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Ari Melber

Ari Melber

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Why Roger Ailes Watches Fox News on Mute

"There are no parties that I want to go to, and I didn't go to Columbia journalism school."
Those are Roger Ailes's qualifications to be one of the most important people in media, according to Roger Ailes. The Fox News chief volunteered his opposition to parties and professors in an interview with Tom Junod, an Esquire reporter who just penned a sprawling, personality-mirroring profile of the most successful media strategist in American politics. Beyond the machinations of mere campaigns—where he also logged some time—Ailes led and continues to personify modern conservatives' mastery of TV. Good television is made of good stories, of course, and Ailes has his down pat. It was one year and one week ago, in fact, when he told the New York Times why he was fit to run Fox News: "My first qualification is I didn't go to Columbia Journalism School. There are no parties in this town that I want to go to."
At least the shtick is consistent.
Whether he wants to or not, however, the real Roger Ailes goes to a lot of parties, as The New Republic once documented, and he even attended the ultimate political media soiree—the Obama's White House Christmas Party—where he chatted with Rachel Maddow. The real Roger Ailes, Junod reports, has a few other habits that could leave readers thinking he is a quintessential member of the East Coast media elite:

There is a restaurant in New York City called Michael's.... It is not the kind of place an average American goes to. It is not even the kind of place an average New Yorker goes to. It is a clubhouse for media people and for only media people—for exactly the people whose contempt Roger Ailes regards as an inspiration and a reward for a job well done. Does Roger Ailes have a table at Michael's? He has the best table at Michael's.... Because he's concerned about his family's safety, and because the problem with America is that there are actually Americans there, he started buying all the houses around him and leaving them empty.

For fifteen pages, the profile give Ailes the Fox treatment—complete with the conclusory title, "Why Does Roger Ailes Hate America?" In an ironic nod, Junod deploys the proto-patriot voice that, prior to Ailes's reinvention of cable news, was largely confined to movie trailers and talk radio. But the most striking parts of the story are more technical than ideological.

Ailes comes across as a man completely in touch with his medium. He often watches shows on mute, because sound—what people are actually saying—is always secondary on television. Ailes used this approach to rate anchors, as he recounted in his 1989 book, You Are the Message; Getting What You Want by Being Who You Are. (Everyone has an Oprah side.) Basically, Ailes would test talk show hosts by watching them "with the sound turned off" for about ten minutes.

"If there was nothing happening on screen in the way the host looked or moved that made me interested enough to stand up and turn the sound up," he wrote, "then I knew that the host was not a great television performer." Anchors who were boring on mute could get axed. "If nothing moved me toward that sound knob," Ailes warned, "I would often recommend terminating the contract of that performer."

Twenty years later, with more contracts to manage and a very different TV landscape, Ailes is sticking to the mute test:

[Ailes] watches TV, he studies TV, mostly with the sound off, so that he can observe one of the rules he does follow—if someone's doing something to make you turn the sound on, then they're doing something interesting. On a wall in his office, there are screens broadcasting Fox News and Fox Business Network, as well as CNN, HLN, MSNBC, and CNBC. He watches them all, from the corner of his eye, and if you give him three seconds, he'll give you the world.... "I tell my people that if they want to be artists of television, the screen is their canvas, but they have to repaint it every three seconds." [Emphasis added.]

Every three seconds. Indeed, while many media companies are clumsily chasing the faster, cheaper competition online, television is bigger than ever. Americans now consume more TV than ever before. (The average person watches a galling 4.8 hours per day.) And today's TV, especially cable, is even fast enough and sensational enough to match the demanding tastes of digital natives, the first generation to grow up with the web. Ailes always had his eye on programming that popped, even if the audience was not listening, and he has rarely felt restricted by the duties or notions of journalism that bind some of his competitors.

When Charlie Rose pressed him on the fusion of news with entertainment, back in the calmer days of May 2001, Ailes was pretty straight up about it. "You can't take it for granted that what you're seeing is pure news—it could be promotion, there could be a lot of things involved with it," he said, adding, "The average news consumer has to be aware that that is going on, so it does trouble me some. But it's like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube. It's not going to happen, so you gotta do your job."





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New Congress Begins With Charades and Debt Threats

What are we to make of the fact that two of the top priorities for the 112th Congress, convening for the first time today, involve an irrelevant charade and an irresponsible threat?

Repealing health care, a pure symbolic activity, is one of the first votes scheduled for next week. House Republicans know their bill will not pass the Senate or clear a presidential veto. Maybe they want to get their irrelevant votes out of the way early.  But it gets worse.

The bigger story is the truly bizarre threat to freeze the debt ceiling, which could theoretically place the United States in default and spark a larger recession or economic crisis.  Alarmingly, the idea is picking up traction among conservative Republicans. And on cue, political reporters have begun speculating that Obama must grant concessions to the fiscal-bully wing of the GOP.

"Some kind of compromise is the likely end-game here, and almost by definition, that compromise is likely to include cuts to domestic spending programs," explained a typical article about the standoff this week.

Yet even Obama, the Commander-in-Compromise, must understand the difference between bargaining for a mixed deal and meeting halfway between responsibility and total, deranged lunacy.

The notion that (some) Republicans are increasing their "leverage" by threatening an economic murder-suicide does not make sense, either. If you think the unthinkable, with Congress actually driving the US into another man-made economic crisis, it would be political suicide.  (The 1995 government shutdown famously backfired on Republicans with less at stake. More on that in a moment.) Or if you imagine the more plausible path of Congress merely complaining before folding—the general pattern during recent crises, from the Patriot Act to Iraq to TARP—the fiscal bullies would just look soft to their base, and unserious to everyone else. To that end, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer recently warned Republicans to "be careful" or they could lose this round when Obama "call[s] their bluff." Indeed, the only way for Obama to falter would be to blink first—which would only empower and invite more bullying. "Weakness is provocative," as the thirteenth and twenty-first secretary of defense always said.

Obama is starting to get it, though.  This weekend, the White House sent Austan Goolsbee on the Sunday shows to push back hard on the "insanity" of these threats, spelling out the catastrophic costs of an unprecedented default on US obligations. Meanwhile, Obama must see it's a new era when supposedly "moderate" bargaining partners like Sen. Lindsay Graham are joining the crazy chorus. Graham is now threatening to freeze the debt ceiling unless he gets to cut Social Security—a dedicated retirement program that is not even linked to the national debt. That is not how Congress is supposed to legislate.

That’s really the bigger point here. The freshman class of Republicans may want to drastically cut the size of government, and restrict its ability to run schools, or build roads or patrol health insurance companies. Those are legitimate policy preferences.

To extract by threat what cannot be achieved through the democratic legislative process, however, is not legitimate.  Indeed, some legal scholars have concluded that it is actually inappropriate for Congress to shut down the executive branch as a bargaining tool over policy disputes.  Peter Shane, a law professor and director of the Center for Law, Policy and Social Science, proposed in a paper that the 1995 government shutdown constituted a new breed of "inter-branch aggression" that posed "a special threat to democratic legitimacy."

The 1994 revolutionaries, however, essentially liked the idea of shutting down the executive branch, and thought, wrongly, that it was also good politics. Today's Republican revolutionaries are playing a very different game. They are threatening an outcome that no sane person could support, shutting down the entire economy and undermining the US’s global credibility to agitate for policies that even their new majority could not otherwise enact. That is no way to govern.

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Former Campaign Aide Criticizes Obama on Organizing

As Congress enacts President Obama's massive tax cut compromise, one of Obama's campaign aides is going public—for the first time—with criticism of the White House's organizing strategy. Sam Graham-Felsen, who was at the center of web and grassroots strategy as chief blogger for the Obama campaign, argues in today's Washington Post that the President has left his best asset on "the sidelines":

"Obama [has] a vast network of supporters, instantly reachable through an unprecedented e-mail list of 13 million people. These supporters were not just left-wing activists but a broad coalition that included the young, African Americans, independents and even Republicans—and they were ready to be mobilized...Yet at seemingly every turn, Obama has chosen to play an inside game. Instead of actively engaging supporters in major legislative battles, Obama has told them to sit tight as he makes compromises behind closed doors."

 In other words, Obama keeps going to war without his army. 

Graham-Felsen argues that on most big fights—tax cuts today, health care last year—the most engaged, passionate and financially generous members of the Obama coalition were either pushed aside, or assigned patronizing, busywork organizing, like thanking members of Congress who were already on board. He's talking about Organizing for America, the 13-million person list from 2008 that was rolled into the DNC. "[The] administration isn't seriously interested in deploying this massive grass-roots list—which was once heralded as a force that could reshape politics as we know it—to fight for sweeping legislative change," he concludes. While that may sound like a standard critique at this point, it is quite damning (and unusual) coming from one of the architects of Obama's grass-roots strategy. 

It's worth recalling that the Internet operation on Obama's campaign had fewer partisan politicos than many other teams in headquarters. The videographer had previously worked at CNN; the social network expert came from Facebook; and Graham-Felsen had written for The Nation before going all in for Obama. So their opposing views are a bit more likely to spill out in the open.  Similarly, Marshall Ganz, the famed labor organizer and Harvard lecturer who trained Obama staff on organizing, showed his independent streak last month, when he critcized his former colleagues for putting OFA "to sleep," instead of mobilizing meaningful reform.  "The president demobilized the widest, deepest and most effective grass-roots organization ever built to support a Democratic president," he wrote in the LA Times.

Now, even if the White House doesn't care about the merits of organizing, or its prospect for advancing better policies in Washington, the degradation of Obama's supporter network could endanger his reelection. That's Graham-Felsen's closing argument. It bucks the current thinking of the Washington media, of course, where The Village is toasting Obama for his savvy caving. In fact, right alongside Graham-Felsen's op-ed, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer lauds Obama as "the new comeback kid"—even predicting that "historians will mark his comeback as beginning on Dec. 6, the day of the Great Tax Cut Deal of 2010." (We can keep an eye on that.) Graham-Felsen disagrees:

"Obama needs this list in 2012 [when he] will likely need to raise far more than $500 million from the grass roots to be competitive... If he continues to play politics as usual, Obama risks alienating not just the left but anyone who believed in the promise of bringing change to Washington."

 That is probably the most confounding part. It is easier to make deals with a few people in secret, instead of holding transparent negotiations in public, and it is easier to work within Washington's narrow, antiquated rules than mobilizing a massive, unpredictable movement to fundamentally reform a broken system. Those are the temptations for the White House. Yet even as the midterms fade into the rearview mirror, it often seems like Obama's aides are in denial about the political costs of these strategies.  The arguments of former loyalists like Graham-Felsen and Ganz are striking because they not only appeal to the idealism or "promises" of the Obama campaign, they also press blunt warnings about the President's political survival. Does it get through to the White House? One suspects that if the warnings were heeded in private, they would probably not be going public.

Further reading:
Graham-Felsen's op-ed, Why is Obama leaving the grass roots on the sidelines?
 A DailyKos diary about the op-ed drew over 500 comments before noon on Friday, making it one of the most discussed items on the site (a popular liberal blog).
TechPresident published a 2010 report by Ari Melber about the first year of Organizing for America.
Marshall Ganz's op-ed, How Obama Lost His Voice, and How He Can Get It Back

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Jay-Z Re-enters Kanye-Bush Fight: Katrina Was Like Selma

Jay-Z, the ten-time Grammy winning rapper and prominent Obama backer, is plunging back into the debate over George W. Bush's record on race and Hurricane Katrina.

During an NPR interview about his new book, Decoded, Jay-Z addressed the recent volleys between Kanye West, his protégé, and Bush, a fellow traveler on the book-tour circuit. (Briefly: West said Bush didn’t “care about black people” at a Hurricane Katrina fundraiser; Bush now cites it as a low point of his presidency; and West recently apologized for the statement when confronted by Matt Lauer, and then walked it back on Twitter.)

Katrina "didn’t feel like a natural disaster, it felt like something that was happening directly to blacks and it immediately brought us back to the images of people getting beaten, sprayed with hose, and beaten on the bridge in Selma,” he explained. “Kanye really spoke what everyone else felt. When he said everyone was immediately like, ‘That’s exactly how we all feel,’” Jay-Z continued, “it felt more than a national disaster. We felt like if that had happened somewhere else, that wouldn’t be happening, and calling people a ‘refugee’ in their own home.”

Jay-Z cast Kanye’s new, fleeting apology as distinct from the original confrontation with Bush: “If Kanye apologized, you know, he said it, that’s how he felt, but you know, what he said [in 2005], that’s how everyone felt.”

As for Bush’s feelings, Jay-Z argued it was telling that a low point for the leader of the free world was just about himself. “I find it strange, like everyone should, that one of his lowest points was somebody talking about him,” Jay-Z told NPR. “He’s the president, you know, people should insult him a lot. That’s part of the job description, people are not gonna be happy with what you do.”

There is another revealing facet to Bush’s reaction: It shows how powerful people sometimes take criticism beyond the political arena quite seriously. The Watergate recordings from the Nixon White House, for example, reveal that the president was livid about talk show host Dick Cavett, asking if there are ways to “screw him.”

Going back to Katrina in 2005, it was nonpolitical figures like West who first voiced some of the most pointed questions about whether race and wealth played a role in the government response. For his part, Jay-Z never matched West’s language—they have similar politics yet different styles—but he has also weighed in. Jay-Z recorded “Minority Report,” a subtle, searching song about the political, media and philanthropic responses to Katrina—with lyrics that also took rich rappers to task:

Poor kids just [ignored] cause they were poor kids,
Left 'em on they porches same old story in New Orleans
Silly rappers, because we got a couple Porches
MTV stopped by to film our fortresses
We forget the unfortunate
Sure I ponied up a mill, but I didn't give my time
So in reality I didn't give a dime—or a damn
I just put my monies in the hands of the same people that left my people stranded
Nothin' but a bandit
Left them folks abandoned
Damn, that money that we gave was just a band-aid
Can't say we better off than we was before
In synopsis, this is my minority report

Discussing his new book, Jay-Z says the song teed off frustration with events “like Katrina,” where “you see people on the roof and people of color for the most part, and there’s ‘Help’ [sign] on the roof, and this is happening in America on TV. And then you see the Commander in Chief, you know, just drive by on a plane.”

Finally, as for the following president, whom Jay-Z boosted with campaign concerts, voter registration events, BarackObama.com videos and even a victory performance for staff at the inauguration, the rapper/author is taking the long view. “In order to judge Obama, you have to judge what happened before, you have to judge what he inherited,” Jay-Z said. “I think a lot of people would like to forget what we were coming out of and what was left on the desk for the incoming president,” he argued, adding, “if you think he can fix eight years worth of damage...in two years, then I don’t know, I don’t know if that’s even realistic.”

Jay-Z's "Minority Report":

"George Bush Don't Like Black People," a Katrina remix of Kanye West's Golddigger song, by K-Otix (aka The Legendary KO). (Thanks to Twitter user @chenski for the song credit.)


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After Midterms, Top Reporters Stress GOP, Not Tea Party

Elections have a way of setting agendas.
While the candidates elected last week will not actually wield power until January, the political world is already adopting the language of the midterms. 
That's especially true for political reporters, who frame the questions thrown at the White House's freshly shellacked podium.
To get a snapshot of the new language, The Nation counted up the most frequent words that reporters used in their questions during three major post-election sessions.
We used the day-after press conference with President Obama, a similar outing with press secretary Robert Gibbs, and a trio of Sunday talk shows—Meet The Press, State of the Union and Fox News Sunday.
Below is a snapshot of the New Change created through the website Wordle.

A few trends jump out here:
Down with GOP: Despite all the media coverage of the tea party, these reporters overwhelmingly frame the results as a partisan victory for Republicans, not a special triump for tea party Republicans. (It's hard to even find "tea" in this mix—on the lower left.)

There is no focus on a single Republican leader. The GOP ran the election as a "referendum on Obama" and the economy, and these press questions suggest that line is sticking. There is no close-up for a top Republican, be it Boehner (a dot under the "Republicans" line), McConnell (tucked under "tea" and "question,") or Pawlenty (in the lower right corner between "big" and "next"). 
In media coverage about the midterms, of course, individual GOP candidates drew lots of attention. After Obama, four of the five top newsmakers in the campaign's homestretch were Republicans, according to data from the Pew Research Center.  The initial reaction among Washington reporters, however, is not focused on GOP leaders. That could shift quickly as Boehner and Obama clash, or meet up for slurpee summits.

Shut it Down. Finally, on policy, these journalists clearly see the election results as catalyzing a challenge to Obama's domestic spending priorities. The recurring battle words are spending, healthcare and cuts. Notably, however, "jobs" and "Social Security" barely register.

With research by Devon Bancroft.

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Olbermann To Return Tuesday, MSNBC Announces

Keith Olbermann will return to hosting Countdown, his popular MSNBC show, on Tuesday night, according to an announcement from MSNBC. 

"After several days of deliberation and discussion, I have determined that suspending Keith through and including Monday night's program is an appropriate punishment for his violation of our policy," said MSNBC Prseident Phil Griffin in a statement released Sunday night. "We look forward to having him back on the air Tuesday night," he concluded.

For more on the story, Greg Mitchell, media reporter for The Nation, has been keeping tabs since Olbermann's suspension was first announced.

Lessons of the Blue Dog Blowout

It was a blowout. By winning more than sixty seats in the House, with close races still trickling in Wednesday morning, the anti-Obama wave of 2010 has already secured a prominent place in American history. Even conservative estimates—say low sixties—will place the 2010 midterms well above some of the largest shifts in party power in the modern era. This is bigger than the Newt revolution, which netted fifty-four seats in 1995, and significantly higher than the forty-nine seats that Democrats took after Watergate. In fact, you have to go back to the dramatic backlash to FDR in 1938 to find a midterm wave larger than the angry tsunami that crested on Tuesday. (The GOP netted eighty-one seats that year.) So what does that mean?

Since so much of our political discourse lives in an imagined future, like some sort of really annoying version of T2, analysts were spinning their explanations before most ballots were cast.

Today's New York Times has analysis from Evan Bayh, a retiring centrist/moderate/presidential aspirant, which was obviously penned before polls closed in order to make it to press. "We were too deferential to our most zealous supporters," he bemoans (huh?), and Democrats "over-interpreted our mandate."  Bayh's solution is to focus more on GOP priorities like tax reform, government spending freezes and entitlement cuts. Third Way, a think tank that was literally founded to push Democrats to the center, has been pushing a similar line this week.

It is truly bizarre, because on Tuesday, voters rejected the very Blue Dog Democrats who have been following that exact approach. 

The Blue Dog caucus was literally cut in half yesterday, from fifty-four to twenty-six members. Now people can argue whether that is good or bad—but no serious political observer can say the strategy worked. 

Loudly breaking with Obama on healthcare was not a winner, either. "Of the 34 Democrats who voted against the health care bill in March—24 of them were Blue Dogs—only 12 won reelection," notes reporter Jon Ward.

With such a strong current for the GOP, of course, there are few signs of what does work for Democrats right now. Yet ruling out the Blue Dog dance is a fine start.  As Dr. Paul will tell you, in politics, first, do no harm.

In a White House First, Gibbs To Call on Twitter in Press Briefing (Updated)

In another technological first for the Obama White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs said on Thursday that he would call on Twitter for the first question in the White House briefing.

"Something new," Gibbs promised on Thursday morning, in a tweet broadcast to his 108,000 followers. "You take first crack. Use #1q in a q and I'll answer 1 on vid before today's briefing. What do you want to know?"  Showing his fluency with the medium, Gibbs coined #1q as a "hashtag" to track incoming questions, which helps spread the conversation farther across Twitter. 

Traditionally, the first question in the briefing goes to a reporter for a wire service, followed by TV reporters and big newspapers, who have coveted assigned seats in the front of the briefing room.  The White House has dabbled in virtual town halls with the President, but the briefing room has been reserved for press and a few credentialed writers for major blogs, like TPM and the Huffington Post. (The latter site made news by using its question to quote from an Iranian activist during the country's uprising.) Tapping Twitter is different, because it cracks the door open to non-credentialed, citizen questions. (See update below.)

Several transparency and open government groups have been advocating similar opportunities for citizen questions. For the midterms, 10Questions.com empowers citizens to ask and vote on questions for congressional candidates in 11 states, through a partnership with Personal Democracy Forum and a host of media partners.  Here at The Nation, we led Ask The President, a coalition with Personal Democracy Forum and others to inject citizen questions into the White House press corps' meetings with The President—which spurred thousands of votes and questions, but no committment from Obama to date.

For Gibbs, the foray into citizen questions was swiftly embraced on Twitter. Within an hour of his unexpected call on Thursday, the #1q thread was drawing pointed questions from fans and skeptics alike.  And because Twitter is transparent by default, everyone can see the questions pile up and decide for themselves if Gibbs cherry-picks a softball.

Update: Macon Phillips, Director of New Media for the White House, explained on Thursday that Gibbs' response would be posted in an online video, separate from his podium address in the official press briefing.  Phillips also suggested that answering citizen questions would be a recurring feature, saying he would "aim for earlier moving [forward]" in how quickly the videos would be posted online. (Phillips provided the explanation by tweet, naturally, in a response to me, PDF's Nancy Scola and Patrick Ruffini, a GOP web strategist.)  Including responses to citizen questions from the podium, in the official briefing, would be more a more powerful way to engage citizens and break down some of the barriers between credentialed media and citizen media. Gibbs' foray, however, is still a welcome step.  And as Obama has been emphasizing recently, people campaign in leaps and bounds, but usually govern in baby steps.

Touting Green Revolution, Ziggy Marley Campaigns For Pot Legalization

Reggae star Ziggy Marley entered the election fray with a new song this week. But unlike most musicians, who focus on bland turnout appeals or conventional candidate endorsements, Marley is calling for pot legalization.

That's not just tour bus talk, either. As news junkies and potheads already know, the California ballot includes a referendum on legalizing marijuana, Prop 19. Marley's new tune, "A Fire Burns for Freedom," can be downloaded for free from his homepage, and the grammy-winning star turned up on MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan show to explain the campaign:

Jay-Z Campaigns Again, But Without Obama

 In a new public service announcement released on Tuesday, the popular rapper Jay-Z urges young Americans to vote in the upcoming midterm elections.

"Our generation changed the world," proclaims Jay-Z, and he calls on young people to "fight for what's right." The footage is from a June 2010 concert at Bonnaroo. Headcount, a nonpartisan organization that registers voters at concerts, produced the spot, which will run on CBS and cable channels. 

The ad does not mention Obama or the Democrats. Jay-Z's politics are closely associated with Obama, however, since he did major campaign events and videos for Obama's 2008 campaign. In addition, during inauguration weekend, Obama introduced Jay-Z when he performed at the campaign's official staff party, while Jay-Z's wife, Beyonce, sang for the Obamas' first inaugural dance.  

Obama has also been reaching out to generation hip hop recently. He did a concert rally last weekend with the rap group The Roots, recorded a youth town hall with MTV, and sat down with that famous interview for Rolling Stone. So far, however, Jay-Z is only helping from a distance.

Below is the new public service announcement, followed by a "Know Your Rights" video created by the 2008 Obama campaign starring Jay-Z.

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