Media

The Evolution of MSNBC

What MSNBC used to be.

At the New Republic, Rebecca Dana has a profile of MSNBC chief Phil Griffin, during which she points out that the network's current incarnation as the liberal's home on cable came about only because Griffin tried a bunch of other stuff that didn't work. There wasn't an ideological motivation, just a financial one. "Fox News is a TV network that succeeds because of its ideological slant," she writes. "MSNBC is a TV network that has an ideological slant because that's what happened to succeed."

Always Be Monologuing

Al Pacino's endless arias are the only thing that save David Mamet's Phil Spector from being mere propaganda.

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

"This is a work of fiction. It's not 'based on a true story.'" So goes the disclaimer preceding director and writer David Mamet's Phil Spector, which premieres Sunday on HBO, and what sense are we supposed to make of that Bizarro World claim? The movie features Al Pacino in a surprisingly convincing impersonation—or maybe I just mean a disconcertingly affecting one—of the 1960s record producer now doing time for the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson (real name also used). Nothing already known to the public deviates from the record, including Spector's cuckoo array of wigs in the courtroom.

Have You Heard? Feminism's Over!

Flickr/Seattle Municipal Archives

Good news, ladies! Feminism has fizzled, and those of us who aren’t suckers are giving up our career dreams to follow our female nature. Our lady brains and lady bodies aren’t cut out for the workplace, you see, and our manly, oafish husbands will never be as good as we are at cleaning the toilet, so why fight it? We’ll all be more fulfilled if we quit our jobs and make like June Cleaver by way of Martha Stewart. At least this is the point of the latest "trend" piece in New York magazine by Lisa Miller.

Asking Serious People Silly Questions

Erin Burnett, trying to keep from giggling.

I've written before about the media's inability to talk about the issue of marijuana legalization without turning into eighth graders, peppering their stories with references to Cheech & Chong and making generally idiotic stoner references ("Put down those Doritos and turn down that Dead bootleg—a new policy statement from the Office of National Drug Control Policy could be a serious buzz-cruncher!"). Whether this is changing now that Washington and Colorado passed decriminalization schemes in the last election and momentum is building in other states for similar measures, I'm not sure. But Mark Kleiman, who has done extensive research on the potential consequences of drug legalization and is now acting as a consultant to the state of Washington as it finds its way toward implementing the law the voters there passed, found himself confronted with a smirking Erin Burnett on CNN, who wanted to know whether he's a pot smoker or not, and handled it perfectly. "I don't think there's any ill will involved in asking the question," he wrote afterward, "journalists simply want to 'place' their sources culturally on the hippie-to-jock spectrum. But I want to resist the whole idea that drug policy should be a clash of cultural identities rather than a serious discussion of harms and benefits." Lo and behold, once he set her straight she had actual substantive questions to ask him, so it worked out fine.

This raises an interesting question, though. Just how capable are we of divorcing our beliefs about the people involved in public debate from the content of their arguments? And should we?

Just How Bad Is Television News?

Every year, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism releases a huge report called "The State of the News Media," and this year's installment contains some surprising results, far beyond what you'd expect about declining newspaper revenues and the generalized slow death of journalism (though there's plenty of that). In particular, television news is undergoing some rapid changes, most of which are driven by finances and many of which look seriously problematic.

Let's start with local TV news (we'll get to cable in a moment)...

Working for Free on TV

That's me working for free.

In the last week or so, the world of people who write and publish for a living has been consumed with the question of whether and when freelancers ought to work for free. As you probably know, the internet has killed journalism, and this has made it all but impossible to make a living as a writer. Not really, of course, but this whole thing started when an editor at The Atlantic asked a writer if he'd like to give her an edited version of a piece he'd previously written, which would be published on their site without any pay, and he responded, "I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children." This then touched off a lot of soul-searching and navel-gazing among writers and editors, the most enlightening bit of which is probably this post from Alexis Madrigal.

I have my own (probably not particularly interesting) thoughts on whether and when one should write for free, but one angle I'd like to note is there are lots of exploitative relationships within the media, wherein one person takes advantage of another person's work for their own ends; for instance, as Ezra Klein Ezra Klein discusses, journalists use the work of experts (without paying them) to help them write their stories, and experts use the work of journalists (without paying them) to give their ideas exposure, generate donations to their organizations, and so on. But one are of what we might call exploitation doesn't get mentioned in these discussions a lot: television.

How Many Big-Time Pundits Are Plagiarists?

Juan Williams is obviously too busy to write his own columns. (Flickr/Nick Step)

Not long ago I was getting a shiatsu massage in my office when my assistant came in to tell me that he'd gathered the data on government spending that I'd asked for, and written it up in text form so I could drop it into my next column. When I read what he'd written, it looked suspiciously like turgid think-tank prose, so I asked him whether these were his own words or those of the source from which he got the data. When he began his response with "Um..." I knew he had failed me, so I flung my double espresso in his face, an act of discipline I thought rather restrained. Over the sound of his whimpering and the scent of burning flesh, I explained to him that real journalists don't pass off the work of others as their own. As part of his penance, I forced him to write my columns for me in their entirety for the next three weeks. The scars are healing nicely, and with my benevolent guidance he is well on his way to becoming the journalist I know he can be.

OK, that didn't actually happen. I don't have an assistant. I suppose if I resided at a higher tier of the Washington opinion journalism hierarchy, I would. Like Juan Williams, who finds himself in a spot of trouble today. As Alex Seitz-Wald of Salon reports, parts of a column Williams recently "wrote" for The Hill were lifted almost word-for-word from a Center for American Progress report on immigration:

Fake Prostitutes, Fake Terrorists, and the Trouble with Conservative Media

Remember this guy?

Just before the 2012 election, the Daily Caller, a web site run by Tucker Carlson, produced a blockbuster report claiming that New Jersey senator Robert Menendez had frequented underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic, and they had the prostitutes' testimony to prove it. Bizarrely, mainstream media did not pick up the story, Menendez was re-elected, and to almost no one's surprise, the whole thing now appears to have been a slander cooked up by Republican operatives. How did such a thing happen? The answer is, it's ACORN's fault. Hold on while I explain.

How Much of a Market Is There on the Right for Real Reporting?

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Four years ago, Tucker Carlson went before the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and told them that instead of creating more media forums to talk to each other about what a bunch of jerks liberals are, they ought to nurture outlets that actually report news, with a commitment to accuracy. For his trouble he was booed vigorously, and I guess he learned his lesson about what conservatives are interested in, because instead of creating a newsgathering organization he created the Daily Caller. I'm sure it's doing quite well with it's target audience, and I couldn't help but think about Carlson upon seeing that Erick Erickson, proprietor of RedState.com and CNN talking mouth, issued a plea to conservatives to come work for him and actually do journalism. First though, he identified the problem:

Falling into Woodward's Den of Iniquity

Flickr/Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin

When I got to my computer this morning and saw how many people were blathering about Bob Woodward, a wave of despair washed over me. First, because this is the kind of stupid argument from which we thought we could get something of a reprieve once the campaign ended, and second, because Bob Woodward himself, and the deference with which he is treated, just make me depressed.

It's not that Woodward isn't a good reporter, of a sort. But Watergate was pretty much the last time his reporting enhanced public understanding in a really meaningful way. Woodward's modus operandi since then has been to approach powerful people and convince them to tell their side of major events through him. Knowing that if they don't, someone else will and they might come out looking bad, many of them give him their spin in great detail, which his books then pass on to a wide readership. They aren't so much a record of events as a record of events as the people who talked to Bob Woodward would like us to see them. Nobody has done more than Woodward to elevate insiderism, the belief among many journalists that what matters isn't the effect government has on people's lives, but who said what to whom when, that if you can get the Secretary of State to tell you what he said to the National Security Advisor while they were at the urinals in the bathroom down the hall from the Oval Office, then you're a hero of democracy.

I'm not saying there's no value in that kind of reporting—we do want to know what policy makers are thinking, how they interact with each other, and so on. The mistake is to think it's the only thing that matters. And I think that explains why Woodward is now finding himself at odds with the White House.

White House Reporters versus the Obama Administration

White House reporters getting the story.

At some point in every presidency, the White House press corps begins to complain about how they're being treated. Sometimes these complaints are legitimate and necessary, the Fourth Estate demanding that the public be adequately informed of what its government is up to. At other times, it's little more than a bunch of overpaid prima donnas whining that the White House staff isn't treating them with the deference they feel they deserve and doing their jobs for them. So let's say you're one of those reporters, and your frustration has been mounting. How can you make sure everyone understands that your gripe is of the first kind and not the second? Well for starters, you might not want to rise up to express your outrage over the fact that you didn't get to watch the President play golf with Tiger Woods.

Today's Delicious Right-Wing Infighting

Brent Bozell, Washington's angriest man. This was apparently the happiest photo his organization could find to use as his head shot.

For many years, those of us on the left have joked that all it takes is two Democratic members of Congress having trouble deciding what to eat for lunch to produce a "Dems in Disarray!" headline. Overstated though it often is, there's an underlying truth there, which is that liberals have frequently been undone by a lack of ability to herd themselves cohesively toward a desired end. And I'm sure that conservatives get no end of satisfaction from watching their opponents bicker amongst themselves.

So it's hard to resist a little schadenfreude when the shoe is on the other foot. As you may have heard, Karl Rove has started a new organization whose goal is basically to stop future Todd Akins from winning Republican primaries. It's not meant to move the GOP to the center or anything, just to push aside the crazies, of whom there are already a couple (Steve King in Iowa, Paul Broun in Georgia) preparing 2014 Senate runs. But that doesn't sit well with some people, which led to this hilarious conflict over what somebody who works for Rove tweeted about Brent Bozell, head of the Media Research Center...

Why Fox Dumped Dick Morris

I suppose I should have weighed in on this already, given that it's been an entire day, but in case you were wondering, here's what I think about Fox News' decision to finally give Dick Morris the boot. Erik Wemple probably spoke for many people when he said, "this is a time to celebrate Fox News. It has seen the lunacy of Dick Morris, and it's taking the appropriate step to inoculate itself against the ravages." This comes fast on the heels of Sarah Palin being shown the door, some post-election house-cleaning that thankfully has left sage contributors like Karl Rove standing.

So what does this show? It doesn't, alas, indicate that real accountability is coming to the pundit industry. I've always thought it's too simplistic to view Fox News as nothing more than a partisan organization, as many people on the left do. Since he started the network in 1996, Roger Ailes' genius has lied in a careful melding of business and ideology, in which neither one ever moves too far ahead of the other and each serves the other's needs. Fox is extremely valuable to the Republican party and the conservative movement, and it's also a huge money-maker for Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp. Anyone who appears on the channel has to satisfy both strands of that ideological/financial double helix...

Why Playwrights Aren't Political Analysts

Flickr/David Shankbone

During last year's presidential campaign, journalist Buzz Bissinger got some attention for writing an opinion piece explaining that he was voting for Mitt Romney because Barack Obama hasn't done enough to end poverty, which is kind of like saying you're switching from salad to Big Macs for lunch because you're trying to lose weight and salad has calories. For people familiar with Bissinger's extraordinary reportage, including books like Friday Night Lights and A Prayer for the City (one of the best books about big-city politics ever written), it was a shock. How could such a great reporter produce something so infantile and bereft of the simplest familiarity with logic? Then people took a look at Bissinger's Twitter feed and discovered that he spews out a puzzling combination of incomprehensibility and general assholishness. (sample tweet: "Romney lost was a suck candidate as it turned out. But every fucking liberal who whines about pro football should be forced to play it." Um, okaaay.) It was so puzzling because the traits that make one a good reporter—curiosity, hard work, a willingness to see things from as many perspectives as possible—seemed to have deserted Bissinger in his non-reporting endeavors. Which brings us to the strange case of David Mamet, one of the most celebrated American playwrights of the last forty years.

Newsweek has just published an article in which Mamet, who became a hard-core conservative some years ago, goes after Barack Obama for wanting to take away his guns. While there may be an intelligent, cogently argued case to make for Mamet's position, this piece certainly isn't it. From the opening cliché about Karl Marx, you know you're not in for something that will change anyone's mind, but it only gets worse. He moves on to insane assertions about government ("'One-size-fits-all,' and that size determined by the State has a name, and that name is 'slavery.'") moves through a comparison of Barack Obama to King George, and then hits you with the kind of "logic" with which any parent of an eight-year-old is familiar. "The Left loves a phantom statistic that a firearm in the hands of a citizen is X times more likely to cause accidental damage than to be used in the prevention of crime, but what is there about criminals that ensures that their gun use is accident-free?" Mamet asks. "If, indeed, a firearm were more dangerous to its possessors than to potential aggressors, would it not make sense for the government to arm all criminals, and let them accidentally shoot themselves?" You really got us there, Sparky. By the time he repeats the NRA's argument that Barack Obama is hypocritical for having the Secret Service protect his children and at the same time wanting some modest measures to limit gun proliferation— measures which, by the way, will restrict David Mamet's ability to buy as many guns as he wants not one whit—you're left shaking your head.

The Glory of Earned Media

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

A few years ago, the political operatives whose job it is to handle press coverage decided that the traditional dichotomy between "paid media" (ads you buy) and "free media" (press coverage you get) was insulting to their efforts. So they stopped using the term "free media" and began referring instead to "earned media." Because after all, when their boss got a glowing write-up in a newspaper, it didn't come for free, that press secretary and her staff earned it! And somebody sure as heck earned this piece in the Washington Post about Louisiana governor and likely 2016 hopeful Bobby Jindal. "Bobby Jindal Speaking Truth to GOP Power," reads the headline, establishing Jindal as outsidery, honest, and brave. The subject is a speech he'll be delivering to the RNC tonight, helpfully previewed to the Post's Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake, who could be guaranteed to run their "scoop" without the barest shred of skepticism. Shield your eyes, lest the bright light of his truth-telling blind you:

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