Beck vs. O’Keefe

Glenn Beck was almost immediate in his criticism of James O’Keefe’s latest video adventure, and the media is picking up on it this week:

“The problem with this whole thing is does James O’Keefe have enough credibility to continue to do” undercover video journalism? Beck asked his listeners. That kind of journalism, he said, is “just really not something that you necessarily want to get into.

Beck, of course, is a media trailblazer himself, who rose to national prominence through his revolutionary and original radio program.  He created a similarly original television program and online magazine.

With others from the right falling all over each other with admiration for O’Keefe’s NPR sting, Beck stands out as a rare dissenting voice.

But more than that, O’Keefe’s brand of activist journalism is simply more interesting than Beck’s platitudes from behind a microphone.  For months, critics have been crowing about Beck’s flagging ratings.  O’Keefe is a threat to Beck from a pure business standpoint.

After all, if you were Fox News, what would be more likely to get ratings – Glenn Beck’s chalkboard with notes about the GDP or James O’Keefe sending someone with a hidden camera into a government office?

Deflecting an ambush

CPAC has always been fertile ground for hidden camera hijinks – like any gathering where like-minded people get together, the attendees tend to let their guard down and speak a little more openly among what they think are their fellow travelers on the right.  So it’s now surprise that Think Progress sent someone in with a camera, looking to get right-of-center people to say some dumb things.

Jesse Watters of Fox News was ready, though.  Check out this video:

In this confrontation, Watters isn’t just a clear winner.  He puts on a clinic on how to handle an unexpected question from a grassroots videographer:

1.  “A smile usually helps.”

Remember Bob Etheridge?  College-aged Republican activists hijacked the North Carolina Congressman with a video ambush last summer, only to have the Congressman rough them up and bark at them a little.  Etheridge couldn’t have looked more like a curmudgeon if he had used the term “dagnabbit” and told the neighborhood kids he was keeping their baseball.

Watters is the opposite, and clearly knows how to be on camera.  When the ambusher, Ben Armbruster, first accosts him, he demands, “Who are you?”  As soon as Watters understands the situation, he warms up, enthusiastically asking, “Is this an ambush?” and playing along to a point.  He jokes with Armbruster but is not openly hostile, understanding how that would look to the audience on the other side of the camera.

2.  Watters gives his answer – regardless of the question.

Even though CPAC is a political event, Watters is not a political figure.  He is a journalist, and as such clearly does not want to get into a discussion about media bias.  That’s why his redirected conversation about the technique of investigative journalism is smart.  Criticizing Armbruster’s equipment, technique, and line of questioning, Watters maintains a conversation that would make as much sense in a journalism department classroom as it does at CPAC (and perhaps more).

3.  “You’re hands are shaking…”

Watters puts down Armbruster frequently, but never the style of interview.  He tells Armbruster he isn’t conducting the interview correctly (“The question is very important.  I just don’t think you’re bringing it with that question”), insults his camera phone, points out that Armbruster looks nervous – but Watters smartly never once complains about having a camera shoved in his face.  In doing so, Watters avoids the hypocrisy of being an ambush journalists decrying ambush journalism – but more important, he avoids a David vs. Goliath media moment pitting Fox News against bloggers.

Because Watters has been on the other side of these questions, he knows exactly what it looks like – and he didn’t succumb to the line of “gotcha” questioning.  If Armbruster’s frustration wasn’t evident enough at the end of the video, his contrived and weak headline – “Jesse Waters Won’t Deny Fox ‘Makes Stuff Up’” – drives it home.   Maybe he should have tried to ambush someone who doesn’t ambush people for a living.

Welcome back, Keith!

Keith Olbermann will return to MSNBC on Tuesday night after a box-checking suspension for his monetary donations to Democratic candidates.  In defense of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow bragged that the NBC News rule against such donations illustrated the difference between MSNBC and Fox News – calling Fox News a “political organization” where on-air personalities act as political fundraisers.

Johnny Dollar’s Place has a video that makes a point I tried to make last week (and makes it much better): that just because they aren’t reporting to the FEC doesn’t mean that MSNBC’s news opinion.entertainment personalities aren’t making campaign contributions:

Tonight on CNN: “Ratings Grab” with Eliot Spitzer

Spitzer
Photo from mhpbooks.com

The Most Trusted Name in News is putting it’s prime time show in the hands of a guy who broke laws at night that he enforced by day.

Phil Donahue accused MSNBC of trying to “out-fox Fox” when it fired him in 2003.  He meant it as a slight to MSNBC’s political leanings, but it goes a little deeper than that. Fox’s format is based on a complement of breaking news during the day (often car chases and such) and heavy opinion and analysis during primetime.  (It should be noted that Donahue was 175 at the time MSNBC canceled him, though.)

There’s the formula for news success in primetime.  Fox got to the top of the ratings with O’Reilly and Hannity and Colmes (before Colmes bounced); MSNBC – which was all but dead in the early 2000s – rebounded with Olbermann and Maddow on the other side of the aisle.

Neither network’s success is purely ideological – each of those four programs features strong, unique personalities.  News channel viewers aren’t looking for news at all; they’re looking for people they either love or love to hate. Enter the Love Gov – who, despite the fact that he’ll be sitting opposite a Pulitzer Prize winner, will be the headliner on what is ostensibly a news show.

But will another personality show succeed?

If everyone in a shopping mall is selling shoes, and you open up a new shoe store, folks are going to need a compelling reason to leave their existing shoe store and come to yours – especially since they already have so many options.  And selling the same types of shoes as every other store doesn’t give you an advantage.  So the new show will have to have more than just a controversial name to bring in viewers.

Of course, if Spitzer interviews Marion Barry every now and then, CNN might have ratings gold on their hands.