Olbermann, Maddow, and the new faces of MSNBC

Keith Olbermann’s final “good night, and good luck” on Friday makes for an interesting media interest story.

Olbermann was a key voice of the left during the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, so he surely could have been fired for being “too liberal.”  With the Comcast/NBC merger complete, several corners of the internet were abuzz with gossip that the new parent company had something to do with the iconoclastic Olbermann being showed the door.  Or, he could just be a jerk who has a history of being fired for not getting along with coworkers.  That’s probably the most likely answer.

For years, Keith Olbermann was the face of the new MSNBC’s left-oriented opinion programming; his aggressive style countered the conservative and populist voices of Fox News with something a bit punchier than CNN’s vanilla lineup.

MSNBC hasn’t shied away from that.  They’re keeping the “Lean Forward” campaign, and their evening lineup still boasts Ed Schultz, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Rachel Maddow.  Maddow will be the lineup’s new cleanup hitter – and for MSNBC, that seems to be the best motivation for the move.

This is unscientific, but do a Google image search for Olbermann and another for Maddow.  Sure, as a liberal lightning rod, there are plenty of pictures of Olbermann designed to make him look dumb.  But as you scroll through, a pattern becomes obvious: few of his pictures, even official ones, include him smiling.  Much like the “special comments” he delivered on his program, Olbermann frequently looks stern, as if the next words out of his mouth might just be the most important in the history of the universe. (See picture above.)

Maddow, on the other hand, is smiling in most of her search results.  When delivering opinions on her show, Maddow is smug and smart-alecky, but clearly enjoys poking fun at her targets.  It’s not necessarily good-natured humor, but it’s humor.  Much like the gruff Bill O’Reilly, one can picture a calmer, non-political side of Maddow, as if she understands that the topics on her show are important, but not likely to mean the end of the world any time soon.

Public relations 101 for anyone who wants to be on TV is to smile… and keep smiling… and smile some more.  It helps the speaker relate to the viewer.  Even when discussing difficult or contentious topics, smiles go further than furrowed brows.  Maddow seems to know this, and thus is a more effective host – and, by extension, messenger of liberal ideas.

That means that the real winners in Olbermann’s dismissal are the far left activists for whom the erstwhile Countdown host was a beacon in the night of the Bush administration.  While he created a place for overt leftist thought on cable news outside the guise of objectivity, Maddow is now the better caretaker of that tradition.

Whatever the real motivations were, the result of the decision is that Maddow, and not Olbermann, is the signature voice of MSNBC as they move (or lean) forward.  That’s pretty good news for MSNBC, but it’s even better news for left-leaning activists.

Revisiting Willie Horton

The Boston Herald reported that a Massachusetts cop-killer could prove to be “Mitt Romney’s Willie Horton.”  According to Politics Daily, a sex offender in Minnesota just may end up as “Tim Pawlenty’s Willie Horton.”  Last year, Michelle Malkin chronicled a pair of violent criminals vying for the title of “Mike Huckabee’s Willie Horton.”

The stories themselves are sickening, but will likely have little impact on the 2012 primaries.  Still, the coverage highlights something interesting in the way Willie Horton’s name is invoked.  In each case, a criminal who was pardoned by a governor committed a second offense – mimicking Willie Horton, who incredibly got a weekend off from a Massachusetts prison while Michael Dukakis was governor and used his time off to commit more violent crimes.

For these Republican candidates, referencing Horton alludes to incompetence in governing.

But when Sharron Angle used extremely questionable imagery in an ad attacking Harry Reid, Horton was brought up again.  In 2006, a hilarious ad against hard-partying former Congressman Harold Ford incredibly led to the H-word being bandied about by a few racial arsonists.

In these cases, Horton is synonymous with political dirty tricks – and worse yet, dirty tricks which prey upon voters’ racism.  This, of course, goes back to the famous 1988 attack add on Dukakis:

This might simply be the observation of someone who didn’t grow up in the South, but pictures of Horton are not very scary.  The ad’s shock value lies in the subtitles, which graphically detail Horton’s crimes.  Horton’s race is irrelevant if the commercial’s impact relies on the Horton’s crimes, and the breakdown in law enforcement governance that allowed them to happen.

So either Willie Horton symbolizes race baiting, or Willie Horton symbolizes incompetence.  It cannot be both.

Now, if you want a really racist commercial… well, there’s always room for Jello.


Why 2010 is the Year of Facebook

Time Magazine ignited some controversy this month by naming Mark Zuckerberg their Person of the Year.  Zuckerberg deserved the award, said Time, for “connecting more than half a billion people and mapping the social relations among them, for creating a new system of exchanging information and for changing how we live our lives.”

Indeed, Zuckerberg did all that – but he arguably did so in 2003, when he invented Facebook in his Harvard dorm room.  So why is he the person of the year seven years after actually making this contribution to humanity?  Or did Time discover Facebook only weeks after their grandmother, as “Julian Assange” suggested?

There are actually two questions here, so there are naturally two answers.  Question 1 is why Time gave Zuckerberg the award this year; and Question 2 is why 2010 is The Year of Facebook.

Culturally speaking, the last half of 2010 is a perfect storm of Facebook hype.  The Social Network was a big hit and created some preliminary Oscar buzz.  The next time you watch live TV, watch how many commercials end with URLs for a Facebook page.  And Zuckerberg scored headlines with his pledge to donate half his fortune to charity and $100 million to Brick City, NJ.  The success of social gaming in 2010 is linked directly to those games using Facebook as a platform for popularity – even non-gamers have seen their friends’ Farmville, Cityville, or Mafia Wars updates pop up in their own news feeds.

In short, Facebook is everywhere in a way it hasn’t been in years past.  But why is 2010 REALLY the Year of Facebook?  It turns out, there are some numbers to back it up.

Facebook’s traffic numbers surpassed Google’s in 2010.  That indicates a huge difference in how people are consuming information – instead of searching the internet and relying on Google’s algorithms to tell them what’s important, they are relying more and more on friends (a point I made yesterday in a post on Pundit League).  Trusting friends is something people are most likely predisposed to do; Facebook makes it easier to do that.

More important, Facebook continues to report increases in ad revenue.  It’s one thing for a website to have a good and popular idea; it’s quite another for a website to make money.  That Facebook has proved it could do the latter is no small feat and guarantees solvency for the foreseeable future.

So 2010 was more than just the year when America collectively noticed Facebook; it was the year when Facebook set down stakes as a permanent entity that gave legitimacy to its foothold in the public consciousness and culture.

And for that, Mark Zuckerberg really is the Person of This Year

Media bias exposed!

Playing the Julian Assange to Fox News’ Western Civilization, Media Matters intercepted emails that showed media bias at Fox News:

At the height of the health care reform debate last fall, Bill Sammon, Fox News’ controversial Washington managing editor, sent a memo directing his network’s journalists not to use the phrase “public option.”

Instead, Sammon wrote, Fox’s reporters should use “government option” and similar phrases — wording that a top Republican pollster had recommended in order to turn public opinion against the Democrats’ reform efforts.

Sammon suggested various terms, which stressed that the public option would be government-run health insurance – when in reality, the public option would in fact be run by… well, the government.

But the intrepid bias-hunters at Media Matters have a point – words make a difference.  Media Matters’ counterpart on the right, Newsbusters, has taken this on by pointing out that maintaining current tax rates is not an increase in government spending – a misnomer used by CNN and other media outlets.  (As an aside, Republicans have failed miserably in defining the expiration of the “Bush Tax Cuts” as a de facto tax increase.)

While factually accurate, describing the public option as “government health care” does convey a negative connotation.  But maybe the question isn’t in the word choice among Fox News correspondents.  A better question, perhaps, might be posed to the Administration and the President: Why hide the government health care program behind euphemisms?

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:

Wait – Keith Olbermann made donations in money, too?

Former ESPN SportsCenter anchor Keith Olbermann’s suspension from his MSNBC post due to political donations has nothing to do with journalistic integrity.  In fact, neither does the policy NBC News has against political donations.

First, it’s worth mentioning that Olbermann giving coverage to people he donated to isn’t a conflict of interest.  These are donations, and not investments – he really had nothing to gain from two Congressional races and a Senate race in states where he presumably doesn’t live.  Arguably, the money he gave was insignificant compared to the airtime allotted.  If NBC wants to suspend him, or any host, it should be for the in-kind donations of coverage.

Olbermann admitted to making the financial donations, but he didn’t have to – after all, political donations are public record.  So the FEC can tell us exactly who Olbermann wanted to win.  Do we know that about Olbermann’s NBC colleague Brian Williams, or Katie Couric, or Anderson Cooper, or anyone else who say they’re giving us “objective” coverage of national issues?   The NBC ban on donations means they never have to answer those types of question – which is too bad, because they are worth asking.

You may not like Keith Olbermann, but you know where he stands – and if you tune in, you can take what he says with a grain of salt. It might be nice to have that luxury with other news personalities.



The New Yorker: Koch fiend

This lesson in investigative journalism is brought to you by The New Yorker’s hit piece on Charles and David Koch’s political activities:

1.  Find some fact that isn’t particularly widely known.  Save time by finding a fact that isn’t widely known because it isn’t particularly interesting.

2.  Pretend that the fact is not widely known because of a conspiracy.

3.  Write a hit piece that calls out political activists for their political activism.

Koch industries has issued their rebuttal, and the story will likely blow over pretty quickly, but The New Yorker’s story deserves a second look as a primer on journalism mistakes to avoid.

Most Americans probably don’t know the extent to which federal government activity buoys the Washington, D.C. job market.  In addition to government jobs, there are countless lobbying firms, public affairs shops, and of course think tanks whose existence is based on the fact that the government is so complex.  Both the left and the right have their think tanks, and if you stroll through the halls of similar organizations on either side you’ll start to see similar names on the plaques which commemorate donors.  One of those names on the conservative side is Koch.

The New Yorker article paints David and Charles Koch as clandestine movers and shakers among the center-right, starting sham organizations to debunk global warming theories and government regulations.  The hilarious part about this is that the Koch brothers have never made any secret of their interest in politics – or their willingness to spend money advancing ideas.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve had a few dealings with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.  I’ve had friends who work there, and I’ve spoken to their Associates program (a widely advertised course which trains people to run think tanks) a couple of times a few years back.  In fact, to thank me for appearing, they gave me a Swiss army knife key chain with “Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation” stamped on the side.  If you’re running a secret conspiracy group, you don’t make up key chains advertising it.

Buried in the conspiratorial tone of the story and the apparently necessary examples of inflammatory rhetoric at tea party rallies are a few interesting facts about the priorities of Koch-funded organizations and the priorities of Koch industries.  But lost in the shuffle is the consistency with which the Koch brothers have held to libertarian ideals – ideals which are actually quite rare in the business world.

And then there’s the big story The New Yorker completely whiffs on – that a large, activist government that picks winners and losers will attract attention and activism from large corporate players.

Internet and technology companies are weighing in on policies like net neutrality.  Health care companies were all over the place on both sides of the health care takeover.  Railroad companies are plugging for railroad subsidies; farmers are plugging for farm subsidies.  In fact, the devious “Koch agenda” is unique only in that while most companies are clamoring for their piece of the pie, the Koch brothers are among the few saying “just leave us alone – we got this.”

Had the author not spent valuable mental energy dreaming up the term “Kochtopus” to describe the many tentacles of activity funded by the Koch brothers, she might have had some left over to explore some of the other octopi in the D.C. ocean.

Plus, I’m pretty sure Ziggy already wrote this story.

Deconstructing the primaries

What might be the best wrap-up of yesterday’s primary results was published before the returns came in.  As media outlets keep dropping over-simplistic terms like “tea party support” and “outsiders vs. insiders” to explain what happened, the Washington Examiner’s Timothy Carney boils the divide in Republican politics down as “the Tea Party Wing against the K Street Wing” – a divide which is not simply ideological or experiential:

The main distinction… might have less to do with policy platforms and more to do with a politician’s attitude toward the Washington nexus of power and money. Nevada’s Sharron Angle is anti-bailout and anti-subsidy. [Kentucky candidate Rand] Paul could try to shrink defense spending and ethanol subsidies. In Florida, Republican Marco Rubio isn’t a game player like [former Senator Bob] Dole’s buddy Crist is.

This morning, we hear that Lisa Murkowski is in trouble against “tea partier” Joe Miller, that John McCain bested an insurgent challenge from a more conservative candidate, and that established Republican Bill McCollum lost out to Rick Scott.

So if you’re scoring at home, “the establishment” won some and lost some, with Alaska up in the air – at least, according to most of the talking heads you see.

But can you call McCain an establishment Republican candidate?  McCain had bucked national party leadership in his own way for decades, often lashing out at the K Street types Carney mentions above.  As Matt Lewis noted – again, before polls closed yesterday – he fought a serious race against an opponent with more clear ties to K Street establishmentism.  Last week, the New York Times saw fit to print that Alaska’s rugged individualism was either inconsistent or an outright sham because of its dependence on federal money; regardless of how the final tallies go for the scion of the Murkowski family goes, her ability to keep winning earmarks did not lead to an easy victory lap.  And Bill McCollum was part of a Republican establishment in Florida rocked with a spending scandal earlier this year.

And of course, there’s the big caveat that each race has its own local interpretations of who counts as “the establishment” and who really is an “outsider.”  All the more reason to look at the results through Carney’s prism rather than the crystal ball which other analysts are trying to use.

Musical chairs in the briefing room

After Helen Thomas’s retirement/historically ignorant meltdown, the White House Correspondent’s Association has figured it out.  The Associated Press will inherit Thomas’s chair in the White House briefing – front and center – and Fox News will move into the front row.

You won’t see the changes, since the camera is usually trained on the podium and whoever is speaking from there.  And of course, since the communication in the White House briefing room is pretty staged and rehearsed, there’s rarely ever any actual news made there.  The reporters digging up stories around town will continue to do the heavy lifting.

But hey… how ’bout that new seating chart, huh?