Friday, July 27, 2007

Tube roses & thorns IV

Buyer’s remorse

Television is often the great distorter. It’s been said, for example, that people look ten pounds heavier on TV than they really are. The medium’s ability to convey unmerited gravitas extends to some of the hardball political punditocracy that makes up the landscape of cable; many of these “analysts” get credit for substance that they haven't earned.

But for all of television’s ability to throw shadows and fiction, it often reveals the truth. That’s nowhere more obvious lately than when watching the face and demeanor of Katie Couric, anchor of the CBS Evening News.

Simply put, folks, Katie ain’t happy now, and hasn’t been for some time. Her on-air demeanor has become almost painfully professional, direct and, in some cases, so automatic as to suggest she’s become the kind of rote newsreader she’s never been in recent years.

Remember, this was the Katie Couric who swept into the CBS Broadcast Center in September 2006 with the self-created mandate to do nothing less than Change the Face of Broadcast Television News. This was the Katie whose effervescent personality kept her aloft (and got us awake) for countless mornings on NBC’s “Today” show.

Couric started at CBS in the frothy wake of the Dan Rather scandal. When Rather stepped down under a cloud in March 2005, it was thought that whoever formally, officially succeeded Rather would have to be an improvement. Couric’s ascension to the top spot was just that, for a while.

In the beginning, Couric brought a lighter touch to CBS, running more than a few stories on celebrities and the wider culture in places where the body counts probably should have been. (Her on-air role had a parallel in the gossip magazines; the magazines you see at the end of the supermarket checkout counter published numerous stories about the unattached Couric stepping out with one wealthy beau or another – the network news anchor as frisky horndog.)

Purists accustomed to a straight-up, no-nonsense news format were not amused. After some new ideas on story choice and presentation failed to catch fire, the CBS program was revamped under veteran producer Rick Kaplan, late of CNN and MSNBC. But a number of reporting gaffes, and a proven claim of plaigiarism related to one of her Weblogs, have complicated the drive for legitimacy and acceptance by viewers, critics and news professionals.

CBS was, and remains, a distant third behind ABC's "World News" and "NBC Nightly News." The Sad Katie era has begun; you can see it in the latest network promos: Couric sits at her desk moving paper, head down, her blank expression hinting at a search for the exits.

Now, it’s getting ugly. A Couric interview in the July 9th issue of New York magazine has revived curiosity about her future at the Tiffany network.

Couric reportedly slapped a CBS News editor repeatedly in a tense newsroom confrontation, according to a source quoted in the New York article. Couric became angry over the word "sputum" into a story about tuberculosis last month. "I sort of slapped him around," Couric admitted to the magazine. "I got mad at him and said, 'You can't do this to me. You have to tell me when you're going to use a word like that.' I was aggravated, there's no question about that."

“Sputum” is the least of her concerns; right now Couric is chafing against Kaplan’s return to the buttoned-up style of Cronkite, Bob Schieffer (who temped in Katie’s role for months after Rathergate) and even, God help us, Dan Rather.

"People are very unforgiving and very resistant to change," Couric told New York. "The biggest mistake we made is we tried new things."

"If it turns out it wasn't a perfect fit (at the evening news), then, you know, I'll do something else that's really exciting and fulfilling for me," she told the magazine.

But not so fast. CBS News president Sean McManus may have other ideas.

"She has a five-year contract with CBS to anchor the evening news," McManus told The Associated Press on July 12. "All of us, including Katie, expect her to be anchoring the evening news in her fifth year."

Maybe Katie Couric’s getting the same slightly sinking feeling people sometimes have after making a major purchase, the voice in the back of the head that suggests they’ve made a serious mistake. But it’s too soon in the process for her or CBS to have buyer’s remorse. The checks she’s cashing are too big, and for CBS, still an also-ran in the ratings sweepstakes, the stakes are too high.

When the Couric era at CBS began, several “Evening News” promo spots made clever use of the phrase “See It Now,” borrowed from the program created by CBS icon Edward R. Murrow in the 1950’s. What remains to be seen is whether Couric and her bosses at the third-place CBS “Evening News” can make peace – the better to make sure anyone sees it at all.

Cup o’ Joe

Faring better, at least for now, is Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s “Scarborough Country” and more recently the host of “Morning Joe,” an early-morning news and commentary program mounted in the wake of the Don Imus debacle.

Scarborough sits on the same set of the Secaucus, N.J. studio that Imus once occupied, and the loose, freewheeling format is much the same as under Imus. Scarborough has two apparently permanent guest associates: John Ridley, novelist, screenwriter and essayist; Willie Geist, co-host of MSNBC’s lamentable “Tucker” program; and Mika Brzezinski, MSNBC news reporter and daughter of former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

But the big change between Imus and Scarborough is really in some of the supporting cast: Ridley is African American, Brzezinski is a woman. Those facts right there are a big distinction from the days of Imus, whose virulent, white-guy-under-siege, red-meat testosterone aspect finally got him fired [see “Imus in the mourning”].

Here’s hoping Scarborough, whom The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz recently called a "recovering Republican politician," can keep carving out a niche in the mornings at MSNBC, whose ratings don’t exactly set the cable world on fire (the network trails CNN in prime-time viewers, as it has for years). The “Morning Joe” program may just be an experiment, but considering what it replaces, it’s one worth sticking with for now.
Image credit: Couric: Nikki Webber Moore, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license; Scarborough: U.S. Government (public domain)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A dynamic duo in the works?

MSNBC reports today what Democratic insiders have been quietly saying among themselves for some time: that the populist and fundraising groundwork may already be laid for the viability of a Hillary Rodham Clinton-Barack Obama ticket in 2008.

That very real possibility calls for a re-examination of race, politics and the politics of race – it even calls for a different way of looking at what we think “electability” really is.

Obama’s campaign has consistently outpointed Clinton’s on the money front; yesterday it was announced that Obama had raised $34 million in the second quarter of the year alone, besting Clinton’s efforts by a mil or so. But despite revealing both a proven fundraising prowess and a charisma sorely lacking in much of the rest of the Democratic field, Obama remains subject to the chin-pulling and skepticism of Americans who knock Obama for not being Electable – Americans whose premise of Electability invariably hinges on perspectives of race [see “Barack Obama and the E-Word”}.

For them there’s a cheap safe harbor in that 64-Cent Question: “Is America ready for a black president?”

The prospect of Obama joining a Clinton ticket doesn’t eliminate the question; it shifts that reflexive skepticism to the top of the ticket; many of the same Americans uncomfortable with the idea of Obama as president are asking “Is America ready for a woman president?”

So the combination of the two could mean an unstoppable election juggernaut, not one animated by the conclusions of focus groups and professional pols, but one powered by its own status as The American Constituency. Women and minorities are in themselves a formidable percentage of the electorate; a Clinton-Obama ticket solidifies that potential, gives voters an impressive vision of the possible to get their minds around.

One matter up for discussion, though, is: Why not the other way around? With Obama’s record-setting fundraising (much of it done online) a proven ability to connect viscerally with his audience, and a relative absence of political baggage, why not Obama-Clinton in 2008?

This is the hurdle a lot of Americans would rather not be asked to get over: the idea of unambiguously supporting a black man in his quest for the most powerful job in the world. American history is littered with the agonies of our peculiar racial relationship; the idea of being confronted with the prospect of (at least) political equality as a consequence of national events is something many Americans can’t endorse. Yet, anyway.

The arithmetic of all this has yet to play itself out in this front-loaded campaign. With at least a dozen states set to have their primaries over and done with by the spring of 2008, we may have an answer sooner than later. But as Americans’ frustration with the Republican leadership gets worse, as the national complexion gets darker and more multicultural and more estrogen-rich, that 64-Cent Question yields a better one:

A black or a woman president – Is America really ready for anything else?

Monday, July 2, 2007

Grover's Independence Day

Mike Hargrove, the manager of the Seattle Mariners, took a page from the playbook of other figures in pro sports who went out on top. Hargrove, whose team is riding a wave in the AL West, announced yesterday that he would resign as Mariners skipper, effectively more or less immediately. Bench coach John McLaren takes over, making his first appearance as a manager since 1985, when he was with Knoxville of the Southern League.

Dudley Michael Hargrove thus becomes the first manager since 1900 to quit while on a winning streak of more than seven games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“It’s not the front office, it’s not a problem with a contract,” Hargrove said at a press conference with phrases meant to quell suspicion. “It’s where I’m at in life. I’m 57 years old. I’ve got my health. I’ve got a great family. It’s time.”

“I’ve daily challenged my players to give me the best that they’ve got, 100 percent of what they’ve got that day — physically and mentally. And they’ve done that. Without fail, they’ve done that," said Hargrove, whose Mariners won their eighth straight game yesterday, after he formally hung 'em up. The team is 12 games over .500.

“I have never had to work at getting that level myself — ever — until recently. I’ve found that I’ve had to work harder in making that same commitment to my bosses, to my players and to my coaches. And that’s not right,” Hargrove said, turning away and battling back tears.

“They deserve better. They are good people. There is a good thing going on here. And it’s time for me to leave.”

His wife Sharon, who also attended the presser, was equally eloquent, just as heartfelt in her celebration of Hargrove’s decision. “We’ve been married for 37 years. Gone together since junior high,” she said, choking off her own tears. “He’s slept in his own bed four days in eight months. I don’t know too many people who would sign up for that. And he’s done that for 35 years.”

You’d have to be made of stone not to see the sincerity in their comments. Professional sports skeptics will weigh in, looking for the deeper front-office motives behind a manager’s sudden decision to hang ‘em up when the team is on a serious winning streak. Some have said that Hargrove somehow ran afoul of nearly-free agent Ichiro Suzuki, the Mariners’ star player, or that the front office got tired of falling short of late-season divisional wins season after season. Or that, after 35 years, the wife put her foot down.

But it’s just as easy to come to the conclusion that Hargrove – "Grover" to legions of his Mariners fans – was only being honest. There’s been something evident in his body language all season long that suggested disquiet. After wins and losses alike, Hargrove sat at press conferences with a hangdog demeanor, eyes down in a weary stoicism, the countenance of a man tired of getting on and off planes and living in hotel rooms, a man exhausted by the exhaustion in his partner’s eyes.

And today the last shoe dropped. Grover made his announcement before the Fourth of July, but this was his Independence Day. And don’t look for Hargrove to turn into an AARP poster child for midlife crisis: He and Sharon already have fireworks of their own planned. They’re hitting the road, driving down the Pacific Coast in a new, red pickup truck they've either bought or will buy by time you read this. First it's off to see their son Andy, who plays for the Seattle farm club in Adelanto, Calif. From there it’s on to a little hideaway in New Mexico. Somewhere where Grover can finish the beard he already started early in the season, and draw flies for a while … real ones, not those popped up to the outfield. The real thing.

Good for you, Grover. Life’s too short not to be about the real thing. Whatever your real thing may be.
Image credit: MyName (permission to use granted under GNU Free Documentation License, v1.2)
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