Sunday, January 30, 2011

The wannabe Pharaoh and the will-be future

The 33 dynasties of ancient Egypt were characterized by a smugness of succession; a certain civic ruthlessness; and the ability of most of those god-kings and -queens and their enablers to impart to their minions a sense of the inevitability of the world revolving around them, the few, the elite, the rulers. The succession drama playing out in Egypt now — this minute — may well rewrite the social and geopolitical script of the modern Middle East, and the only stones left to mark the passing of Hosni I may well be those littering the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.

The unrest riveting the attention of the world seemingly erupted with a blinding speed. In five days the 29-year rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been challenged not by court intrigues but by a revolt of the Egyptian people. It’s already way bloody; to this point, more than 100 people have been killed and more than 2,000 wounded or injured. Maybe as many as 10,000 prisoners in Egyptian jails and prisons may be loose. And equally big damage has been done to Egypt’s standing as the bulwark of Arab-state stability in one of the world’s more volatile regions.

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Mubarak has long played the strongman. While he inherited the onerous Emergency Law, which since 1967 has endowed the police with broad powers of arrest and imprisonment without trial, he’s done almost nothing to rescind it (though there was an 18-month period in which it was suspended). He’s been re-elected by majority vote almost automatically. At one point, Mubarak won reelection by having himself nominated by the parliament, then confirmed with no opposition.

It’s as though the citizens of Egypt dropped their votes in a ballot box that concealed a paper shredder under the table.

Bowing to pressure in early 2005, Mubarak sought a change in the Egyptian constitution to permit elections with multiple candidates, but even with that vote, that September, the election machinery remained under his control. Censorship flourished, political prisoners were arrested and jailed by the thousands.

By all the meaningful metrics marking an evolving society, Egypt’s government has been suspected of or responsible for human rights violations and corruption almost panoramic in scope.

According to a November 2010 list of countries researched in a United Nations Human Development Index, Egypt ranks 101th out of 169 countries.

According to a 2010 ranking by Reporters Without Borders, Egyptian media ranks 127th in the world out of 178 in press freedom.

According to the 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, which monitors political corruption around the world, Egypt ranked 98th out of the 178 countries included in the report.

And according to a 2008 World Health Organization report, a staggering 91 percent of Egyptian girls and women have been forced to undergo female genital mutilation.

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It’s all led to an uprising that has grown almost faster than the world’s ability to absorb it. One reason is because of its breadth. “This is a leaderless movement,” said Shibley Telhami, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, on CNN Saturday.

That’s what gives this revolt so much power and resonance among the Egyptian people. The events of the last five days haven’t yet coalesced around one central opposition figure (despite interviews and news-conference comments made against the regime by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who may yet emerge as the player to be named later); they’ve occurred organically among the nation’s everyday people — a collective cry of Enough.

Those people have taken to the streets armed with the social-media weapons of Twitter and Facebook, triangulating their positions in the streets using cell phones with GPS capability, or (once the government took down mobile service) finding like-minded protesters face to face, signaling through the flames.

He could have seen this coming. We should have seen this coming. In power since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in October 1981, Mubarak is just short of 82 years old. The current situation is the stark indicator of a decades-long shortcoming of American vision.

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And it won’t do to drop this turd in President Obama’s lap alone. Previous occupants of the White House should have known that, pending a repeal of human mortality, Mubarak’s bid for a Pharaonic permanence was doomed to failure. Now the need to move toward a successor to Mubarak takes place amid a backdrop of chaos, which necessarily means it’s being done in a hurry. Making enormous decisions in a hurry is a recipe for disaster.

In an interview with NBC News on Sunday, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times explained how things got this bad: “We got to this moment basically because our concern about having a stable Egypt — first and foremost to preserve the peace treaty with Israel, and later to be a partner in the war on terrorism — let us give Mubarak a pass on democratization.”

“Egypt, and most of the Arab world, has been on vacation from history for the last 50 years ...”

Vacation is over. The days of the rule of the wannabe Pharaoh are, in all probability, seriously numbered. For Mubarak and the phantom government that exists in Cairo, what remains is to deftly find a way to take the first baby steps towards democratic reforms that are long overdue — and to do it before its own probable exit.

That’ll require a balancing act unprecedented in the region: to juggle the demands of millions of Egyptians seeking better lives; the geopolitical expectations of Washington, Egypt’s long-time foreign-aid benefactor; and the regional concerns of Israel, its uneasiest neighbor. All this while resisting the potential opportunism of terroristic entities seeking their main chance to exploit the current instability.

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For the United States, which provides Egypt about $1.3 billion in military aid every year, the immediate options are more limited. In the short term, the only viable option for America is to do what it can to facilitate Mubarak’s departure as elegantly as possible (behind the scenes, of course) and wait for this explosion of pent-up rage to play itself out, in the tragically inconvenient forum of the Egyptian streets.

But President Obama’s already given us a blueprint of what the posture of the United States will ultimately be. He did it when he came to Cairo in June 2009, to speak at Al-Azhar University in Cairo:

“America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.”

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Ironically, Hosni Mubarak’s attempt to direct the modern history of his country has resulted in his being imprisoned by that history, and what it’s led to. Mubarak has held sway over a country of 80 million people, with a median age of 24 years old and a ruinous unemployment rate that’s damaged the prospects for the country’s professionals and intellectuals.

Now the wannabe Pharaoh faces a future of a populist aggression that’s as irresistible as it was almost certainly inevitable. The fourth president of the Arab Republic of Egypt may have privately harbored dynastic designs. With his present term as president already set to expire this year, he no doubt thought it was time to hand the reins of power to his son, Gamal — the better to continue the autocratic control of Egypt in a manner not unlike the rulers during the eras of the pyramids.

But the people of the most populated country in the Middle East and the third most populous in Africa have, in no uncertain terms, made a clear distinction between ancient history and the history being made right now.

The slaves who built the pyramids didn’t have Twitter accounts.

Image credits: Cairo protester: MSNBC. Mubarak: © 2009 Presidenza della Repubblica. Street unrest I: Associated Press. Street unrest II: Via The Huffington Post. Obama in Cairo 2009: Still from MSNBC.

New Boss in Charge

When Company A takes over Company B, it doesn’t take long for the new company ethos to trickle down.

Just ask the smart-alecks at NBC's hit series "30 Rock." Thursday night’s show smartly riffed on Comcast's full assumption of a controlling stake in NBC Universal from General Electric for $6 billion and change. As a bell tolls (make of that what you will), the bright letters “GE” on the façade of a building (presumably those on top of the GE Building at Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan) short out, only to be replaced by a "K" inside a red swoosh resembling Comcast's logo.

“K” is one of the letters in the NASDAQ designation for Comcast’s Class A Special Common stock. Liz Lemon, the “30 Rock” character played by Tina Fey, knows what it really means. "Wow, out with GE, in with Kabletown," she said. "Seems like one of us should sing 'The Circle Game' right now."

Just ask Seth Meyers. The anchor of the Weekend Update segment of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” observed the changing of the guard earlier tonight: “This week, Comcast officially took control of NBC Universal, and I have to say things are better already … Seriously, I have to say that.”

You’re damn right you do, Meyers.

His riposte may be a tad cynical. It’s early yet and Comcast management clearly has tried to set the right vibe.

On Thursday a note from Brian Roberts, Comcast chairman and CEO, and Steve Burke, the new CEO of NBCU, was sent to all employees. In part it read:

Dear Colleague:

Today marks the birth of the new NBCUniversal. Together, Comcast and NBCUniversal are poised to become the greatest media company in the world, delivering quality content to a global audience on every conceivable platform.

We are incredibly excited about this opportunity. We're humbled, too, since we are keenly aware that NBC and Universal both have tremendous legacies, reaching back nearly a century. ...

Part of this new corporate order meant a tweak of the company name. Instead of NBC and Universal expressed as two separate words, the new logo abuts them in a single unit — another of the endless identity ligatures CorporateAmerica has inexplicably grown so fond of over the last twenty years.

Also, the beloved NBC peacock has been retired from the main corporate identity, though it will apparently still be used on NBC programming.

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On Thursday, Deadline Hollywood, the entertainment news and business Web site, columnist Nellie Andreeva wrote of how swiftly Comcast moved to put its stamp on things: “Going to work this morning, NBC Universal employees found all the company's old signs replaced overnight with new ones.” Andreeva said that a new intranet went online the same day.

The new bosses were formally introduced Thursday at a town-hall event broadcast internally live to the company’s employees. At the Deadline Hollywood, people weighed in Thursday about the merger, including one identified (for obvious reasons) as “NBC Employee,” someone who says s/he attended the tele-town hall:

“I was surprised at how cold the entire Comcast management team looked. Even grandpa Ralph Roberts who spoke briefly from New York looked like Darth Vader. I know Comcast didn’t buy NBC Universal to lose money so they have the right to take steps to cut costs. But if they wanted to save costs, why recreate thousands of ID badges and print thousands of history books about the legacy of the combined companies. NBCU’s days of being the 'Green Company' are clearly over!”

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There have already been some quick, short-term bennies. Deadline Hollywood and other news sources reported that each of the 25,000 NBCUniversal employees would receive 25 shares of Comcast stock (each share worth $22.84, as of Friday’s close), as well as a family pass to a Universal theme park, and a “Big Idea Book,” where ambitious employees are encouraged to write their own Big Ideas.

(What, no break on cable?)

How much employee goodwill Comcast secured with the $571,000 cost of those shares remains to be seen. Some NBCU workers are playing ball under duress.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Winning the future, via the present

President Obama’s widely anticipated State of the Union address turned out to be a Rashomon thing: anyone watching it could put their own spin on it: either he hit it “outta the park,” it was a ground-run double or a whiff at home plate — or anything in between. That’s not so different from other SOTU speeches in the past, including Obama’s first official address last year, or his address to a joint session of Congress in 2009.

On Tuesday, at least, no yahoo congressman from South Carolina yelled “You lie!” at the president. This year, though, the lawmakers gathered in the House Chamber, and anyone keeping score at home, might well have shouted “You paint a picture in broad strokes!”

The thrust of the 62-minute speech was meant to address the competitive posture of the United States in relation to the rest of the developing and developed world. In this much, Obama didn’t disappoint. The theme, “Winning the Future,” was clear in his stated objectives for America vis-à-vis energy independence, education and jobs, jobs and more jobs.

He used that quoted phrase, or its variants, at least a dozen times in an address that was a blueprint long on vision but short on specifics. Among the goals: By 2035, 80 percent of U.S. electricity would come from clean energy sources. Within 25 years, 80 percent of Americans would have access to high-speed rail. “For some trips, it will be faster than flying – without the pat-down.”

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The presidential crystal ball got brighter: “With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. ...

“And over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. ...

“Within the next five years, we will make it possible for business to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans. This isn't just about a faster Internet and fewer dropped calls. It's about connecting every part of America to the digital age.”

Broad strokes for sure. But these ideas for “winning the future” necessarily confront dealing with the present day, and a seemingly immovable economic crisis that has the unemployment rate stuck at just under 10 percent. The how-to-get-there-from-here was less lofty and more practical, a road map that called on Americans to do their part.

“That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It's family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done. We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline. ...

“In South Korea, teachers are known as "nation builders." Here in America, it's time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect.”

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Other jobs properly fall to the Congress the president addressed. Obama called for eliminating business regulations that hampered innovation; he challenged Congress to simplify the tax code and to lower the corporate tax rate.

And he proposed that, “starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years. This would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, and will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president.”

There was some hope that his message would be greeted by a Congress united in achieving Obama’s lofty goals. The mix-and-match seating captured by pool cameras in the House Chamber reflected at least a willingness to abide by the cosmetic aspects of bipartisanship: Landrieu sat next to Rubio; Kerry was seatmates with John McCain; Baucus was next to Hatch.

But the president placed the prom-night visuals in the context of productiveness: “We will move forward together or not at all, for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics … What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow."

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There’s a lot to do. Obama’s grand vision of the technologically possible runs headfirst into what other countries are planning, or doing, right now.

China, for example. The second largest economy in the world plans to consolidate nine cities into one, a project expected to take six years at a cost of $300 billion. This mammoth 16,000-square-mile undertaking will combine 150 separate municipal projects — water, energy, transportation, telco networks. Result: a true megalopolis 26 times the size of greater London. An express rail line to Hong Kong is also planned.

And in Saudi Arabia, construction of several world-class construction projects is well along. King Abdullah Economic City, being built on the Red Sea, is a $90 billion-plus project including a seaport, resorts and a range of other services and amenities. Some parts of it are up and running now; much of the rest is set for completion by 2020.

Work’s also underway on Prince Abdulaziz Bin Mousaed Economic City, a $53 billion venture set to include centers for business, entertainment and education. The project is expected to be finished by 2025.

Both these projects, and others in various stages of development, are intended to secure employment for Saudis, residents of a nation where, according to 2010 data from the Population Reference Bureau, 43 percent of the country's 24 million people are under the age of 15.

Clearly, winning the future isn’t just an American idea.

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President Obama’s speech may have traded passion for particulars, but in this he has company. In May 1961, in an address to a joint session of Congress, President Kennedy expressed the desire that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

That goal had its detractors, too. But the ones running down this president’s speech — including political personality Sarah Palin, who maligned it Wednesday on Fox News with a cheap shorthand of the three-word theme (“I thought, "OK, that acronym, spot on") — showed by default their own shortcoming of vision, even as President Obama eloquently pointed to the power of a common national objective.

“We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time,” he said Tuesday. “We need to out-innovate, out-educate and outbuild the rest of the world.”

This nation’s reach had damn well better exceed its grasp, or what’s a State of the Union for?

Image credits: Obama top: AP/Charles Dharapak. Obama II: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais. Kerry and McCain: AP/Evan Vucci. China megacity map: Kennedy: via

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

State of the ‘Sputnik moment’

If a visual sampling of the on-air patter and body language of the cable pundits is any indication, there’s an anticipation about tonight’s State of the Union Address, President Obama’s second, that’s bordering on the electric, a giddiness approaching the excitement preceding a Spectacle.

Step right up, y’all. Tonight’s gonna be a good night. Yeah, tonight’s gonna be a good good night at the House of Representatives! It’s the State of the Union 2011, featuring the new congressional Kum Ba Yah seating chart. Democrat Schumer sits with Republican Coburn! Casey with Toomey! Gillibrand with Thune! This is a way bigger deal than lions crouching with lambs! Your master of ceremonies … President Obama!

But two things are back of all the stagecraft: the need to begin to seriously address the nation’s employment woes and to restore the footing of the United States as a global economic power; and the fact that, certainly for the first time since the November elections, and maybe stretching back further than that, the political winds are strongly, even close to powerfully, at the president’s back.

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Rhetorical Job #1 tonight for the president will be selling a vision to improve the domestic economy. To go by excerpts from the speech, they’ll included a proposal for a five year freeze on non-security discretionary spending, part of a wider plan to reduce the soaring national deficit.

Former White House adviser Stuart Eizenstat, in Davos for the World Economic Forum, told Bloomberg News this morning that the gist of Obama’s message would likely reflect “a move to the center,” politically speaking and, more widely, a focus on “competitiveness in the world and jobs at home.”

This time out, President Obama is playing his cards against his chest. To this point, there’s been little of the speech to cherry-pick through ahead of time; White House reporters apparently won’t get the usual (and customary) embargoed copies beforehand, at least not yet. But we know from the excerpts available right now (subject to change) that Obama means to sound the broad themes of a need for economic revival and a call to the new congressional majority in the House to work with him from the beginning.

At stake right now is not who wins the next election – after all, we just had an election. At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It’s whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It’s whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world. We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.

But we have never measured progress by these yardsticks alone. We measure progress by the success of our people. By the jobs they can find and the quality of life those jobs offer. By the prospects of a small business owner who dreams of turning a good idea into a thriving enterprise. By the opportunities for a better life that we pass on to our children. That’s the project the American people want us to work on. Together.

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist.

But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.

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President Obama also seems poised to capitalize on the rare and stirring bipartisan reaction to his address in Tucson after the shootings of Jan. 8. That veritable love feast amid conservatives — everyone from Charles Krauthammer to Brit Hume to The Weekly Standard gave him high marks —positions him well to take the lectern in the House tonight secure in the knowledge that some folks on the other side wish him well.

Tom Coburn, for example. The Tennessee Republican senator put the call for unity into a perspective that goes beyond who sits where in the People’s House. “Our problems are so great and so urgent, we can’t get hung up on party labels,” Coburn said in an interview this morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Candor like that underscores how much there is to be done, and suggests, for the first time in two years, there may finally be the start of a common congressional will to do it.

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Media player: Comcast, ‘Countdown’
and the education of a giant

Over the weekend, The Associated Press reported that NBC prime-time entertainment president Angela Bromstad advised her staff of her plans to leave NBC Universal, within days to be the property of the cable conglomerate Comcast. Other NBCU suits on their way out include NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker and NBC Universal TV entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin.

These departures, of course, are part of the big changes already underway at NBC and its cable news partner, MSNBC. The biggest high-profile departure happened on Friday, when Keith Olbermann jumped/was pushed from his role as the host of “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.”

The blowback that’s building against Comcast among media critics, academics and the viewing public for Olbermann’s absence from MSNBC’s top-rated show suggests that while Comcast has an obvious eye for a sound media investment, the cable giant has something to learn about the public and its emotional investment in the TV programs it’s embraced.

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In 2010, "Countdown" averaged 268,000 viewers in the 25-to-54-year-old demographic, TheWrap reported citing Nielsen, putting the program in 13th place in average total viewers and 11th place among viewers 25 to 54. editor Alex Weprin, speaking to TheWrap, spelled out what MSNBC could lose with Olbermann’s departure. “Since leaning leftward in primetime, MSNBC's ratings have been up, leading to higher ad revenue and higher subscription fees,” Weprin said. “Comcast is a business, after all, so even if some of their executives may not like the politics of the hosts, there is no denying the business potential.”

But there’s more than one way to quantify an asset. At least two Web sites have circulated petitions calling for viewers to boycott MSNBC for Olbermann’s exit.

A petition at planetpov reads in part: “Keith Olbermann is not a generic cog that can be simply replaced with another ‘liberal.’ He is an individual that has earned the loyalty of millions and he is not replaceable, a concept that seems to escape those like you with corporate mindsets. That loyalty is not transferable. As you know by now, after the firestorm across the Progressive Netroots, this is not something that can be slipped past people on a Friday News Dump or allowed to be forgotten.”

Much the same passion’s evident at Petition Online: “Keith Olbermann has been the face of MSNBC for 8 years and helped put the channel on the political and national map. Whatever problems MSNBC's hierarchy had with Mr. Olbermann, does not justify ending a program loved and watched by millions of Americans as MSNBC's most-watched primetime program.”

The metric of viewer loyalty is something that MSNBC or Comcast, or both, may have miscalculated.

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Alterego55, commenting at HuffPost, offered one of the clearest, most pragmatic theories about who was behind what happened on Friday and why:

“It is impossible [to] claim truthfully this had nothing to do with Comcast buying NBC. In any deal of this size, individual assets are quantified as to their value and summed up to provide a composite valuation of the company (i.e the price Comcast is willing to pay for NBC). Not only was Olbermann's contract examined, but his likelihood to stay or leave would be considered as part of the overall valuation.

“If Comcast thought Olbermann was an asset, there is no way in the world MSNBC would have canned him. And, Comcast might have even offered him a retention bonus above and beyond his contract.

“If Comcast thought Olbermann was a liability, they would have pressured MSNBC to terminate his contract, which would have been done by buying out his contract to the end of its term. Why? Because they didn't want the risk of a lawsuit cluttering up the acquisition.

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Alterego55 may be on to something. On Friday, Bill Carter of The New York Times reported that, well before the Comcast-NBCU transaction was finalized, Comcast brass had worries that the company might be seen as possibly interfering in MSNBC operations for political reasons.

“One executive, who asked not to be identified because Comcast had instructed employees not to speak about the situation, said the company dreaded the prospect of being blamed if Mr. Olbermann were to quit soon after the takeover,” Carter reported.

We won’t hear about the particulars of what happened from the horse’s mouth for a while. Carter reported that “Friday’s separation agreement between MSNBC and Mr. Olbermann includes restrictions on when he can next lead a television show and when he can give interviews about the decision to end his association with the news channel.

“The executives involved in the discussions confirmed that the deal carries limitations for Mr. Olbermann in terms of when he can next work on television, though he will be able to take a job in radio or on any forum on the Internet.”

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It’s anyone’s guess as to what Olbermann’s next move will be. Entertainment Weekly reported that Aaron Sorkin, whose “The Social Network” is an odds-on favorite for Oscar consideration (nominations are Tuesday), “has long had a pilot script in the works about a cable news show, and Olbermann could be tapped to contribute rants, says a source familiar with the project.”

Justine, commenting at the EW Web site, opined: “He should join Obama’s campaign as a Democratic strategist. He’d be very good.”

Whatever his next move is, his now-former network has its own internal retooling ahead. Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik suggests that some stalwarts in the NBC News family believe things in the nearly eight-year Olbermann era had gone too far.

“They felt the brand was really diminished,” Zurawik told TheWrap’s Dylan Stableford. “And NBC News is absolutely right to say, ‘This does not belong on our airwaves, we're going to dial it back.’ And that's what's happening here. You watch how fast Maddow and all of the rest of them dial it back in a week.”

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But there’s the rub. Zurawik’s scenario raises the obvious question: Dial it back to what? Olbermann posted sizeable ratings numbers for a reason. His program’s freewheeling, no-holds-barred, utterly unique approach to reporting and commenting on the news of the day obviously stuck a nerve with the public — particularly the public in the 25-to-54 demographic advertisers would kill for.

Will advertisers be as enthusiastic about placing their products in a slot with just someone reading straight news from a TelePrompTer? For that matter, how enthusiastic would Rachel Maddow or Lawrence O’Donnell (hosts of their own progressive-leaning programs) be about being those newsreaders? And how much traction would a wholesale departure from MSNBC’s recent on-air style have with the viewers they covet?

Viewer defections are already in the works.

Demomntgirl, commenting in The Huffington Post: “Let the corporate propaganda machine roll! We will not be watching ANY NBC owned channels! We might drop COMCAST and switch to a dish. Freedom of the press ... is dead.”

MFMG in HuffPost: “The best is now gone ... Maddow is as smart but boring, Ed [Schultz of “The Ed Show”] is too barky, and O'Donnell does not have the spark that Keith has. Olbermann was too much for the new owners to control. Thanks Keith for all that you have done. I'm not planning on watching MSNBC any more.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

Zero hour: ‘Countdown’ and why it matters

Keith Olbermann, author, essayist, passionate sports fan and the host of MSNBC’s “Countdown,” hinted early in tonight’s program at what was to come just before he cut to a commercial break. It was something about the end of “Countdown” or something or other; we half-digested it, thought it might be another KO head fake, a sly way of introducing another change in one of cable’s most successful and original franchises.

Sadly, no.

Olbermann returned and in short order announced that, effective with the end of that very program, “Countdown” would be no more. Gone. Over.

“There were many occasions, particularly in the last two and a half years, where all that surrounded the show — but never the show itself — was just too much for me,” he said tonight. “But your support and loyalty and, if I may use the word, insistence, ultimately required me to keep going. My gratitude to you is boundless and if you think I've done any good here, imagine how it looked from this end ... this may be the only television program wherein the host was much more in awe of the audience than vice versa.”

And minutes later, after Olbermann concluded a Friday ritual of reading from the work of James Thurber — this time “The Scotty Who Knew Too Much” — it was done. Swiftly, savagely, suddenly, one of the true destination programs on cable was history at the network, soon to be the property of Comcast, the Philadelphia-based cable giant whose acquisition of MSNBC was cleared days ago by the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department.

The network had already composed the obligatory statement, attributed to MSNBC president Phil Griffin and released as Olbermann was wrapping things up:

"Msnbc and Keith Olbermann have ended our contract. Msnbc thanks Keith for his integral role in msnbc's success and we wish him well in his future endeavors," Griffin said.

The Huffington Post reported that NBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines said the Comcast-NBC Universal merger had nothing to do with the decision.

For its part, Comcast told the Los Angeles Times’ Joe Flint that the company "has not closed the transaction for NBC Universal and has no operational control at any of its properties including MSNBC.”

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But we knew what happened. We knew it when Olbermann told us what he’d “been told” about the future of the program on MSNBC. Those higher in the network food chain had made the decision. Whether he “jumped” or was “pushed” amounts to semantics and press-release spin.

The short-term future of network prime-time programming is set : “The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell” moves to the 8 o’clock slot vacated by KO’s departure, followed by “The Rachel Maddow Show,” followed by “The Ed Show” with Ed Schultz, whose vocal progressive leanings have been almost as forthright as Olbermann’s over the past year.

Professional media watchers are weighing in. Jeff Bercovici at Forbes pretty much voiced the obvious standing suspicion:

“Correlation isn’t causation, as they say in the sciences,” Bercovici writes. “But it’s hard to ignore the near simultaneity of Keith Olbermann’s departure from MSNBC, announced on the air tonight, and the approval of NBC Universal’s merger with Comcast by federal regulators, which happened earlier this week.”

“An intrinsically conservative corporation, it’s not overly friendly to congenital boat-rockers like Olbermann,” Bercovici said of Comcast.

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The other big question is, must be: What happens to Olbermann now?

Back in November, after Olbermann was furloughed for a weekend for making undisclosed donations to three congressional candidates (one of them Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, wounded in the Tucson shootings on Jan. 8), the Shock ventured a possible scenario if KO were to exit:

“Envision this theoretical prime-time lineup: David Shuster (formerly with MSNBC, dismissed early this year in another policy-breach flap) followed by Olbermann (probably with the “Countdown” staff and concept in tow) followed by CNN fixture Anderson Cooper’s “360º” program, followed by Piers Morgan (soon to be the host of a talk show in Larry King’s current slot). A lineup like that could be, from MSNBC’s point of view, a very heavy challenge to overcome.”

Obama2008, commenting tonight at The Huffington Post, thinks much the same thing: “Here's CNN's solution to the Parker/Spitzer problem.”

HuffPost on Friday night was as reliable a sounding board of reaction as you could ask for. Some readers/viewers weren’t hopeful of MSNBC’s riding this out.

Naninwstock: “How horribly disappointing. Keith will be badly missed in my home. Although O'Donnell has a strong liberal view, watching him is equal to watching paint dry. I will though tune in to watch Rachel. She is the only saving grace left for msnbc. It's a sad day.”

HuffPost Super User Jaxy: “I look forward to Keith's next project, whatever it is. It's rare to find such lancing wit, heartfelt compassion­, and a dogged commitment to exposing the truth all in one person.”

MissKaren, another Super User: “I am stunned. Angry, too, but mostly stunned. I also don't for a minute believe that Comcast had nothing to do with it.”

Ljmck: “Geez, I'm going to have to go back on anti-depressants. This is terrible news.”

Darcy64: “Comcast is unbelievably foolish to let the host of MSNBC's highest rated show go but I just read that they gave a lot of money to Republican candidates so I guess I should not be surprised. Disgusted but not surprised.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Darcy64 may have a point, or not. Flint at The Times observed: “Olbermann is a lefty and it is no secret that Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and his No. 2 Steve Burke (who will run NBC Universal) have donated to Republicans on occasion.

“However, David Cohen, a top Comcast executive and the man who guided the deal with NBC Universal through the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department, held a huge fundraiser for President Obama in 2008. Comcast's Roberts has also often donated to Democrats.”

“Olbermann draws a lot of heat and Comcast likes to fly under the radar as much as possible,” Flint writes. But if that assessment is correct, Comcast’s acquisition may have been a slight miscalculation. If you really want to “fly under the radar,” the last thing you do is spend a year acquiring the most visible media company in the country. This is just as likely to be Comcast’s bid for a wider public recognition as the new entertainment superconglomerate (witness the company's high-profile rollout of its Xfinity services).

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


When Republican Ohio Rep. John Boehner took possession of the gavel previously wielded by Nancy Pelosi and became Speaker of the House of Representatives, we were led to believe it was the realization of a dream come true, one that arrived with the recipient’s full realization of the power, and the constitutional importance, of the position.

Apparently, not so much. On the two most recent occasions — one of them absolutely impossible to understand given its deep national resonance — Speaker Boehner has shown he’s tone-deaf to the stagecraft and moment that’s bestowed on the office that puts him second in the line of presidential succession.

In the wake of the Tucson shootings on Jan. 8, Boehner was offered an invitation to fly to the city aboard Air Force One, as part of a bipartisan show of support from Washington on behalf of the victims — including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, one of his number in the House —and the city in which they lived. The memorial service that followed was as close as we’ve come in a while to a national moment of reckoning and connection, one that trumped the convenience of party politics. Simply put, he shoulda been there.

The Speakerphone had pressing business elsewhere. Boehner passed on personally appearing in Tucson so that he could attend a D.C. prayer service for the victims, and a benefit for Maria Cino, at that time a candidate to lead the Republican National Committee.

He’s pulled this crap before, remember. Between November 2009 and May 2010, Boehner rebuffed invitations to receptions for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

◊ ◊ ◊

Then there was tonight’s state dinner at the White House. The guest of honor? Not a bigwig he has to worry about — just Hu Jintao, president of the Republic of China, the second largest economy in the world, and the fastest growing.

Boehner’s reason? No real explanation. There are plans to meet Hu privately; "Speaker Boehner will have a substantive meeting with President Hu later this week," his spokesman, Michael Steel, told AOL News’ Annie Groer by e-mail. But there was no reason offered for missing such a world-class event.

Dutifully, the Republican sock puppets posing as strategists took to the airwaves and implied it was no B.F. Deal. Or said so literally: “It’s not that big of a deal,” John Feehery said on MSNBC. Consistently, the Speakerphone’s apologists offered a weak defense: Why is it such a big deal when Mr. Boehner doesn’t show up for state affairs, but it’s OK if [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid passes on them?

It’s true enough, Reid has opted out of one high-profile state dinner before, in 2007, when the haberdasher-deficient Nevada senator sent his regrets for being a no-show at a dinner for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, reportedly because he didn’t have white tie.

But it’s different for the Speaker of the House. It’s that little matter of presidential succession. Boehner is in line to inherit the presidency, Reid is not. As one of the handful of people who may be required to assume the presidency in a literal heartbeat, Boehner is in a position that calls for a special sensitivity — certainly to the people he represents. The bar is higher.

The Tucson event and its aftermath cried out for a communication of unity, which President Obama satisfied completely. Boehner failed to realize that, rather than diminishing him, being there in Tucson would have burnished his bona fides as a national leader in ways that can’t be calculated.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s much the same with the way he stiffed Singh and Calderon previously, and President Hu tonight. The magnitude of his office would have taken a hit against the majesty of two world leaders. You can only be so big, garner just so much personal attention, when you’re eating poached Maine lobster and D’Anjou pear salad with the two heaviest hitters on the planet.

But if you presume to lead, not just your party but your nation on the global stage — and that possibility is implicit in the job — sometimes you need to suck it up, put party politics and sad excuses aside and show up at events whose importance in the bigger picture is inescapable.

Sooner or later, Speakerphone Boehner will spout off with some presumably enlightened comment about our trade relationship with China. It doesn’t matter what he says, whatever he says would have been that much more credible, have that much more of the gravitas of leadership if he’d been there tonight.

Clearly, Boehner has some learning to do about the scope of his new gig, its ceremonial aspects foreign and domestic, all the things that may not be in the job description but which matter just the same.

Since taking over in the House, twice when it really mattered, the great and powerful John hasn’t missed the opportunity to miss an opportunity. It’s a bafflingly inauspicious way to start one of the most pivotal jobs in our government.

Image credits: Boehner: House of Representatives (public domain). President Obama, Michelle Obama and President Hu: Charles Dharapak/Associated Press. Mark Kelly and President Obama: Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Goodbye, Mr. Steele

Michael Steele was ousted as chairman of the Republican National Committee on Friday, 16 days short of his full two-year term. One of the more baffling, polarizing, philosophically original officials to helm the main fundraising arm of the Republican Party bowed out after votes from the 168 committee members, over six ballots, showed he wouldn’t get a second term.

Headline writers and TV journalists miss him already: Steele’s replacement, Reince Priebus, took over immediately as the 65th RNC chairman, flummoxing in the short term anybody who has to spell his name or pronounce it in public.

We’ll miss Steele for other reasons. By coincidence or (more likely) by intention, Steele was a lightning rod for the party, absorbing the heckles and brickbats directed at the party generally. He published a “blueprint” book of strategies for achieving GOP election victories without telling party leaders about it. Then he went on a book tour to promote it.

He made other speaking engagements outside party business and got paid for them. He announced a goofy hip-hop strategy to remake the GOP as a comfort zone for younger voters.

In his two years in charge of the RNC, Steele was either at the periphery, or the center, of a steep drop in fundraising (the surplus of $25 million he inherited is now a deficit of almost the same amount), and the embarrassment of party associations with a bondage nightclub in Los Angeles.

◊ ◊ ◊

But Steele could be predictably unpredictable in other ways. Last April 20, at DePaul University, answering questions for a group of students, Steele admitted the GOP’s use of the so-called “Southern strategy” — a cynical strategy that fired up Civil War-era historical and racial animosities to sway white voters in the South.

When asked point-blank why black Americans should vote for Republicans, Steele said, “You really don’t have a reason to, to be honest. We haven’t done a very good job of really giving you one. True? True. For the last 40-plus years we had a Southern strategy that alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South.”

Also last year, on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” responding to a viewer’s e-mail question on whether he had a slimmer margin of error as a black RNC chairman, Steele was candid.
STEELE: The honest answer is yes.


STEELE: It just is. Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. We — A lot of folks do. It's a different role for, you know, for me to play and others to play. And that's just the reality of it.
That frank admission of the distinctions between his party and black and minority voters was a realpolitik moment that could have helped the Republicans start the process of repositioning themselves with those voters in time for the 2012 campaign.

The Republicans didn’t really gain anything from keeping him on, besides achieving some weak image of party solidarity that never existed in this election cycle anyway, thanks to the Tea Party. And Steele didn’t gain anything from staying in place, besides a regular paycheck.

As the Tea Party crowd consumed more of the media oxygen in the runup to November’s vote; as Republican donors stung by his missteps made pre-election donations directly to individual candidates, rather than to the RNC, Steele became a talking figurehead, a chairman in name only, hobbled by the very speculation about who might replace him.

◊ ◊ ◊

Now we know. Priebus has vowed to take the battle to the Democrats between now and 2012; at his investiture, he wielded an oversize gavel to make his point (was is it about Republicans and oversize gavels, anyway?). The committee members named Priebus, previously the Wisconsin Republican Party chairman, to lead the RNC, but it might well have been any other presumably capable administrator — anyone but Michael Steele. The committee members who voted against bringing Steele back may have reckoned that someone with a less recognizable name might bring correspondingly less baggage to the job.

The process of raising funds for the RNC’s depleted coffers will get a boost when the big-money donors surely come back. And with the succession question settled, the RNC and the party leadership can get back to the business of fundraising and policy with a minimum of internal distraction.

But admit it, folks. Before Michael Steele took the reins at the RNC, you probably didn’t know who the chairman of the RNC was. He was always good copy and you never knew what he’d say next. Now? You may not even care. Life’ll get back to near normal at the committee soon. Predictably predictable.

How unlike the man who’s left the building.

Image credits: Steele top: The Daily Caller. Steele lower image: ABC News. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Aug. 28, 1963: MLK’s day of service

On Nov. 2, 1986, when President Reagan signed into law the measure commemorating the third Monday in January as a national holiday, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, it marked an emotional and spiritual turning point for African Americans. It was the realization of a long-cherished dream; an indelible manifestation of equality, a black name and face in the pinnacle calendar of national observance. There’s been nothing of its majesty and impact since then — except the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States.

Now, 25 years later, the King holiday is much like and unlike any other on the calendar. There are the usual shutdowns we expect for a federal holiday — banks closed, no mail, buses and transit on a holiday schedule. But President Obama again called on Americans to use it as a national “day of service,” and many did their bit, planting flowers and shrubs, helping neighbors, and honoring King in various ways. In southeast Washington, D.C., they marched through the snow to honor King. In Ocoee, Fla., they couldn’t hold a planned MLK parade outside because of the rain, so they moved the festivities inside. Americans everywhere found a way to do their own right thing.

We get so blasé about watching Air Force One arriving at Andrews Air Force Base, or Marine One departing the White House lawn, sometimes it doesn’t fully register who it is getting on and off those perks of the highest elective office in the world. An African American is the leader of the free world.

It’s so easy to forget who helped make that possible.

We get so caught up in our own days of service — to ourselves — we forget about service to others. In the crush of the here & now, we can forget whose shoulders we stand on, those whose days of service never ended, long after their days of life did.

Let this jog your memory. And your conscience.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Health care and the Tucson 13

The vote expected this week in the House of Representatives on repealing the health-care law is widely understood to be a reflex political gesture; the House, now under GOP management, is expected to pass the bill to repeal, which would then presumably move to the Senate, where it’s expected to die in that Democratic-controlled body. If somehow if got through the Senate and the House, any repeal measure would face certain veto from the president who’s championed this cause for the last two years. DOA.

But events over the last week underscore how necessary health-care reform is in the United States. The attempted murder of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 12 other people on Jan. 8 may do more to ensure the permanence of the Obama health-care law than anything else, by revealing its obvious need — and despite the empty threats of House Republicans to repeal it.

Consider the specifics of what happened that weekend in Tucson. In one incident, numerous Americans were physically victimized by the same event at virtually the same time. Despite the uniformity of their injuries — gunshot wounds all — the disparities of their short-term and long-term care by doctors and health-care professionals are symbolic of the gradations in health care across the country.

◊ ◊ ◊

Doctors for Giffords say she’s expected to survive, noting her constant improvement since the attack. For her, of course, concerns over the cost of health care are pretty much nonexistent. As a federal employee and a member of Congress, Giffords enjoys the benefits of a platinum federal health-care plan that’s the best in the country — the same plan that the president and his family are entitled to. That’s probably true for members of her paid congressional staff, too.

Jared Lee Loughner’s rampage on Jan. 8 could have been more deadly than it was, if not for his errant marksmanship. Six people died in those terrible seconds, but a dozen others besides Giffords were wounded. The other people Loughner shot have different backgrounds — one’s a fire inspector at Raytheon, another is a pilot, at least four are former members of the military — but more than half were treated and released after the incident, some back at home that evening, others within days. At least one remains in the hospital.

Whatever their current status is, the people wounded in Tucson should be glad the shooting incident didn’t happen in California, which may be setting yet another national trend. Nearly 200,000 Blue Shield policyholders in California face a huge rate increase, according to a story in The Sacramento Bee. The San Francisco-based insurer has stuck by its raising of rates by as much as 59 percent on March 1, despite broad outcry against such premium increases in a still-fragile economy.

Last week, state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones asked Blue Shield to hold off on the rate hike for 60 days, The Bee reported. Blue Shield spokesman Johnny Wong told the newspaper in an e-mail Friday that the insurer believes the rates “are appropriate … We are moving forward with the March 1 rate increase."

State insurance officials can review the rate hike, but can’t reverse it without proof that Blue Shield fails to comply with regulations on the percentage of premiums spent directly on medical care.

"It's not every day that an insurer spits in the eyes of nearly 200,000 Californians and their newly elected insurance commissioner," said Doug Heller, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, to The Bee.

◊ ◊ ◊

It doesn’t have to be this way, and the health-care reform law being phased into American life between now and 2019 will address some of the differences only partly revealed among the Tucson victims.

It’s these disparities — between services, between what people pay for health care and what they can afford to pay, between what Californians pay for health care and what Americans elsewhere pay, between Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ health care and our own — that make the need for health-care reform that much more obvious. They show why the health-care law makes sense.

Yeah, it hasn't got the single-payer, public option approach that was a cornerstone of Obama’s presidential campaign. And late last year a federal judge ruled part of the law went too far to ensure compliance. But the measure signed into law in March is the first needed comprehensive step towards health care for all Americans, one this country has mulled and debated and pulled its chin over since the Roosevelt administration.

The Theodore Roosevelt administration.

The new Republican Congressional leadership prepares to take up a largely symbolic vote on health-care repeal as an expression of what that leadership represents: A new beginning in the House. For the 32 million people expected to benefit from the health-care law in the coming years, that law and its move into everyday life signal something a lot more important: A new beginning for the country.

Image credits: Obama signs health-care bill: Pete Souza/The White House. Giffords: Associated Press via The Huffington Post. Blue Shield logo: © 2011 Blue Shield of California. Theodore Roosevelt: The Prelinger Collection. 

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Stranger puts it in perspective

It's one of the more deliciously provocative facts of life in Seattle: You never know what the caffeine-addled scribes at The Stranger will come up with for their next cover. The Stranger, one of the two necessary Seattle altweeklies, doesn't disappoint this week. Its current cover — a smart tweak on the SarahPAC graphic that symbolically targeted Democrats in vulnerable districts — puts Saturday's events in Tucson and their possible spur into an inescapable historical perspective. Don't look away. You've probably already lived through all of it. And you'd probably prefer not having to do anything like it again.

Image credit: Cover design by Dan Savage and Aaron Huffman.

Sarah Palin’s history lesson

Despite the abundance of wildlife that typifies the Alaskan environment — Bears! Moose! Elk! — we were starting to think that crickets had taken over the Last Frontier. For some days after the Tucson shootings on Saturday, that’s all we’d heard from Sarah Palin about our newest, latest American family tragedy.

The reigning political personality weighed in briefly about the shootings with a standard-issue sentiment on Facebook and an e-mail communication with Fox News chalkboard scribbler Glenn Beck. These were mostly incidental pushback against the gathering sense post-Tucson that Palin, and the pre-election Tea Party movement generally, helped develop the idea that exercise of the Second Amendment was basic to conservative political expression.

"I hate violence," Palin is quoted as saying to Beck. "I hate war. Our children will not have peace if politicos just capitalize on this."

Other than that, nothing. Until Wednesday, the day that President Obama spoke in Tucson at a memorial service that veered strangely close to a pep rally, spoke to the better angels of our nature, the citizens of Tucson — 14 of them wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords; six of them slain by a mentally disturbed man last week.

Wednesday. That’s when the grizzly barracuda from the frozen north fully ended her radio silence, releasing a video via Facebook — a long and defensive disquisition, a rhetorical faceplant that may, years from now, be brought forward as that distilling, irrefutable occasion when it was clear Sarah Louise Palin would not be president of the United States in 2012.

◊ ◊ ◊

Narrative has its place, but the video is something you have to experience for itself. There may be no words adequate to communicate the smug certainty, the rhetorical naiveté that's visible in eight long short minutes.

But not right off. At the outset, there’s sincere sorrow for the victims of the Tucson attack, words from the heart of an American and a mother; and a sturdy defense of Representative Giffords’ approach of taking the small-d democratic process direct to the people where they live.

But before long, Palin veers into her stock-speech mode, rich with non sequiturs, sloganeering straight from the campaign stump. At one point she waxes rhapsodic about “our country, our exceptional country, so vibrant with ideas and passionate debate and exchange of ideas, it’s a light to the rest of the world ...” All true enough, but said with such canny glibness, it might as well have been a sentiment read from cue cards (or cribbed from notes written on her hand).

“It’s inexcusable, incomprehensible why a single evil man took the lives of peaceful citizens that day,” she said. “... Like many, I spent the last few days reflecting on what happened and praying for guidance ... I listened at first puzzled, then with concern and now with sadness to the irresponsible statements from people attempting to apportion blame for this terrible event. ... Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own.”

After making excuses for some Tea Party adherents, whom she broadly describes as “law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies,” Palin goes a bridge too far.

It happens right about the 3:30 point, an excoriation of journalists for linking her with a mood of intolerance many people think facilitated the events in Tucson.

"If you don't like a person's vision for the country, you're free to debate that vision. If you don't like their ideas, you're free to propose better ideas. But especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn," Palin said. “That is reprehensible.”

You see the problem: Palin's reference to "blood libel," an 800-year-old falsehood against the Jewish people, the pernicious allegation that Jews killed children to use their blood in various religious rituals, including holidays and the preparation of meals. It’s the kind of phrase whose use requires a nuanced understanding of history; a phrase that could be highly problematic, if not radioactive, in unskilled rhetorical hands. Like hers.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The empath in chief

President Obama left leaves Washington yesterday today heading for Arizona, to speak at a memorial service at the University of Arizona, a service intended to provide emotional support for the families scarred by the deadly shootings in Tucson on Jan. 8. The tongues of the punditburo are wagging already as to what tone the president should adopt when he makes his address — not just before the people at the service inside the McKale Memorial Center but also the people of the United States — in prime-time tonight.

There may be no more delicate a balancing act performed anywhere in the world. Cirque du Soleil’s got nothing on an American president speaking to the nation in the early throes of a national shock, striving to balance the anodyne and the anguish, the spiritual and the religious in an address literally meant to contain the multitudes.

Ben Feller of The Associated Press had some non-intel intel: “The president was crafting his speech on Tuesday, and his aides were reluctant to discuss it even broadly in its unfinished form, other than to say it will emphasize the memories of those lost. Still, Obama's comments since the shooting on Saturday, his experience in dealing with other tragedies and history's guide offer signs about how he is likely to respond to this moment. At the service Wednesday night, Obama's main mission will be to honor those who were killed by describing them in personal terms, so the country remembers how they lived, not how they died.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Of course, that much we pretty much knew. The president goes to Tucson prepared now to step in and fulfill a role that may or may not be on his official job description, but is now and has always been one of his more important jobs: mover of the heart, head cheerleader of the American spirit — especially when it seems like no one in the stands is cheering.

The President of the United States is often called on to act as empath in chief, hopefully blessed with the ability to both share in the emotions of the nation and to reflect those emotions back to that nation. When the need be, he's that singular necessary transmitter of both a nation’s grief and its resolve to transcend that grief.

Like FDR in the throes of the Depression and the wake of Pearl Harbor; like LBJ after JFK; like Reagan after the Challenger exploded; like Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombings and Bush after 9/11, President Obama is being called on to bring together the disparate strands of a nation predisposed to division — if only for one brief shining moment.

We got a taste of what’s probably coming today, on Monday morning. With the need for symbolism and the right gesture paramount, the president and First Lady Michelle Obama led the staff at the White House in a ceremony on the South Lawn, observing a minute of silence on behalf of the victims in Tucson. The day before, he’d called on the nation as a whole to do the same thing at the same time.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s been speculation, much of it utterly deserved, as to how much pre-election Tea Party doctrine may have contributed to the Tucson shootings — contributed either through the ballistic dogwhistle rhetoric that Sarah Palin has made a stock in trade, or through the TP’s general cultivation of rebellion as a strategy, one powered by allegiance to the Second Amendment.

However much or little extremism may have played a role in the rampage apparently unleashed by Jared Lee Loughner, Obama observers watching for partisan fire from the president will be wasting their time. As he’s previously shown us he’s capable of doing — in several lapidary addresses during his campaign, at certain points during the BP Gulf oil debacle, after the 29 miners died last April, after the disaster at Fort Hood that left 13 American servicemen dead in November 2009 — Obama tonight will no doubt rally the nation to its higher sense of what it is.

He’ll leave partisanship to ideologue dogs like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly. Maybe Palin’ll fire a salvo. But come to think of it, no. She’s been having some problems in transforming rifle-scope crosshairs into surveyors’ marks, and can’t be reached for comment. By anyone.

Feller at The AP noted a novel touch of unifying stagecraft: “The president will be joined by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, another sign of the signal he wants to send: U.S. solidarity.” (The first lady will attend as well.)

And why not? It’s what’s called for right now. Stagecraft and solidarity matter when it seems like everything’s coming apart at the seams. President Obama will be summoned to be, well, presidential, in one of those times — infrequent, but not exactly rare — when we need the ceremony, when the customary cross-currents of American identity go dead calm … and we’re one nation. Expect the leader of the nation to reinforce that tonight.

Image credits: Obama: The White House (from video). Obama, Michelle Obama and staff: Pete Souza/The White House.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The missing girl and the golden voice:
A tale of two tales

Their stories almost dovetail chronologically, in a perverse coincidence of public exposure, race and fascination with the unexpected. But that’s where the similarities between Phylicia Simone Barnes and Ted Fred Williams begin to break down.

At one point, the trajectories of these two African American lives diverge; the public reaction to those lives, their value in the calculus of modern media, say as much about the culture they’re a part of as it says about either of these hostages to fortune — or at least, to the attention span.

They seemed to show up in our attention at almost the same time.

It was Jan. 4 when the news seemed to first surface, spreading everywhere fast: The Columbus News-Dispatch had released to YouTube a video shot by Doral Chenoweth, a News-Dispatch videographer. In the video, Chenoweth rolls up on a homeless man standing at I-71 and Hudson Street. The man carries a sign, a cardboard confessional announcing that he has “a God-given gift of voice.” Chenoweth offers the man some money in exchange for a few words in this supposedly honeyed voice.

What followed from the homeless man, Ted Williams, was a voice manicured for radio in Williams’ earlier years, before hard times, drugs, alcohol and the burdens of nine children landed on him. His voice  was a wholly unexpected vocal instrument in a scruffy, disheveled package, one that captured the attention of a public hungry for novelty in the dead of a cold winter.

The combination caught everyone who saw him off guard. Within hours, the YouTube video had exploded around the world. Between Jan. 4 and now, that video, others copying the original, and still others on the exploits of Ted Williams — the first viral-video star of the new year and the new decade — have been viewed online tens of millions of times.

In that same time, Williams has gone from being homeless to strapping himself into a rocket to the moon. After his discovery, Williams (media-dubbed “the golden voice”) found himself fielding job offers, including proffers from NFL Films and the Cleveland Cavaliers. He did voiceovers for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, for MSNBC’s new “Lean Forward” ad campaign, and a brief on-air lead in for the "Entertainment Tonight" news program. They cut his wildman hair, got him in collared shirts and slacks, and flew him to Hollywood to ogle the stars in the Walk of Fame. Ted Williams has arrived.

◊ ◊ ◊

And it was the end of 2010 when the world, via local television outlets, discovered Phylicia Simone Barnes, was missing. According to the FBI and various media reports, Barnes was last seen early the afternoon of Dec. 28, at or near her older sister’s apartment on Eberle Drive in northwest Baltimore, Md. She was said to be going shopping, but hasn’t been seen since.

Barnes, from Monroe, N.C., was visiting relatives at the time of her disappearance. An A student, slender at 5’8” and 120 pounds and strikingly beautiful, Barnes has everything to look forward to. Wednesday, Jan. 12, is her 17th birthday.

The media has begun to weigh in on Barnes’ days of absence. NBC Baltimore affiliate WBAL has covered the case with regularity; ABC News has filed an interview with Barnes’ mother, and CNN’s Nancy Grace, reliably a bloodhound on covering missing persons cases, has the Barnes disappearance featured on her program Web site. Clear Channel Communications has also donated billboards with information on Barnes’ disappearance in the region, AOL News reported.

CBS Baltimore affiliate WJZ has filed a report on Barnes’ case; so has the Charlotte Observer.

“Aside from Baltimore and her hometown near Charlotte, N.C., Phylicia’s disappearance has garnered little media attention, raising the issue of a double-standard because of her race,” NewsOne reported on Monday.

Clearly there’s been media coverage in the case of Phylicia Barnes; maybe the threshold of complaint is the level of media coverage. There’s a difference, both real and perceived, between this case and the fascination that attached to the case of Natalee Holloway, who disappeared on vacation in Aruba.

Some have argued, compellingly, there’s media bias afoot for not giving the Barnes story the attention of other head-turning stories in the nonstop carnival of 24/7 media — stories that seem to blow up everywhere, news reports about the wild and improbable, about people dressed as superheroes prowling streets of American cities, about two-headed calves and birds that drop from the sky en masse, and other stories, one in particular ... about a homeless man with a “golden voice” tailor-made for prime-time, and selling macaroni and cheese.

◊ ◊ ◊

Where are the lines drawn? What provokes absolute neck-snapping media fascination with one story’s narrative and a relative indifference to another one?

To some extent, it’s familiarity; Williams had media exposure before; so for media types, maybe there’s a familiarity there that, for now, seems to transcend race. Maybe to the media collectively, Williams is “one of us” who fell on hard times, and now he’s back in the fold.

And there’s another kind of familiarity. The Williams story has the nice union of reality and fantasy, of a dream come true in the grittiest, most unlikely place. Like the story of Nathaniel Ayers, the black Juilliard-educated cellist whose painful but powerful story Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez transformed into journalism that led to wide attention that led to a Major Motion Picture. There’s a feel-good story that's built-in there.

The Barnes story? Not so much. At least that’s what many in the media believe. Like the police officials they cover, news editors and reporters are given (sometimes without realizing it, sometimes without caring) to assuming the worst of human behavior. Rightly or wrongly they assume that, based on past history and their own previous journalistic experience, a missing-teenage girl case tends not to end well. From their perspective, the only thing worst than predictable is predictable and sad.

But curiously, the old editors' adage “If it bleeds, it leads” doesn’t seem to apply nearly as often if the victim is black or minority; that inconsistency justifies the complaints that Barnes’ disappearance is being overlooked or ignored by the major media players, whose breadth of audience could make all the difference.

◊ ◊ ◊

Two people of color, two events, seen through two of the media’s favorite looking glasses: one imparts a fairy-tale vision, a taste of urban life with the funhouse mirror attached; the other regards an event through the cold, clinical viewfinder of a police blotter. Both play into the (slowly-changing but) persistent media meme of blacks as curiosities, pathological abstracts, traumatic survivors.

How mostly unlike our own African American lives, lives lived somewhere between rags and riches, or life and limbo — the existential extremes that endlessly fascinate the media.

How unlike our own hunkered-down lives, out of the spotlight, from sideline to sideline, neither victims nor rulers, visible and invisible at the same time.

Image credits: Williams: Columbus Dispatch via YouTube. Barnes: Baltimore Police Department. "The Soloist" poster: © 2009 Dreamworks/Universal Pictures.
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