Friday, June 29, 2007

The Lede To Beat

From the liveblog at the iPhone line at the 5th Avenue (NYC) Apple store:

4:18. The line goes back to Madison Avenue, all the way around to FAO Schwartz. Stretching from one expensive toy store to another.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

What's Your Name Again, Honey?

Put aside the considerations about free speech and commercial political speech. Recognize that there are no losers when enemies from opposite ends of the political spectrum mud wrestle. By the way, the clearest winner is always the feral beast, of course. Score one for MSNBC, which cracked the Ann Coulter lightning and stole a lot of thunder from CNN's get of that other tabloidly blond.

The question is: will you have any impact when you "politely ask" a leopard to change her spots? Should you even bother? (remember, we're putting aside commercial political speech. It always make sense to raise money by demonizing your enemies.)
The best-case scenario for accountability zealotry is that everyone will then know Coulter for what she is. Trouble is, her fans already know, and love it.

We Can't All Get Along? OK.

Some people can't be ignored because of the damage they may do. But Elizabeth Edwards v. Ann Coulter isn't Joseph Welch v. Joe McCarthy. Reuters told its readers it didn't cover Coulter's "faggot" remark at a Republican event earlier this year because she is not an "accountable political person." Good call. Here's the slapdown verbatim from Paul Holmes, (former) editor for political and general news:
Ann Coulter is not an accountable political figure and what she says is not really newsworthy so I am satisfied that we took the right decision to ignore the story rather than lend further life to the slur.
Accountability Zealotry

The best-case scenario for accountability zealotry is that everyone will then know Coulter for what she is. Trouble is, her fans already know, and love it. She will likely get more fans from the publicity. You might get some credits in the bank of your choice by taking her on. And the shift in the political dynamic in any election will be ... none.

I can't stand Coulter. I wish she would just go away. I wish her pal and my hero Bill Maher wouldn't give her one second more of air time. But I'll get along by continuing to ignore this "not really newsworthy" person.

Now, Paris Hilton news -- that's another story.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What Am I Missing Here?

Jeff Jarvis makes note of the new AOL news, now in beta, which takes on a blog format. Not a big deal, he says. Not news. "Can we stipulate that the blog tool is just a publishing too and it's not news when somebody uses it," he says.

Before we get too excited, or not excited enough, remember that the purpose of a news site is to inform, not to make sure we all get along or participate in some kind of social experiment about equality.

Seconds before this writing AOL News fills its page with the news — from just after midnight, though updated 20 minutes ago — that Paris Hilton has been released from jail. It assures me about the importance of this event by placing it under a banner that says: “Top Stories Right Now” (I digress, but isn’t the “Right Now” part redundant,
This is news, and it isn’t good

a little shout of unneeded emphasis that tries to convince me of something we both know isn’t true?) And yes, I see on AOL the tiny list of “latest headlines” to the right of Paris’ head, a nod to the “see — we are actually prioritizing the news!” criticism they must have anticipated.

Yahoo!, using the same amount of above-the-fold space, tells me “U.S. troops target bomb networks,” “Pivotal vote looms on immigration,” and “Firefighters gain ground on Calif. blaze.”

Sorry — this is news, and it isn’t good.

The “blog” approach is something some news outlets should employ. They should be open to all kinds of new possibilities and experiment and risk failure. My own mantra is that the solution to the woes facing small newspapers will be addressed, in part, by their use of “real blogs with real people and real voices,” as Jarvis says. Many will reinvent themselves as blogs, becoming somewhat one with the community and thus better catering to the interest of its by-definition narrow constituency.

But at the national level, this looks like a major disservice masquerading as hip that panders to an audience who doesn’t know what they are missing — literally.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Power, Abused

Ours is a nation of spectacular ironies.

The greatest democracy on Earth, the greatest democracy ever, anywhere, does not directly elect its president, gives its vice president virtually no constitutional responsibilities and leaves it to the three branches to work out any differences in opinion about where the lines are drawn.

One of the greatest strengths of our republic, and potentially one of the greatest weaknesses, is the freedom we have to do what want, more or less. Oh sure, there are laws and conventions and politeness but it is in our DNA to be "free." I cannot possibly relate, born and bred on these shores as I am, but it must be this, above everything except perhaps the near certainty to make a living wage, that makes this nation a magnet for people from just about everywhere else. We are a laissez-faire society, built on a covenant that we each will exercise an appropriate level of self restraint. Whatever that is.

The president has awesome power, we learn in elementary school. He (it's been only "he" so far) is the most powerful man on Earth. Through the Cold War (and still) we invested power in a person who could, on his own authority, destroy the world. Not that he would. As it should be.

This is why the vice president's congenital refusal to abide by any oversight, and the president's tolerance of this, is so very scary. Even in competent dictatorships there is a yearning for transparency. It may be the case that the vice president answers only to the president, or to an impeachment panel. But what we yearn for in leadership, surely, is someone who does not push things to the brink, to assert a principle. Surely, it ought to be the other way around: principle is tested to achieve a goal for the betterment of society. This is why FDR apologists forgive the man behind the "New Deal" for trying to pack the Supreme Court, among other excesses.

As Democrats play out the clock and hope nothing will vex the inhabitants of the White House or Number One Observatory Circle to abuse power to the point where it cannot be ignored, we legitimately live in a state of unease. Is it better to rattle the cage or avert one's eyes?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Is Paris (or Rome) Burning?

The New York Times' Bill Carter has done some amazing reporting in the past few days on the fits, starts and apparent dead stop of ABC and NBC to get the first post-jail interview with Paris Hilton. The Hilton family has been portrayed as prostituting their celebutante daughter (imagine that), with a hefty cash offer from network #1 only emboldening them to squeeze network #2 for more.

This one jumped off the rails quickly. The $100,000 ABC was reportedly willing to pay was used to try to negotiate a much larger payday from NBC, which even gave the potential Paris interview a code name -- Rome -- to thwart enemy code-breakers. But even some insiders have had enough: TV Newser has a picture of a very professional sign displayed at the Today/GMA softball game that said: "For $1 million, we'll let you win!" (Today beat GMA 8-7, and there are no reports of money changing hands apart, perhaps, from a few side bets or victory rounds at the bar).
This is an moment-in-time opportunity for news organizations with a conscience to completely opt out of the running, now and forever, for any interviews in which anything of value changes hands.

Will Talk For Food

Among the many delightful tidbits in his articles Carter reports that as her parents' extortion house of cards was imploding Paris called Barbara Walters from jail (for at least the second time) to disavow responsibility for all money demands and to say she'd do an interview for free. Walters took that offer to her producer, Dan Sloan, who said the network simply wasn't interested anymore, at any price, even nada. Dan Sloan for President.

Network news divisions don't pay for news, of course -- perish the thought -- but the networks they are part of will pay for a ratings coup. The stakes
for "gets" have increased as the definition of "celebrity" has widened and if it just so happens that a handful of happy snaps that will appear for a few seconds in an interview sets back the entertainment division a few hundred thousand bucks, no problem. Then the network news star can be tapped for the talking part with clean hands.

The cost for the "collateral material" without an interview? Zero. The added value of family photos given the abundant availability of file footage of someone like Paris, who lives in front of a camera? At least she will be properly clothed in many of them.

This isn't about being polite or even currying a little favor by leaving big tips at the diner when your news crew comes in and takes over the joint, or putting up $10,000 towards a park in post-Katrina New Orleans, or doing a "Special Report" about your anchors hammering nails with "Habitat for Humanity." This is about payment for services rendered, and when the commodity is news it stinks. Paying doesn't even necessarily produce any news, or any news that would have been made without enriching the subject. It gives the subject a incentive to lie.
A "5" On The "OJ Scale"

Paris is now more than a bit toxic -- maybe a "5" on the "OJ Scale" -- but she is still free to call a press conference and see if anyone shows up. She has a strong incentive to rehabilitate herself from her deplorable rehabilitative experience and still has an audience, even if they're now all about watching her humiliations.

I'm guessing that whatever might pass for news would emerge in greater form if she faced a scrum. If Paris doesn't want all that attention (or the almost certainty that it would be carried live by at least by CNN and MSNBC) she's free to phone "Larry King Live" -- which doesn't screen calls but somehow manages to allow big names through -- or "The View," also a live show, and speak to Barbara Walters after all. And just think -- no tedious hair and makeup! [UPDATE: CNN confirms Paris will be on Larry King Live for the entire hour on Wednesday, June 27)

I hope this episode marks the beginning of the end of the wink-and-nod practice of paying for news by any other name. This is an moment-in-time opportunity for news organizations with a conscience to completely opt out of the running, now and forever, for any interviews in which anything of value changes hands.

News organizations who get interviews because bribes are paid just cannot credibly report on Congressional ethics or earmarks or campaign financing or CEO compensation or frankly any kind of graft. If nobody wants to take the first step, let them at least disclose exactly what was traded for the "get" so at least the transparency will give the audience some context. But it's long past time to just say no.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Free Scooter?

It's a little hard watching law-and-order types contort themselves to argue that "Scooter" Libby shouldn't do time. Talk about jury tampering.

Here's a great quote from an article at The Politico:

A well-connected Republican whose views have reached Bush’s inner circle said that if Libby goes to prison, "It would be seen by the religious and policy conservatives as the president abandoning his loyalty virtue for the hedonistic pleasure of political expediency."


So respecting a jury verdict and enforcing existing laws -- you know, the ones movement conservatives always say are enough to deal with immigration, gun control, marriage -- is a weakness, a fix for a pol. Real men are ... loyal.
Libby Has To Go To Jail

A respite wouldn't upset me, with a Sword of Damocles still hanging by a thread above him. Once he's in the slammer there's much less chance he'll be inclined to cooperate.
On the other hand, it is downright fun watching Pat Buchanan -- a Nixon White House veteran who knows a little about loyalists doing time -- argue that there is no legitimate basis for President Bush to pardon Libby after his own (embattled, no less) Justice Department secured a conviction and a stiff sentence of 30 months in jail, a $250,000 fine and thousands of hours of community service.

Libby has to go to jail. As a negotiating stance, I'm all for it. But a respite for Libby wouldn't upset me, with a Sword of Damocles still hanging by a thread above him. Once he's in the slammer there's much less chance he'll be inclined to cooperate.

John McLaughlin has an interesting idea how Bush could avoid whatever political fallout a president with a 29% approval rating would endure anyway for earning more electorate wrath: pardon Libby at the same time you fire Alberto Gonzalez.

But there is a certain shame about that since, as I've written, he clearly is holding the bag for bigger fish who have no honor. In that sense he shouldn't have received a terribly harsh sentence. Maybe just a little something for being stupid, a sort of Martha Stewart term. Then maybe he would have even volunteered to serve his time right pending appeal -- just like she did!

But 30 months, not six, it is, and it is certainly part of the prosecution strategy to give no quarter to a frontman with small children in the hope that his memory will return.

Friday, June 15, 2007

They've Been Polled -- And We All Know How Painful That Is

Jay Rosen writes an amusing piece about the seemingly endless trumpeting of election polling data by the press which, he argues, substitutes for substantive reporting on issues. The "Master Narrative," Rosen says, tends to be about who is ahead today or this minute or in that state. This narrative drives the news, fuels the pack and deprives the voting public of red meat.
It's nice to know that Mitt Romney has pulled ahead in New Hampshire, seven months before the primary voting. Thanks, Bill Schneider! Let me ask you something: Who's ahead in addressing a broken health care system?

It’s fascinating to realize that Hillary Clinton, a woman, is ahead among women. Thanks, Washington Post. In the race to protect the people against terrorism and maintain a free and open society, would the Post know who’s ahead? Could it possibly find out and tell us, then check back in a month or so and tell us again?
There is a lot of polling and a lot of is dumped on the public, though I have always suspected that the private polling candidates do on their own behalf is the really valuable stuff. Bush 41's decision to buy a hunting license and fishing reel on after voting on election day 1992 -- telegraphing retirement rather than re-election -- was based on bad news from prescient private pollsters.

Data over Substance?

Political junkies eat these numbers up, of course, they way they do lots of raw material the public doesn't necessarily get served. But what's missing? Are reporters dropping the ball with the weightier stuff? I'm of two minds on the notion that the horse race is over-reported, at least at the de facto expense of more substantive reporting. Especially now, with endless sources of news, the truth is out there.

Part of the problem is that stats are deadly easy to report and (apart from any gaming by the pollster) hard to spin.
What we are lacking is not so much the re-articulation of the candidate's ideas but the skewering of their nonsense.
But tracking also often begs the follow-up question: why the heck is Mitt Romney ahead in NH? What's up with that? I remember more than one voter in 1992 New Hampshire thinking that Republican hopeful Pat Buchanan's stance on the first Gulf War was that Bush 41 ended it too soon by not marching into Iraq. That Buchanan was entirely against the war came as a complete surprise to these supporters.

Did confusion about even a well-articulated policy position pump up Buchanan's strong second-place finish at the polls? Did anybody ask as the tracking polls poured in? (Don't blame me. I parachuted in a couple of days before primary night.)

Ignore At Your Peril

I probably shouldn't say this too loudly, as a reporter, but as a voter I'm also not sure I want anyone telling me who's ahead in the idea race. Better debate formats would give me the "direct-to-consumer" fix I crave. Lengthier interviews, especially with what Rosen neatly describes as the "safely ignored" "candidates who cannot win," are done from time to time: he may be persona non grata to Sean Hannity but Ron Paul gets lots of camera time with Tucker Carlson, as does Dennis Kucinich. The Washington Post fronts that Paul is "Huge on the Web."

Why these two articulate and fearless position-takers don't get more traction in the polls is an intriguing question -- more about the public than the press, I think -- but it doesn't surprise me that the pack won't be interested in them unless they do, er, get better numbers in the polls. It'd be almost pimping otherwise.

What we are lacking is not so much the re-articulation of the candidate's ideas but the skewering of their nonsense. Sadly, this charge continues to be led by late night comedians, Keith Olbermann, Bill Maher (in season) and once a week by Frank Rich. Forget about whether the presence of Katie Couric tarts up the CBS Evening News. When is Les Moonves going to hire Jon Stewart?

(With apologies to David Letterman for the headline)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Tony Blair, Media Critic

What a shame that Tony Blair picked the same week as OJ Simpson (and Paris Hilton, for that matter) to lecture "the media" about its priorities. Dan Rather is now sounding almost sage-like as he decries the “dumbing down” and “tarting up” of his old network’s evening news broadcast — but it's a dead heat in the sore loser department.

The truth of the matter is that reporters and publishers these days are more restrained and more inclined to let facts get in the way of a good story than they were even a few generations ago. The age of yellow journalism -- when only newspapers mattered and they really were concentrated in the hands of a powerful few -- was replete with slash and burn and lies and pandering, with no transparency or empowered crowd to see right through it all.

We have short memories. We are led to believe the Internet has whipped a malleable public into lowering their standards of what is news when, in my mother’s day, there were dozens of cheap, cheesy rag mags “covering” Hollywood starlets. We are told by politicians who made decisions that cannot be defended outside of a long-evaporated context (which may never have even existed) that some of the reporting about them has been uncalled for.

Complaining is seldom a character-burnishing attribute when it comes from a member of the power elite. It doesn’t look earnest, just weak. When Edward R. Murrow complained “This might just do nobody any good” he was keeping his criticism in school.

Blair would have been wise to use his salutary at a Reuters Newsmaker Event to look within himself rather than at the indignities, real and imagined, he has endured.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A Rather Odd Fight

So Dan Rather is shocked, shocked at the "dumbing down" and "tarting up" of the CBS Evening News?

Courage, Dan, Courage.

Rather has been at both ends of a tough transition on the anchor desk of the CBS Evening News. Walter Cronkite, who Rather replaced, wasn't pleased about being shown the door for Rather. Rather himself was the object of more scorn than perhaps any anchor in the history of television and left under a cloud over story the news division withdrew.

After a year of temporary service by Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Scheiffer, Rather was officially replaced by "Today" show host Katie Couric -- whose intro is read by Cronkite, back from oblivion. Couric's numbers have been at historical lows, a distant third amnng the Bog Three with about six million viewers, sometimes fewer.

Producers have more to do with what we see on the air than anchors, even when they are, as is usually the case on the networks, also managing editor of the broadcast. It was hysterical to see cable anchors not only 
belittle their own networks' coverage of the Paris Hilton story but to dump on Hilton herself out of frustration or disgust. The "story" marched on -- even when MSNBC didn't exactly get what it bargained for in a live interview with Tommy Chong -- because the behind-the-scenes executives run the show.

A Network Premonition

But the dimunition of network began a long time ago, and Rather was part of era of the greatest slide. It wasn't always the case that sweeping music was used to open the show or score stories, that anchors walked around the set, that epileptic-fit-inducing graphics became necessary for every segment. These are all forms of tarting up, of trying to keep a dwindling audience's attention. How close we are to what was considered preposterous in "Network" 30 years ago is beyond scary.

Rather himself was often an object of ridicule, and not just by right-wingers. For a time he began sporting sweater vests under his jacket for no apparent reason. He was picked apart as women on-air talent always is. For about a week it 1986 he signed off the program by saying "Courage," a couple of times in Spanish.

Look: Broadcast TV network news is an easy target. It has been losing viewers and skewing older for more than a generation. Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert and Keith Olbermann have minted the winning format for the next generation by zeroing in on hypocricy and lies without taking their own pontification seriously. It's the story, stupid.

The status quo isn't going to bring in younger viewers and the evening network news may never rebound. But, with apologies to Andrew Tyndall, it also true that the personality -- the appeal -- of the anchor has more to do with a network newscast's ratings success than the amount of "hard news" it covers or the quality of its soft stories or features like CBS's now-abandoned "Free Speech." Octogenarian Scheiffer had better numbers than either Rather or Couric, and passed-over Charles Gibson is leading the Big Three pack.

You Don't Know About News

So, what has Rather's goat at this stage of the Game? Can he still harbor a bit of bitterness at his don't-let-the-door-hit-you-in-the-ass departure? Does he, as many thought when he shared the stage Connie Chung, have a thing about women anchors (at least in his roost)? Or was it not a shot at Couric, per se, as he says in his escalation of the feud, but really at Les Moonves, the head of CBS whom, Rather asserts, "doesn't know about news?" Even if, Moonves hired Couric, so ...

There are bad feelings at the old shop. CBS Evening News executive producer Rick Kaplan told TVNewser that "A lot of the people that he was criticizing when he was criticizing the product, they believe in Katie and they believe in the show. These are people who put their bodies on the line when he was [the anchor], and they felt really disappointed that he felt the need to do something like this."

Rather, who often found himself in the center of a storm, may be doing his old network a favor. Nobody likes a petty attack -- clever of Moonves to frame it that way -- and Rather isn't exactly beloved, or even widely seen anymore as the face of HDNet. This may get a few more eyeballs to glance over CBS's way to see what the fuss is all about. Look for a bump in the numbers.

It's All About the Perks

"I've never craved the job of president, but I want to do some things that only a president can do."
-- Fred Thompson, on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno"

Top 10 things that only a president can do:

10. Get down with the First Lady
9. Call anything I'm flying "Air Force One"
8. Tell Secret Service detail "no one needs to know about this, right boys?"
7. Get my very own library -- even if I don't have a library card
6. Declare war -- on my agent!
5. Get $5,000 to pose for pictures with strangers instead of paying through the nose for head shots
4. Pardon that turkey every year
3. No waiting when I get the urge to bowl
2. Suppress giggle when I tell movers to put boxes in the corner of the Oval Office

And the number one thing that only a president can do:
1. Retrieve newspaper on White House driveway in my bathrobe

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Dems Settle In

Maybe the biggest remaining problem -- besides lack of time -- is the self-consciousness of the moderating and questioning process.

There were four (count'em four) people involved in the questioning tonight at the CNN Democratic debate, and their collective irrelevance (apart from network branding) was belied by a failed mic which required moderator Wolf Blitzer to re-read another reporter's inquiry off a piece of paper he was already holding, apparently for just such a contingency. Can't we just get some spelling bee champion to read these things?

And what was with the "stand up, sit down" exercise at the half-way point (an opportunity to give astonishingly-equal face time to yet three more CNN talking heads as we watched the studio re-arranged on a split screen). Podiums (and a platform for Hillary) during the grilling by the pros, red chairs and occasional tables as the common folk took their shots -- I'm suprised the candidate didn't take off their jackets and roll up their sleeves.

And Now ... Re-Arranging Chairs

So, the message is that one is serious journalism business and the other is ... a shareholder's meeting? And the pool of proletariat questioners couldn't have been seated in camera range to begin with? Very strange choices indeed when the medium isn't supposed to be the message at all.

Amazing that the most spontaneous-seeming posse -- Hillary, Obama and Edwards -- have between them three terms in the Senate total. No wonder US Senators almost never get elected.
Still, this was the best showing for the Dems and the best debate of the season. Plenty of shots at each other -- though some were petty: it doesn't show leadership to skulk into the Senate chamber to vote against Iraq funding late in the process and without fanfare, John Edwards lectures Hillary and Barack Obama. To which Obama replies: you are 4-1/2 years late. So there.

And Bill Clinton loomed large again, more appropriately than at the last Republican debate, where candidates were asked if it would be a good thing if he lived in the White House again. Duh. The Democrats lovingly pegged the ex-president as a roving ambassador and/or Middle East envoy. But the amusing tidbit is that it did not appear as though Hillary, who laughed unabashedly as this question was tackled by her adversaries, wasn't going to get a crack at it herself. Obama did an "over to you, Hillary," though Wolf may just have been building to a big finish only to have the Illinois Senator step on his line.
Pushback Against Media Questions

The golden moments for me were the pushback by just about everyone, in unison, to the "media questions." Maybe we'll see fewer of these absurd hypotheticals (at least hurled at the Democrats; they seem like red meat to the Republicans) from now on if the candidates take control of things like Arnold Vinick and Matt Santos. Would you strike at Osama bin Laden if you had only 20 minutes to make a decision and innocents would be killed (How many innocents, Hillary et al insist?) Would you act militarily against an Iran that had a nuke and missile to launch it (That scenario is many years away, and potentially avoidable through diplomacy and pressure, Biden explains.)

Most everyone had a decent moment, although I have already tired of the Mike Gravel show. The stars are beginning to emerge anew and are using these summer stock appearances to full advantage:
  • Hillary was calm, cool, collected and eloquent -- Bill in a Hillary suit.
  • Obama still seems hesitant here and there -- though he was ready for Edwards.
  • Edwards may be overplaying his "I am right to say I was wrong" card too often. I'm starting to remember only that he was wrong.
  • Joe Biden is running harder than ever for Secretary of State. You could see the veins popping as he urged that intervention to stop the genocide in Darfur was necessary and neatly achievable.
  • Bill Richardson will have to settle for another cabinet job if he has truly grown tired of riding the range. That clever job interview ad may ultimately resonate in all the wrong ways: with that resume, why isn't he presidential material?
  • Chris Dodd simply cannot shake the robotics from a lifetime in the Senate.
There might be an inverse rule here, given that JFK, the last successful US Senator to make the leap to the White House, was only a 1-1/2-termer. Amazing that the most groomed-seeming posse -- Hillary (1-1/2), Obama (1/2) and Edwards (1) -- have between them a mere three terms in the Senate.