster or gotten too much fresh air. The really unbelievable thing about House of Cards is that Spacey’s Frank Underwood is a Democratic congressman from South Carolina. At least that part of House of Cards really doesn’t pass the Washington, D.C. smell test. A Democrat from South Carolina? Unreal.

Come to think of it, how about an episode featuring a loud, opinionated, gay Congressman (who once faced scandal because his boy friend who turned out to be a male prostitute) who passes major financial services legislation in the wake of the greatest financial meltdown since the Great Depression and then sees its implementation stalled in part by a Congress where the financial industry has lavished campaign contributions. You’re right. Couldn’t happen.

Let’s be real. Kevin Spacey and Aaron Sorkin know something Barney Frank doesn’t, but should. You can make this stuff up, but you don’t really need to.

 

 

True Confessions

It’s hard to tell who gets the most out of Lance Armstrong’s true confessions – the disgraced former Tour de France champion or the one-time champ of daytime TV, Oprah Winfrey. To say that the two seem to be made for each other is like saying bicycles have tires.

Just review the run-up to the already celebrated interview that hasn’t even aired yet. First, its leaked to the New York Times days ago that Armstrong is going to come clean – pardon the pun – after years of denying what everyone knows, that he is a serial (cyclical?) cheater. That scoop is followed immediately by vehement denials by unnamed sources “close to Armstrong.” The plot thickens.

Finally, Winfrey – her struggling cable channel looking about as successful as Al Gore’s did before Al Jazerra came calling – says she’ll sit down with Lance for the big interview. The content, we now learn, is so compelling that Oprah has decided it needs to be spread across two – count ’em – two nights of TV. But, before the klieg lights could cool word leaks that, yes, Lance has confessed. How could he not confess – tearfully, perhaps – sitting on the American family sofa in Oprah’s living room?

Then the interviewer, the most accomplished sports interlocutor since, say Brent Musburger – hold on – speaks on CBS This Morning! Yes, Lance did confess! Film on Thursday. Stay tuned.

Was he contrite? Well, Oprah says, I’ll leave that to the viewers. And, by the way, he really, really surprised me with the way he handled the interview. And, did I mention, its so darn good “my team” decided we needed to spread out of the goodness over two nights.

One of the best lines on all this comes from Dave Zirin writing in The Nation: “(Armstrong) is attempting to use the forgiving, New Age, healing glow of Oprah to please multiple masters with a mix of candor, charm, and puppy dog sympathy. There is a slight flaw however in this plan, which would challenge the smoothest of operators: that’s the stubborn fact that Lance Armstrong is also a person who makes Rahm Emanuel look like Tickle Me Elmo.”

In one respect, Armstrong and his lawyers are engaged in a brilliant piece of damage and mind control. In the age of Twitter, by the time the damn interview airs this week Lance’s confession will be like yesterday’s garbage – take it to the curb, we’re done with it.

This is, of course, what the cycling cheater had in mind all along. No sense confronting the people Armstrong has defamed or the real reporters he has mislead while repeatedly, vehemently and righteously putting himself above his sport and anything approaching a shred of sportsmanship, not to say honor.

In the curious world in which we live some cheaters – Pete Rose and Barry Bonds come to mind – are consigned to the dust bin where failed heroes go to sulk. Others, if they have the moxie, are given a second or third act. Lance Armstrong is using his Oprah moment in just as cold and calculating a manner as when he engaged in one of the greatest sports cheating scandals of all time.

Stay tuned, after the confession comes the phase where Lance will turn state’s evidence and in the blinding white light of rehabilitation cast himself not as the guy who forever tainted an entire sport, but as the guy who now comes to clean it up.

Oprah should know, it’s tough to be contrite when you’re calculating. Tickle Me Elmo is giggling somewhere.

 

Dan Schorr

schorrGiving Them What They Need

Every once in a while someone will ask me if I miss the old days when I had access to an audience through a television set. I usually make some flip remark about how things have changed a lot since the “days of black and white TV.”

Truth be told, I do miss it, but what I miss is so long gone as to be an historic relic. The TV news of CBS from the 1950’s to the 1970’s – an era defined, in part, by Dan Schorr – is what I really miss.

There was once a running debate in many TV newsrooms and, once in a while, even in the general manager’s suite about the real purpose of news on the tube. In simplest form, the debate boiled down to two choices. Do you give the audience what they seem to want? Or, do you give them what, in the opinion of experienced journalists, they need to know?

Dan Schorr was clearly in the “need to know” camp. His death on Friday does mark the passing of an era. He is the last direct connection to Edward R. Murrow, the broadcast journalist whose standards once, but no more, defined excellence in the broadcast trade.

I was never a particular fan of Schorr’s commentary on NPR. Late in his long life he too often seemed the master of conventional wisdom. He was rarely a man – or a reporter – of nuance and nuance and a lack of convention, I think, makes better commentary. What impresses me about Schorr’s long career was his fierce devotion to the serious business of government, politics and foreign affairs. He undoubtedly thought he knew, based on serious study and hard work, what we needed to know about and he regularly served up the serious stuff.

As Michael Tomasky wrote at the Guardian, “Schorr comes from a time and culture, CBS News in the 1950s, when putting news on television was considered such a civic trust and responsibility that the news division didn’t even have to make a profit.”

I’ve always loved the dictum at the old CBS News that a news program wasn’t ever called a “news program” or a “news show.” News was delivered in the form of a “broadcast,” a term reserved for serious information, seriously delivered. A show, on the other hand, starred Lucille Ball.

There was no perfect age of television news and it is a mistake to be too sentimental about the “good old days,” but there was a seriousness of purpose and a sense of civic responsibility in the days when names like Cronkite, Sevareid, Huntley, Smith and Schorr dominated the credits. Today’s hot-blooded shouters, the Olbermanns and the O’Reillys, couldn’t carry the microphone stands of those earlier pros.

Daniel Schorr represented one of the last links to that old, give them what they need to know tradition. The old TV newsroom debate, I fear, died long before the old Nixon enemy passed this week.

Mad Men

Mad MenI Know What I’ll Be Doing Sunday Night

I admit I have been a late adopter of the wondrous world of Mad Men, the AMC Sunday night show that has done so much for the early 1960’s. Some of my colleagues started telling me about how great the show was and I finally went back to the first three seasons, thanks to NetFlix, and got completely hooked. The series starts its fourth season Sunday and by all accounts it continues to be correctly called the “best thing on TV.”

For the uninitiated, like me until a few months ago, the storyline unfolds in a Madison Avenue ad agency in the 1960’s. A superb ensemble cast is pitch perfect in portraying the intelligence, competitiveness, class and crassness of beautiful people without a lot of balance, at times, but with plenty of booze all the time.

As Slate notes about the new season: “Ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) raided the crumbling Sterling Cooper for its top talent and set out to launch Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, a fledgling enterprise that should be fertile ground for the show’s strengths: office politics, office romance, and the socio-politico-historical hoo-hah Matthew Weiner brilliantly wrings from each Draper pitch.”

The series is particularly good at capturing the details of the smoking 60’s; secretaries with big hair and big – er, typewriters. The ad men are slicked back, three-Martini guys who engage in verbal towel snapping when they aren’t eyeing up the “new girl” in the secretarial pool.

The Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz praises the cast as, “smart, they’re self-seeking, they’re recognizably human. They’re also overweight or undertailored, dowdy, faintly unkempt—but for John Slattery’s Roger Sterling and Mr. Hamm. It’s never less than enthralling to watch this cast at work, not least Vincent Kartheiser as Peter Campbell—a seemingly slick operator whose every urgent flicker of the eye suggests something deeper.”

No one can call January Jones’ character, the ice queen Betty Draper, “faintly unkempt.” If anything you keep waiting for one of those blond hairs to slip out of place, knowing it might cause a breakdown. Jones plays her role – now Draper’s ex-wife – so well you think that any moment the volcano inside Betty is about to blow.

I have no idea what life was like in a Manhattan ad firm in 1964, which is where we pick up these folks in the new season, but I’m betting the series makers have it pretty close to right. Double martinis, big marketing budgets, demanding clients, tight dresses and Mad Men on the make. This is good, really good, television.