The Trump Card

August 17, 2015

UnknownDonald Trump has been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder by several non-M.D.s recently, in the scholarly land of blog posts and Facebook. New York Times columnist Timothy Egan even alluded to that the other day, himself quoting a blogger. But what if the root cause of the Republican presidential front-runner’s incredible blather is more prosaic? What if Trump has simply been paying attention?

In our polarized, attention-spanless culture, you don’t have to make sense to make noise. Fox News has proven that for the last twenty years. And the ability to grasp nuance, or even entertain an opposing viewpoint, is either lacking or lies hopelessly fallow in a significant portion of the electorate. At least the Republican primary electorate, the zealots, the Tea Baggers. To them, Trump is spouting a simple (some would say simplistic) message: your country has been co-opted by incompetents, moochers, and big donors who don’t care about you. I, and only I, can tell you the truth because I’m so rich I don’t have to kiss their asses.

He connects in a visceral way because he doesn’t use wishy-washy “dog-whistle” code words for immigrants or minorities like all the others do. Mexico is deliberately sending us its rapists. China and Russia are at war with us. All the grabbers and takers and lazy bums are wrenching America out of your control, and I’m the only one with the guts to tell it like it is.

Details don’t matter when you’ve got vision. How else to explain the knee-jerk opposition to our nuclear deal with Iran — without bothering to provide any alternative? Approving the deal delays an Iranian nuke by 15 years at least, and if they cheat, all our other options are still on the table, including bombing them back to the Stone Age. Doing nothing accelerates the process, probably erodes economic sanctions by other budget-busted countries that are aching to resume doing business, and brings us closer to a nuked Mideast. As Bill Maher put it the other night, this should be a no-brainer, and Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, agreed, as has a raft of former officers. But even talking to the enemy amounts to surrender, or, in Mike Huckabee’s inflamed world, genocide. (The other guys are starting to catch on to the concept of bombast.)

Trump has also noticed something about reality television, of which he is a veteran. It’s very much like pro wrestling: the obnoxious villain gets all the oxygen, and it is he — almost always a man — who keeps them tuning in. So he can call Mexican immigrants rapists. He can disparage John McCain’s military service. He can hand out Lindsey Graham’s phone number and wonder out loud whether Megyn Kelly was mean to him at the first Pub debate because she was menstruating. Each time the punditocracy said, this is the last straw, and each time Trump’s numbers held. He only got in trouble when he messed with one of Roger Ailes’s beauty queens, but Ailes — who counted the record number of eyeballs tuned in to The Donald Trump Show — made do with a back-off-just-a-schoche phone call and they’re still best buds.

We also had a very entertaining Republican clown car four years ago: at one point Herman Cain was the front-runner. Michele Bachmann, for God’s sake. This is the unintended consequence of the ludicrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision: now all you need is one billionaire who thinks you’re jake and you can stick around like a bad penny without a scintilla of popular support. Rick Santorum!

Well, Donald Trump is his own billionaire who thinks he’s jake. The only thing I can’t find is Trump’s upside. He lost his NBC show and several business relationships (though when this all blows over, don’t be surprised to see some fences mended: 24 million people watched that debate, making it the highest-rated non-sports cable program of all time — that means it set a new viewer record for Fox News — and they tuned in to see Citizen Trump). What’s in it for him? NPD adherents say it’s simple: he really thinks he can win. And every time he breaks another piece of china yet remains atop the Pub heap, it may well fortify that belief. Me, I don’t think Trump even wants to be president. I think he’s carrying this reality show as far as he can so he’ll emerge on the other side with an even better brand. The downside is that he’s making goons like Chris Christie and Scott Walker look reasonable in comparison, but in the meantime it’s delicious watching those natural bullies get stomped on by a real showman.

Some Moss Gathers

April 10, 2015

politifact-photos-141205175643-rolling-stone-uva-rape-on-campus-story-topThis has to be the all-time low point in the 48-year history of Rolling Stone. One of the last remaining outlets for long-form journalism, which used to be everywhere, the magazine has been forced to retract one of its biggest stories, and it has nobody to blame but itself for the great damage it has done to the fight against sexual assault on the college campus.

A loudly publicized RS article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely purported to document a shocking instantce of gang rape during a fraternity party at the University of Virginia, using it to highlight a very serious — and very real — nationwide problem. But Ms. Erdely’s scoop began unraveling almost as soon as it was published. It was, it developed, based on interviews with one traumatized victim, and the rest of her story didn’t hold up to scrutiny. Potential corroborators disputed the main witness’s version of events, and the fraternity in question hadn’t even held a party that night. Other journalists are shaking their heads at RS’s utter failure to double-check its reporting, at every step of the process, even after its fact-checking department warned that the factual backup was unusually flimsy. An independent review by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism (in fairness, itself commissioned by an appalled Rolling Stone) ripped the magazine for ignoring basic rules of reporting. Soon, RS was reduced to the butt of a Jon Stewart bit.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Ms. Erdely and her editors evidently committed the logical error called “confirmation bias,” which means they began with a proposition and searched for real-life support. In their victim, known as “Jackie,” they felt they had found what they needed and, in deference to her psychological trauma (or so the editors say), they failed to subject her story to the scrutiny that would have been employed by any decent high-school newspaper. A journalist reports verifiable facts.

It’s a delicate subject, to say the least, about which we definitely don’t know enough. A few weeks ago, two activists told Bill Maher that on average, one in five college women would face sexual assault by the time they graduated. That number sounded way high to me, so I did some digging around. The stat comes from the Centers for Disease Control, which says: “In a study of undergraduate women, 19% experienced attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college.” Wow. Amazing. In my defense, though, I submit that I was way off in my estimation for one simple reason. I’m a man.

A long-ago girlfriend, with whom I worked in the same professional setting, years later casually mentioned the gauntlet of potential hit-ons she’d had to endure when we were together, mostly from older gents who were also part of that setting. I had been absolutely oblivious. Nor had she cried on my shoulder about it; to her, it was just an annoying part of everyday life as an attractive young woman. You guys have no idea, bub. Let’s take that same dynamic and dial back the maturity level so that both people are in college. Now the one-in-five starts to look much closer.

If you’re not a rock star, jock star or movie star, it’s hard to imagine having to fend off potential suitors, but women (adjust for LGBT relationships however you wish; let’s just say, the “naturally pursued”) do it all the time. And pursuers have to stick their necks out every so often and face casual rebuke: most women I know have many ways to clearly indicate they’re not interested in a romantic relationship, because life forces them to develop those signals. (Or hmmm: was it just me?) You may wind up feeling foolish for trying, but by me, that’s not sexual assault. When you don’t yet know enough to (or are too drunk to) read a NO THANKS signal, you’re getting into some deep water that no amount of “Boy, did we get hammered!” can bail. And even if a woman gets used in the worst way by some budding Stanley Kowalski, it’s still up to her to report the damn thing and go through the humiliation all over again. Because little lady, the burden of proof is on you.

Columbia J-School Academic Affairs Dean Sheila Coronel and Dean Steve Coll present their report.

Columbia J-School Academic Affairs Dean Sheila Coronel and Dean Steve Coll present their report.

The worst part of this is that many — especially our pals on the pale, male and stale far right — don’t believe in college sexual assault any more than they do in climate change or evolution. It’s just a bunch of gals getting too tipsy and marijuanaed up and regretting the hookup the next day. And this false alarm is going to set societal awareness back even more. Red-state pinup Ann Coulter has already begun: “From the Duke lacrosse team, the Columbia mattress girl and the University of Virginia, the left has not been able to produce one actual rape on a college campus. It’s beginning to look as if the rape of the Sabine women never happened, either.” College rape is nothing but another left-wing canard.

I also have trouble squaring Rolling Stone’s decision to go to the mats for its employees with my natural outrage that no Wall Street bankers are in jail for ruining the economy, no Cheney-Bush goombahs were punished for torturing human beings and inspiring legions of terrorists, and cop after cop walks away clean unless a camera lens is stuck in his snoot while he’s committing murder (and sometimes even then). Seems like if you’re in for a penny, you’d be in for a pound.

It’s a tragedy all around: for an unjustly pilloried fraternity and university, for any serious response to assault on campus, and for the journalistic reputation of a paper that should never have let this one get sent to layout.

7/30/15: The Times reports today that RS managing editor Will Dana will be leaving. It’s almost certainly related to the mishandling of this story. So here, at least one head did roll.

The State Of Late

February 13, 2015

Everybody’s talking about tv this week, which makes it pretty much like every other week of the year, only right now they’re talking less about what’s on it, more about who’s on it. On Tuesday morning, Brian Williams, the jovial but “trusted” face of ratings-leading NBC News, was suspended without pay for six months over a bit of erroneous reporting about his own experiences during the Iraq war. Then, late that same afternoon, Jon Stewart announced at a taping of THE DAILY SHOW that he intended to leave his job of 16 years within the next few months. By Tuesday night, the two men’s roles had shifted. Brian Williams was revealed as a serial resume-fluffing showboat, and Jon Stewart, a former stand-up comic, was now arguably, if only temporarily, the most trusted name in tv news, by virtue of abdication.

Brian Williams.

Brian Williams.

I feel for Williams. He seems to be a nice guy who was blessed with the looks and the voice, and also with the rare ability to poke fun at his own profession without disrespecting it. These qualities made him, and they may also break him. The first time I was ever aware of him was at a 2004 preview screening of ANCHORMAN at which Will Ferrell was interviewed in character afterward. Ferrell’s SNL castmates turned out in force to whoop and holler and sat in the rows just in front of and behind us: Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Jimmy Fallon, Ana Gasteyer, Amy Poehler, Chris Parnell, etc., probably some writers too. Somebody pointed out this tall, distinguished guy who looked like a Hollywood casting director’s idea of an anchorman, being escorted down to a very close seat. “That’s Brian Williams…he just took over for Tom Brokaw.” They even made a crack about him from the stage, but time has erased the details. A jolly occasion. (I met Tim Robbins, who has a cameo, in the lobby…he’s basketball tall.)

The fullness of time instructs that it’s probably right and proper that I first beheld Williams at a movie-studio event featuring a parody of a newscaster. He has always wanted to straddle the news and entertainment divisions. After all, his idol Brokaw graduated from light (THE TODAY SHOW) to heavy (NBC NIGHTLY NEWS), but those were the days when NBC News supervised both shows; TODAY is now so louche that I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that’s not true any more. Williams himself went further. He became The Coolest Anchorman Ever, chatting with Letterman, sparring with Stewart, slow-jamming the news with Fallon, even hosting an episode of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: not since Ron Nessen had SNL strayed so far into the real world that you and I inhabit. The most amazing fact I learned out of this whole kerfuffle was that when it looked like Jay Leno was leaving for sure, Williams raised his hand: he seriously wanted to be considered for the TONIGHT SHOW hosting gig. That, I didn’t know about him.

What could turn a King Of The World, aware enough to be a self-deprecator, into a craven self-aggrandizer? After all, he got the facts right when he first reported about the Iraq choppers at the time. (The one ahead of his was hit by an RPG, not the one he was in. Still admittedly very scary, but not the same, as the vets who were with him kept pointing out and pointing out and pointing out.) You might as well ask O.J. or Tiger or Nixon why they risked their earthly royalty with, let’s just say, ill-considered behavior. And exactly how rare is this phenomenon? Haven’t you exaggerated something in your past to make yourself look better? I know I have, and before you righteously peg me as an aberration, I must point out that this is common enough to be a sitcom trope: hubby is happily pontificating, and the wife jabs him with the pinprick of truth that deflates him, har har har. Also, keep repeating the same harmless fabrication in public for years and years and years and even you may come to believe it. My uninformed guess is, that’s exactly what happened to Brian Williams.

As this was “breaking” over the weekend, somebody asked me, “Do you think he’ll lose his job over this?” I said, “Yes.” “Do you think he should?” I said, “Yes.” That’s cold, turkey, especially because I still like the guy. But if I’m his boss, I have to cut him away. (The question was asked at the point when Williams had decided on his own to take some time off. NBC News, shamefully, had not yet officially weighed in.) I replied, “Look at what he does for a living.” He has to stare into a camera and tell people, this is what happened today, I swear it is, forget about that Iraq stuff, I’m rehabilitated now. Most thoughtful people will look at him askance. Viewers of the verbal geek-shows on Fox News won’t even be that kind. NBC has no choice but to find another way forward. I’ve read that Williams is “shattered,” and that hurts me too. But news is news and trust is trust, and that’s precisely how NBC has marketed him, for cryin out loud. On the other hand, let’s not forget that NBC NIGHTLY NEWS is on top in the ratings right now because of Brian Williams, and if there’s any possible way to weasel out of this and preserve that advantage, perhaps by cloning an Iraq-fudging-free duplicate, the NBC suits will be on it like white on rice. Whatever brings the eyeballs.

Jon Stewart.

Jon Stewart.

Time was displaced weirdly on that strange day. At the top of his show Tuesday night, Jon Stewart said he had some business to get to, that you (we, the tv viewers) probably know something the studio audience (the ones who had stood outside shivering in the cold) did not, but we’d take care of that later. This is because THE DAILY SHOW rolls tape in the late afternoon: I think around 4, maybe 5. (I was there once, but the weather was much better.) So anybody who was physically in the studio with him (and, to be fair, the publicity department, painfully aware of all this too) had heard Jon’s announcement by, say, 6pm at the latest, in time to tweet all their friends/bosses. By the time the episode aired at 11pm, the whole country already knew Jon was resigning. At air, the studio audience, trapped in late-afternoon real-time, was actually the last to know. Calling Christopher Nolan!

As he fought away tears, the finest thing Jon told his audience was: “this show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host, and neither do you.” What were we to make of the fact that Jon took summer 2013 off to direct (evidently rather credibly; I’ve not seen it yet) a movie? Or that he tapped John Oliver to fill in for him? (One of the all-time greatest DAILY SHOW episodes ever was Oliver’s first, when the whole “correspondent” infrastructure seemed to break down over petty jealousy. Every joke topped the previous one. Classic.) What you, I, Glenn Beck, everybody, has to take away is that Jon Stewart has skin in THE DAILY SHOW. It’s not a berth, as with Hannity or O’Reilly. To him, it’s a lifestyle. The Times ran a piece Wednesday on how politicians are crying alligator tears upon seeing Jon go. I can tell you that book publicists are crying real tears. We can only hope that Colbert finds a way to open 11:35 to more books, as he’s hinted he might. The Stewart-Colbert hour was the last stand for authors who deserved tv time in a culture that doesn’t seem to care. You could tell when Jon had been really rocked by a book, not just pro-forma politeness, and that earnest look to camera could make a TBR bestseller.

John Oliver.

John Oliver.

Could John Oliver take over now? The conventional wisdom was that he’d been a victim of poor timing: he got his weekly HBO show before Colbert split for CBS, otherwise he would have been a shoo-in for the 11:30 spot. (Remember: Colbert battled the monologues of Jay, Jimmy and Dave among younger viewers, and, over time, stared them all down.) But now Oliver’s a hit, and can afford to tell Comedy Central that he doesn’t care to host a four-night-a-week clambake. What he and his writers on LAST WEEK TONIGHT have managed to do is to stretch out the DAILY SHOW format and, after the monologue and such, air a ten-minute, meticulously researched piece each week on a single topic. FIFA. Beauty pageants. The India election. Etc. LAST WEEK TONIGHT blurs satire and journalism in a way the others can’t — plus, the host gets to vent his spleen unbleeped. I can’t imagine him going back to basic cable.

Larry Wilmore.

Larry Wilmore.

In the Colbert slot is Larry Wilmore, and after less than a month behind the desk, he’s already proven that he can carry a show. I’m glad the title changed from THE MINORITY REPORT to THE NIGHTLY SHOW, because the former monicker seemed to marginalize the show too severely. (Although it’s great that black culture has its own comedy show once again — Larry was one of the writers on IN LIVING COLOR — and who else would be able to hone in so hard on the Bill Cosby scandal?) Improving on LAST WEEK’s lead, THE NIGHTLY SHOW usually sticks to one topic for the full half hour. It’s still grasping toward its format: the four-person panel segments feel too rushed, albeit while introducing us to a bunch of bright under-the-radar comics, and the “Keep It 100” segment, in which the host asks absurd what-if questions to his guests, may wear out its welcome sooner than intended. But the show is current as hell: the last moment each night is a Tweeted question to the host, one that he sees for the first time on the spot. On Wednesday, the surprise question was, “Would you go back to host THE DAILY SHOW?” (He said no.)

Stephen Colbert.

Stephen Colbert.

Of course, the big question mark in all this ruckus is Stephen Colbert. The wailing and gnashing of teeth at the demise of THE COLBERT REPORT wasn’t over a fear of losing this great improvisational master; we’ll actually see more of him as he does a whole hour on CBS, five nights a week. It was about losing the character he played, the right-wing buffoon who poked holes in the conservative mass media by pretending to be one of them. This near-decade-long bit of performance art fooled everyone at first, especially whoever booked Colbert for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006 (early reports were that he bombed and people walked out. Then we noticed that the reports were all coming from Bushies, and when we actually saw the speech, it was brave and hilarious). Colbert’s right-wing gasbag character was able to speak truth to power in a new, visceral way, which we’ll all miss. But just as David Letterman deconstructed the talk show format, maybe an out-of-character Colbert and his very fine writers will be able to do the same.

James Corden.

James Corden.

And then there’s the guy nobody’s talking about, the man who will take over for the departing Colin Ferguson in CBS late-late-night land: British actor James Corden, whose lightning-fast improv skills are no secret to anyone who saw him in ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS — as I did. So much change in such a short time. Think about it: by the end of this year, the senior guy in late-night will be…Jimmy Kimmel.

By now, THE DAILY SHOW is as much a format as THE TONIGHT SHOW, which has survived the loss of Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. Most of the people just named have come up as possible replacements for Jon Stewart in the past few days, along with a chorus of feminists who think it’s past time for a Sarah Silverman or Amy Schumer to be sitting behind one of those desks. If the show were on NBC, I’d even throw Brian Williams’s name into the hat. The show won’t be the same. It can’t be. But somebody will step up, and there’s no reason this franchise can’t survive for a good long time, unless powerful people suddenly stop doing and saying stupid things. Ya think?

2/17/15: HBO has moved quickly. Today they picked up LAST WEEK TONIGHT for two more seasons, through 2017, taking John Oliver out of the DAILY SHOW replacement sweepstakes. I think LAST WEEK is a better gig for him, and evidently he agrees.

2/25/15: And now we’re enjoying a little dustup involving Fox News blowhard Bill O’Reilly. Seems this bilious gasbag was nowhere near the Falkland Islands when he “covered” the war for CBS News per his frequent and loud boasting. Unlike Brian Williams, though, this actually works in O’Reilly’s favor. He’s no longer a newsman. He’s long since become a one-sided pundit: nobody particularly trusts him on anything at all. Not only won’t O’Reilly lose his job for serial lying, he’ll be able to paint it as one more example of continuing persecution by the “haters” of the “liberal media.” He’s already begun that defensive campaign in his trademark boorish, bullying style.

4/7/15: And now the newly-designated anchor of THE DAILY SHOW, South African comic Trevor Noah, is feeling some heat over years-old tweets of some less-than-sensitive gags. Man, the news just keeps getting weirder.

8/12/15: As if late night weren’t already crowded enough, we learned today that starting January 1, Antenna TV will broadcast complete episodes of THE TONIGHT SHOW from the Hollywood period, 1972-1992. So the latest 11pm competitor will be none other than…Johnny Carson himself.

Roger & Thee

March 7, 2014

loudest voiceWho’s the most powerful conservative in the United States? God knows it’s not Mitch McConnell or John Boehner. Not Rush Limbaugh or Karl Rove. Not the former President Bushes or anyone in their family. Not even the Republican Party’s personal Mr. Monopolys, the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. Nope, America’s most powerful conservative rules his fiefdom from a second-floor office on New York’s Avenue of the Americas. He is Roger E. Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News, and as he will gladly tell you, he elected two presidents – and might well have made it three if he hadn’t been busy creating a monster instead.

The brash, mercurial Ailes – part instinctive genius and part paranoid bully – is the subject of a new biography by New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, THE LOUDEST VOICE IN THE ROOM. It tracks his career from the Mike Douglas TV show where he met and wooed Richard Nixon, to the 1968 campaign immortalized in Joe McGinniss’s classic THE SELLING OF THE PRESIDENT (with which Ailes eagerly cooperated before having to backtrack and humble himself before H. R. Haldeman), then to TV and theater production, an early attempt at partisan conservative broadcasting, a stop at CNBC, and finally permanent sponsorship in the form of an equally bombastic media magnate who felt “mainstream” journalism was too lefty. Since Fox News went on the air in 1996 (just in time for Monica Lewinsky), it has become the official campfire of the right wing, the nexus of one-sided opinion. Its slogan “Fair and Balanced” was created to get under liberals’ skin, and it’s worked: the channel is anything but either and everybody knows it. Fox News is the broadcast home of a parade of blowhards who never have to answer to the public, not even to Rupert Murdoch himself: only to Roger Ailes.

Piecing together Ailes’s upbringing is beyond any biographer, even one who can get a face-to-face with the subject (as Mr. Sherman could not), since Ailes routinely lies about dozens of biographical facts. For example, Mr. Sherman titles his first chapter after an allegedly traumatic childhood experience in which Ailes’s father extends his hand to catch his jumping son and then snatches it away to let him fall: “Don’t ever trust anybody” is the parental takeaway. The source is an Ailes confidant. The story is almost certainly a lie.

Another fiction which has stood the test of time concerns the signal day when MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW producer Ailes met guest Richard M. Nixon. According to official Ailes lore, there was a belly dancer named Little Egypt also booked on the show, “so I stuck Nixon in my office for 15 minutes. If I’d put Little Egypt in there, I’d be managing belly dancers right now.” This was the conversation – sometimes he says it was an hour long – in which Ailes convinced Nixon that he needed a “media adviser.” Trouble is, as the author reports, “According to several of Ailes’s colleagues who were present and the show logs, there was no belly dancer named Little Egypt booked that day.”

Ailes’s life is festooned with such bits of retroactive “history,” but friends and foes alike note that he has long created a “reality distortion field” as powerful and impervious as Steve Jobs’s. So why should we even care about digging through his shape-shifting past? Because Roger Ailes has become not just a reflector of modern American culture, but a driver of it to an almost unthinkable degree, the thought leader of a rabid, vocal and inward-looking minority. As Mr. Sherman writes, in Fox News’s early days, emboldened by Bill Clinton’s personal foibles, some viewers “kept the channel on for so long that the static Fox News logo…burned the pixels. Before a rotating one was introduced, even when they turned off their sets for the night, the outlines of the graphic remained tattooed to the dark screens.” Some cable channels have viewers. Fox News has believers.

I remember when Rush Limbaugh’s first book appeared in fall 1992. I’d never heard of him, but then I hadn’t listened to talk radio since my grad-school days twenty years earlier, when Atlanta’s WRNG, a 24-hour call-in station, entertained me on long car trips. Stuart Applebaum, Bantam’s corporate spokesperson, predicted a huge hit for our competitor Pocket Books. Why? “Conservatives don’t have anything to read.” And it was true: when I thought of conservative literature, it was ages-old screeds from Barry Goldwater or the John Birch Society, maybe ragged conspiracy-spouting pamphlets for gun-show booths. Well, conservatives didn’t have anything to watch either. For years it was accepted right-wing wisdom that the big-shot media were hopelessly biased in favor of progressivism, from organized labor to women’s suffrage to civil rights. (That continues to be a powerful motivating force on the right, which likes to view itself as the long-suffering victim.) And Rush Limbaugh represented its first shot across the bow, now that mass media had become untethered to even the pretense of objectivity.

For most of the 20th century, on radio and television at least, bald editorializing was actually quite rare. Eric Sevareid’s spots on CBS, for example, were devoted to explicating the news rather than promoting an opinion, which would have been anathema to the longtime journalist. When official opinion was broadcast, station owners – mindful that they were using airwaves licensed to them by the public and guided since 1949 by the FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine” – would invite an opposing view. This conceit became a weekly 60 MINUTES feature called “Point/Counterpoint,” savagely parodied by the new satirical program SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (“Jane, you ignorant slut!”). But in 1987 the FCC rescinded the Doctrine, and Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush beat back attempts in Congress to reinstate it, on the grounds that broadcasters’ First Amendment rights to free speech were being impinged. That opened the floodgates for partisan broadcasting that had no obligation to present an opposing view. This relatively recent development in mass media is the hottest thing on radio, and despite the public sackcloth and ashes, the leading programs are overwhelmingly conservative. As for television, Fox News speaks for itself – quite literally.

One of the most impressive aspects of the right-wing establishment is its message discipline. Do you remember just after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, when presidential spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters, “I’m not going to engage in the blame game,” and continued to use the term repeatedly during his press briefing? Then the same term was picked up by Congressional Republicans, conservative talk radio and Fox News. It also happened when President Obama refused to release photos of Osama bin Laden’s corpse because “we don’t need to spike the football”: the instant right-wing meme was that he was doing exactly that (perhaps hoping we’d forgotten George W. Bush’s flight-suit strut on that aircraft carrier), and this exact phrase tumbled from right-wing mouths for two days. What, does Fox hold meetings to decide what today’s talking points are going to be? As Mr. Sherman reports, why yes, as a matter of fact it does. That’s the exact opposite of reporting news, but that’s also what creates Fox fans. Besides, simply repeating something, no matter how preposterous, gives it weight, as Fox News has proved with the “Swift Boat” campaign against John Kerry and its laughable annual “War on Christmas.”

Many observers, including me, have long wondered whether the on-air opinionators of Fox News are simply performing for the camera or genuinely subscribe to the principles they’re spouting. After reading this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that at least some of the on-camera talent may indeed be pontificators-for-pay (Glenn Beck in particular was never an Ailes team player and stuck to his own messages, and Bill O’Reilly’s main orientation is apparently Bill O’Reilly), but Ailes himself actually believes a lot of this stuff. He is an intensely paranoid man who sees conspiracies lurking everywhere – perhaps they are remnants of his time spent with Richard Nixon – and is so afraid of assassination that he had his Fox News office bomb-proofed and installed a bunker beneath his mountaintop country home in Putnam County, New York (after purchasing the sleepy local newspaper and turning it into an advocate) to weather an attack, which will be easier for him to spot after having cut down the nearby trees and bought as many surrounding houses as he could.

Is Fox News the official organ of the Republican Party? You may recall that no less than Dick Cheney directed that all tv sets in his vice-presidential hotel suites be pre-set to Fox, and a host named Steve Doocy flabbergasted observers one day by casually consulting a GOP talking-points memo on the air. Or is it the other way around? After all, it was Fox News – particularly its acerbic host Sean Hannity – which fanned the flames of the nascent Tea Party and probably cost Republicans control of the Senate for two straight election cycles; hyperventilating bombthrowers can win Senate primaries, but it turns out they get clobbered in the more rational general elections. (In the gerrymandered House, quite a few bombthrowers actually won, and collectively became Speaker Boehner’s worst nightmare.) Whatever Fox News is, it’s here to stay for a while, if not exactly at full strength: the channel’s core viewers are aging white men, and most of their potential younger replacements have long since learned to laugh rather than obey. Let’s face it, it’s more fun — and more lucrative — to be Roger Ailes when you have an enemy in the White House; whatever would Fox run 24/7 during a Romney administration? For now, railing against the Kenyan socialist (while secretly hoping for another Clintonian punching bag?) will just have to do.

3/9/13: Read this great story on Chris Ruddy, the guy behind the Newsmax empire, who is ready to give Ailes a run for at least part of his money on television. Ruddy has calmly discerned and exploited the market potential of serving right-wing-but-not-frothing boomers, and in real life he’s an independent who makes up his own mind.

Hot Type, Cool Times

February 28, 2014

Remembering an old friend, a beloved Mississippi newspaper columnist who passed away last week after a life in the profession, got me thinking about earlier days, when both he and I were just scamps yipping around the newsroom of the local daily. Things were so different back then that it seems like a dream. I’m not talking about the cultural shift from newspapers to television to social media for most breaking news – that subject’s already been done to death by bigger brains than mine. I’m talking about the physical process of getting the news out every day in print, in a long-lost era when the term “ink-stained wretch” was more than just a creaky metaphor.

The principle was quite simple and hadn’t changed much since Gutenberg: lay down a mirror image of what you want to see, slather just the right amount of ink over it, and press the ink onto a piece of paper with just the right porosity. Lift up the paper and you have a legible positive. But to get that mirror image required one of the most funky-looking yet way-cool machines ever invented: the linotype.

Mergenthaler_LinotypeThis doodad, in the hands of a skilled operator, could cast complete print-ready “lines o’ type” from a cauldron of molten metal (mostly lead), cool ‘em down, stack ‘em, and hand off to a compositor who physically picked them up and “slugged” them onto a page like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

A line o' type. I saved one (wish I knew where) that reads

A line o’ type. I saved one (wish I knew where) that reads “By TOM DUPREE”.

A chunk of type ready to be

A chunk of type ready to be “slugged.” (Can you read the headline? I can.)

Before the linotype showed up in the late 19th century, you had to set each letter by hand. Because of this tremendous physical burden, no pre-linotype newspaper was longer than eight pages. Linotype technology busted the newspaper business wide open and ruled for about 75 years. But I’ve always connected the machine with an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE that premiered exactly 51 years ago today, before I ever saw one in person, in which a devilish Burgess Meredith used a linotype to report on news events before they happened.

A good linotype operator: a little TOO good.

A good linotype operator: a little TOO good.

The linotype operator used a different keyboard than the “QWERTY” arrangement you and I (and the reporters) use. It was as if he could speak, or at least type, a foreign language. ETAOIN SHRDLU (in lower case; I used the caps so you wouldn’t worry that I’d just had a stroke) is what you get when you run a downward glissando with your finger on the first two columns, because somebody figured out that this was the order of frequency of letters in English. When you hit an “e,” the machine grabs that letter and sets it in place, waiting for the rest of the line and its forthcoming lead bath. So the most-used letters were physically closest: the keyboard layout was strictly a mechanical issue, and lower-case ETAOIN… was a quicker, easier way for an operator to signal a break or an end than the journalist’s fancy-pants “-30-“. Sometimes, as you may have already suspected, “etaoin shrdlu” actually made it into the paper by mistake; there are thousands of examples in newspaper morgues across the country, but not enough have survived digitization to make my cursed spell-checker quit trying to “correct” it for me. But don’t feel so superior. If I made a big honking Mergenthaler linotype appear right now, sat you down, and gave you some copy to set, a skilled letter-by-letter hand-setter would beat you by a mile, because John Henry would know what he was doing while you were hunting and pecking the day away. Simply stated, the linotype operator knew something you didn’t: that foreign language expressed through his fingertips and thus translated back into English. Toward the end of the era, AP and UPI would send longer non-time-sensitive features on a roll of tape which could operate the linotype automatically, but the operators’ arcane arts were still absolutely essential until computerized typesetting came along.

The ETAOIN keyboard.

The ETAOIN keyboard.

I was already familiar with “hot type” when I started working for the local daily because our high-school newspapers were printed the same way. A few staffers used to trot out to Keith Press in Raymond, Mississippi and spend the whole day there, because as part of our “journalism training,” we were the ones who physically slugged the pages for the printer. Sometimes you’d want to change something, or the operator had made a typo, and you had to replace the offending line(s) of type – and only the bad ones – by hand. Some of us thus developed an interesting skill: standing at the head of the page, we got very good at reading type upside down and backward. Piffle? Not at all: I’ve read quite a few upside-down letters and memos sitting across the desk from an interviewee who’s busy taking a phone call, and once or twice I learned something I wasn’t supposed to know.

Although the news and sales departments were entirely separate, advertisements paid the bills and ran the show. The compositors made up the ads at the bottom of the page first, and the “editorial” content went in whatever space was left. There’s a practical reason journalists were taught to use an “inverted pyramid” in writing news stories: get the important stuff as high as you can and trail off with less-critical detail toward the end. The reason is, if the piece won’t fit into the available space, you dump the last paragraph, then the next-to-last one, and so on.

Tube Central. Retro, maybe, but it sure beat running up and down the stairs.

Tube Central. Retro, maybe, but it sure beat running up and down the stairs.

When I got to the city’s daily (like most midsize cities by the mid-Sixties, Jackson was down to one newspaper owner, publishing morning and afternoon papers and a combined edition on Sunday), we weren’t as chummy with the linotype operators. They weren’t even on the same floor. To communicate with them, we’d roll up our copy and stick it in a pneumatic tube like the ones you can still see at some drive-in bank tellers. Off it sped, Jetson-like, to typesetting (down in the dungeon with the presses and all), and later the tube would pop out a printed proof for us to read and correct. It also showed us the length of the piece in column inches so we could lay out pages with paper diagrams. This proof was the first time you saw your name in print (if you got a byline) and gentle readers, I became addicted, which is a succinct yet comprehensive autobiography.

Any big paper had a line o' linotypes.

Any big paper had a line o’ linotypes.

Newspaper offices are much quieter than they used to be. The clickety-clack of teletypes – not to mention linotypes – was once the sound of news. Even typewriters (they were manual and we typed hard onto huge rolls of three-copy carbon paper) were noisier than today’s keyboards. I’ll bet there are also fewer flasks of booze stuffed into desk drawers today, and the unfinished novels alongside them are probably unfinished screenplays in our bold new century. Things change, which is really what news is all about. My late friend stuck around long enough to see all those wonders get replaced by new ones: he was a real newspaperman and justifiably proud of the printer’s ink that ran through his veins. It’s a profession worth honoring, as the term “news” continues to be diluted and trivialized by too many of the mass media. Sue me, but I miss the days when etaoin shrdlu actually meant something.

To the memory of Orley Hood

Hurrah For The Economist!

September 11, 2013

econcovThe blokes over at The Economist are spending this week celebrating their 170th anniversary, which is amazing, since it’s become the world’s leading English-language newsmagazine not only by excellence, but also by stamina.

Of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report – all 20th century creations – only the former still exists in a print edition, and it’s an anemic shadow of its former self. Everybody else has long gone digital. Yet since September 2, 1843, the British “newspaper” – that’s what it still calls itself – returns solid, intelligent, sprightly-written but resolutely fact-based journalism, each and every week. Articles are unsigned, as they used to be in America’s newsmags, and regular opinion columnists are identified only by historical personages: “Lexington” for the U.S., “Bagehot” for Britain, “Charlemagne” for Europe, “Schumpeter” for business and economics, etc. The journalists behind these names may change – and they often say so long in their final columns before a new writer picks up – but the bylines remain the same.

A leading American businessman told New York magazine last week that you could learn all you need to know just by reading The Economist and Bloomberg Businessweek. (This individual happens to own Bloomberg Businessweek, but he’s right: it’s a great, lively mag these days.) The Economist covers everything else with a charming Old World objectivity; it’s instructive to get the British take on American subjects, and even to be chided about our own odd obsessions, such as with the President’s place of birth or our Bizarro-world relationship to our guns. Here was the paper’s entire coverage of a certain spring 2011 event, in its world roundup section: A young man and his fiancée were expected to get married in central London on April 29th. Millions of Britons took advantage of the opportunity to take a foreign holiday. This in a week when Time and Newsweek both had the royal wedding splashed all over their covers (and thus missed the killing of Osama bin Laden).

The Economist would probably fall into the “moderate Republican” camp if it were American; in other words, there’s no place for it in Congress. Socially open-minded and fiscally conservative, it can’t possibly agree with your point of view every single week. (It is currently acting quite hawkish toward Syria and is aghast that Parliament declined to support a military operation for the first time since 1782.) But, aside from the clearly delineated opinion pages, you can trust it for straight, unadorned news. There is no better way to learn about our complicated, interconnected world than in the spinless pages of this international paragon. Happy 170th, mates, and have a pint on me!

Rolling Away The Stone

July 20, 2013

rscov1188Rolling Stone [full disclosure: my grad-school beer-money provider and record-shelf-filling helper] is in the hot seat just now for selecting as its current cover photo not an Annie Leibovitz or Mark Seliger portrait of a celebrity, but a “selfie” cameraphone shot of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bomber who’s still alive. This image has caused a tsunami of outrage, especially in New England, where the vicious April 15 attack that killed three and wounded 264 others still has many in a state of shock.

Some companies have banned the issue outright. First, New England-based CVS/Walgreens and Tedeschi Foods announced their refusal to sell it. They were later joined by – as of this posting – Rite-Aid, Kmart and 7-Eleven company-owned stores (the home office will encourage its franchisees to follow suit). Knee-jerk cries of “censorship” have inevitably followed, but this is a tough moral call for many of my well-meaning friends, who are really wrestling with the issue. I am too.

The first thing we think of has to be the hundreds of victims and their anguished loved ones. That’s why we can understand the outrage even when we don’t share it in a visceral way. What would we do in their place? Probably scream and shout – and weep – as well. Grief isn’t rational, and it hasn’t been that long since half a million people came out on a beautiful spring day to celebrate a Boston tradition and cheer on their heroes. This wound is only beginning to heal; it’s still there.

Note that there’s little objection (in fact, I haven’t heard any at all) to Janet Reitman’s cover story itself, a fine piece of journalism that you can read here (make note of the editors’ response to this controversy at the head of the piece). It calmly depicts how the kid next door could turn into a radical and ultimately a monster, the precise word used on the cover. The troublesome part isn’t even the image itself. It can’t be. Back in May it was printed on the front page of the New York Times, in color, in the center, above the fold, and nobody said a word.

The May 5, 2013 front page.

The May 5, 2013 front page.

What bothers people is the juxtaposition of this image with Rolling Stone, and the outrage has to come largely from people who don’t read Rolling Stone (let’s be honest, that’s most people). I infer this from comment after comment decrying the magazine’s “glorification” of an alleged murderer. From the outside, Rolling Stone probably looks something like Tiger Beat: it’s only youth culture, the cover should rightly depict nothing more profound than the latest rocker or pop-culture sensation. Heck, getting on the cover even inspired a Top Ten novelty hit in 1973. What outsiders don’t realize is that Rolling Stone is one of the last bastions of long-form journalism, and has been practicing this venerable profession since its founding. Not a single issue goes to press without at least one piece, maybe even the cover story, which has nothing to do with show business but is meant only to inform and illuminate its readers on the issues of the day. Longtime RS readers were not surprised to see this image on the cover, only found it remarkable for its stated purpose. Here’s your bomber, this…kid.

“They made him look so glamorous.” Nope, it’s only a selfie, that’s you doing that, by virtue of his proximity to the Rolling Stone logo. What you can’t tell from looking at the digital image above, what you can only suss by holding the printed copy in your hands, is that unlike most of RS’s cover portraits, on which you can damn near see individual hair follicles, this photo began so low-res that, blown up for the RS cover, it almost loses focus; here, you can see pixels. In person, it registers instantly that this shot was clearly taken by the subject with a cameraphone. Like the selfies you take. He’s a tousle-haired teenager with a mobile phone, just like RS’s core audience, and that can’t help but unnerve some of them. The image’s power issues from its very normalcy: to any even remotely contemplative kid, it’s uncomfortably like looking into a mirror. Which leads to…

“He’s become a role model. He’ll inspire others.” Any kid unhinged enough to view what Tsarnaev allegedly did as a good thing, to conclude that being on the cover of Rolling Stone is worth an act of mass carnage, will be sorely disappointed to find that they’ve already done their terrorist cover. Besides, we’re full of enough self-hating, gun-toting, random-snuffing “role models” to satisfy a nation of over-armed, sick depressives, and nobody does boo about that, not even when the victims are a room full of first graders.

Another role model?

Another role model?

“They just did this to make money.” I would strike the word “just,” but they publish every issue to make money, and choose every cover subject to attract attention. Will newsstand sales of this issue spike? You’ve already seen the cover, and you can read Ms. Reitman’s story with a single click, so maybe not – especially since it won’t be available at all those outlets. But as New York Times media columnist David Carr wrote, when’s the last time somebody asked you, “Have you seen the cover of Rolling Stone?”

You have the right to decline to sell anything you like. (As a Times editorial pointed out, in CVS’s case, this means cigarettes are fine, Rolling Stone not so.) You also have the right to refrain from patronizing a particular company for whatever reason you like: an ugly logo, a surly server, an act of censorship — or a cover image that offends you. It’s as simple, and as complicated, as that.


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