Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bearding the elephants

The chameleon we call American politics moulted on Friday afternoon, changed for the better, right along with at least the short-term fortunes of the Obama administration. Reeling from both the perception that it was off track in pursuit of its domestic agenda and the reality of numerous opinion polls pointing deep south, the Obama White House, and the Democrats generally, have been in a kind of torpor, a seeming numb helplessness to the Republican forces arrayed against them. Despite being the majority party.

So much of the opposition to Obama initiatives had been deployed by the conservative press and well out of earshot of the president himself. They talk about him like a dog when he’s not around. Which is what made what happened on Friday so flat-out historic.

At the invitation of the Republicans, President Obama attended a Republican House lawmakers’ retreat in Baltimore with the intent of answering questions from the group on his policy proposals, and the legislative and procedural logjams the Republicans have erected from almost the start of his administration.

The Republicans, no doubt emotionally buoyed by the big Scott Brown win in Massachusetts, doubled down on chutzpah: They agreed to televise the event. “The Republicans agreed to let TV cameras inside, resulting in an extended, point-by-point interchange that was almost unprecedented in U.S. politics, except perhaps during presidential debates,” the Associated Press said.

“At times it seemed more like Britain's ‘question time’ -- when lawmakers in the House of Commons trade barbs with the prime minister -- than a meeting between a U.S. president and members of Congress,” AP reported.

But the feast of president under magnifying glass the Republicans were expecting turned out to be something else again. With a deft rhetorical approach by turns lawyerly and fraternal, tough and charitable, President Obama essentially called Bullshit on the Republican politics of obstructionism, and bearded the elephants in their lair.

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Obama had good reason to feel buoyed himself. He’d just come off his first State of the Union address, one that combined real solid doable proposals ($30 billion to small businesses, for one) with the high rhetorical flourishes we’ve come to expect from the most verbally gifted president we’ve had in a while.

But there was something else. At the State of the Union, Obama chided Republican lawmakers, gently but clearly castigating them for blocking or hobbling all of his most pressing domestic policy objectives. Obama was calling them out on Wednesday. He finished that process on Friday.

In his opening remarks, Obama criticized what he said was a Washington culture driven by opinion polls and nonstop political campaigns.

“I've said this before, but I'm a big believer not just in the value of a loyal opposition, but in its necessity. Having differences of opinion, having a real debate about matters of domestic policy and national security -- and that's not something that's only good for our country, it's absolutely essential.

“... The only thing I don't want -- and here I am listening to the American people, and I think they don't want either -- is for Washington to continue being so Washington-like. I know folks, when we're in town there, spend a lot of time reading the polls and looking at focus groups and interpreting which party has the upper hand in November and in 2012 and so on and so on and so on. That's their obsession.

“And I'm not a pundit. I'm just a President, so take it for what it's worth. But I don't believe that the American people want us to focus on our job security. They want us to focus on their job security.”

Obama then backed the Republicans into a corner on one of their signature platforms — tax cuts — by essentially repeating what he’d said in the State of the Union.

Under his plan, “[e]mployers would get a tax credit of up to $5,000 for every employee they add in 2010. They'd get a tax break for increases in wages, as well. So, if you raise wages for employees making under $100,000, we'd refund part of your payroll tax for every dollar you increase those wages faster than inflation. It's a simple concept. It's easy to understand. It would cut taxes for more than 1 million small businesses.”

“So I hope you join me. Let's get this done.”

Then came the first confrontational haymaker. “[T]he idea of a bipartisan fiscal commission to confront the deficits in the long term died in the Senate the other day,” the president said. “So I'm going to establish such a commission by executive order …”

It wasn’t necessarily a big thing, but it sent a signal: this president wasn’t afraid of using the end-run around the loyal opposition, much the same way his predecessor did when it suited his agenda. Only legally.

And then a warning, the words bearing a touch of the olive branch, their meaning like a chain-mailed glove to the head:

“I'm ready and eager to work with anyone who is willing to proceed in a spirit of goodwill,” Obama said. “But understand, if we can't break free from partisan gridlock, if we can't move past a politics of ‘no,’ if resistance supplants constructive debate, I still have to meet my responsibilities as President. I've got to act for the greater good -- because that, too, is a commitment that I have made.”

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Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana, one of Obama’s more strident opponents of late, left himself open to Obama’s jabs. “Stick and move” is good boxer’s advice, but going up against Pence, Obama didn’t really even have to move.

Pence: “[L]ast year about the time you met with us, unemployment was 7.5 percent in this country. Your administration, and your party in Congress, told us that we'd have to borrow more than $700 billion to pay for a so-called stimulus bill. It was a piecemeal list of projects and boutique tax cuts, .... Well, unemployment is 10 percent now, as you well know, Mr. President.

“Now, Republicans offered a stimulus bill at the same time. It cost half as much as the Democratic proposal in Congress, and using your economic analyst models, it would have created twice the jobs at half the cost. It essentially was across-the-board tax relief, Mr. President. ...

“The first question I would pose to you, very respectfully, Mr. President, is would you be willing to consider embracing … in the name of every struggling family in this country, the kind of across-the-board tax relief that Republicans have advocated, that President Kennedy advocated, that President Reagan advocated ...?”

Obama jumps off the turnbuckle: “You're absolutely right that when I was sworn in the hope was that unemployment would remain around 8 [percent], or in the 8 percent range. That was just based on the estimates made by both conservative and liberal economists, because at that point not all the data had trickled in.

“We had lost 650,000 jobs in December. I'm assuming you're not faulting my policies for that. We had lost, it turns out, 700,000 jobs in January, the month I was sworn in. I'm assuming it wasn't my administration's policies that accounted for that. We lost another 650,000 jobs the subsequent month, before any of my policies had gone into effect. So I'm assuming that wasn't as a consequence of our policies …

“I think we can score political points on the basis of the fact that we underestimated how severe the job losses were going to be. But those job losses took place before any stimulus, whether it was the ones that you guys have proposed or the ones that we proposed, could have ever taken into effect.”

Pence, p’wned.

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Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah freshman congressman with more nerve than good sense, weighed into Obama about having broken one of his key campaign promises: “when you stood up before the American people multiple times and said you would broadcast the health care debates on C-SPAN, you didn't. And I was disappointed, and I think a lot of Americans were disappointed.”

Obama comes with the uppercut: “Look, the truth of the matter is that if you look at the health care process -- just over the course of the year -- overwhelmingly the majority of it actually was on C-SPAN, because it was taking place in congressional hearings in which you guys were participating. I mean, how many committees were there that helped to shape this bill? Countless hearings took place.”

Chaffetz, dismissed.

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It wasn’t always that easy. Obama had to contend with some lawmakers — Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee — who offered brief questions deeply wrapped in wheezing disquisitions of GOP philosophy that went on for many minutes. “I know there's a question in there somewhere, because you're making a whole bunch of assertions, half of which I disagree with,” the president said at one point, to Hensarling.

But Obama won the match, largely because of the frankness of his message about message. “We've got to be careful about what we say about each other sometimes, because it boxes us in in ways that makes it difficult for us to work together because our constituents start believing us," he said. "So, just a tone of civility, instead of slash-and-burn, would be helpful."

The lawmakers knew they were outpointed by Obama’s cool but relentless jabs and parries. The blogosphere checked in, and the TV punditburo, to confirm what anyone watching already knew: It was on the whole a Kum Bah Yah drive-by; a smashmouth performance, one that Obama deftly made seem almost collegial; and an emotional shot in the arm for Democrats weary of Republican demonizing.

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Later we found out how effective Obama’s appearance really was: when it was all over, some Republicans expressed regret that they let it be televised. The obvious question is Why? Why would the GOP regret the transparency, open dialogue and frank exchanges that characterized the Q&A on Friday? What do they have to hide?

It’s that reflexive secretive, defensive GOP stance on every major issue that was obvious on Friday. The questions/position papers by Pence and Chaffetz, their towering and incorrect assumptions, point to a party hellbent on blocking or weakening Democratic legislative reforms by every means possible.

By the end, though, even the leadership made nice. “It was the kind of discussion that we frankly need to have more of,” said House Republican Whip Eric Kantor.

“I'm having fun, this is great,” Obama said when Pence asked if he could take more questions.

“So are we,” Pence said.

True as that may be, Obama had more big fun on Friday than the elephant gang did. The president used this unexpected but welcome opportunity to school Republicans on the need to cut back on partisanship and own up to the fact that, for the next three years, a Democrat is driving much of the national debate. Like it or not.

How far they’ll reach across the aisle, or whether they will at all, is anyone’s guess. But the GOP should be chastened by the principal revelation of Friday: The president is on to them. He knows what the Republicans are doing and how they’re doing it, and he knows how fighting a schoolyard antagonist is much the same as dealing with a willfully obstructionist political opposition: Often, the best way to confront a bully armed with anger and misinformation is to be a bully armed with common sense.
Image credits: Obama: Pete Souza, The White House.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Steven the lawgiver

The Wall Street Journal got it exactly right recently: “The last time there was this much excitement about a tablet, it had some commandments written on it.”

That distills the months-long tongue-wagging and online fervor over Apple’s plans to introduce an electronic tablet for access to the Internet, music and (especially) the quickly exploding e-book market. What would it look like? Would it work seamlessly with the other iProducts that we didn’t know we needed until they arrived? How deep would we have to dig in our slim wallets to buy it?

Steve Jobs, the sorcerer-in-chief at Apple, laid it all Wednesday at a news conference in San Francisco to announce ... the iPad, billed by Jobs as “our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price.”

There’s a lot to recommend it. The iPad offers a mobile repository for photos, a moving link to e-mail and the Internet via WiFi, a portable studio for artwork, a panoramic platform for video games, a notepad for text entry (complete with touch-screen keyboard, an e-book reader whose 9.7-inch screen presents text and images from books and magazines in crisp color, and a device that will make use of the 140,000 applications available through the Apple App Store.

Visually, it extends the iPod/iPhone design metaphor: sleek, elegant, easily as seductive in look & feel as any of Apple’s products in recent years (somebody at the Moscone Center wolf-whistled when Jobs showed it off). And if Apple’s past practices are any guide, the iPad that drooling early adopters will swoop down on when it goes on sale in March will be tweaked and upgraded between then and Christmas.

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That would be a good thing. Technology analysts are already up in arms about certain features that should be in the iPad right now, but aren’t. Since the Safari browser is the only one available, iPad buyers will of course be locked into Apple's ecosystem right from the jump. But there's more:

The iPad doesn’t support Flash, which means any number of videocentric sites like Hulu and Disney, and hugely popular sites like ESPN, are pretty much off limits. "[The] iPad offers the best web browsing experience there is — way better than laptops," Jobs said on Wednesday, apparently unfazed by the fact that, during his presentation of the New York Times Web site home page, those devilish blue boxes with white question marks showed up in places where Flash-driven ads should have been.

The iPad doesn’t have a native USB port, which will make filesharing and file transfers more of a challenge than you’d expect from Apple; you need an adapter (optional) for that.

It doesn’t have an onboard camera, a deficiency that’s philosophically at odds with the device’s portability. While still photos would be a problem, who wouldn’t want to have the option of video chat when they move around? All the attention Jobs paid in his hands-on presentation to the ability to manipulate archived photos would seem to make having a digital video camera a no-brainer. Not in this first generation.

"Video chat fits right in with the hardware profile," said Aaron Vronko, CEO of an iPod and iPhone repair shop and author of a guide to iPhone technology. "Not having that really limits the benefit of that device. The iPad is no more capable than the iPod Touch as a communicator."

Since Jobs didn’t highlight it on Wednesday, we're left to assume there’s no way to personally adjust the iPad for brightness or contrast, which could be a problem given its LED-backlit screen; screens using the emerging OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology are said to be clearer for reading text.

And ironically (very ironically for Apple), the iPad doesn’t allow for running multiple applications at once — a truly concerning omission given the insanely great multitasking capability of the other, most successful Apple products available today. In real-world terms, the iPad’s portability is almost neutralized by its lack of multitasking power. In marketing terms, it’s a challenging, counter-intuitive reach to expect consumers to step back from expectations based on what Apple’s already proven it’s capable of doing.

JayMonster, commenting in Information Week, was decidedly underwhelmed: "I know there are going to be Apple apologists, but this is sad. The iPad as it stands now will go down in history with the Newton, Pippen, and AppleTV."

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Another problem with the iPad right out of the box has less to do with the hardware and everything to do, potentially, with its links to the Internet. AT&T will be the service provider for WiFi access — a fact that elicited boos and shouts of displeasure from the crowd at the Moscone Center when Jobs said it on Wednesday. AT&T will connect iPad owners to the Internet for $30 a month for unlimited data service, with no contract, much less than the cost of data service for a laptop.

But AT&T has already encountered a serious headwind of customer complaints, issues related both to its general mobile services and, earlier, its dedicated service for Apple’s iPhone.

On Thursday, the company admitted as much, announcing plans to spend another $2 billion to address complaints of dropped calls and sluggish downloads. On a conference call with analysts, AT&T honchos defended the company and outlined plans for improvements amid wide customer discontent, even as it admitted that iPhone service in two of the biggest markets in the country, New York and San Francisco, was below expectations.

AT&T is presumably serious about making changes, but that still can’t inspire confidence that it can handle what’s already needed for improvements to its existing service, as well as a whole new stream of customers buying iPads in the millions.

Add it all up and, for many, the iPad spells disappointment. The critics are weighing in, some in anger, some with tongues firmly in cheek. Check out midnightblade's take on how Der Fuhrer reacts to the news:

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But with all that working against it, there’s one apparently immutable law — call it a commandment, if you like — on Steve Jobs’ side of the ledger:

Thou Shalt Not Bet Against Apple. Several times in the last 20 years, Apple’s products have been met with a skeptical enthusiasm, followed by a qualified acceptance, followed by something just short of adoration as techies specifically and the public in general came to embrace Appleware — especially after various tweaks and refinements of the original product concept evolved. The iPod begat the iPod touch, which begat the large-scale touch-screen technology Jobs unveiled on Wednesday.

The iPod is a good example of this stealth transformation of the culture. Since it was introduced in October 2001, it’s gone from being an affectation to a game-changer. With more than 240 million sold, it sets the standard for mobile music devices. The iPhone, launched in June 2007, took a similar trajectory into our wired culture to become what it is today: with more than 42 million units sold, the most popular mobile phone in the world.

For those reasons, the early complaints shouldn’t be given that much weight. Sure as night follows day, the first-generation iPad machines will similarly evolve into versatile, whimsical, necessary devices we can’t see right now, and won’t see, until we stand in the lines stretching around the block to buy them.

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In the marketplace of 2010, Jobs has thrown down the gauntlet to the Kindle, Amazon’s popular e-book reader. Even in its first iteration, the iPad is more versatile than the Kindle, Sony’s Reader or Barnes & Noble Nook: it’s an e-book reader and more, and unlike the Kindle’s black-&-white-only display, the iPad hits the ground running in vibrant color that should only improve with time. This isn’t just a shot across the competition’s bow, it’s a bomb in the engine room. The iPad will step up everyone’s e-book R&D game just by being on the market in its current form.

Jobs saved the best part for last on Wednesday: When it hits stores in March, the iPad base model (16GB with WiFi) will sell for $499. Other models (32GB and 64GB) will also be available in March at various price points up to $699. Jobs said models with WiFi and 3G technology would be available in April, with prices topping out at $829 — close to what everyone was expecting to be the entry-level price.

Steven the lawgiver thus throws down another timely commandment to the competition: Thou Shalt Be Affordable. The $499 entry price sets a high bar for competitors working in the mobile-devices space.

And he puts us all on notice of how the future arrives a little at a time, until it’s the present — the everyday — we couldn’t see coming before it got here. Over time, the iPad may well become what it looks a lot like already: another everyday companion article for millions of writers, artists, gamers, e-mail addicts, music fans and photo enthusiasts. Over time, Jobs is likely to show us again what he’s shown us before: how what’s new and what’s next can be exactly the same thing.

Image credits: Jobs: Still from the Jan. 27 iPad news conference: © 2010 Apple Inc. AT&T logo: © 2010 AT&T. iPad image, Apple logo: © 2010 Apple Inc. Moses: detail from the painting by Rembrandt.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Jeff & Erin: The Epic

Some venue in Los Angeles is likely to be a very happening place on Oct. 10 of this year, the day when Jeff Wong and Erin Martin of Sydney, Australia, are to be married. Maybe you’ve heard about it. Maybe you’ve seen it. J&E sent out a save-the-date note ... to everyone on the planet.

By way of YouTube, Hyde Park video soapbox of our time, Wong and Martin released what’s already being called an “epic” wedding announcement, a movie trailer that condenses the stuff of several movie genres — from boy-meets-girl-cute to Tarantinoesque badass pyrotechnica — in a four-minute video whose production values and simple storyline have made it an Internet sensation (and we all know how long those things last).

Narrative pretty much undercuts what you have to see to make any sense of. The video is a spirited four-minute mashup that begins when Jeff, in some literal foreshadowing, walks up to Erin in a park. Instant pheromone hookup.

From there it’s off to the races, a rapid-fire production of recent movie styles and directors. There’s a smidge of Kurosawa, a touch of the "Mission: Impossible" high-tension style, a sepia-toned crib of the mapped travels of Indiana Jones, a snatch of the “Matrix” dayglo green vertical titling. And now we know where Michael Bay’s flashpots have been lately.

It all comes to a head in Los Angeles on Oct. 10 of this year, when the couple ties the knot in a ceremony almost certain to be memorialized in another J&E Production. After a honeymoon to we know not where, what’s next? Anything’s possible. There’ve been reports that Jeff and Erin are In Talks with Steven Spielberg about a development deal.

Nah, made that part up. But what if? What a way to start a marriage. That would be epic.

Image credits:

All the best to you crazy kids.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Saints ain’t Aints no more

Sometimes you’re sure life can’t get any worse. You’re ready to holler and throw up both your hands and give up what’s left of your personal ghost. And then somebody — Somebody in High Places — throws you a bone with just enough on it to keep you going, keep you believing in the possibilities of the underdog.

That’s what happened earlier today. In the New Orleans Superdome, the scene of tragedy not long enough ago, the New Orleans Saints defeated the Minnesota Vikings 31-28 in the NFC Championship, to advance to the Super Bowl on Feb. 7, in the Saints’ first appearance there in the 44-year history of the franchise.

Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras is pretty much as automatic a party as this country ever has, but the scene there tonight promises to be wilder, more raucous than Mardi Gras will be. The Saints — for most of two generations the doormat of the NFL — is going to the big show two weeks from now. And the city of New Orleans realizes a shot in the arm that transcends money, pro football bragging rights and other superficialities.

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It was a shooting match for most of the game, with Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Vikings quarterback Brett Favre trading long bombs and spirited sprints out of the pocket. But the Vikings were the victims of mistakes that began in the third quarter and cascaded into a pattern of play that was hard to believe was coming from a playoff-caliber NFL team.

By the end of the fourth quarter, the wheels fell off for the Vikes, followed by the transmission, the brakes and everything but the catalytic converter. Fumbles. Quarterback hurries. More turnovers than a pastry shop. Favre was on the canvas 16 times that day, and was briefly out of the game earlier, due to an injury that looked horrific in the replay.

Favre, gamer that he is, came back into the contest. But just before overtime, the score tied at 28, you could sense something was going wrong when, driving for a decisive score, the Vikings were hit with a 5-yard penalty … for having 12 men in the huddle. The penalty almost certainly took them out of field-goal range, so Favre went with a pass play.

On third-and-15 from the New Orleans 38, Favre, desperate to get close enough to give Ryan Longwell a chance to win the game in last-second fashion, rolled to his right. Then, instead of running for the yardage that might have put the Vikes in field goal range, Favre threw across the field to the left … where the Saints’ Tracy Porter intercepted, sending the game to overtime.

A field goal by the externally unflappable Garrett Hartley, and the Saints were set to go marching into their first Super Bowl.

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“Just wondering if I can hold up, especially after a day like today,” said Favre, battered and ghostly, a man whose tank was drier than empty after the game. “Physically and mentally. That was pretty draining. I am going to go home, a couple of days and just talk it over with the family.”

Was it miscommunication or nerves? Was it performance anxiety, or maybe what Hunter S. Thompson used to call “the fear”? Who knows?

What we do know is as uncomfortable for Vikings fans as it is undeniable for everyone else: While Brett Favre — a top-notch competitor and a man we’ve come to love — wanted that NFC Championship victory, for any number of team and personal reasons, New Orleans needed that victory, needed it deeply for reasons that are plain to anyone who remembers the brutal, chaotic events of five summers ago in the state of Louisiana.

The NFC Championship win is the latest good news for the region. In November, citing “monumental negligence,” U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr., opened the door to an expected torrent of lawsuits against agencies of the federal government, lawsuits representing the first real evidence of justice for human beings needlessly displaced by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

The four individuals and one business in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish were awarded $720,000 by Duval, resolving a lawsuit brought against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. More suits can certainly be expected.

But all that’s on the long come. More immediately, dead ahead, is New Orleans’ second-line dance into the first rank of winning NFL franchises, and the chance to tweak its own salute to the team, to make it a salute to the city the water couldn’t wash away:

Who Dat say Nawlins is finished?
Image credits: Saints logo: New Orleans Saints/National Football League. Saints celebration: Michael C. Hebert/New Orleans Saints. Favre: AP Photo.

Friday, January 22, 2010

One year on: Obama’s anniversary challenges

Much of the focus on President Obama’s one-year anniversary in the White House, on Wednesday, centered on retrospective views timed to the day he took office on Jan. 20, 2009. It’s a ritual of the calendar and the media: the customary polls assessing his performance in office; the ritual scorecards of “promises kept” and “promises broken”; the pat “report cards”; the hierophants in the punditburo about Obama’s future prospects and those of the Democrats in this election year.

The real events that both mark his first year in office and offer a forecast to the three years remaining didn’t dovetail with the anniversary. One occurred the day before, the other one a few days later. Both of these Richter-scale events underscore the unpredictable nature of our politics. Both could be bellwethers for Democratic prospects in 2010, Obama’s presidential prospects in 2012, and other campaigns into the indefinite future.

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The first happened on Tuesday, when Scott Brown, a little-known Massachusetts Republican state senator, defeated his Democratic challenger, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, to deliver unto the Republicans the seat in the United States Senate occupied for 47 years by the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, moral conscience of the Senate.

Besides being a response to Coakley as a candidate — one who by all assessments ran a feckless, half-hearted campaign — the Brown win was seen as a message to the White House that the GOP could penetrate an historically reliable Democratic stronghold.

Brown tapped into public anger about the bank bailouts, proposed changes in U.S. health care, and a generalized fear about the size of the federal government and its role in everyday American lives. With a populist campaign that featured Brown sprinting from town to town driving a truck and wearing blue jeans and a barn coat instead of a suit and tie, Brown successfully adopted the grassroots outsider meme that Obama himself used to great effect in the 2008 presidential run (right down to a slight variation of the font Obama used in his campaign logos and branding all of 2008).

The result is a likely challenge to the Obama health-care agenda that’s hanging on by a thread in Congress, and a certain revival of Republican swagger and confidence in that party’s prospects for 2010 and beyond.

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The second and more serious pushback against the Obama agenda happened on Thursday. In a decision that threatens to permanently transform the ground game of American politics, the United States Supreme Court, 5-4, ruled that corporations, like individual American citizens, could make unlimited contributions to political campaigns in order to influence politicians.

In its decision, the Court purported to hew to the free-speech principles enshrined in the First Amendment. Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority: “The First Amendment protects speech and speaker, and the ideas that flow from each.”

Justices Roberts and Alito wrote, in a concurrence: “The First Amendment protects more than just the individual on a soapbox and the lonely pamphleteer.”

The decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, effectively overturned 103 years of settled law, and was a direct indicator that the court meant to put citizens and corporations on equal existential footing.

It sent the signal that the battle between Wall Street and Main Street — between the interests of deep-pocketed corporation and those of everyday people — has been fully joined by the most toweringly dangerous, thunderously insensitive Supreme Court ruling since Dred Scott.

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Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the dissenters, framed the stakes of the decision: “In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. ...

“The Court’s blinkered and aphoristic approach to the First Amendment may well promote corporate power at the cost of the individual and collective self-expression the Amendment was meant to serve. It will undoubtedly cripple the ability of ordinary citizens, Congress, and the States to adopt even limited measures to protect against corporate domination of the electoral process. Americans may be forgiven if they do not feel the Court has advanced the cause of self-government today.“

Some in Congress get the gravity of what just happened. On Thursday, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, vowed that the House of representatives would do what it could do “to prevent the drowning of American democracy in corporate dollars.”

Others are less hopeful. Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg told MSNBC on Friday: “Just as both parties were beginning to successfully adopt the bottom-up, people-centered, democracy-strengthening model of politics of the new Internet age, the Supreme Court blows the system to pieces. The decision will no doubt tilt a system that was evolving into a more people-based model back towards one where privilege and money will have more sway.”

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As Obama retools himself and his administration for the future — we’ll get the details of that process in the State of the Union address on Wednesday — these two seismic political events will be as unmistakable a wake-up call as Team Obama could ask for.

The Coakley embarrassment should send a signal that, a year after inauguration, the usual metrics of reliable Democratic enclaves could be called into question. In much the same way Obama did last year when he won in GOP-safe states like Ohio and Florida, upending old assumptions about who votes for which party, the Brown victory makes clear that the old expectations don’t necessarily obtain. The message to Coakley on Tuesday was as clear as it is to Obama for the next three years: Nothing was delivered; this isn’t the change we voted for.

And the corrosive SCOTUS ruling is a warning that big-moneyed interests (represented, ironically enough, by the Supreme Court) will be arrayed in future campaigns as a counter to the ad hoc populist fundraising whose viral reach made the Obama campaign financially possible.

The ruling, rolling back campaign finance laws to boost corporate influence in the political debate, has the potential to infect every aspect of the nation’s political life from now on — a huge problem for the future Obama presidential campaign and its grassroots appeals. It’ll certainly mean that Team Obama will have to work harder to achieve the viral grassroots fundraising success of 2008.

In fact, all future campaigns will have to recalibrate their fundraising strategies to account for a possible flood tide of dollars from corporate coffers — a fundamental subversion of the small-d democratic process.

President Obama’s one-year anniversary in the White House marks Day One of the arrival of a new set of political challenges. The future of his presidential prospects, and maybe the future of our prospects as a democracy animated by citizens and not corporations, depends on how he answers the bell.

Image credits: Obama: AP/Charles Dharapak. Brown: Public domain.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

MLK, Selma and Dennis Hopper 1965

On Monday we got the ritual observances we’ve come to expect on MLK Day: the pictures of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., at the March on Washington in 1963; the fragments of the “I Have a Dream” speech that most of us have cemented in our memories, if not our everyday practices; the majesty of King accepting the Nobel Peace Prize; the fiery power of his last speech, in Memphis, the night before the world changed on April 4, 1968.

But we can’t forget Alabama in 1965, and the arduous journey that took King and thousands of his supporters from Selma to Montgomery on a march that subjected them to the American South at its worst, a region in the height of Jim Crow rage.

Over days in late March 1965, coping with chilling rain, police harassment and the wide range of physical challenges that befall any group of people marching 57 miles in open country, the civil rights marchers made their way on a journey that remains, in many ways, the distilling symbolic experience of the civil rights era.

That year, Dennis Hopper — yes, folks, that Dennis Hopper, the maverick actor, screenwriter, activist and (at that time) fledgling photographer — took his camera and went to Alabama to document what was happening.

Some of what he captured in March 1965 found its way into “Dennis Hopper: Signs of the Times,” a recent exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in lower Manhattan. It’s resurfaced again; the Vanity Fair Web site has republished nine of the images from the exhibition in a slideshow you’ll find at this link.

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The images from the VF slideshow bear an emotional velocity that punches through the years and into the present day:

King at the podium on what was almost certainly March 25, 1965, the day the third and final march between Selma and Montgomery was completed. Facing a thicket of microphones, speaking truth to power, King delivered the celebrated “How long? Not long” oration that still resonates.

As you can see in the photo above, Hopper allows the natural drama of the moment to dominate. There are no tricks or sleight of hand by perspective (like photographing King from below and face on, for example — a more conventional composition for depicting an imposing authority figure). There’s a welcome directionality to the composition; Hopper took the shot roughly level with the orator; he approaches King as an equal, rather than a god. Considering what was said that day, it makes great sense

A second Hopper image that seems to convey the spirit of the march — and certainly the stakes — is a shot of a young black boy, maybe seven or eight years old with eyes and a face as old as time, as old as the struggle that was in his blood and his bones before he was even born. If you want another timeless moment, look closer: He wears a cap marked FULL EMPLOYMENT, this little brother too young to be gainfully employed himself — back then.

In light of the current jobs and economic crisis, you have to wonder where he is today. How old he is now — 52? 53? In the prime of his employable years? How does that long-ago message resonate for him in today’s economy?

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What Dennis Hopper documented in those pivotal American days, what Martin Luther King said in that dangerous time, are more than just mildly interesting fragments of history. A meaningful photograph has a way of being a time machine, of marking a moment in the past that projects itself meaningfully into the future. What it documents is as important when we see it — whenever we see it — as it was the day it was taken.

Monday was MLK Day in America. We’ve only to look back at these photos, and other images that are the visual fabric of postwar America, to recall how long ago the struggle for what we take for granted was.

And how recently.

Image credits: Photographs: © 1965, 2010 Dennis Hopper. Images from “Dennis Hopper: Signs of the Times,” courtesy Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York. Directly republished from Vanity

Monday, January 18, 2010

Throwing Conan from the show

Is it my imagination, or has Conan O’Brien gotten sharper, edgier, friskier — funnier — than he’s been in a long time? His current quasi-limbo as the possibly/probably exiting host of NBC’s ”The Tonight Show” has been good for him emotionally and professionally. Like a team mathematically eliminated from the playoffs but game for the game just the same, O’Brien in the last week or so has been loose, a man with nothing to lose, firing on all comedic cylinders, wielding his offbeat comedic style with an abandon and daring that’s lately pushed the envelope on why late-night programming is on late at night in the first place.

In the last week, in his monologues and with his guests as sometimes unwitting foils, O’Brien has alluded to drive-by shootings, deviant sexual practices and illegal drugs. And then he started talking about Jay Leno, his elder comedic counterpart and nemesis for control of “The Tonight Show,” the same show in the same time slot Leno held down for 17 years. His spirited jabs at Leno, and those taken on his behalf by ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman at CBS, have made for some of late-night’s snarkiest moments, and some of its most memorable.

None of which matters a whit to los jefes at NBC, who are reportedly at or near an agreement to give O’Brien his walking papers and 30 million other papers, called dollars. This is being done to ease the way for the return of Leno to his old perch as host of “The Tonight Show,” with Leno thus retiring his unwatched and underfunny prime-time experiment, “The Jay Leno Show.”

"By the time you see this, I'll be halfway to Rio in an NBC traffic helicopter," O’Brien said in his Friday monologue.

Having apparently thrown Conan from the show, NBC is opening the door to a challenge from a dangerous free agent, someone who knows his way around late-night comedy at least as well as Leno does. Someone who knows his way around a younger, edgier demographic of viewers better than Leno does.

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Listen … you can hear the execs’ hungry drool dripping onto the Berber carpet at Fox right now. And count on it: Once Conan has ambled up to the NBC’s cashier’s window for the last time, Fox will be first to step up to the plate and offer him … a new cashier. The Fox television empire has lately been in something of a reinvention mode. You’ve gotta believe if Fox ponied up X dollars for a relatively untried presence like Sarah Palin, they’ll leap at the chance to lock up the talents of an innovator and a known quantity in late-night television.

Fox would be exhibiting a demographic shrewdness that Jay Leno can’t top: Conan appeals to the 18-to-49 demographic coveted by advertisers, a cohort used to set advertising rates and to define and sharpen their perceptions about the buying public.

Look at the populist support that’s been generated by viewers eager to see O’Brien prevail. At one recent taping, members of the audience wore TEAM CONAN T-shirts. Someone generated an I’m With Coco” image that recalls a campaign poster from the 1930’s. It’s not just grassroots, it’s viral grassroots. Leno’s audience skews older; it’s more to the liking of people with hair as gray as Leno’s is. Like it or not, that matters to advertisers. And to the viewer ratings the network lives and dies by.

And ratings are a funny thing. They have a way of vanishing or showing up at the most inopportune time. Irony of ironies: The O’Brien deathwatch has garnered ratings that are better than they’ve been in a while. “With his jabs at NBC network executives apparently resonating in a country filled with the unemployed, viewership has soared,” The Associated Press reported Sunday.

“’Tonight" ratings Friday were 50 percent higher than they've been this season, and O'Brien beat CBS' Letterman, according to a preliminary Nielsen Co. estimate based on large markets,” The AP said. “In the 18-to-49-year-old demographic that NBC relies on to set advertising prices, O'Brien even beat Leno's prime-time show.”

It all points to how, apparently, patience is not a virtue for NBC. Writing on Digg, C010rb1lndusa understood the missed opportunity: “The worst part about the situation is that the NBC executives fail to remember history. Conan's original late night show struggled to gain an audience early in its production. But when viewers got used to his unconventional humor, he was a big hit, and at 12:30 at night no less. Yet they don't even give Conan a year to get comfortable with mainstream America.”

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It went underreported in the heat of the LenoBrien War, but in a news story related to the upcoming Vancouver Olympic Games, Jeff Immelt, the chairman of General Electric (NBC’s parent company), said recently that — before the torch even shows up in Vancouver, before viewer one tunes in to watch the luge run — NBC already expects to lose “a couple hundred million bucks” on the Games it paid more than $800 million to broadcast over “the networks of NBC.”

Soft ad sales were blamed, as well as the still-recovering economy. But whatever the reasoning for that forecast, it can’t inspire confidence when a company announces it plans to lose money on producing its shiny new product before that shiny new product is even out the factory door.

Thus sayeth the suits at NBC. That prediction may be evidence of a misstep at the Peacock. We will be witnesses to another one when Conan O’Brien turns in his key to the studio soundstage and drives off the NBC lot, probably bound for Foxier pastures.

Image credits: O'Brien: © 2009 NBC/Conaco. Leno: © 2009 NBC/Big Dog Productions. Coco image: Via HuffPost.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Proposed: A Marshall Plan for Haiti

When the seismic catastrophe long predicted for the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden strike-slip fault zone finally occurred at 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, the earthquake that followed immediately and the devastation that’s still unfolding revealed other fissures, other fault lines that were almost as long and as old as the deforested ground of Haiti.

Courtesy of the 24/7 professional and social media, we’re discovering the powerfully destructive forces that have been at work in the country for decades now, mostly a crushing poverty that’s made Haiti the most impoverished nation in the Western hemisphere — and a relative indifference to that poverty on the part of neighbors big and small, notably the United States.

Now the deal’s gone down. Horribly. Initial casualty estimates of 50,000 people killed by the direct temblor or its numerous aftershocks have exploded; at this writing the Haitian government in extremis has estimated the death toll is, conservatively, at least 200,000 — a tally that would make this seismic event one of the worst in history.

It’s one of those tragically available guesstimates, as likely to be right as wrong. But from what we’ve seen on YouTube and the news (and for many following the events in Port-au-Prince right now, YouTube is the news), the scope of the damage, its Brueghel panorama suggest even that estimate may yet be shockingly conservative.

What lays before the United States and any number of ambitious, visionary world partners is to take this profound crisis and forge something like an opportunity. What’s called for is nothing less than a Marshall Plan for the restoration of Haiti.

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Students of the American statecraft preceding that of Colin Powell know the name of George C. Marshall, for many the best U.S. Secretary of State in the 20th century.

Witnessing the stagnation of Western Europe in the first years after the end of World War II, Marshall undertook the European Recovery Program, a broad and sweeping initiative meant to help the economies of 17 European countries with a variety of forms of material and financial assistance. Simply put, the plan that came to bear his name helped put postwar Europe on its feet.

We tend to remember the Marshall Plan mostly because of its almost surgical efficacy, its direct way of channeling relief to the people who needed it most. We tend to remember the Marshall Plan mostly because of its most dramatic and emotionally powerful manifestation: the Berlin airlift, a British-American campaign during which 2.3 million tons of food were ferried into West Berlin by air over 278,000 flights, in defiance of a Russian blockade of land and water routes to that sector of the city divided by the Allies in 1945.

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That kind of direct intervention seems to have become a thing of the past, if there’s no direct provocation for its use. This is the time and place to bring it back. A Marshall-style plan for the recovery of Haiti and its people is precisely the kind of global forward thinking needed today for several reasons.

First, it helps to solidify the cultural and social affinities that already exist between Haiti and the United States. There are more than 2 million Haitian Americans, and longstanding ties of music, style and cuisine make this country a natural partner in reconstruction.

It also gives the United States the opportunity for a necessary nation building in its own backyard. There’s already been a long-established network of NGOs, charities and other grassroots organizations working there for decades. Those groups form the informational infrastructure needed by the United States and its partners to begin the process of building Haitian economic self-sufficiency.

And a concerted effort to help the Haitians help themselves fills the current vacuum: a nation whose police force is scattered, if not dead; whose government is greviously damaged; whose president was left literally homeless by the events of Tuesday afternoon. A country with no functioning government soon discovers any number of bad actors and militant freelancers more than willing to fill that role. With two wars going on on the other side of the planet, at a rough cost of $370 million a day, that’s a vacuum at our doorstep we don’t need.

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The American military is stepping up to the plate in the crisis, with a necessary show of strength. President Obama has pledged an ongoing commitment to Haiti, starting with the $100 million that the United States will inject in the immediate recovery effort. On Sunday he announced the limited callup of reservists to assist in the relief effort.

What’s yet to be seen is the long-term national appetite for this kind of stewardship. We’re a generous nation, but we’re an impatient nation, too. Americans want results; consciously or unconsciously, we tend to measure results by our own accelerated, high-performance yardstick, and when we’re disappointed, it shows.

The national attention span, short at best, will be tested like never before. Previous disasters have seen similar outpourings of generosity, over time that flood slowing to a trickle.

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It’s not like an incidental drift toward cynicism isn’t getting any help. They’re still treating the tens of thousands who need medical care; out of necessity, they’re still bulldozing bodies in the Haitian streets, and the angry old men on the political right have already shown where they stand.

Steve King, a Republican Congressman in the Iowa 5th district, opposed the Obama administration’s temporary reprieve from deportation, and did it in the worst possible terms: “This sounds to me like open borders advocates exercising the Rahm Emanuel axiom: ‘Never let a crisis go to waste,’” King said in an e-mail message to ABC News. “Illegal immigrants from Haiti have no reason to fear deportation but if they are deported, Haiti is in great need of relief workers and many of them could be a big help to their fellow Haitians.”

And talk radio Doberman and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh impugned the administration’s motives. "This [the quake] will play right into Obama's hands," said Limbaugh on on his radio show Wednesday. "He's humanitarian, compassionate. They'll use this to burnish their, shall we say, credibility with the black community – both light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country. This is made to order for them."

"I do believe that everything is political to this president," Limbaugh followed up with an irate caller, repeating himself lest his first comments be misunderstood. "Everything this president sees is a political opportunity, including Haiti, and he will use it to burnish his credentials with minorities in this country and around the world, and to accuse Republicans of having no compassion."

“Besides, we've already donated to Haiti," he said. "It's called the U.S. income tax.”

◊ ◊ ◊

These are the ruthless ideologues doing what they do best. But there’s every reason to believe that most Americans, most people anywhere for whom a heart is more than a cardiac pump, are rising to the occasion, reacting to this natural holocaust with the shock and compassion that is the base metal of the human experience.

One of the American military spokesmen on the ground in Haiti, presumably someone high enough on the food chain to speak in such lofty terms and make it stick, distilled the short-term mission of the United States. Paraphrasing — “we are here to do as much good as possible and as little evil as possible.”

If that mindset, charitable and tough, pragmatic and generous, can be the guiding principle of the involvement of the United States in this necessary enterprise, there’s a chance — more than a chance — for the nation of Haiti to use its historic resilience and imagination with the financial and material assistance of other nations to begin again, stronger and smarter than before.

And there’s not a chance but the certainty that this country will step through into a better sense of itself, a nation that understands again the ways in which justice, security and empathy are permanently intertwined.

Image credits: Haiti in flames: ITN News. George C. Marshall: © 2010 Nobel Web AB. Haiti devastation: Reuters. Limbaugh: Via MSNBC.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, parody is, well, something else again. The Huffington Post, the "Internet Newspaper" co-founded by socialite author Arianna Huffington, has been a daily guilty pleasure since it was started in May 2005.

It recently achieved the distinction of being a target of someone besides the conservative politicians it skewers with regularity, when the Web site created a deft parody of the Web site's breathless, over-the-top news and headline style, and its reliably progressive editorial leanings.

HuffPost thus joins The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times as a subject of benign ridicule, finally high up enough on the media food chain for this kind of comeuppance.

Hey, turnabout's always fair play. Sometimes, it's fun when the kid laughing at the emperor's new clothes gets slapped upside the head. I'm just sayin'.

Image credit:

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Job #1: Saving Haiti

In an instant, the world changed on Tuesday.

That afternoon a cataclysm was visited on the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, a disaster whose scope is undefined, and will be for months or years to come.

What's obviously a gut-check time for the United States (as the only global power that can take the lead in rescuing Haiti, its neighbor just 600 miles away) is also a time for the individual to step up to the plate, sit down at the computer and send the assistance relief agencies need now: MONEY. NOW.

Drop some coin on CARE.

Send those twos and fews to the International Rescue Committee.

A little cheddar, please, to Oxfam. And Doctors Without Borders, while you're at it. And don't get suckered by telephone solicitations; the scam artists are already out in force. Go straight to the sites themselves to be sure your money goes straight where it needs to go.

Doesn't matter what your political or racial or religious persuasion is. This transcends all of that shit. This is nothing less than a time that confirms our primal capacity for empathy, for a recognition of the truly global impact of this event, and what our recognition of that fact, or our failure to recognize it, says about us as human beings.

The people of Haiti need change they can believe in. Our small change can make a big difference.

MONEY. Ora. Ahora. الآن Maintenant. Jetzt. עכשיו اوس 今


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Palin in prime time

You can’t say you didn’t get a warning. Back in September, Vox ventured the strong probability that Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska and current burgeoning financial conglomerate, would land a high-profile prime-time TV gig by the end of the year.

Missed it by 11 days.

Fox made its big reveal on Monday, naming Palin as a Fox News contributor (or “analyst,” according to the network). The network didn’t waste any time, trotting her out on her maiden voyage on Tuesday night, as one of the on-air guests on “The O’Reilly Factor.”

Bill O’Reilly threw softballs much of the time, asking Palin why she felt she was the target of so much criticism.

“It’s not about me personally,” Ms. Palin said. “They don’t like the message, they don’t like the common sense conservative solutions I articulate.”

As you’d expect from the GOP’s contender for the vice-presidency in the 2008 election, Palin lit into President Obama and his declining poll numbers.

"It was just a matter of time," she said. "There is an obvious disconnect between President Obama and the White House, what they are doing to our economy and what they are doing in terms of not allowing Americans to feel as safe as we had felt."

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“She is one of the most talked about and politically polarizing figures in the country. First off, we hope she brings that,” said Bill Shine, Fox News executive vice president, to the Los Angeles Times. “The expectation that Palin will utter something controversial will likely drive viewership.”

Shine’s statement is not-quite code for that which ought to be perfectly obvious to anyone who's observed her: Of course she’s being brought there in the hopes that she’ll be controversial. She’s expected to be controversial! There are probably riders in her contract that demand it.

In the short term, it’s a given that Palin’s legendary unpredictability and a strident right-wing stand on the issues will attract the prime-time eyeballs that advertisers love. That’ll help fill the depleted coffers of News Corporation, a company bleeding cash until recently (lately rescued by the blue giants of “Avatar”). And the unspoken but obvious Fox political positioning makes it the perfect pulpit for her peculiar, passive-aggressive brand of conservative populism — one that Margaret Carlson of Bloomberg News seems to get.

“Sarah Palin is the latest in a line of populists,” she told Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC on Monday. “But she’s very different in one way: Populists historically have pretended not to know anything. They’ve actually been part of a fairly intellectual group of people. But she really doesn’t know anything, and it’s in God’s plan that she not learn anything.”

◊ ◊ ◊

But ironically, Palin’s new higher profile on Fox may work against her. Up to now Palin has risen above the mainstream, defining herself on her terms, a conservative rock star in the mediasphere.

Now, working as a colleague with the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, Palin’s just another coif at a studio desk, her pronouncements just another soundbite in the echo chamber; her renegade persona is flattened by the relentless, impersonal ubiquity of 21st-century television.

Time will tell whether Palin rises to the occasion, acquiring the intellect, charity and perspective she would need for any credible run for the roses in 2012; or whether, like Lonesome Rhodes shilling for Vitajex, Palin will gain just enough insight into the American people to exploit their insecurities of region and identity for financial benefit and nothing more.

Sarah Palin’s been going rogue for a long time, accomplishing much of what she’s pursued. We’ll see if she’s got what it takes to be a standout, or just a face in TV’s crowd.

Image credits: Sarah Palin, Fox News logo: © 2009 Fox News Channel. Lonesome Rhodes: From "A Face in the Crowd," © 1957 Columbia Pictures.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Late Night With God Knows Who

Jay Leno is developing a reputation as the IED of feature television programming at NBC. His and the network’s decision to switch his brand of comedy from late-night to prime-time destroyed the chances of several provocative series, which had to be canceled to accommodate the jut-jawed juggernaut.

What’s developed in recent days, and confirmed tonight by NBC brass, proves the ability of the Leno death star to blow up everything around it.

By now you know about “The Jay Leno Show,” NBC’s incessantly hyped and ballyhooed bid to rewrite the rules of prime-time television, by bringing a known comedic quantity into America’s living rooms in prime-time — effectively shifting Leno’s late-night format to earlier in the evening (at 10 p.m.). NBC’s move was hailed as revolutionary; James Poniewozik of Time Magazine wrote an essay breathlessly titled “Jay Leno Is the Future of TV. Seriously.”

Poniewozik wrote last September: “If The Jay Leno Show succeeds — where succeeding means not getting more viewers than the competition but simply increasing NBC's profit margin — it suggests a TV future in which ambitious dramas become the stuff of boutique cable, while the broadcasters become a megaphone for live events and cheap nonfiction.”

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The viewing public was decidedly underwhelmed. The “Leno” show was touted as the perfect lead-in to the local news affiliates around the country. That’s been a connection Leno has been gamely trying to make at the end of his program, prodding his viewers to stay where you are, braying “YOUR LOCAL NEWS STARTS RIGHT NOW!” But the public wasn’t having it; the “Leno” show was largely ignored by viewers almost from the beginning. And the affiliates weren’t having it; “Leno” was a poor lead-in to the late locals, who resisted the Leno trial period after its sagging ratings pulled eyeballs away, with the advertising dollars that follow them.

Leno’s show attracts about 5.8 million viewers; some of CBS’ scripted features double or triple that. CBS’s “The Mentalist” pulls down about 17.5 million viewers. It’s something of an apples-to-oranges comparison; “The Mentalist” airs once a week, Leno’s on five nights a week, so an imbalance of the raw numbers makes sense. But regardless, the perception has been that the bloom is off the Leno rose.

◊ ◊ ◊

Meanwhile, Conan O’Brien has been gamely trying to grow into his seven-month-long position as host of “The Tonight Show,” broadcast at 11:35. It couldn’t have been good news, then, when O’Brien (about the same time as everyone in America) was going to be asked to move over to accommodate Leno — to give up the coveted 11:35 slot, and move “The Tonight Show” back to 12:05.


It gets worse: Not only O’Brien would be affected. In order to accommodate him, NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” would be required to move back to 1:05 a.m., a plan that would seem to make viewership in the wee small hours of the morning — InformercialWorld! — even more precious than it already is.


Both O’Brien and Leno have made the most of it, commenting on the situation in their monologues and skits. O’Brien outlined a possible scenario to resolve the impasse: “NBC is going to throw me and Jay in a pit with sharpened sticks. The one who crawls out alive gets to leave NBC.”

But O’Brien’s not happy — having transplanted himself, his wife and children, his staff and his perspective from one coast to another less than a year ago, you could hardly blame him — and the vultures of Murdoch may be circling. Fox (the network with no late-night presence on weeknights and Wanda Sykes on Saturdays — for now) has reportedly offered O’Brien sanctuary, if it comes to that. The situation, murky right now, may be settled later this week.

“As much as I’d like to tell you we have a done deal, that’s not true,” said NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin at the Television Critics Association press tour, on Sunday. “The talks are ongoing. [But] I hope and expect, before the Olympics begin, we will have everything set. I can’t imagine we won’t.”

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What’s clear already, though, is the chaos and lack of vision reflected in the whole Leno “experiment.” It wasn’t discussed much in the canonization of the new Leno comedy business model, but one of the main reasons for NBC’s agreeing to shifting him to 10 p.m. was no doubt purely economic.

In order for Leno to go on the air at 10 p.m., several NBC scripted televisions series airing at or near that time had to move over.

“Life.” “Southland.”

“Medium.” “Kath and Kim.” “My Name Is Earl.”

Ratings will invariably be blamed, but directly or indirectly, all of ‘em got offed to make room in the schedule for a comedian whose funniest days are in the rear-view mirror, a comedian whose reach into the emergent younger demographic NBC needs to be competitive, or even viable, is shaky at best.

“All audiences have value, but the 18-to-49 audience has more value,” John Rash, senior vice president of the Campbell-Mithun ad agency, told The New York Times in July, in an interview about O’Brien’s successful reach into that cherished demographic. “You will make higher profits if you win with that audience.”

True, even the “Tonight” franchise is a victim of a widely broadened television landscape and an increasingly diverse population. Right now, “The Tonight Show” gets about 2.5 million viewers nightly.

But the raw numbers don’t tell the whole story. They can’t yet, the numbers are too new. It’s a sign of the Peacock’s impatience that they’re ready to pull the plug on Conan at 11:35 after his “Tonight” brand has been on the air for seven months, while Leno was locked in amber at 11:35 for 17 years.

And you have to wonder why in the three years between the announcement of Leno’s departure from the “Tonight” show and when it actually happened, why Leno was pulled out of the 11:35 “Tonight Show” slot in the first place. Leno’s “Tonight Show” consistently led in the ratings, even besting CBS’s David Letterman. The best time to have made the current switch NBC’s now contemplating was before it was even made. O’Brien would have been more agreeable to a change if something was decided before that change was seven months a reality.

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And in its bid to rewrite the rules, NBC has abided by the oldest and dumbest rule in the book: the need to be in a hurry. “Life” and “Southland,” among the others, were shows just beginning to find their mark. Smartly written, intelligently and realistically cast and populated, they were a sign of a network willing to reach outside its institutional comfort zone.

Boom. Leno had the ear of NBC brass, who had the ears of the risk-averse accountants who knew then and know now that Leno five nights a week from one set on one soundstage in front of one audience would cost tens of millions of dollars less than five scripted series, no matter how good they were, no matter how much time they needed to germinate an audience, no matter how much they pointed to the future of the network and its audience, instead of the past.

And ultimately, we got where we are right now: a once-dominant force in comedy, dramatic series and late-night, apparently at generational odds with itself.

◊ ◊ ◊

Contrary to Poniewozik’s assessment, scripted dramas needn’t be the death knell for a network’s bottom line; the other networks in the ratings hunt prove that every week. When CBS can find and develop shows like “The Mentalist,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men,” it’s obvious that reports of the demise of the scripted series is greatly exaggerated.

After NBC canceled “Medium” early last year, an opportunistic CBS picked it up, gave it the patience it deserved and the money it required to flourish. Result: In November, that NBC castoff helped CBS regain control of Friday-night viewer numbers (8.2 million), and gain a decent lead in the ratings. One week in December, CBS' series repeats beat NBC's fresh feature programming.

When NBC can abandon shows of proven quality for a roll of the dice, it’s obvious that the Peacock is moulting in a curiously self-defeating way.

Events over the next week should be interesting — stay tuned. No really, do watch what happens. It’s likely to change overnight. God only knows who’ll turn up for long-term late-night duty at NBC. God and the lawyers.

Image credits: Leno: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters. O'Brien: NBC. O'Brien Tonight Show intertitle: © NBC/Conaco. Leno Tonight Show intertitle: © NBC/Big Dog Productions.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Twas’ the flight after Christmas

If you haven’t got rid of that Christmas tree gathering dust, airborne pollutants, root rot and exponentially increasing risk of combustion in your living room, two enterprising “scientists” may have hit on a solution for you (especially if you happen to live in an unincorporated area).

The two amateur aeronautic engineers posted it all on YouTube on Jan. 1, revisiting a practice that YouTube has memorialized for two or three years now. This year’s aerodynamic duo retrofit a fading Christmas tree with 32 rocket motors wired in parallel with individual igniters and powered by a car battery. “The math was nothing exciting,” one says. “It was just a little differential calculus.”

After the engines are in, some subtle tweaking of the tree’s natural shape, and the countdown ... the green bird is gloriously aloft for all of three seconds, something marvelous to behold before it veers south and spears the ground, 75 nautical feet downrange.

Here’s to their grand and noble effort, one of many in recent times. Maybe next year every one refines their aerodynamics, boost the engines and does it on the other end of the holiday season. Think of it: a fully decked-out, trimmed Christmas tree with battery-powered lights in a sweet suborbital arc through the night sky. ...

Multiplied. Squared. One launch repeated safely in open spaces across America. Signal flares for Santa from coast to coast.

And to all a good flight.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Fixing the disconnect

CBS’s Bob Schieffer, an old hand at the D.C. bureaucracy, warned us about what was coming on Wednesday. “The way my source put it, the American people deserve an honest assessment, and they, and the bureaucracy, are going to get it.”

It was hardly the way you want to end a Christmas vacation. President Obama had barely put his feet on Hawaiian soil when the issue of national security burst back into the national attention span. Thanks to a disaffected youth’s futile Christmas Day attempt to detonate plastic explosives secreted in his underwear on a flight approaching Detroit, the nation’s aviation and national security machinery went into overdrive — an overdrive may are saying they should have been in all along.

In the two weeks since then — those already grueling weeks of holiday and post-holiday travel — we’ve come back to pat-downs, a heavy airport presence of uniforms and guns, and no carry-on liquids besides the ones circulating in your body.

And we’ve witnessed the interagency disconnects within the national security establishment. When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was apprehended, it was the endgame for a chain of errors in which the CIA, the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security overlooked Abdulmutallab’s known and suspected associations (as well as the warnings of his father that his 23-year-old son was being radicalized) and failed to share and jointly interpret the information that was available.

When Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said “the system worked,” and then backtracked about a day later, it was a sign of the cultural and informational fails that still prevail, more than eight years after 9/11.

You can call it a disconnect; President Obama went further, calling it evidence of a “systemic failure” of the national security apparatus. It’s this failure Obama addressed Tuesday in an address from the White House. The speech, whose starting time was twice delayed without explanation, was in some ways a bracing shot of vintage Obama: laying out the problem at hand, then breaking down a series of solutions; not getting caught up in the ritual blame-game Beltway kabuki; keeping an eye of the prize of the larger objective.

But the challenge that confronts him is a monster, and maybe even one with politically malign motivations. Not long into the new year, the debate started within the media:

Was the security lapse that enabled Abdulmuttalab to almost commit an act of terrorism unrivaled since 9/11 just a monumental chain of oversights of a bloated, arrogant, hidebound intelligence apparatus … or was it something worse, and horrible to contemplate: a willful, deliberate attempt to undermine the national security under the Obama administration, turning a blind eye to a clear and present danger with the intention of embarrassing the administration, and endangering its credibility for political gain?

It’s otherwise difficult to understand how the warning signs about Abdulmuttalab could have been so uniformly overlooked or ignored; the apparent absence of coordination and intellectual triage is so total, it almost looks deliberate. The phrase “connecting the dots” is often used in the speculative chronology of terrorism. In the matter of Abdulmuttalab, there were no dots to be connected; he was the only dot in question, and the nation’s security agencies didn’t get it.

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Obama got it, and said as much from the White House on Tuesday. “This was not a failure to collect intelligence; it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had.

“I will accept that intelligence by its nature is imperfect. But it is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analyzed or fully leveraged. That’s not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it. ...”

“As we saw on Christmas Day, al-Qaida and its extremist allies will stop at nothing in their efforts to kill Americans,” the president said. “And we are determined not only to thwart those plans, but to disrupt, dismantle and defeat their networks once and for all.”

“American lives are on the line,” Obama said. “So I made it clear today to my team: I want our initial reviews completed this week. I want specific recommendations for corrective actions to fix what went wrong.

“I want those reforms implemented immediately, so that this doesn't happen again and so we can prevent future attacks. And I know that every member of my team that I met with today understands the urgency of getting this right. And I appreciate that each of them took responsibility for the shortfalls within their own agencies.”

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Some in the Washington intelligentsia gave him slightly better than middling marks. Interviewed by Jim Lehrer of the PBS Newshour on the day after the speech, Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said: “[T]he White House had a little bit of a deer in the headlights of an oncoming truck for maybe 36 hours after this. And my guess is, the next time something like this happens -- this is a very disciplined White House -- they will do a better job.

“It's a missed opportunity. It's a mistake. It's something -- let's say, if it happens again on something like this, then I think you have got to ask some questions, why aren't they learning? But, if you look at this whole first year of the White House, in foreign policy, sure, there have been some mistakes, but, on the whole, this has been a much smoother first year for the operation of foreign policy than, say, the Clinton administration was or the Bush administration.

“The team has more or less worked together. They haven't been kind of thrown off-message. They have had some policy initiatives that aren't working as well as they would like, but that happens to everybody. On the whole, when you look at a first year of a new administration, where the party's been out of power for a long time, this has been a pretty smooth operation. That said, the Christmas bombing was not their finest hour.”

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After a vacation spent with one eye on events half a planet away, and their consequences. President Obama’s stepped up smartly to the plate and dug himself in. The succession of brushback pitches he’s getting from conservatives and their enablers in the right wing of the punditburo hasn’t changed his resolve or altered his way to making a principled, deliberated decision with the assistance of the best minds he can get around him.

Unlike his immediate predecessor, he actually reads a briefing book when he’s given one on vacation. Unlike that predecessor, he’s not given to rash judgments, or statements indicative of those judgments. The thinking person’s president. Imagine that.

That said, however, the president’s deliberation as he addresses the matter of fixing a profound and troubling disconnect in the circuitry of the national security grid has the potential to be a double-edged sword. The difference between deliberation and (Dick Cheney’s word) dithering is, of course, more than semantic. To a weary, painfully sensitive and often angry electorate, that difference may not be there for long.

Image credits: Obama top and bottom, Pete Souza and Chuck Kennedy (respectively), The White House. Napolitano: Via MSNBC.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Morgan Freeman, VOG

“From CBS world headquarters in New York — this is the CBS Evening News, with Katie Couric.” We’ve heard that at or near what used to be called “the dinner hour” since Sept. 5, 2006. When Couric began the CBS News anchor gig, no doubt eager to establish her bona fides, she was the beneficiary of the voice of Walter Cronkite, who uttered that introduction from the beginning, setting a tone of gravitas and experience that Couric has been more than equal to, again from the beginning.

Even after Cronkite died on July 17, the network retained him as the CBS News VOG (for voice of God, denoting the flagship of the brand itself) — as much a nod to Cronkite’s long multigenerational reach on television news and the culture as to not having anyone else to replace him.

Or so we thought. The new broom of a new year (and for some a new decade) sweeps clean. That was clear on Monday night — the first of 2010 for the CBS news crew — when the voice of Morgan Freeman rang, Mississippi-clear, to announce the Tiffany Network Evening News.

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How to parse this ripple in the culture … you can resort to the Firsts School of Significance: Freeman (a pitchman for Visa) is the first African American VOG in American broadcast news (James Earl Jones, the longtime VOG of CNN, beat him in the cable space by years).

Freeman’s bourbon-and-honey voice cements an African American flava to a worldwide audience of news junkies. The VOG is part of the default experience, part of the singular identifier that establishes an identity in the public mind. For the first time at CBS News — home to VOGs Cronkite, Sevareid and Murrow! — a voice of color becomes that identifier.

There’s no way to know, of course, if CBS was that calculating. The statements from the network in advance of Monday’s change were more turn-the-page circumspect. '”As comforting as it is to look back on the great career that Walter had, we're looking forward now and we just felt it was the right time to make the move that at some point had to be made,” said CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus. '”This seemed like the appropriate time since Walter's passing to make the move.'”

It may have been just the matter of the right voice. NBC made the same kind of change in December 2007, when Oscar winner Michael Douglas became the VOG for the NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams. And setting aside Freeman’s pitchwork for Visa, his is a movie voice we’ve loved and recognized for a generation.

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Having portrayed everything from a terrifyingly vicious New York pimp (“Street Smart”) to the President of the United States (“Deep Impact”), Freeman already projects into the culture with the kind of ubiquity CBS could use to its advantage.

So despite the ratings that have firmly cemented CBS Evening News as last in viewers, Oscar winner Freeman’s investiture offers the network and viewers that little intangible, a moment of Hollywood before 23 minutes of news (much of it dispiriting), plus commercials (most of them TiVo’d into three-second mush). The broadcast evening news model needs every edge it can get.

Lysergic Asset hit it on Monday, at Gawker: “For a minute there I thought that Morgan Freeman would be replacing Katie Couric. You almost got me to watch TV news.”

Image credits: Freeman: Via CBS eye logo: © CBS Inc.
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