Saturday, October 30, 2010

The We Party

Except for when the name sponsors tried to sing, the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear came off without a hitch Saturday on the Mall in Washington. The runup to this hybrid pre-election event meant to return tranquility to American life (at least until Nov. 3) went on on Comedy Central for weeks; the payoff was a huge crowd on more or less their best behavior. By all accounts, civility, consideration, reasonableness reigned.

The fact that that’s even worth mentioning is exactly the point.

After the rising chorus of Blue Meanie, Chicken Little, Father Coughlin rhetoric from the extremists— and an appeal to the country's Christian identity, distilled in Glenn Beck’s amazing simulation of Lonesome Rhodes and Elmer Gantry at a rally at the same location back in August — the stage was set for some kind of counter response.

What Stewart and Colbert came up with was brilliant: rather than present a reflexive, rote politically-based response, theirs was mostly a sendup, a well-timed spasm of silliness, a monster goof on the animosity that characterizes our politics, but a goof based, finally, on a call to bringing tolerance back to the discourse.

It was pretty well received. Crowd estimates were all over the place, as usual, but they were all respectable. CNN and NBC NIghtly News estimated at least 200,000 people showed up. CBS News was more generous, reported the count at 215,000. CTV (Canadian Broadcasting) guesstimated 250,000. All were well above the folks were turned up for Glenn Beck's Tea Party-tinged "Restoring Honor" rally in August. After commissioning a scientifically-based estimate of that crowd, CBS News reported that just 87,000 attended.

They all got a healthy dose of foolishness: Colbert arrived dressed like Evel Knievel, making his appearance onstage a la the Chilean miners in a rescue capsule; he and Stewart sparred good-naturedly. And Stewart sang something of a duet with Colbert (Note to both: Keep your night jobs).

But Stewart waxed serious at one point.

“We live in hard times, not end-times. We can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of our main tools [...] broke.” In a frontal attack on the rhetorical styles of the news media — which he called “the country's 24-hour politico pundit perpetual panic conflictinator" — Stewart said: “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. ...

"There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned," Stewart said. "You must have the resume. Not being able to distinguish between real racists and tea partiers, or real bigots and Juan Williams or Rick Sanchez is an insult, not only to those people, but to the racists themselves, who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate -- just as the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe, not more." ...

“Americans don’t live on cable TV… most Americans don’t live their lives as Democrats or Republicans or liberals or conservatives,” he said. “Most live their lives as people a little bit late for something they have to do, often something they do not want to do. But they do it … making little, reasonable compromises we all make… we have to work together to get from the darkness to the light.”

“The press is our immune system: If it over-reacts to everything, we get sicker, and maybe eczema.”

Implicit in his remarks was the deeper point of this latest rally in D.C. The very need for the Stewbert production is a sign of how low we’ve fallen in the level of our argument. Analysts and reporters snarl and foam at each other on the air, trying to make their points by elevating their voices instead of their game. The president is called a liar in a joint session of Congress. Politics, never beanbag, has become zero-sum game bloodsport, mixed martial arts on Capitol Hill.

To go by the crowd that attended Saturday’s rally, there’s hope that the cross-section of Americans haven’t given up on the ideas of rational thinking, rationally presented in the media and elsewhere; or on the idea that, no matter what your political persuasion, there’s commonality to what we face as a nation, things we face in the unpredictable future that will be, collectively, an equal opportunity challenge.

The We Party gathered in Washington on Saturday, Americans that got together to celebrate both their diversity and their strength, their individuality and their common national bond. As usual, the sign-bearers had a way of distilling what it was all about. One, as usual, got it best: “We are all in this together. Let’s act like it.”

Image credits: Stewart and Colbert: Via The Huffington Post.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Prediction: Political-futures markets clean up

We’ve said it forever, that this politics thing is among other things a crapshoot, a gamble, a wager of ideas and principles. As the current process comes to a roiling climax, there’s been more speculation of the outcome of what must be the most philosophically-freighted midterm election season in modern times.

Alan Boyle, a former colleague at, and creator and shepherd of the celebrated Cosmic Blog, wrote a column on Tuesday based on findings from the Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM), an experimental online-futures project of the University of Iowa’s Henry B. Tippie School of Business, something that’s mainly used for purposes of academic research and instruction.

To go by the IEM’s conclusion, it’s all over: “Political prediction markets suggest that the outcome of next week's congressional elections is settled, with Republicans taking control of the House and Democrats slightly favored to hold onto a majority of sorts in the Senate,” Boyle writes.

“That forecast follows the current conventional wisdom. The interesting part is how the markets arrive at that conclusion: Rather than relying on polls of registered or likely voters, the markets render their judgment based on real-money bets from hundreds of traders.”

Boyle lays out the background: “For more than 20 years, the Iowa Electronic Markets have let Internet users buy and sell ‘shares’ in political propositions -- for example, RH_NRS10 in the chart above stands for the proposition that Republicans will control the House and non-Republicans (Democrats and independents) will hang onto a Senate majority. You could buy into that proposition today at around 73 cents a share. If that's the way the election turns out, you receive $1 per share. If the outcome is different, you get zip. Nada. Nothing.

“The IEM has special dispensation from the Securities and Exchange Commission to run this kind of operation because it's regarded as a University of Iowa research project with the purpose of studying how real-money behavior plays out in non-traditional markets. ...”

Boyle also breaks down where the shares have been trading lately:

“Today, the average share prices on the IEM are 72.6 cents for a Republican House and a Democratic Senate; 15.3 cents for a GOP sweep; 12 cents for a Democratic sweep; and 0.2 cents for a Democratic House and Republican Senate. Just in the past couple of days, there's been a significant uptick in the Democratic-sweep share price, perhaps due to reports about Dem-friendly trends in early voting. Someone who bought the NRH_NRS10 stock at 8.3 cents a share could have made a 44 percent profit in just a couple of days, even if the Democrats tank next week.”

But while the IEM and other proposition futures markets are entirely legal, their conclusions aren’t any more substantive, no more illuminating about the mood of the country, than a simple garden-variety bet on who’ll win based on who’s winning (or who seems to be winning) at a given moment. In that respect, it’s not much more than entertainment; they should make it a game at the casino down the interstate from where you live.

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That’s partly because of a wide universe of traders, investors — you and me and everyone we pass on the street. Real-money bets from traders around the country may be a benefit in terms of generating the funding sources needed to make such predictive modeling possible, certainly diverting, and maybe even lucrative. But without drilling down into the identity of those traders, such wide-open political futures have to yield questionable forecasts.

It’s a given of regression analysis — the cornerstone of modern statistics — that the sample should be representative of a wider population for any meaningful prediction. “A basic condition in almost all inferential statistics is that a set of data constitutes a random sample from a given homogeneous population,” says Hossein Arsham, a leading professor in business statistics, decision science and systems simulation at the University of Baltimore.

By that yardstick, any measure of the day-by-day trend of one proposition over another would seem to be compromised from the start. There’s no way, apparently, of knowing or caring if IEM traders are registered or likely voters, Democratic or Republican voters, women or undecideds, independents or Tea Partiers; without that basic information, such an election forecast amounts to a wish list of undifferentiated millions, a measure that may or may not have any relation to reality as a barometer of expectation.

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IEM traders are as likely to be nonvoters as voters; as likely to be ordinary registered Americans with skin in the game as deep-pocketed political pros looking to tweak their candidates’ share prices (a variation on Wall Street insider trading, but given the impact real and imagined of the Citizens United v. FEC decision, entirely possible: What’s to prevent an offshore entity secretly owned by a major conglomerate or a Koch brothers-style cabal from buying up shares in one proposition or another, manipulating the price, driving it higher not on the basis of public sentiment but on the power of corporate cash?).

Without some idea of who the universe of traders is composed of, or what percentage of those traders who say they intend to vote, what‘s the prediction based on in the first place? If a nonvoter (or hundreds of them) buys lots of shares in the proposition that the GOP takes the House, other traders will be buying into that proposition based, in part, of the feelings of that nonvoter — someone whose interest in the election outcome is purely financial, someone whose ability to affect the election doesn't exist.

It’s an impure, incomplete sample of the public, like polls that rely on hardline telephone contacts with respondents but fail to account for a growing universe of cell-phone users. It fails to make a necessary distinction between nonvoters and voters — between those betting on the outcome and those who’re investing in the outcome.

Rhode Island puts history on the ballot

Next Tuesday, Rhode Island voters will decide whether to shorten the state's official name from "State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations" to "State of Rhode Island," out of a desire by some citizens' groups and state lawmakers to erase what they see as a blemish from its formal name.

Unlike so many of the hotly debated issues coming before U.S. voters on Nov. 2, stances on the proposed amendment to the Title, Preamble and Section 3 of Article III of the Rhode Island Constitution don't conveniently break down along party lines. Democrats both support and oppose the measure.

State Rep. Joseph Almeida, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, believes that making a change will reflect the evolution of Rhode Island and be a candid admission of the state's past. "It's high time for us to recognize that slavery happened on plantations in Rhode Island, and decide that we don't want that chapter of our history to be a proud part of our name," Almeida told the Associated Press last year.

Read more at The Root

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Debating a merger for Memphis

A briskly-debated referendum seeking voter approval of consolidation of the city of Memphis and neighboring Shelby County as a way to streamline regional government and increase competition is, according to polls, doomed to failure in the Nov. 2 election.

The measure, supported by business leaders but opposed by citizens, has been seen by Memphis residents as a dilution of the city's influence, since Memphis city government would be absorbed into the county government under the proposal.

Proponents of consolidation cite the increased efficiencies of government, and blame consolidation opponents as mossbacks doing all they can to keep the region from growing.

Shelby County was the object of two previous consolidation efforts, in 1962 and 1971, years after the state's "dual majorities" rule required two votes -- a polling of Memphis residents and a vote of country residents outside Memphis -- to achieve a metro consolidation.

For some of the city's 415,000 African-American residents, 62 percent of all Memphians, consolidation efforts have a racial undertone. But the issue doesn't conveniently break down along racial and ethnic lines of pro and con. Black business groups are some of the more ardent supporters of consolidation envisioning bottom-line benefits to the region, despite the just-as-strong opposition of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP.

It may be a sign of the times: A stagnant national economy and concerns about diminished American competitiveness have made government efficiency a watchword of the midterm campaign season. Talking points of candidates have focused on bloat and waste in governments from the statehouse to Washington. The consolidation measure plays strongly to businesses' drive toward achieving that bottom-line efficiency.

Read the rest at theGrio
Image credit: Memphis skyline: Tennessee Department of Tourism Development.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Obama goes on defensive offense

Maybe you’ve seen it — the president hasn’t been himself lately. The man known as Barack Obama, whom we elected about two years ago, has decided to forgo one of the more public perks of the presidency of the United States. Recently, the presidential seal's gone missing from that imposing portable gray lectern that accompanies him everywhere, the one he’s been speaking behind recently more like a campaigner than a U.S. president.

It’s stagecraft made conspicuous by an absence; the disappearing presidential emblem makes a statement about President Obama’s own plummeting polling favorables — First Lady Michelle Obama’s got higher numbers right now — and the anticipated misfortunes of the Democratic Party in the Nov. 2 election.

Obama’s in shirtsleeves campaign mode now, having finished a cross-country sprint in support of Democratic candidates in states thought to be in play. Since Oct. 7 he's visited eight states, from Florida to Washington, in a national circuit that rivals anything he did during his own presidential campaign. He crisscrossed Ohio on Sunday in the company of … First Lady Michelle Obama, stumping for Gov. Ted Strickland — a day after attending a rally for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

The Hill reported that President Obama “will likely add events between Oct. 25, when Obama travels to Rhode Island for a DCCC event, and the Nov. 2 elections.”

It's generally agreed that all this frequent flying is necessary. “He’s not playing offense here, he’s playing extreme defense,” said Howard Fineman of The Huffington Post on Oct. 13, on MSNBC. But some of Obama’s more recent statements from the stump have been anything but defensive.

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"I told you during the campaign it was going to be hard," he said at a campaign rally on Wednesday at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. "Some of you didn't believe me. This is a big messy democracy and the special interests won't go down without a fight and sometimes it can wear you down."

Obama asked supporters to "defy the conventional wisdom" on Nov. 2 by electing Democrat John Kitzhaber, battling a close contest for his old job as governor against his Republican challenger, The Oregonian reported. "If everybody shows up who voted in 2008, John is going to win this election," Obama said at the overflow event.

On Thursday, in a Seattle backyard, Obama refined his pitch to the women voters he said (in Reuters’ paraphrase) “now constituted half the U.S. workforce and [are] responsible for more than half the income of middle-class families.”

“How well women do will help determine how well our families are doing as a whole," Obama said before heading across town, to get a crowd at the University of Washington all Fired Up®.

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And like any good coach whose team is down late in the fourth quarter, Obama’s brought in the big weapon, arguably the most formidable rhetorical weapon in the Democratic arsenal: Bill Clinton.

"To hear the Republicans tell it, from the second President Obama took his hand off the Bible taking the oath of office, everything that happened after that was his fault," Clinton said last week at a campaign rally in Everett, Wash., for Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington state senator in a close fight with perennial candidate Dino Rossi. "I'd like to see any of you get behind a locomotive going straight downhill at 200 miles an hour and stop it in 10 seconds."

As reported by The Washington Post, Clinton distilled the Republican case to the American public: "I know you're angry. I know you're scared. . . . So let's make this a referendum on everything that's bothering you about life right now - take everything that's not working right now and put Patty Murray's face on it and make it a referendum."

"It is not a referendum,” Clinton said. “It. Is. A. Choice."

In these two quotes you get the gist of Bill Clinton’s greatest benefit to the Democrats in general and to President Obama in particular: his ability to boil down the breadth of kitchen-table issues important to American voters to something accessible, avuncular, easy to get the mind around without the sometimes lofty, professorial approach the president has employed to communicate the same information. Clinton’s folks in a way that Obama’s not.

It’s fair to say, too, that, having been out of office for almost 10 years, Clinton can easily shoot from the hip as a private citizen (if a very public one). But he’s an undeniable and necessary force of optimism in this midterm season. Whether he’s got an impact to be multiplied remains to be seen.

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On Oct. 17, before a crowd of about 35,000 Sunday night on the campus of Ohio State University, Obama achieved some of Clinton’s on-point distillation, and his own campaign-tested ability to cut to the chase.

"The biggest mistake we can make, Ohio, is to go back to the very same policies that caused all this hurt in the first place," he said. "The other side is counting on all of you having amnesia."

That last part’s debatable. The Republicans aren’t counting on Democratic amnesia; with so much of their strategy focused on minimizing Election Day turnout, they’re counting to nothing less than existential indifference — voters not voting at all. The current all-hands-on-deck strategy by the Democrats is a concerted effort, if one mounted a little late, to turn that around.

Image credits: Obama: Randy L. Rasmussen, The Oregonian. Obama in Seattle: Jim Bates/The Seattle Times. Bill Clinton and Gavin Newsome: via The Washington Post.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Midterm burn rate 2010

Back in the day of the 2008 presidential campaign, when the field (or was it the herd?) of Republican candidates was starting to thin, much was rightly made of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his attempt to hurl enough of his considerable fortune at the wall of the electorate, the better to secure the nomination as the GOP standard-bearer. When Romney finally packed it in, in February 2008, he had spent (conservatively) about $40 million of his own coin to lock down the votes of 157 delegates — a burn rate of cash that amounted to $254,777 per delegate in a losing effort.

Fast forward to 2010. We can thank The Huffington Post for showing us, in a comprehensive way, just how much of a piker Mitt Romney was when it comes to self-financing a campaign. Earlier this week in a tidy little slideshow, HuffPost surveyed the prospects of success for some of the midterm campaign’s more profligate torchers of cash. We don’t know what the election results will be; that’s conjecture until Nov. 2. But for some candidates thought to be on the bubble — especially as the Democrats have surged in recent weeks — Election Day may bring the poorest returns on investment in the history of midterm American politics.

Some of the notables:

Meg Whitman: The former eBay chieftain and current contender for the California governor’s chair has so far spent more than $140 million — $40 million in the last three months — to pursue a campaign that analysts are saying is likely to end in defeat. Whitman has been trailing former California Gov. Jerry Brown in recent polls, by a little or a lot. But the $140+ million price tag suggests she’ll stop at nothing to win the office of governor — a job that pays about $212,000 a year, the kind of chump change Whitman’s likely to find in the couch cushions at home.

Many Californians, wherever they are with or against Whitman on the issues, have a real deep and abiding problem with what seems to be a tweak on an eBay transaction, and Whitman trying to be the highest bidder. ThankGodhesgone, commenting at HuffPost, is confused: “I'm trying to digest that someone would spend $140 million of their own money to win an election, especially since for 40+ years, she was so disinterested in politics that she didn't even register to vote. Can't be the salary. So why does Meg want the job so badly?”

Carl Paladino: Oh Paladino, Paladino, where do you roam? The millionaire whackjob from Buffalo, N.Y. reportedly injected $10 million of his own money into his New York gubernatorial bid against state attorney general Andrew Cuomo. In September, Celeste Katz of the New York Daily News reported Paladino’s cash flow was down as of his 11-day pre-primary campaign filing.

According to Katz, “Paladino started the period with $150,000 on hand. He took in about $113,000 in contributions, including $22,675 from corporations, and loaned himself $220,000 for a total of $333,624.47 cash in and $484,379.31 cash out, leaving him with the red ink.”

Paladino’s almost certainly dipped into his own till since then. But when this is over, and given his appetite for embarrassing bluster, cheap political theatrics and X-rated e-mail, and Cuomo’s comfortable lead in the governor’s race, Mad Carl will have moved his own mountains of Benjamin Franklins into the furnace with a wheelbarrow, with precious little to show for it.

Linda McMahon: The former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment promised to spend $50 million on her senatorial campaign against Connecticut attorney General Richard Blumenthal. Her insurgent bid for Chris Dodd’s soon-to-be-vacant seat has released campaign ads with all the slickness and craft of something with $50 million behind it. She’s made some solid points about Blumenthal’s character evidenced by fabrications in his Vietnam-era biography. But to go by recent polls, McMahon may well be emptying her wallet into the shredder too.

A recent Quinnipiac University statewide poll had Blumenthal widening his lead over McMahon, “as some suggest the barrage of advertising unleashed by Republican Linda McMahon may have annoyed potential voters as much as persuaded them,” The Connecticut Post reported Oct. 14.

The poll shows Blumenthal leading McMahon by 54 percent to 43 percent. That’s an increase from a Sept. 28 Quinnipiac survey, when Blumenthal’s bulge was just 3 percentage points, the Post reported.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Democrats’ demise: Greatly exaggerated?

We’ve been hearing it for months now from the hierophants of the punditburo: The Democrats are dead meat in this midterm election cycle. Toast, finished, over, nothing more or less than the walking dead. To go by most of the emerging prognostications, the Republicans waiting to seize control of the House and/or the Senate can walk in after the Democrats pack it in.

But a trend that’s been developing through much of the country over the years, and which is coming to a head this election, suggests something else at work. It's a given that a key to Democrats minimizing their expected losses in Congress will be getting out the vote. This election, getting the vote out may be a matter of getting voters to mail the vote in.

This November, 32 states will permit absentee voting, with ballots sent to voters by mail weeks before the election. It’s not just for overseas vacationers anymore. Increasingly, absentee ballots are used by citizens of all stripes. California, Florida, Ohio and Georgia actually offer voters the dual option of mail-in voting and polling places where people can vote; Washington state went absentee with all voting, in local elections and state races, in February 2009.

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There’s no guarantee that early voting automatically works to the Democrats’ favor. Mark Matthews, a political reporter for KGO-TV in San Francisco, reported Oct. 15 that in California’s Contra Costa County, “the early absentee returns have historically been Democratic but not this year.”

"Right now the Republicans are returning their ballots at a higher rate than the Democrats, which is unusual, it goes against what I've been watching for 10 years," said Contra Costa County Clerk Steve Weir, to KGO.

But elsewhere in the country, it’s a different story. Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University, reported in the Oct. 14 Huffington Post that early voting in Ohio was especially solid in two Democratic strongholds, Cuyahoga and Franklin counties. McDonald reports that more than 112,000 votes had already been cast in those areas, with two weeks before the Nov. 2 date.

McDonald notes:

“That these votes are being banked in high Democratic areas is likely welcome news for statewide Democratic candidates, like Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland who is locked in a tight battle with Republican candidate John Kasich.

For pollsters conducting surveys in Ohio, these high levels of early voting will force them to modify their likely voter modeling to account for people who have already voted. Finally, early voting in these counties raises a good question how the much-discussed enthusiasm gap towards Republicans will actually play out when it comes to voting.”

McDonald goes on to note that in Iowa, “42% of the 119,430 early voters in Iowa are registered Democrats compared with 29% registered as Republican. A county-by-county analysis shows registered Democrats in Iowa returning their mail ballots at a higher rate than Republicans.”

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There’s another reason that doomsayers might want to hold off writing the seating chart for the Democrats’ execution. Absentee balloting, and the growth of its popularity nationwide, benefit minority voters — historically more likely to be Democratic than not — by all but eliminating the more pernicious aspects of American politics they’ve had to put up with for generations.

With absentee balloting becoming the new normal, just-cast ballots mysteriously lost in transit, voting machine glitches, voter intimidation (at the polls or on the way there) and other calculated anomalies historically proven or suspected in previous elections become, effectively, a thing of the past.

That works to the advantage of the Democratic Party, whose ranks of black and Latino voters have every reason to celebrate (with a righteous relish) that solution to potential disenfranchisement by casting the ballot that’s already sitting on the kitchen table.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Disasters in waiting

Even for progressives and others of generally Democratic political leanings, it’s hard not to cough up a healthy shot of schadenfreude for the tragic and possibly doomed senatorial campaign of Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Attorney General, who is seeking the Senate seat of the retiring Christopher Dodd.

Blumenthal, the Democrat facing former World Wrestling Entertainment co-founder and current multimillionaire Linda McMahon, his challenger, has dealt his own campaign a maybe mortal blow by violating two of the rules — laws — of modern American politics: (1) Don’t pretend to be someone, something or somewhere you’re not; and (2) if you violate (1), don’t get caught.

Blumenthal has by most measures had a solid career as the Nutmeg State’s attorney general, but for years now he’s held fast to a biography that’s now his undoing. A former Marine Corps Reservist during the Vietnam War era, Blumenthal is now a victim of his own fabulist tendencies. These didn’t happen on the spur of the moment; they first began years ago, before he began his 19-year run as Connecticut AG, back when he told people, time and again, that he was a Vietnam veteran. When he never was.

For decades now Blumenthal has claimed to have borne the battle in the country’s longest war before the current quagmire in Afghanistan. He made his service there the stuff of campaign literature, stump speeches and the free-floating narrative of his résumé, when in truth he served as a Marine Corps Reserve administrator stateside, never getting closer to Vietnam than when he looked at a map of the country in a world atlas.

Who makes up shit like that? Such high-profile self-reinvention might be forgivable once or twice; we might have overlooked it as the imagined memory of somebody who saw “Platoon” or “Apocalypse Now” twice too often. For someone making a livelihood at the public trough? After almost 20 years? Not so much.

McMahon, the Republican in the contest, isn’t having it. The former WWE CEO has made Blumenthal’s fiction the focal point for much of her own campaign. It’s debatable whether McMahon, an absolute political neophyte more at home in the world of turnbuckles and tights, would have had any traction in this bizzarro political season at all, if not for Blumenthal. As it is now, she’s kept the senate race closer than it should be, considering Blumenthal's long incumbency. This race will hinge on how the people of Connecticut will look the other way: forgiving Blumenthal’s imaginary Rambo past, or forgiving McMahon’s improbable entry into politics and her lack of qualifications for this kind of wrestling. Two out of three falls wins.

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Carl Paladino would probably love to reinvent himself right about now. The flamboyantly idiotic Republican millionaire developer thug from Buffalo, N.Y., who decided to waste X millions of his own fortune on a disastrous run for the governorship of New York, apparently has a future in adult entertainment. The WNY Media Web site has discovered, and dutifully released, several sexually graphic e-mails disseminated by Paladino to close friends and advisers. See them here; just make sure the kids are asleep.

This is just the latest embarrassment for Paladino, whose blustery, streetwise style made him until recently a darling of the Tea Party. His love of communicating by e-mail has yielded some other gems: an e-mail titled "Proof the Irish discovered Africa" with a video of monkeys dancing a jig that would give Michael Flatley pause; an e-mailed video of an African tribesman dancing entitled "Obama Inauguration Rehearsal"; an adult video involving a woman and a horse; and other videos depicting various forms of sexual hydraulics.

And who can forget Mad Carl’s foray into pugilism? Last week, of course, Paladino was filmed in a rhetorical dustup with Fred Decker, state editor and political reporter for The New York Post, telling Decker he would “take you out,” adopting the cheap pulp-novel argot of a wannabe Soprano.

The people of New York are not likely to be amused. Paladino’s challenger, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, enjoys a very comfortable double-digit lead two weeks and change before the election. At this point, Cuomo would have to be discovered selling crack in Times Square at high noon to lose this race. Start spreading the news: Son Follows Father to Governor’s Chair in Albany.

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She’s got a good grasp of the soundbite esthetic, the telling rhetorical jab delivered in 20 seconds or less. She knows the medium of television and, by extension, the power of publicity. But foolishness past and present — typified by a lackluster debate performance on Wednesday night — has revealed the telegenic Christine O’Donnell to be, finally, utterly, clueless. To call her dumb as a bag of rocks is to invite a lawsuit from the Bag of Rocks Anti-Defamation League.

Wednesday night may have been the capstone of her less than brilliant career in the public eye. In her third try for a Senate seat in the state of Delaware, the Repubican O’Donnell has underwhelmed, never more so than in the debate with challenger, Democrat Chris Coons.

O'Donnell adopted the GOP/Tea Party line in her opposition to activist judges, citing the recent decision by a U.S. District Court judge in California to suspend enforcement of the Don't Ask Don't Tell, which bars gays and lesbians from serving this country in the military. But when the moderators pressed her for answers requiring her to think on her feet, there was trouble.

The deer-in-the-headlights moment occurred when Nancy Karibjanian of Delaware First Media asked O’Donnell to name a recent Supreme Court decision she disagreed with — just one — and Old Christine couldn’t answer the bell:

KARIBJANIAN: What opinions, of late, that have come from our high court, do you most object to?

O'DONNELL: Oh, gosh. Um, give me a specific one. I'm sorry.

KARIBJANIAN: Actually, I can't, because I need you to tell me which ones you object to.

O'DONNELL: Um, I'm very sorry, right off the top of my head, I know that there are a lot, but I'll put it up on my website, I promise you.

It got worse for Sarah Palin 1.5. When co-moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN pressed O’Donnell on her toweringly original 1998 observation that evolution “is a myth,” O’Donnell went all states’ rights on us. "That should be decided on the local community," she said.

Then O’Donnell belched up a soundbite for the ages, one likely to stay with her until the election. In the one pre-election forum where a candidate’s opinion absolutely matters, O’Donnell said, "What I believe is irrelevant, because what I will support in Washington, D.C. is the ability for the local school system to decide what is taught in their classrooms."

What I believe is irrelevant. Priceless. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised given what Greg Sargent at The Plum Line reported Thursday. Seems that O’Donnell is being advised by Randy Scheunemann, former foreign policy adviser for the McCain-Palin 2008 presidential campaign. “Blind leading the blind” doesn’t quite do that tandem any justice.

Some in the media have shorthanded the almost-daily cratering of O’Donnell’s campaign with the “-gate” suffix, and she’s provided them with plenty of ammunition: Witchgate begat Weird Sciencegate (O’Donnell asserting that scientists have implanted human brains in mice) begat Résumégate (with O’Donnell forced to defend autobiographical cockups on the LinkedIn and ZoomInfo professional-profile Web sites).

It’s just a matter of time before the good people of Delaware realize what they’re truly dealing with, what they’re likely to end on Nov. 2: Christinegate.

That’s when the likely political demise of these three stooges bears out the wisdom of David Corn of Mother Jones: “Politicians tend to get the scandals they deserve.”

Image credits: Blumenthal: Sage Ross, republished under GNU Free Documentation License, version 1.2 or later. Paladino: Via The Huffington Post. O'Donnell: The Associated Press.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Making Some Needed Big Changes

Just when you think you know somebody, they go switching things up and making changes. Whether they’re good changes, or welcome changes, is always the wild card. The country wanted a change in November 2008, and made one; the jury’s out on how well that’s going.

But for, the news Web site joint venture owned by NBC Universal and Microsoft, a potentially seismic shift is being considered for the most indelible, accessible factor in a Web site’s relationship with the public: its name.

The New York Times reported Oct. 6 that NBC Uni and Microsoft are in “high-level talks” about a new name for the Web site that’s the third most popular news Web site in the United States, behind Yahoo! and

“The two parents have not yet agreed on what to call the site,” The Times’ Brian Stelter reported. “But according to internal memorandums obtained by The New York Times this week, the parents have concluded that the brand known as, a strictly objective news site, is widely confused with MSNBC, the cable television channel that has taken a strongly liberal bent in recent years.”

It would be less of a challenge for to make this switch if not for the fact that, after 14 years with that moniker, the most immediate point of identification for its 50 million users is the name they’ve gotten accustomed to. There’s big risk involved with such a change.

Just like with a TV show that finds its audience comfortable with watching it at a certain date and time, making a switch runs the risk of alienating people who’re used to the familiar — even if the familiar hasn’t changed anything but where it is.

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The rationale for the change seems to make sense on paper. As a former news editor, reporter and channel producer for, I can testify to the ways that was often perceived as the little brother to MSNBC — this despite the fact of their joint provenance (they were founded together in 1996 by NBC and Microsoft), the greater speed the Web site usually employed in breaking-news stories, and the greater newsgathering versatility brought to bear by dotcom’s being a 24/7/365 live operation — unlike MSNBC, then and now.

Over the years, made the most of the in-the-shadows relationship; one of the most journalistically productive alliances in recent years was the tie-up between msnbc and MSNBC in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Given what happened in New Orleans those terrible days, you hesitate to use the phrase “total immersion” to describe news coverage.

But in this case it was true. The relentless use of the synergies between online and cable, the sharing of newsgathering resources and a common sense of journalism as nothing less than national mission, yielded exhaustive, revelatory and ultimately award-winning coverage of that seminal American event.

Other ways of integrating little m and Big M took place over the years; there was a brief flirtation with making reporting from little m's writers and editors part of the regular Big M on-air news mix.

The same kind of newsgathering synergy was evident earlier tonight, as little m and Big M jointly covered the (at this hour still ongoing) rescue of the 33 Chilean miners: Big M giving people the big picture on cable, little m offering online users a running textual account of the event (with video from Big M).

But little m has long had its own editorial and advertising infrastructure; the current consideration of a new name makes public, in a maybe unprecedented way, just how much little m wants an amicable divorce from Big M for what seem to be irreconcilable differences.

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Politics drives so much of our identity these days; it just makes sense that politics would divide a Janus-like news entity with one foot in each of the two camps of the present and the future of communications.

Since 9/11, MSNBC has philosophically tacked to what it saw as the prevailing political wind, from right to left, restyling itself numerous times in the process. For the most part, msnbc has navigated the waters of the last eight years with fewer concessions to the perceived political mood.

With fewer resources earmarked for byline reporting indigenous to the Web site, little m used relatively impartial wire stories from the Associated Press and Reuters, and content from other external partners, for much of its daily informational diet. One reason, no doubt, why Charlie Tillinghast, the president of, called the Web site an “impartial news product” in one of the memos.

In the years since 9/11, Big M has made an inconsistent but steady shift to the political left, with hosts from Phil Donahue to Chris Matthews to Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell (the guy on the left) at the helm of programs that have been unabashedly progressive in their perspectives.

Tillinghast, in one of the memos accessed by The Times, said, “Both strategies are fine, but naming them the same thing is brand insanity.”

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This is no hastily-hatched plan. The Times reports that discussions and branding research have been going for months. “Consensus in this case is a tall order,” Tillinghast wrote in one of the memos.

According to The Times’ understanding of the memos, what’s being considered is the current little m URL being used to host an independent promotional Web site for Big M programming. The current Web site would move to a new URL. One of the names considered for little m is (which currently redirects to but other entirely new names are also in play, according to the Times’ reading.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Angle of decline

The media’s pre-postmortem march for the Democrats continues; the latest scenarios are all but calling on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to hand over the gavel to House Minority Leader and tanning enthusiast John Boehner right now. The expectation is for the Republicans to ascend to power in Congress — if not control of Congress outright — in about 23 days.

But the cracks we’ve always suspected were there in the alliance between the Republican Party and its hysteric renegade offshoot, the Tea Party movement, are making themselves really obvious. The splits  reveal the consequences of some ugly, untoward aspects of Tea Party identity the mainstream Republican Party wants nothing to do with — even while that mainstream party has been shotgun-weddinged into a relationship with the malcontents, mountebanks and straight-up fools that could be the GOP’s undoing.

The takeaway: While the Dems can count on some losses this November, the jury is still out on whether the drubbing will be as bad as the punditburo assumes. But the GOP is hard-pressed to explain how its Hydra-headed political identity (heir to the legacy of the Bush administration that got us here) is preferable to the more single-minded identity of the Democrats in Congress.

The current existential disarray of the Republican Party is hardly a strong selling point to independent voters, and it’s no doubt giving mainstream Republicans fits as they sort out — state by state, a Carl Paladino here, a Rand Paul there — exactly what the hell it means to even be a Republican these days (besides screaming for tax cuts).

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Maybe the best example of how the GOP’s latent midterm-dynastic visions could come-a-cropper is the toweringly unhinged, panoramically unqualified Tea Party darling Sharron Angle, who is challenging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for the senate seat in Nevada.

Sam Stein of The Huffington Post reported Friday that former Krispy Kreme enthusiast and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had defended Reid, the Democrat, on Thursday night from outrageous charges made by Angle.

Huckabee, whose name has been bruited on GOP short lists and straw polls for the White House derby in 2012, turned up Thursday on Fox News's “Hannity” program, where he was asked to review some of the recent TV ads being aired in hot congressional districts.

One of the clips shown — attacking Reid for backing the stimulus and government services for undocumented immigrations, and for voting “to use taxpayer dollars to pay for Viagra for convicted child molesters and sex offenders” — was the work of the Angle campaign.

“Now in fairness to Harry Reid, and you will find this rare, a vote like that where you say he voted to give Viagra,” Huckabee said. “Some of these bills have all these little provisions. He may be unaware that that was in the bill.”

“He should read the bill,” Hannity said.

“I understand,” Huckabee said. “But this a classic example. It is good politics. It is great politics. But it is one of those instances where it sounds like he said ‘Yes, there is a bill that is going to provide Viagra.’ And that was the primary purpose of the bill... [An ad like that] doesn't always work.”

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HuffPost’s Stein digs deeper: “The bill in question was not a bill at all. It was an amendment offered by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in an effort to trip up health care reform. The Oklahoma Republican introduced the most politically palatable, non-objectionable piece of legislation in hopes that Democrats would relent, pass it, and change the content of the health care law they were hoping to pass through reconciliation. If Democrats didn't bite, the GOP would have ammo for the type of attack ad that Angle has now aired. Only [Angle] got the details wrong. Coburn's amendment didn't provide taxpayer funds for Viagra; it prevented sexual predators from being able to use government subsidies or money to buy the drug (and other ED pills).”

Stein continues: “Huckabee, in the end, was restrained in his effort to balance out the ad’s allegations. What mattered, he was saying, was not that the charge was true (he had no clue if it was or wasn’t), merely that it was believable. But his pushback against Hannity's enthusiasm for the spot was noticeable and fairly rare for the show where the exchange took place.”

What might seem so much in-the-weeds analysis really tells the story of the split between the GOP and the Teas; Huckabee put it in a context of political discourse, but down on the street there’s real disagreement on the distinctions between the one and the other. But both of them are coming to grips with the fact that, on Nov. 2, ballots across America will include the letters “D” and “R,” without a “T” in sight.

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The other big issue for Angle of Nevada is more local, and therefore a lot more problematic. Elyse Siegel, also of the Huffington Post, reported Friday on another unlikely ally of Harry Reid, held by many Republicans (and some Nevada Democrats) to be in league with Satan.

Siegel reported that Bill Raggio, the Nevada state senator “considered to be one of the most influential Republican lawmakers in the Silver State,” on Thursday backed Reid for reelection, completely dissing Angle over “her record of being totally ineffective as a four-term assemblywomen, her inability or unwillingness to work with others, even within her own party, and her extreme positions on issues such as Medicare, social security, education, veterans affairs and many others.”

Monday, October 4, 2010

Echo chambers and glass houses

A phrase that gets a fair workout these days (and has since before the 2008 presidential election) is “echo chamber,” describing the insular, structurally reflective phenomenon of media figures, journalists, analysts and other professional observers of our politics talking among themselves, reinforcing their respective positions in a space so limited, their ideas echo (for what feels like forever).

The media’s infatuation with itself was proven again on Friday when, in an amen chorus that reflects exactly what an echo chamber is, news outlets reported that House Minority Leader and tanning enthusiast John Boehner may have been concealing an affair. Or may not have been.

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Nick Wing of the Huffington Post wrote on Sept. 24 about how the day before, Mike Stark, an activist and blogger ( ambushed Boehner at an impromptu news conference to ask the man who would be Speaker of the House to comment about speculation that he was reportedly about to be the centerpiece of a coming story on an affair in The New York Times.

"Speaker Boehner, have you been sleeping with Lisbeth Lyons, the lobbyist for the American Printing Association?" Stark asks. Boehner, as you might expect, had no comment.

Running with the ball down the field before the coin toss even happened, the New York Post — a tentacle of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation — decided that a vast liberal conspiracy was underfoot.

“Sources say the Times is looking for the right time to drop the story in October to sway the election, similar to how the Times reported during the 2008 presidential campaign on an alleged John McCain affair that supposedly had taken place many years before and that was flatly denied by the woman in question,” the paper reported on its Page Six.

Lyons later told the Post that the rumors were nothing more. "As you can imagine, I was stunned by such a question," Lyons told the Post. "I found it to be highly insulting, particularly as a female political professional, as well as unfounded.”

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First of all, it’s hard to imagine The New York Times being so hamfisted about deliberately timing a potentially ruinous story to an election. As The Post mentioned, the Times got blowback for doing something similar to this in the runup to the 2008 election, when The Times published a long piece on McCain, juxtaposing the Arizona senator with lobbyist Vicki Iseman in ways that breathlessly suggested (but never proved) an illicit relationship was in the works.

Thinking4 at HuffPost: “If said story is run in the NYT, it will be a hoot. The family values party seems to have a problem with their family values. The umbrage they have voiced about Dems, while Newt, Ensign, Vitter and others have been less than faithful is too rich. It would be best if the GOP avoided talking about others while their own houses are made of glass.”

But SlackMartian at HuffPost immediately grasps the incestuous nature of all this in terms of the media: “I love when a reporter reports on a reporter who's writing about what another reporter might write about.”

The coziness of the intra-media conversation makes this kind of embarrassment possible: Even though nothing’s been confirmed about what The Times plans to publish, the New York Post, on the strength of one blogger’s inquiry, ran with the nonstory of a reporter asking a politician a question — deciding (apparently on the basis of the question alone) this was evidence of an election-eve left-wing conspiracy.

It’s not even the rumors driving the story in this case, it’s the question about the rumor. That’s a shaky platform to build anything resembling journalism, even the unreasonable facsimile thereof that the New York Post has trafficked in for years.

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This is part of the price we willingly pay for our democracy; this is the real but necessary danger of life in a time when information and misinformation are as ubiquitous and immediate as the air we need to breathe. A reporter reports on a reporter who's writing about what another reporter might write about, and a newspaper decides it’s all a conspiracy of reporters. The results of this circular illogic (Joseph Heller, where are you now we need you?) come to occupy the same level of media saturation, demand the same media oxygen as a policy statement from the White House.

That’s the working reality of the new media environment, and in the most informationally democratic age in human history, let a thousand thousand thousand voices bloom. But that wide-open reality yields a wide-open risk: a media ecosystem that’s apparently less discriminating in its standards by virtue of being bigger in its size.

The plurality of voices in the 21st-century public square at every level, from traditional media to social media, is growing so fast; the baseline of discourse is often composed of the utterly banal; the everyday took-the-dog-for-a-walk tweet forms so much of what we consume informationally that, placed in a journalistic context, reporters have come to think everything is fair game, from solid sources willing to go on the record with quotes and docs to the entirely unsubstantiated, rumors of rumors spoken from behind the hand.

Combine the natural competitive spirit of working journalists with something else — the hyper-competitive atmosphere of a news hierarchy that’s reconfiguring at online speed — and you get reporters starting to reach for stories, for angles, for something, for anything to obey what’s frankly long been the prime directive for online news: Stoke the furnace. Feed the Beast.

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That’s why you get nonstory stories like the Boehner goof-up. That’s why you get quasi-events like part of the just-released Gallup Poll that discovered — hope you’re sitting down — President Obama continues to enjoy overwhelmingly strong support among African Americans, relative to the rest of the country.

This survey deserved to be covered as news, especially considering it was part of a wider sampling of opinions of the president. But it was the titillating racial angle, one part of a broader demographic study, that got newspeople salivating. Cable journalists jumped on it, not giving it the play it really deserved: down on the home page, with less of the fanfare and chin-pulling and drumroll it got on the cable shows — less slicing and dicing of what was, at the end of the day, another expression of the same identity-driven behavior that is our collective national birthright.

What it really was was a chance for some of the cable-show hosts to piss from a great height about something that’s not so much news as it is truism, to weigh in with perspectives that (once you heard them) indicated just how little there was to the survey in the first place. The coverage of this part of one day's Gallup polling felt obligatory; it didn’t break any new ground; it didn’t even show us anything on the old ground that we didn’t already know was there.

But the collective mindset kicked in; by some unspoken but obvious acclimation, the cable nets reported the same thing, knitting their brows about this weighty matter that wasn’t nearly as weighty as advertised.

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This reflects how the echo chamber of 2010 has become more echo and less chamber. The space has been downsized; there’s less room for the echo to reverberate in, with less time between the sound and its reflection — between the news and its analysis by a small number of the same familiar analysts with the same political perspectives.

With less time between the news itself and attempts to make sense of it, in a ravenous 24/7 news cycle, second thoughts are a luxury of the analog age. So nonstories become stories. And polls that tell us what we already know are released and analyzed, and given more play than they merit.

The 2010 echo chamber vis-à-vis politics is more incestuous and self-centered than it’s ever been before. Its tenders need to take Thinking4’s advice, but in a completely different way: there are no glass houses more fragile (and in the Internet age more illusory) than the media’s own. Too much echo in too small a space for too long will bring a glass house down.

Image credits: Times T: The New York Times Company. New York Post logo: The New York Post. 1873 wood engraving: Jules Tavernier and Paul Frenzeny. Obama opinion poll snapshot: Gallup.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A matter of salesmanship

We’re about a month out from the gathering of the right-wing furies we’ve been led to believe amounts to a GOP hurricane set to remake the American political landscape. An onslaught of recent polls (equal parts of Nostradamus and Chicken Little) come to conclusions about the Obama White House and the Democratic Congress, forecasts so resoundingly bad you wonder why they took office in the first place.

The Sept. 28 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll starts the last quarter of the year with dire buzz for Team Obama: Asked about their preference for a majority party in Congress, 46 percent of those favored the Republicans, while 43 percent backed the Democrats (margin of error 3.1 points either way). Other polls have been less charitable to the Democrats’ prospects than that.

But the NBC/WSJ poll flips the script on the GOP’s disaster modeling. According to the survey, most of the country still thinks President Obama isn’t to be held accountable for the condition of the U.S. economy. Some 56 percent think Obama inherited the current economic crisis, compared to 32 percent who believe Obama White House policies are responsible for the situation.

That's a steady decline from January (when 65 percent surveyed said Obama inherited the economy), and from February 2009 (when 84 percent said that). But that decline makes perfect sense; it dovetails with the logical idea that the longer you’re in charge of something, the more it becomes your responsibility. Nothing unusual about that.

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What has been unusual is the way the administration has handled the crisis of perception. Obama and the Democrats have accomplished a lot in 20-odd months, but they’ve largely vacated the front lines of the message wars. The characteristic Obama Zen-master sang-froid hasn’t been a match for the intense, sky-is-falling narrative of the Republicans. As the economy of most Americans stagnates or drops even further, the Democrats have been late to raising their voices to something closer to the fever pitch that may be necessary right now, even if it is distasteful.

The first sales job needed is a pitch to the Democratic base, and there’s evidence that President Obama is on the case, combining campaign rhetoric with tough love.

In the new issue of Rolling Stone, Obama goes all counter-intuitive on us, actually chiding the base of supporters it might be a good idea to mollify. “It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election,” he told the magazine.

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Perversely, this straight talk to progressives, direct and downright confrontational, may be just what’s needed. It calls on Democrats and progressives — the same multiculti mosaic that lifted Obama to power in 2008 — to own up to being Democrats and progressives, and to understand what the president constantly discovers: the world of difference between campaigning and governing.

Some in the blogosphere understand. “Obama has been working on progressive issues during his entire Presidency, [for] which he has received no credit […] from the progressives,” said Noelle Schmitz of the Partisan Pages Web site to Devona Walker recently in TheLoop21.

“Unfortunately we haven’t had enough courageous Democrats to support him in those endeavors. Concessions and compromise has only earned him anger from all sides. Obama isn't Putin, he can't force anyone to do anything ... We need Dems with guts and backbone to stand by him and vote with him to move forward with his agenda.”

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Schmitz grasped one of the more meaningful distinctions between this president and his predecessors:

“(Obama) is unique because unlike other Presidents, he will change his mind when something isn't working, change strategy when it’s not working, say he was wrong ... when he is ... He doesn’t ‘stay the course’ if a tactic isn’t working.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Jay Pharoah, and beyond, at SNL

When the Virginia comedian Jared (Jay Pharoah) Farrow made his debut on NBC’s long-running Saturday Night Live on Sept. 26, he joined the cast of broadcast television’s most enduring comedy franchise; now in its 36th season, SNL’s as much a brand as it is a TV show, one that’s helped break any number of top-shelf stars.

The young comic, not yet 22 years old, jumped right into the mix, wearing the different identity hats that define the show’s repertory format. On Saturday, he appeared as box-office superstar Will Smith on the 'Weekend Update' news segment, and in a sketch portraying Chris Tucker in a sendup of a sequel to the new action film The Expendables.

Pharoah’s name has been all over the Internet in recent weeks, easily found appended in a Google search to the phrase “new black guy.” It’s both a tantalizingly viral evidence of buzz and an impersonal identification that underscores the relative rarity of black actors on the show. Pharoah also joins a show with a contentious history vis-à-vis black comedic talents. With a dearth of black and minority writers on SNL, and an absence of black women, his addition to this iconic fixture of late-night TV is a necessarily wait-and see thing.

Read the rest at The Root

Image credits: Pharoah: via
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