My new Think Again column is called “Considering CNN’s Choice to Hire Piers Morgan.”
My new Nation column is “All the (Political) World's a Stage.”
I was not in Ohio this week, but I do live in the greatest city in the world where we don’t even worry about people voting for Mitt Romney—thank you very much—and in my city, you can leave a class on the theology and philosophy of Abraham Joshua Heschel, taught by my friend Rabbi Shai Held, a founder of Mechon Hadar, watch some debating in a bar, then drop by the Hammerstein Ballroom, where, in celebration of the musical career of Steve Van Zandt receiving the "Big Man of the Year" Award from littlekidsrock.org, you can see Darlene Love, singing "Among the Believers,” Tom Morello, doing an incredible “Sun City,” Elvis Costello's singing "This Time Baby's Gone For Good," Gary U.S. Bonds, “Standing in the Line of Fire,” Southside Johnny singing “She's Got Me Where She Wants Me,” Dion and Ruben Blades doing “Bitter Fruit,” and, oh yeah, Bruce and Steve doing “Until the Good is Gone,” Bruce, Steve and Southside doing an incredibly moving (if you’re me, anyway,) “It's Been a Long Time” and everybody together doing “I Don’t Want to Go Home.” Can you even imagine?
Bruce gave a nice speech about Steve, and they each accused each other of peeing on the toilet seat. But Bruce also said: “"Steve is the part of my brain that always wants it louder, harder more raucous, more, more please, a little more than that. Steve is my first audience when I write or I create something. I'm always thinking, 'What's Steve gonna think?' I may not always take his advice, but I'm always wondering what his opinion is. And whether Steve was alongside of me in the band or whether he wasn't, that part of our friendship always endured.'"
Steve laid out his hopes/plan for the survival of the music that helps the rest of us survive:
"If the old infrastructure is gone, we build a new one. If we, the few of us left, that grew up surrounded by greatness, don't build a new infrastructure, then those who have no standards will."
Steven's point-by-point plan includes establishing a radio format that supports new music and plays "the greatest music ever made" to set higher standards ("we got that done"); reestablishing a performance circuit for live performance of rock and roll (efforts underway "in spite of the occasional non-believer pulling the plug now and then"); providing a curriculum for music education via the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation; and providing musical instruments for the next generation via Little Kids Rock (saving them from becoming "computer nerds and investment bankers"). Steven thanked everyone for supporting Little Kids Rock founder David Wish's "crazy dream" and "endorsing his most sacred belief... that every kid on earth who wants one should have a guitar.”
Of course it helps to be rich. The evening, including the auction, raised $800,000. And speaking of which, there’s another chance to empty your wallet to see Bruce in this great city of ours, at the Beacon, with Max, Jon Stewart, et al for the Bob Woodruff Foundation sponsored by the New York Comedy Festival “Stand Up for Heroes,” on November 8.
I got two wonderful music collections recently that are thematically connected and extremely nicely annotated. Country Funk 1969-1975. As it says in the explanatory notes, “What in the hell is Country Funk you ask? The answer is a complicated one, in part due to the fact that Country Funk is an inherently defiant genre, escaping all efforts at easy categorization. The style encompasses the elation of gospel with the sexual thrust of the blues, country hoedown harmony with inner city grit. It is alternately playful and melancholic, slow jammin', and booty shakin'. It is both studio slick and barroom raw. And while these all may seem unlikely combinations at first glance, upon close listen, it all makes sweet sense. Country Funk 1969-1975 is a melting pot concoction of the music of Dale Hawkins, John Randolph Marr, Cherokee, Johnny Adams, Mac Davis, Bob Darin, Jim Ford, Gray Fox, Link Wray, Bobby Charles, Tony Joe White, Dennis The Fox, Larry Jon Wilson, Bobbie Gentry, Gritz and Johnny Jenkins.” Jenkins, by the way, is backed up by the Allman Brothers. I love this record.
I’m also loving how much detail on the cuts is provided in the genuinely surprising “Loving on the Flip Side” collection. It could have been written by the main characters of either Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude or Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue, both of whom, coincidentally, are obsessed with seventies soul and funk. (The members of Parliament/Fundadelic make appearances in both books, weirdly). This genre is called "sweet funk," and while the liner notes appeal to your head, the music works on the rest of you, including the part that likes to dance.
I am also looking forward to spending some time with the recent releases of Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Early Cases Collection on Bluray. It’s got the entire first six series— 45 shows in all—that appeared on the BBC. David Suchet plays Poirot, and the stories are set in the 1930s. Very promising.
On the other end of the universe we have Shout! Factory’s release of All In The Family: The Complete Series, which is a 28-DVD of you (I imagine) know what. It’s all 213 episodes as they originally appeared with a 40-page collectible book with essays, a new interview with Norman Lear, a documentary called Those Were The Days: The Birth Of All In The Family, another documentary called The Television Revolution Begins: All In The Family Is On The Air, the series pilot, "Justice For All," the second pilot "Those Were The Days," and the spin-off pilot episodes of Gloria, Archie Bunker’s Place, and 704 Hauser. Goodness.
Also fun, but in a different kind of way is the new release of Peter Gunn: The Complete Series. It’s one of the first detective series (from 1958, I believe) and it’s really cool, with lots of jazz, including Henry Mancini’s great theme, and lots of A-list directors, before they were that (including Robert Altman). It’s got all the elements that made the fifties great, especially the cars, the cigarettes and the ladies—114 episodes, plus, with a music CD too.
And finally, I can’t believe there’s anything left for Shout! Factory’s second Ernie Kovacs Collection after the last one, but here’s Volume 2, which is three CDs, a nice booklet, 8 more episodes from Kovacs’ national morning show, 18 bonus sketches featuring many of his most beloved characters, 3 complete episodes of his oddball game show, Take A Good Look, “A Pony For Chris,” the rare TV Pilot for Medicine Man costarring Buster Keaton, The Lively Arts featuring the only existing filmed solo interview with Ernie Kovacs, and the 2011 American Cinematheque Panel. Order it directly from ShoutFactory.com and you get a bonus DVD containing seven episodes of Kovacs’ game show Take A Good Look, all unseen since their original broadcast.
Finally, this is the 50th anniversary of James Bond (and not coincidentally, the Cuban Missile Crisis). I’m among the many who’s seen all the films, so I really enjoyed watching the EPIX network film, Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007, which focuses on the various fighting and scheming and suing between Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman and Ian Fleming that brought them to fruition and made billions for studios and who knows how much for the lawyers. And if you want the soundtrack (and who wouldn’t?), there’s a new 2-disc anniversary compilation featuring 50 tracks from all 22 films on Capital, which includes the great Shirley Bassey and Duran Duran tracks you might know, but also Louis Armstrong, Tom Jones, Gladys Knight, etc you might not. Plus a second cd of instrumentals. It’s called “Best of Bond: 50th Anniversary.” Warning: they didn’t get Adele’s Skyfall theme.
Now here’s Reed.
Climate Change: To Function in a Post-Truth Political Environment, the Press Needs a Post-Objectivity Mindset
By Reed Richardson
There are two powerful lessons that the media should be learning from the moderation of these presidential and vice-presidential debates so far. For a press corps that fewer and fewer people claim to trust, the first of these debate lessons is quite encouraging—that is, the public actually notices and appreciates when journalists, you know, do their job. But the other takeaway from these debates is much more nuanced and complicated, as it challenges the very foundation of how the press sees itself and its duty to the public.
Over the past three weeks we’ve seen two radically different interpretations of the press’s role in debate moderation, but the subsequent results from these divergent paths both reinforce this same notion. Jim Lehrer’s detached, incurious pose at the first debate drew widespread criticism (including from yours truly) for the way it enabled both candidates to run roughshod over him, each other, and, not least of all for one aspirant for the White House, the truth. Whereas the more engaged, assertive journalistic approach taken by ABC’s Martha Raddatz and CNN’s Candy Crowley in their respective moderator turns—though far from perfect—has unquestionably produced more lively policy discussion and worthwhile context for voters, earning the pair praise from both peers and the public.
That the debate moderation has become such a prominent storyline wasn’t to be expected. So, why are we seeing such visceral reactions—first negative, then positive—to what is often thought of as a banal, thankless and mostly invisible role for the media? Are we witnessing an epiphany of sorts, where both the press and the public are beginning to grasp the vital need for a more aggressive journalism in this new, post-truth environment, one where many political candidates maintain a tenuous relationship with reality, at best, and where facts frequently drown in a cash-fueled torrent of dishonest rhetoric?
Based on the long history of our nation’s press, it pays to be skeptical. However, this open, ongoing discussion about how much or how little debate moderation we want or deserve has inarguably touched a collective nerve. In addition to being candidate showcases, these candidate forums have also become, in effect, a high-profile microcosm of a larger debate about the proper role of the press in our democracy.
Indeed, it’s easy to find parallels. Take, for instance, the rules that the Commission on Presidential Debates developed to govern the debates. Completely hidden from the public (until leaked this past Monday) and full of ridiculously stifling demands on all parties, the CPD’s memorandum of understanding exemplifies a mindset whereby the powerful view the press as little more than a necessary evil, a party to which they graciously grant access merely to give the debates a sheen of public accountability. And in fact, the memo’s dedicated lack of transparency, prescriptions for feckless evenhandedness, and not-so-subtle insistence upon trading access for deference are all uncannily familiar. In many ways, they represent the same timid, cloistered approach to objectivity that the Washington press corps imposes on itself every day.
But, as Jay Rosen notes in this Guardian essay—published before Tuesday’s town hall—in a live, one-off televised event like a presidential debate, the only real limitations a moderator faces involve what we define as in the public interest. So, he or she actually has much more flexibility than what is begrudgingly afforded by the CPD and candidates:
In reality, the rules don't describe what happens because the real limits are audience expectations, which bear down on everyone in the hall with greater force than any timekeeper. Do we expect power to reveal itself without an interlocutor? If more and more of us do, pressure will build for the Vanishing Moderator. But we aren't there yet. Lack of consensus reigns.
Well, if one were to apply the old journalism adage “three makes a trend,” then maybe a consensus is, in fact, already emerging. In the first debate, Lehrer clearly chose to honor the letter of the debate rules—as a “Vanishing Moderator,” as Rosen calls it—and thus gave 67 million TV viewers a good glimpse of journalism’s old-school conventional wisdom about maintaining objectivity. But in doing so, it became clear to many of those watching that Lehrer was prioritizing the interests of the powerful—the men onstage and the commission—over the viewers, and the result was as an unsatisfying, if not embarrassing, display of a toothless press corps.
In contrast, Raddatz and Crowley seemed to recognize in the last two debates that the moderator’s real authority was vested in the people watching, not in the candidates or the commission. Accordingly, they instead chose to honor the spirit of the debate and, thus, took a more active role in it, asking more challenging follow-ups or refining awkwardly phrased questions to provide more context to the those whom they were really there to serve—the voters.
That this rather common-sense journalistic strategy to moderation we saw in the past two debates has been viewed as either courageous or controversial speaks to the lowly depths that the traditional media has sunk. And let’s be honest. Lehrer’s sorry, ineffectual effort provided a ready-made excuse for trying a more engaged stance. Nevertheless, one shouldn’t fully underestimate the pressure to also “get out of the way” that Raddatz and Crowley no doubt had to shrug off going into the debate, knowing full well that to interrupt a candidate or—heaven forfend!—fact-check one of them in real time was to open themselves up to guaranteed charges of bias.
But a professional press corps too cowed to step into the fray or unwilling to admit when it’s made a mistake is doomed to increasingly marginalize itself in an world where it can no longer monopolize information or ideas. Or as NYU professor Clay Shirky puts it in this insightful, must-read essay on the Poynter website (which is adapted from a larger discussion of digital ethics he will deliver at a Paley Center for Media symposium next week):
For the last two generations of journalism, the emphasis has been on the question of consensus; the question of who constituted a relevant actor was largely solved by scarcity. It was easy to find mainstream voices, and hard to find marginal or heterodox ones. With that scarcity undone, all such consensus would be destroyed, unless journalists start telling the audience which voices aren’t worth listening to as well.
A world where all utterances are putatively available makes “he said, she said” journalism an increasingly irresponsible form, less a way of balancing reasonable debate and more a way of evading the responsibility for informing the public. Seeking truth and reporting it is becoming less about finding consensus, which there is simply less of in the world, and more about publicly sorting the relevant actors from the irrelevant ones.
Presidential debates represent one of the last true redoubts of the “scarcity” Shirky speaks of, since moderating these quadrennial events remains a rarefied task only afforded to a select few members of the media. (This debate structure is long overdue for an overhaul, I would add, but I digress.) Yet, even in this high-profile campaign crucible, where the “relevant actors” are clearly defined, we saw that a journalist who adheres to a hands-off, neutral approach facilitates little more than campaign talking points at best. Or, in the worst case, it emboldens politicians who are willing to misrepresent reality, undermining the public’s right to know the truth.
Admittedly, not everyone sees it this way. Among conservatives, Lehrer’s feeble performance was pitch perfect, letting the candidates speak without concern for being corrected by anyone other than their opponent. On the other hand, they saw the more empowered role taken by Raddatz and Crowley as shamelessly playing favorites and had the likes of Karl Rove, among others, pining for Lehrer’s return. Now, there’s no excusing Obama’s dreadful performance in the first debate, but it’s striking that within the ranks of the right wing, there’s a direct correlation between an assertive, active journalist moderating a debate and conservative displeasure with its outcome.
Over at Fox News, this same phenomenon was letting a thousand excuses bloom after the second Obama-Romney debate, which polls uniformly say the president won. Almost unanimously, the network’s voices started to cavil and whine that Crowley, by calling out Romney for believing a right-wing myth that the president had waited two weeks to call the attack on the Benghazi consulate an “act of terror,” clearly overstepped her proper role at the debate.
By doing so, Crowley had “joined Team Obama” cried one Fox News columnist, who breezed past the fact that she had also agreed with Romney on another point about the Libya attack immediately after that exchange. Or that the whole thing was “folly” on Crowley’s part, as another Fox News columnist wrote, since she later admitted Romney was right—except he wasn’t and she did no such thing. Then there was the laughable column co-bylined by Judith “aluminum tubes” Miller and Douglas “Obama should drop out” Schoen. Aside from saying that a “potted plant” would have been a better moderator (sorry Jim), the pair notably griped that Crowley’s mild fact-check so disrupted Romney that it completely flipped the debate in Obama’s favor. This was despite their claim that Romney had won the “first half” and only faltered after having been confronted by Crowley in the seventieth minute of a 100-minute debate. From this, we’ve learned that bad arithmetic affects right-wing candidates and columnists alike, apparently.
Of course, I get that a conservative’s rejoinder to all this is to revert back to their standard trope that all the press is liberally biased. That it’s no coincidence the Democrats did better in the two debates where the moderator took a more active role and that in the case where he or she wasn’t tipping the scales in favor of the left, Romney excelled. That, however, is simply the same old ploy the right has long used to batter the media’s sense of objectivity into a mindset that routinely mistakes treating opposing viewpoints equally with treating them fairly. But when one political party has so embraced ideologically driven narratives formed in an alternative reality, a press corps that acquiesces to merely facilitate context-free “he said, she said” dialogue, whether on the front page or on a debate stage, will fail miserably.
This new, post-truth political world in which we exist today is fundamentally different than just a generation ago. And this radical transformation hasn’t left the media climate unaffected either, as Shirky notes. As such, the press can no longer afford to gainsay these changes and cling to a model that merely seeks to “get out of the way.” Beyond influencing whom this country will choose as the next president on November 6th, let’s hope we also take away from these presidential debates another lasting idea. That the media must adapt to a more open and unflinchingly assertive role, lest it and our democracy run the risk of becoming just as extinct as the dinosaurs.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
New York NY
Great analysis of the destructive effect of the filibuster. Oddly, in both debates, and even in the TV battles among the talking heads, the Democrats consistently fail to counter the argument that Obama controlled Congress for two years and failed to achieve his legislative agenda. Jennifer Granholm wrote a great timeline showing that Obama had a weak filibuster-proof majority for a very short time. It has long since been forgotten that Al Franken was kept from taking his Senate seat during the stimulus package debate, requiring Obama to be overly solicitous to the two biddies from Maine. No doubt the fear of a filibuster was a factor in Obama’s crafting a stimulus package that could reach his desk for signature. The Republicans thwarted Democratic legislation and appointments with the filibuster or threat thereof for the two-year period that Obama had that “elusive” majority. Oddly, Obama and Biden could have responded to their debate foes by listing all the legislation blocked and refuting that allegation. But why didn’t they?
Do you think that Obama anticipates the likelihood of resort by his party to the filibuster to keep a President Romney and his majority in Congress from dismantling the New Deal, Obamacare, and financial regulation?
A great letter to the NY Times recently expressed the fear of the writer that if Obama were to be reelected, he could not achieve his goals; but if Romney were to be elected, he could achieve his. The Senate Democrats may soon lead a minority, which could, by filibuster, protect the majority of Americans from the legislative onslaught championed by the servants of the 1%.
New York NY via Columbus NE
There are other undemocratic practices that should make us wonder about our system.
I think the way congressional districts are defined ought to be under close, close scrutiny.
Then there is the very fact of the apportioning of seats to the Senate, where the desired effect of making sure less populous states are not overwhelmed by more populous has reached a fairly indefensible point. That his powerful body is so UN representative is unfortunate: 2 senators from North Dakota (pop under 700,000) and 2 from Florida (pop over 19,000,000) .
The factor this plays in the Electoral College is starker. North Dakota has 3 votes, each representing roughly 234K citizens. Florida has 29, each representing about 665K citizens. In other words, a North Dakotan Electoral College vote is worth roughly 2.8 times as much as a Floridian electoral vote. Again, the system was meant to help prevent effectively letting populous states ride roughshod over rural ones. But we may have reached a point where the unfairness has tipped far to the other direction.