Thursday, September 27, 2007

Hearing footsteps

We’re still weeks away from the dawn of the Fox Business Channel – spawn of the recent News Corporation acquisition of the Wall Street Journal [see Murdoch! Murdoch! Nightmare of Murdoch!], but the other leading business-related cable channels are already girding for battle in various ways.

CNBC, which has pretty much had the field more or less to itself after CNNfn shut down some years back, has been aggressively stepping up both its global presence (with business reports from Russia, Australia, Pakistan, India and, oh yes, China) and its promotional advertising. The ads, which rolled out maybe a month ago, tap business leaders from Robert Johnson to Barry Diller to Mel Karmazin to Julie Aigner-Clark, the inventor of Baby Einstein, for testimonials as to how they watch CNBC for their daily diet of business news – the better to shore up CNBC’s rep as a destination station. The standing tag line, spoken by the biz leaders: "I am American business ... I watch CNBC."

Changes in its programming lineup are also likely; such programs as "Fast Money," a lightning-round style economic debate program, and "Kudlow & Co.," a financial talk show helmed by economist and tireless right-wing apologist Lawrence Kudlow, will have their slots juggled, the better to stay fresh to viewers who might otherwise be tempted to jump to the Fox fledgling.

Even stodgy Bloomberg News, perhaps CNBC's closest rival, is getting into the transformation act. Bloomberg, which for years looked like it was broadcast from a two-bedroom apartment somewhere in Manhattan, recently unveiled a makeover, sporting new sets, a newsroom that actually looks like a newsroom, fresher onscreen graphics stuffed with content, and a world and national news report.

It’s all done in anticipation of the arrival of the Fox Business Channel, set to go on the air about Oct. 15. Why? It's just understood that the new 800-pound gorilla for business news will have a fat wallet, an Australian accent and all the resources of the Wall Street Journal at its disposal. The new kid on the block can be expected to raise everyone’s game; count on Rupert Murdoch's scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners style of business to be just as cutthroat in the world of buisness journalism. CNBC and Bloomberg aren’t waiting around. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hill kill

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, apparently believing the poll numbers of recent weeks that give her a commanding lead over her Democratic rivals in the 2008 presidential campaign, has finally started to throw her pantsuited weight around. Flush with some privately maintained sense of her inevitability as the nominee, Clinton this week committed what we’d call a big-time strategic error – probably pissing off the press she needs as an ally, and revealing, in some ways, just how out of touch with today’s tools of communication she really is.

A story on the senator planned for publication in GQ –a piece about infighting within the campaign, written by Atlantic Monthly writer Josh Green -- was killed at her request, or, more appropriately, at the request of honchos and handlers in her orbit, who managed to extract a nasty quid pro quo: access to sources for a planned forthcoming GQ story on her hubby, former President Bill Clinton, would be denied if the Hillary story went through as planned.

“Despite internal protests, GQ editor Jim Nelson met the Clinton campaign’s demands, which had been delivered by Bill Clinton’s spokesman, Jay Carson, several sources familiar with the conversations said,” reported Ben Smith of The Politico, on Tuesday.

Now to some extent, this kind of thing is done all the time in the echo canyon of modern media. Networks finagle appearances from some newsmaker or another on the strength of a new book and a good pitch. Talk-show hosts make future decisions about guests based on press arising from those guests’ recent appearances somewhere else.

But this has happened before. The Clinton campaign’s move on GQ is only the latest bid to control what’s reported, and what’s not reported, about her campaign’s workings.

The Politico’s Smith reported: "Clinton’s team is also unusually aggressive in moving to smother potentially damaging storylines, as last spring when … aides took aim at an unflattering book by [New York Times] writers Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr.”

“The campaign’s transaction with GQ opens a curtain on the Clinton campaign’s hard-nosed media strategy, which is far closer in its unromantic view of the press to the campaigns of George W. Bush than to that of Bill Clinton’s free-wheeling 1992 campaign,” Smith reported Tuesday.

The Clinton campaign had no immediate comment – who would? – and will no doubt be about finding a way to ignore the whole deal, the better to submerge it in the relentless news cycle. But however they spin it, it’s an obvious screwup in strategy, especially the strategies that call for maintaining some kind of upbeat, if adversary, relationship with the press. Journalists don’t like to be manipulated, or have the appearance of their work manipulated by the sources of the stories they're writing. This is the kind of action that’s likely to affect, to one degree or another, the campaign’s relationship with a press corps now more prone to distrust her, or at least trust her and pronouncements from her campaign staff a little less.

And ironically, Hillary’s little pre-emptive strike may not have done her any good. This move by the campaign seems to presume that, by acting to kill a story in one magazine, said story is dead and buried. That strategy would have been largely successful not that many years ago, in the era of the primacy of print media. Now, though, well … it’s a different world. The rise of the Internet and the rapidly emerging role of bloggers in the national discourse change everything.

It’s a very safe bet that Josh Green, who wrote the Hillary story for GQ will pocket the handsome kill fee arranged in the writer’s contract, regain his control of the story and place that story somewhere else. Maybe in his own magazine. Or maybe – maybe even probably – on a Web site, one of the mavericks in the vast and viral, wild and woolly blogosphere. The Drudge Report or the Huffington Post, the Politico or the Daily Kos – who knows? And making matters worse: When it does show up online, the story will almost certainly have a bigger readership, in part because of its previous suppression, than it would have if it’d run as originally planned in GQ.

This episode hasn’t been Hillary’s finest hour. She’s opened herself up to some blowback from the press assigned to cover her 24/7, and (despite the online announcement of her candidacy) she’s opened the door to criticism of being thin-skinned, a bit paranoid and less than savvy -- if not utterly clueless -- about the way we communicate now: Faster than ever before, with more publishing options than ever before, less fearful of a senator’s media clout, and more confident of our own.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The sound of silence

Quietly -- as quiet as the performances of his long career -- comes the news that Marcel Marceau has died. The legendary mime passed on Saturday in Paris, at the age of 84.

In his long time on the public stage, Marceau demonstrated his ability to shout, laugh and cry with the sound of silence -- to be able, as French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Sunday, "to communicate with each and everyone beyond the barriers of language."

A career of expressive silence began shortly before the end of the noisy tumult and horror of World War II. When Paris was liberated, Marceau enrolled in Charles Dullin's School of Dramatic Art, studying with the renowned mime Etienne Decroux.

It was on the stage of the provocative Left Bank avant-garde Théâtre de Poche where Marceau, a student of the silent-film work of Chaplin and Keaton, perfected the everyman persona that would become his enduring trademark. Marceau's on-stage persona, Bip -- his melancholic alter ago in white face paint, soft shoes and a hat adorned with a red flower -- came to signify the essence of mime as an art form for generations.

Pain was never far from Marceau in his youth. Once a figure with the French Resistance who saw his family uprooted by the Nazis, Marceau discovered at the age of 20 that his father was imprisoned at Auschwitz; he died there in 1944. But Marceau used the agonies of impressionable youth as a foundation for expressing the universal truths of life, growth, love and death.

"I have a feeling that I did for mime what (Andres) Segovia did for the guitar, what (Pablo) Casals did for the cello," he once told The Associated Press.

To his credit, Marceau validated the idea of work as joy, and made clear the importance of living life without stopping. "If you stop at all when you are 70 or 80, you cannot go on," he told The AP in an interview in 2003. "You have to keep working."

He'll be sorely missed. In an age of 24/7 noise, a time of loud and relentless bombast from all corners, Marceau's gift of statements in silence can't be overestimated. A harlequin for our time, for all time, passes from the scene, his quiet eloquence speaking volumes. "Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words?" he once said.

Yes. If only we bothered to listen.

Friday, September 14, 2007

All iPologies

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa: That's the old-school way of saying you screwed up big time. It's an admission we don't hear very often from the good folks at Apple Inc., but we're hearing it now in the wake of uprising from many people who bought the iPhone after its recent introduction. Embodied – no, embedded – in that apology is a classic example of how a company can take with one hand, and then ... take with the other.

Turns out that Apple CEO and technology high priest Steve Jobs has been inundated with "hundreds" of e-mails from irate customers, people who bought the popular 8GB iPhone configuration at the original asking price of $599. The early adopters, the canaries in the gold mine of high technology, lined up and bought the phone in record numbers. Now many of them have let Jobs have it after Apple announced (Sept. 6) a price reduction of the phone's most popular version – lowering the price by $200.

Jobs clearly felt the heat – felt it enough to write an open letter posted on the Apple Web site:

"I have received hundreds of emails from iPhone customers who are upset about Apple dropping the price of iPhone by $200 two months after it went on sale," Jobs wrote.

Jobs went on to defend the price cut: "I am sure that we are making the correct decision to lower the price of the 8GB iPhone from $599 to $399, and that now is the right time to do it. iPhone is a breakthrough product, and we have the chance to 'go for it' this holiday season. iPhone is so far ahead of the competition, and now it will be affordable by even more customers. It benefits both Apple and every iPhone user to get as many new customers as possible in the iPhone 'tent'. We strongly believe the $399 price will help us do just that this holiday season."

But hoping to placate the angry burghers of MacWorld, Jobs decided to make amends, to do the right thing. Kind of. "[W]e have decided to offer every iPhone customer who purchased an iPhone from either Apple or AT&T, and who is not receiving a rebate or any other consideration, a $100 store credit towards the purchase of any product at an Apple Retail Store or the Apple Online Store," Jobs wrote. The fine print on that sweetener: Anyone who bought the iPhone up to two weeks before the price cut could opt for a $200 cash refund.

Hurrah! Score one for the customers! At least that's the first-blush response. But digging a little deeper shows that what looks like a consumerist victory or a corporate defeat is really anything but.

◊ ◊ ◊

Consider some other factors:

Apple's decision to make restitution to some early adopters is expected to result in a one-time $100 million charge to Apple, according to a UBS analyst interviewed by ZDNet. Wall Street generally doesn't include one-time charges in its computation of profit and loss, so Apple probably won't suffer any impact to its earnings per share, or to its stock price (lately going through the roof, most recently in the $140-a-share range). The gesture costs them, in practical terms, almost nothing.

Those customers who overpaid for their 8GB phones between June 29, when the phones rolled out, and the last week of August, two weeks before the price cuts took effect, are stuck with just the $100 benefit – only half of what they were overcharged. That's likely to be the majority of Apple's most faithful, most reliable customers.

Now add the kicker: That $100 takes the form of a credit that can only be used at Apple online and bricks-and-mortar stores. It doesn't return money to customers' pockets, like an outright rebate check would. It only gives customers a chance to spend even more money at Apple stores. The actual overpricing isn't really resolved to customers' satisfaction; the initial overcharge for the product is followed by Jobs' fairly bloodless iPology and an opportunity to come back to Apple to spend that fraction of what they were overcharged in the first place.

As anyone who's ever shopped in an Apple store knows, there's not a hell of a lot you can buy there for $100 or less – if you own Apple products, what's available at that price (iPod cases, iPhone protectors, portable speakers, quality headphones) is probably something you've got already.

Which means that if this $100 AppleScrip is to have any value at all, the early iPhone buyer will almost certainly have to spend more than the $100 to get something else they really want. You might, say, buy an external hard drive for your iMac computer for $125. You'll walk out of the store with a great discount on that hard drive, but the $100 credit Apple gave you will safely be right back where it started: in Apple's bank account.

Early buyers of the 4GB version of the iPhone have been embarrassed too; Apple has announced that the 4GB model is being phased out in favor of the more popular 8GB form. (Planned obsolescence used to take a little longer than two months to take place.)

◊ ◊ ◊

In the short run, it's nothing less than a win-win for Apple – the company gets to look magnaminous, contrite and responsive to customer concerns – and a lose-lose for many customers, who, having overpaid for their iPhones, now have to contend with going back to Apple to buy something else, armed with a "credit" of only half of what they overpaid.

But longer term, it's also a cultural faux pas for Apple. The company's finally been caught doing blatantly what it's been doing quietly for years: testing the patience of long-term early adopters, pushing the envelope on those early-buyer reactions to finding what they bought in January being sold for twenty-five percent less at the end of July.

We always knew Steve Jobs was a wizard of technology. With this latest move, it's clear that Jobs has mastered the art of the financial shell game, to the detriment of the loyal early adopters who paid the price -- and then some -- for being first on their block to own the hottest cell phone around.

Also published on the GLG News and Consulting Web site: iPhone image source: Apple.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Playing for time

“To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched.”

So wrote a group of seven American soldiers in an op-ed piece for The New York Times in August. And Monday, the day Gen. David Petraeus started testifying before a congressional panel on the progress of the war in Iraq, Sgt. Omar Mora and Sgt. Yance T. Gray, two of the author soldiers, were killed in a vehicle accident in western Baghdad.

If, in the words of Colin Powell, “perpetual optimism is a force multiplier,” then collective skepticism can have the opposite effect on a nation’s armed forces at war, particularly when two of those skeptics, comrades in arms in defense of America, die at the hands of the war they condemn.

Gen. Petraeus, author of the long-awaited report that bears his name testified Monday and today at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, protestations of his independence as the report’s sole creator notwithstanding, essentially parroted the Bush administration line about maintaining a U.S. military presence in Iraq.

There were two departures from the usual, one was well planned in advance, but the other was so totally unexpected that it threatens to cast a pall over the morale of the 169,000 brave but bloodied souls who wear the U.S. uniform.

Petraeus, testifying alongside U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, more or less confirmed something already expected: a cut in troop strength in Iraq.

“I have recommended a drawdown of the surge forces from Iraq,” the general said in his prepared remarks. “… Beyond that,” he said, those departures “will be followed by the withdrawal of a brigade combat team without replacement in mid-December and the further redeployment without replacement of four other brigade combat teams and the two surge Marine battalions in the first seven months of 2008, until we reach the pre-surge level of 15 brigade combat teams by mid-July 2008.

The total comes to about 30,000 forces, give or take – a number that, again, give or take, reduces U.S. troop strength to about what it was before the storied “surge” – a fact that failed to mollify Democrats, or Republicans on the committee.

Petraeus went on to paint an early-departure Chicken Little scenario almost too dire for words. If the United States was to leave in greater numbers too soon, he testified, “rapid withdrawal would result in the further release of the strong centrifugal forces in Iraq and produce a number of dangerous results, including a high risk of disintegration of the Iraqi Security Forces; rapid deterioration of local security initiatives; al-Qaida-Iraq regaining lost ground and freedom of maneuver; a marked increase in violence and further ethno-sectarian displacement and refugee flows … “

One was tempted to inquire about the plague of locusts that is sure to follow.

A tag-team interrogation was shortly underway. There were the usual suspects – Democratic Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd, shoring up their bona fides for the 2008 presidential campaign by alternately questioning Petraeus and offering their own soundbite pronunciamentos. But there was no party-line water’s edge to the intensity of questioning. Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, set to retire next year, got downright medieval on Petraeus and Crocker.

"Are we going to continue to invest blood and treasure at the same rate we're doing now? For what?" asked Hagel, the refreshingly honest Nebraska Republican who’s been a boil on the administration’s ass for years over the war in Iraq. Hagel wants legislation that would set a deadline to bring U.S. troops home.

Norm Coleman weighed in. The Minnesota Republican said he wanted a longer long-term commitment to return troops home, and a sturdier vision of what’s possible whern Petraeus and Crocker come back to Capitol Hill in March.

“Americans want to see light at the end of the tunnel,” Coleman said (maybe not recognizing the perfect rejoinder to Robert Lowell’s poem lamenting that “If we see light at the end of the tunnel, It’s the light of the oncoming train”).

But it came down to Republican Sen. John Warner, a lion of the Senate who is due himself to resign from political life, to put everything in perspective.

Point blank, Warner asked Petraeus the best, most pertinent question of the hearing: "Are you able to say at this time, if we continue what you have laid before the Congress here as a strategy, do you feel that that is making America safer?"

"I believe that this is indeed the, uh, best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq," Petraeus said.

Warner repeated his question: "Does that make America safer?"

Petraeus answered.

"Sir, I don't know, actually. … I have not sat down and sorted out in my own mind, what I have focused on and been riveted on is how to accomplish the mission . … I have tried to focus on what I think a commander is supposed to do, which is to determine the best recommendations to achieve the objectives of the policy for which his mission is desired."

That stunning admission from a leader of men, an unquestioned patriot, is already dominating the evening news shows, and the Warner-Petraeus soundbite will probably show up in the news here and there for months to come. It should come as no surprise: When the commander of a major multinational force can’t summon the enthusiasm necessary to unequivocally endorse the mission before that force, it tends to arouse suspicion – that collective skepticism mentioned earlier – among the troops prosecuting that war. When the man at the top has his doubts, as Petraeus clearly does, how gung-ho can the forces under his command be expected to be?

What was equally stunning was the speed at which the White House spin cycle kicked in. Party operatives and analysts more or less immediately declared this a win for the administration, saying the administration had all along planned to endorse the Petraeus proposal of troop reduction – a cut in forces that would take the U.S. presence in Iraq about back to where it was before the escalation (“surge”) started. Much was made of an over-the-top ad by that used a stupid play on words to impugn the general's fidelity to his country.

Petraeus’ assessment seemed to be a clear-eyed appraisal offered by a man of deep humility and love of country. But what was also true was that, Petraeus’ testimony – rendered in a personal style of delivery that owed as much to Gary Cooper as to John Wayne – revealed a basic lack of the leadership’s confidence. When Petraeus couldn’t answer a question fundamental to the reason our forces are over there – does this make us safer? – it distilled, cleanly and plainly, the ambivalence of at least some of the U.S. military leadership – and no doubt the ambivalence of grunts in the field … the foot soldiers … like Omar Mora and Yance T. Gray. No amount of White House spin can change that.

The next chapter in this drama takes place on Thursday, when President Bush goes before the nation to formally announce the Petraeus troop reductions. But what’s clear is use of an old strategy, a variation on the bunker strategy that’s dogged other administrations before.

The Nazi Holocaust survivor Fania Fenelon wrote a book of memoirs recalling her experiences as a musician in a concentration camp during World War II. The book, “Playing for Time,” explores how she and other musically gifted prisoners perfected their musicianship, under threat of death. A line from the Arthur Miller play of Fenelon’s book is memorable: “If we fall below a certain level, anything is possible.”

Not to overstretch the association, but the Bush White House is similarly playing for time, hoping to hold the line on an already uncontrollable situation with token troop cuts and insistence on following through on the present course of action – apparently believing that, if support for that present course falls below a certain level, anything disastrous is possible.

Steady as she goes: Skipper Bush goes on the air Thursday to announce the latest headings according to his compass, a device that has always insisted on its own magnetic north.

Does this make us safer? The general sent to fight that war doesn't know, actually. Maybe the politician will.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Fred ’80! – uh, Fred ’08!

Coming to you not-quite-live from the bully pulpit of a chair next to Jay Leno, former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson last night threw his hat, head and presumably his heart into a bid for the GOP nomination for the presidency, more or less formally launching the quest for the White House he’d been hinting at for the last six months.

The forum was no accident. By declaring on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” Thompson borrowed from the playbook of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who announced his candidacy for California governor in 2003 on “Tonight” and went on to a decisive victory over incumbent Democratic mannequin Gray Davis.

The party Thompson represents similarly hopes to rebottle lightning. There’s a hope, and hardly a secret one, that Thompson’s plain-spoken nature, his long standing in Congress and his pop-cultural appeal as a high-profile Hollywood actor will evoke actionable memories of Ronald Reagan, who on paper at least, took a like trajectory into the White House. There’s a wish that a twist of numerology might portend their political future – that the campaign of ’08 might somehow become the campaign of ’80.

Conservatives have already been rallying around Thompson. The Club for Growth, a conservative policy organization (whose name suggests a hair replacement service, but we won’t go there) trumpets Thompson’s consistent votes for lower taxes, a brake on government spending, the flat tax, and support for reforms on entitlements.

Now that his ghost campaign has substance, Thompson is forcing a recalculation of the Republican campaign math. Invariably – we’re guessing within a month – minor quixotics like Duncan Hunter and even the refreshingly candid Ron Paul will close up shop, rightly sensing a shift in the campaign’s gravitational pull toward heavier hitters like Thompson, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and, maybe, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

The one-issue campaign of Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo may persist a while longer out of sheer obstinance, but the handwriting’s on the wall for him too.

In fact, Thompson makes many things for the GOP easier than before. If his conservative bona fides are in fact bona fide, Thompson gives Republican voters the option of one-stop shopping: he adheres to traditional GOP values; he’s been an experienced player in Congress going back to Watergate; and with a long TV and movie resume, he holds the high ground according to American pop mythology.

The Republican leadership may not say it, but it’s obvious they’re searching for Ronnie the Sequel. Conservatives are looking to Big Fred to be, if not the savior of the Republican cause, certainly the embodiment of that cause in the post-9/11 world – someone in a straightforward, non-ambiguous package who can convincingly carry GOP ideals and values to the nation.

That’s a heavy load for any candidate, especially one getting in the game so late, and with so little money. And the potential for fatal error is built into that heavy mission.

The Republicans may be on the way to making a foundational mistake in the 2008 campaign. They’re hoping to reawaken the vision of Reagan Republicanism without really thinking about why Reagan Republicanism worked – without understanding the differences between that era and today.

Two presidential election cycles ago, Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice observed the process of Reagan Republicans’ way to victory: “The right was reconfiguring itself along populist lines. These new conservatives weren’t led by an instinct to rebel … They were willing to be patient, building a network of like-minded partisans, school board by town council. They spent their money wisely on think tanks and publications. And they grew these affinities into a well-disciplined force that could enlist the resentments of the moment. In 1980, they came to power with Ronald Reagan as their spokesmodel.”

The drive of today’s Republican party to anoint a new Reagan has its problems. The first problem is, it’s so clearly manufactured, the sincerest form of political flattery. Ronald Reagan emerged as the GOP standard-bearer as a result of an organic, grassroots search for new leadership. Today’s frantically telegenic culture often creates such “leaders,” and discards them, in the blink of an eye. Thompson will have to honestly ring with Americans – show he’s got the constitution to uphold the Constitution, prove he can apply the weight of experience to challenges ahead – to win in 2008. Real leadership won’t be conveyed by spot favorable associations with the party’s icon. Not even Michael Deaver could light a candidate that well.

Second, and more important, is the Republican failure to appreciate – or admit – the party’s own role in making America a nation in need of rescue by a Reaganesque savior. The Republicans, the party and the administration, have been tone-deaf to all the ways they have created the same “resentments of the moment” – the Iraq war, disregard of election results that rejected that war, rampant inequity in health care, neglected infrastructure, a series of GOP ethical scandals, failure of judicial leadership – that the party would summon a superman to overcome.

In many sobering ways, the Republican party is the very problem it’s trying to solve.

That’s the steep hill in front of Big Fred, and the rest of the Republican field that may, or may not, fade in his six-foot-six shadow. There are already questions about his timing and the presence of “fire in the belly.” For some pol watchers, Thompson’s spring- and summerlong chinpulling has been less than inspiring. Their sense is that the long deliberation may well have damaged his prospects.

And ironically, it may not have done him a bit of good. After six months of “testing the waters,” in the spirit of test-marketing a new snack food or laundry detergent, Thompson and his frequently-shifting campaign staff have come to the realization that the water is, in fact, wet. With the first open seat for a president in decades, in a field as crowded as the GOP’s is, there could be no more of a political certainty than that, for Thompson or anyone else in the current flock of candidates. For all his caution, Thompson may as well have gotten into this thing months ago; in a relentless 24/7 news cycle, waiting has conferred only a slight advantage, and maybe none at all.

Fred Thompson will be the golden one for a brief period before he settles into the echo-chamber experience of a high-profile political campaign. Once that faintly circular glow around his head begins to fade, and bet your subprime mortgage that it will, he’ll become just the freshest target of opportunity.

Politically and physically, Big Fred got the stature, that’s for sure, and it works for him and against him. Sure, when you’re six-six and you walk in a room, you see everyone and everyone sees you.

But when you’re that tall, and a member of that party … it’s pretty hard to keep your head down.
Photos: Wikipedia>originally posted to Flickr by freddthompson, reviewed by Wikipedia, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

White imbalance

For observers of the minority presence in television news, it was one of those little things that said more than it intended, not exactly history in the making, but something that was interesting precisely because you didn't see it that often.

On Saturday, Sept. 1, as MSNBC covered the resignation of Idaho Sen. Larry Craig for ethical lapses in an airport bathroom, the cable channel cut back to its newsroom for the usual reflexive comments from political analysts about What It All Means. MSNBC newsreader Tamron Hall talked with, among others, Joe Watkins, a one-time advisor to President Bush No. 41 and an MSNBC political analyst.

But there was a sort of sea change evident in the two-shot of Hall and Watkins in the newsroom: For one of the very few times in MSNBC’s 11-year history, an African American reporter talked to an African American political analyst in the same frame at the same time. Two black media figures, both in the employ of the network, discussed the fate of a white mainstream politician.

Do not adjust your set, this is not BET.

For MSNBC, arguably the blondest of the cable networks, that two-shot -- broadcast in prime-time, too, not the relative ghetto of infomercial world after 9 p.m. -- reflected a shift in the on-screen persona of authority projected to the American people by at least one network. Its specialness pointed to its rarity; its rarity indicates exactly what the problem is, and remains, for far too much of the electronic media.

Hall, a recent addition to the MSNBC lineup, and newcomer Christina Brown, who is black, are the two most visible minority additions to an on-air cable news staff in an industry that remains overwhelmingly white.

In recent years NBC News, MSNBC’s partner and one of its corporate parents, has gotten the message of the need for diversity in reporting and reporters. Journalists such as Rehema Ellis, Ron Allen, John Yang and Kevin Corke have been tapped for fairly prominent news reports filed from various global hot spots.

Lester Holt, an African American reporter who started with MSNBC in 2000 and as of May became the weekend anchor for NBC News, was one of MSNBC’s shining minority lights, conspicuous by the relative absence of others like him. With his ascension to the visibility of NBC in August 2005, though, MSNBC became even more woefully short of minority representation; until Hall and Brown arrived, there was only the African American meteorologist, Gary Archibald, who was a reliable minority presence on the air (not counting spot news stories filed by reporters from NBC affiliates)., the online arm of NBC news, pales in comparison. Literally. The Web site has, over a number of years, had only two minority journalists in its ranks, one of whom [full disclosure: me] left earlier this summer. In an era of increasing diversity, the news site has largely ignored stories on how race and ethnicity have become two of the primary engines of social change in the post-9/11 world.

And is hardly alone. Stories on minority affairs throughout the mediascape, from print to TV news to online, are routinely given short shrift, more often than not weaved into the news report below the fold (or several page scrolls down), or ignored altogether.

And in the first real throes of what is becoming America's most enduring experience with multiculturalism, American media is still largely preoccupied with perception of minority life as a conveniently binary phenomenon -- black and white. Stories from Indian Country Today, a seriously comprehensive Native American news digest, are hardly if ever mentioned as a news source, a direct reflection of the attention news about Native Americans gets on the mainstream air. Only passing attention is paid to the irresistible motive force of 34 million Latinos; there's little attention given to integrating the Latino experience into English-language network news broadcasts.

In 2001 NBC made the smart move of acquiring the Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo, but a plan to weave Spanish- and English-language news has resulted only in one station, in Colorado, a station that took almost three years to get off the ground. NBC seems to have stalled following through on doing the obvious: pursue the culturally daring but financially compelling weave of NBC and Telemundo resources into a mainstream news report that could effectively transform the American newsgathering dynamic, and reap billions in advertising revenue in the process.

Almost two generations after the Kerner Commission report, which highlighted the complicity of the media in maintaining separate Americas for the underprivileged and the affluent, much has changed, but not nearly enough. Even as U.S. media have taken the babyest of steps toward integrating black reporters and anchors into the editorial mix, it's still behind the curve on recognizing the impact of the next emergent American demographic: the people whose faces will throw off the white balance on the studio cameras, people who've earned the right to be in the great American two-shot, the electronic national dialogue that defines who and what we are.

Image: > MSNBC

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Into the sunset, too

"I am not gay," Republican Idaho Sen. Larry Craig volunteered today, on his way to became the latest casualty within a party that's become its own latest casualty. "I apologize for what I have caused," he said in an announcement. "It is with sadness and deep regret that I announce that it is my intention to resign from the Senate effective Sept. 30th."

By now you know the back story. Sen. Craig, a picture of, uh, rectitude representing the rock-ribbed-red state of Idaho, was arrested in June after apparently propositioning a male undercover police officer in the Minneapolis airport. Craig later pleaded guilty in the incident. The whole sordid mess was brought to light last week by Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper.

The Bushies, and the GOP generally, will start damage control. Owing to his pleading guilty, Craig's political career is now effectively over. The leaders of the party will wave their fingers and shake their heads, taking a quiet glee in hanging Larry Craig's career as high as possible.

But as bad a specific problem as Craig is to the Republicans, he's in some ways just a symptom of a more general ailment that should be more troubling: the onset of irrelevance.

It's always sad when an apparently capable, responsible politican is forced to step down under an ethical cloud. To judge from his long tenure as a public servant – and from the tears of some of his constituents at the Saturday announcement – Craig was well-regarded by the people of the state he served.

But the swiftness of his fall, and the abandonment of Craig by his own party, point to the deeper underlying tragedy not for him or for Idaho but for the Republican party: the GOP's reflexive antipathy to life experiences outside its own has led again to the downfall of one of its own.

The legal dimensions of the Craig affair almost don't matter; the greater impact will be felt by a party whose tireless self-promotion as arbiter of Family Values has painted it into a corner, confined the GOP to a retrograde, outdated perception in the public mind – a vision of a party that chooses to be out of touch with the diversities of family values.

As the American mosaic gets more multiculti, more varied, more tolerant of distinctions, more complex than ever before, the Republican party has hitched its wagon to a stone, holding fast to a vision of the American people so outdated as to beggar the imagination.

The gay aspect of this emerging fiascette is the frisson for the tabloids; it gives the whole thing that little extra charge to the watercooler public, but in many ways the gender dimension is irrelevant. It wouldn't matter if Craig was caught propositioning a woman in a bathroom stall. If that were the case – crossing another ethical line, touching the third-rail nerves of a hypersensitive political party that has mortgaged its past and its future on the idea of being the Party of High Morals – nothing would have changed. Larry Craig would be just as dead politically in that scenario as he is right now.

The GOP's in a zero-tolerance mode right now, even more than when David Vitter went down. As the bedrock of the administration exit from the White House -- Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales the two most emphatic departures -- and as the party tanks in opinion polls, they can't afford not to be. Right now the Republican leadership is grappling with the idea of redefining itself, of attempting to again reshape itself along populist lines. But some of them are only now realizing that the populist contours of the early 21st century aren't the same ones Republicans relied on to begin the Reagan Revolution in 1980.

Even small-town, Norman Rockwell America speaks Spanish these days.

The GOP's under siege. When that happens, the last resort, the only recourse, is to fall back hard on the principles they started with. That means zero tolerance for transgressers like Larry Craig.
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