Huckabee from the sidelines

Until this weekend’s unexpected announcement that he would not be running for President former Arkansas Governor and currently Fox News host Mike Huckabee was a leading contender for the 2012 Republic nomination.

But I wonder whether this early decision to bow out of the race was a strategic move to separate himself from the rough and tumble of a divisive and expensive primary campaign and wait until other candidates have destroyed themselves, battered and bruised the party, before a fractured convention proclaims Huckabee their nominee by acclamation?

Will it be easier – simpler – less costly on all levels – for Huckabee to comment from the media sidelines instead of subjecting himself to the political discourse and voter approval?

FOX news – O’Reilly and Hannity in particular – are already harping that the “mainstream media” will be highly partisan in this campaign – AKA, code for liberal and pro Obama. It seems so disingenuous for FOX to proclaim itself a David vs. Goliath… when Rupert Murdoch already owns such a piece of global media it seems insouciant to play the ingenue.

But what of FOX News commentator Huckabee? Will he be impartial… entirely neutral? Or will his comments by partisan, fomenting debate and suggesting how he’d handle an issue differently? Will Fox be his platform, his messenger until a blistering convention brawl results in no clear candidate from within the party and a call for Huckabee to become the standard bearer?

Just wondering aloud… will FOX police their host, or should they in an arena of free speech? But is this a strategy of Murdoch to truly have a candidate from within his broadcast empire? Maybe it is too much a grassy knoll theory. Perhaps.

Getting past obvious answers – Trump on Today

Donald Trump in his fledgling try for the White House in 2012 is offering an astounding number of bromides and platitudes, braggadocio and bombast in his wave of TV interviews from O’Reilly (FOX) to Today (NBC). From the old saw of the birther’s claim that the president lacks his US birth certificate to matters of state Mr. Trump seems well prepared to talk over any and all other questions while repeatedly repeating all his preconceived message points. He knows how to talk, and talk, and talk.

In response to a question of what the President (Obama) has done well, Trump replied “he got elected.”
In response to the lack of a national budget Trump assured listeners it was due entirely to “a lack of leadership” that wouldn’t be the case if he was sitting in the oval office.
In response to a question on foreign policy he expounded that the “United States isn’t respected” any longer by the rest of the world.

In fairness questions that were posited to how he would change this if elected but they were parried and thwarted and never answered. The ‘how” of what would be different is often the most important question — not the if or the dreams or desires for change, but rather the execution, the how. Mr. Trump offered nothing to that debate or discourse.

Taking just the question of how the rest of the world may see us… after years of financially and militarily supporting dictatorial regimes all to assure the stable supply of crude oil to fill our gas-guzzling economy, or the nature of avaricious conduct in pursuit of minerals and raw materials to satiate our economic demands at the cost of local economies and indigenous people… these are the core issues of why we’re not liked, not respected. Having the biggest stick, the greater swagger, the most shiny boots on the ground isn’t sufficient to master world respect, much less domination. Assuring audiences this would all ‘be changed’ once he gets to the White House seems insufficient and unrealistic.

The media – all of us who are in charge of the microphone – better start asking the ‘how’ as the 2012 campaign gets underway. There’s likely to be a lot of noise in the coming months – but rather than just close our ears we could decide to have greater impact by thinking about and demanding answers to the real questions. Let’s start with ‘how’?

Stupid is as stupid does – again

Sitting in for Sean Hannity on FOX News this week Tucker Carlson called for Michael Vicks execution for pet abuse. Gawker has the clip.
Is this for ratings? Attention? Is it racism? Is it just reality TV?

The question of why the FOX bosses allow this is obvious – cloaked in “free speech” it garners attention and column inches, like these.

But is any one thinking of the longer term damage to discourse? Of course, if it is Tucker’s opinion calling for executions of pet abuses, then he’s welcome to it. Maybe he wants his own show again and feels this is the best way to accomplish that goal. But it just doesn’t pass the smell test of reasonableness… So why say it? For effect? For attention? One can only surmise he was motivated by being quote-worthy. He succeeded. But at what price?

What is the price for discourse? What is editorially responsible? Where is the line? Where are the editors? The managers? The grown-ups?

What’s “new” is already old and what’s old isn’t selling

When did TV News lose its balls? When did TV news decide it was better to get the interview and promise not to offend than to actually hold people accountable and perhaps, dare even, make news in the process?

Is it some sort of unwritten code not to be tough? Is it the result of cut-throat competition that has resulted in a broadcast environment of pabulum? Did news producers find their legs cut from beneath them by corporate ownership (Viacom, GE, Disney) that is more concerned with legislation and other corporate divisions than they are devoted to their news operations and what once passed for content?

David Carr’s To Beat Today, Look to Tomorrow is a thoughtful compendium of what’s wrong with morning news. Those stalwart morning shows… on ABC, CBS or NBC are hardly news any more, certainly not often news-worthy and more often news-light.

Soft features that once would never see airtime in what was once called the 7 o’clock “hard news hour” now dominate and sometimes even lead the broadcasts. Editorial-lite, anchor-intense gabfest now proliferate where once pointed interviews were the morning staple.
News was made – people wanted to be heard making news – programs wanted to break news – politicians and others were expected (and perhaps at times were excited) to appear and speak the truth (that’s news!) as the business day began.

What has caused the change? Not that long ago news makers who said quote-worthy things on a morning show set the agenda for the day to follow. They were even used as snippets in subsequent broadcasts. How long has it been since that happened?

When did TV News lose its balls? When did TV news decide it was better to get the interview and promise not to offend than to actually hold people accountable and perhaps, dare even, make news in the process?

Is it some sort of unwritten code not to be tough? Is it the result of cut-throat competition that has resulted in a broadcast environment of pabulum? Or perhaps what is more likely, did news producers find their legs cut from beneath them by corporate ownership (Viacom, GE, Disney) that is more concerned with legislation and other corporate divisions than they are devoted to their news operations and even concerned for the absence of what once passed for content?

Ok, for disclosure – as a freelancer I do work for more than one of these morning broadcasts 0r their cable cousins, albeit far from the decision centers on West 57th Street, Times Square or 30 Rock.

Guests are fawned over – given fruit baskets with notes signed from “their friends and family at XYZ news”. Yes, God’s truth… that’s what I and others have been instructed to write. I have declined.

I have noted over the years the news divisions sway over the content seems to have been minimized – the intensity of the questioning has been lessened. In its place we see a zeal for getting the guest – for proclaiming it an exclusive even when there was no competition for the story itself.

Have we all deluded ourselves into believing that the audience cared about an exclusive that was, on its merits, not truly important? Does making a hullabaloo about an exclusive raise the story to be worthy of the water-cooler later in the day?

David Carr is correct. The morning news model is dated.  Once there was a chance to earn greater interest because the shows were content heavy, compelling attention, and featuring well-written copy instead of largely ad-libbed repartee.

One day the audience might again demand more. Today in the 500 channel world of entertainment it seems as if too many stations – like CBS’ Early Show – are mired in repeating what is already shown elsewhere – echoing through the airwaves – instead of forging new ground.

So sure, toss out the old anchors. Pretend that’s the problem and the solution. If we are following the tried-and-true model of network production next the New York masterminds will once again remodel the show’s set and change graphics package for the program.
For when the anchor carnage doesn’t pan out, this will surely so the trick… after all we’ve experienced this before.

OutFOXed or smarter than one?

In an editorial tip-of-the-hat to its generally conservative audience, the self-proclaimed fair and balanced FOX network has built a lineup of high profile, high-powered anchors and contributors, including former governors Mike Huckabee (R-Arkansas) and Sarah Pallin (R-Alaska) among others. It has been an effective strategy that has been coined “talk radio right” and remains largely popular among audiences and, in turn, many advertisers.

Politico points out in today’s The Fox primary: complicated, contractual that with 4 FOX regulars now exploring the possibility of running for president in 2012, at what point does the news network have to make a choice — drop these popular talent entirely; disclose its inherent political support by providing them an unlimited, unhindered platform; assure audiences that coverage is fair and balanced regardless of political ambition or finances; or appoint an ombudsman?
Fox is already counting down the days to this November’s mid-term elections. It would be fair to assume a similar countdown clock to 2012 will be unveiled shortly after November 2, 2010… so, when is the proper time to establish some distance?
It is abundantly clear that Ms. Pallin is already campaigning for something, endorsing GOP candidates and appearing for tea party fund-raisers nationwide. Messrs. Gingrich and Huckabee routinely appear on the political circuit of speeches as they graze the chicken dinners and sample the audience’s response to their message.

Is this apparent conflict of interest a problem for FOX? To an old ethicist it would seem unseemly. How can a network cover one of its own without bias? Without criticism or the basis of impartiality? Or, can it?

But what if this is the new standard? Is FOX comfortable evolving from “Your Election HQ” to becoming the “voice of the nation network”? By covering only those it appears to favor, from Sharron Angle or Christine O’Donnell, raising awareness and money for their campaigns, is FOX also building the inside track on whatever news and politics from within those in power, those it backed, and those who are dependent on their access to the FOX mouthpiece?

So – has FOX been outFOXed as Politico might suggest, or does the network care? Do they need to? Surely the toothless FCC is in no position to do anything.
In what is an essentially changing media world has FOX simply been the first to pick and back the candidates it favors? Too Machiavellian or just plain strategic?

And what happens after the votes are cast and it is time to pay the piper?

News obituary – the audience is dying and so is the programming as we have known it

Older audiences for network newscasts may signal the death of the evening news – oh wait, maybe this obituary is already past due for newscasts that cost too much to produce for too little profit for too small an audience.  That is a trifecta representing the end of news as we know it.

Audiences are aging and networks have largely failed to capture the attention or loyalty of the younger Gen X, Gen Y, Millenials, Gen R and other audiences.  As the network news audience ages the doom and gloom around those once proud organizations becomes more intense.

I’ve heard an internal number at ABC News shows the average World News Tonight audience is 61.3 years old.  Public numbers are not as venerable.  At that increasing age medical-pharmaceutical and a few other advertisers are about the only ones who will find this audience at all desirable.

It foretells the end of the evening news as we know it today. Is that a bad thing? Is this just another evolutionary step? In the cafeteria era of news, will the end even be noticed?

From TVNewser, “Report: Broadcast TV Aging Faster than the Population.

Broadcast television viewers are getting older at a faster rate than the general population, according to a new report from analyst Steve Sternberg.
The report does not mean that literally, of course, but rather the median age of network TV viewers continues to rise every year, outpacing the general public.

The median age for CBS last season as 55, with ABC at 51 and NBC 49. Fox, which does not have a network news division, was the youngest of the big four at 44 years old.

So what does it mean for broadcast TV news?

For network news divisions, the aging is troubling, but unlikely to affect their economics in the short term. With the proliferation of cable news outlets, broadcasters have already been hit hard, and seen their audiences erode over the last few years…
As a result CBS News and ABC News, which do not have cable networks to prop them up, have been through a series of devastating layoffs and cutbacks.

Because news shows typically sell ads targeting viewers 25-54 years old, it gives them more room to maneuver as the networks continue to age upward. Only CBS has a median age above the key demo.

Longer-term however, it is a troubling prospect. The entertainment programming typically drives most of the profits at the broadcasters, and as they age up and the audiences decline, the profits will get smaller.

Smaller profits means that the network will look for more ways to cut back. Those cutbacks could end up coming from the news divisions, with its already small margins.”

Good Sex or just a Tawdry Affair? The consequences of broadcasting and political activism sharing a bed

Do audiences appreciate this new symbiotic relationship between news and bias, news and punditry and opinion? Is this a natural growth progression of a huge network’s business covering the news, and how is it possible that this does not cross journalist lines of independence when its social media component strives to become a politically charged entity, something that actively promotes further national division and societal discord?

Fox Nation, another expansion of the powerful FOX brand, promotes itself as a site where all opinions are welcome, although the predominant voices seem to be believers in a conservative political philosophy punctuated by anti-administration diatribe, fear mongering and occasional bigotry.   This is social media, and one does not have to listen long to Fox Radio to hear promotions for this affinity site — listen to us and if you believe in what you’re hearing, you’ll want to join the discussion at Fox Nation.

But the question is when does fair and balanced news reporting become the bulwark of a political affinity group?  It’s not whether this is good, or ethical under some sort of academic standard alone, but is the audience being served (happily) or misused?

It is an honest question for debate for it is changing the way people in this country see, listen, hear and relate to their news. Not so many years ago the major networks were all pretty much the same – bland and apolitical. Owners under the rules of the FCC stuck to rules governing fairness, standards and practices. That’s long over.

Do audiences appreciate this new symbiotic relationship between news and bias, news and punditry and opinion? Is this a natural growth progression of a huge network’s business covering the news, and how is it possible that this does not cross journalist lines of independence when its social media component strives to become a politically charged entity, something that actively promotes further national division and societal discord?

Just as the cablers seem to be in a race to carve out their space along the political spectrum, FOX representing talk-radio-right and MSNBC securing its place as talk-radio-left, there seems to be a new phenomenon of converting audiences into political armies.  Fox Radio is now heard soliciting its listeners to join the “Fox Nation” in order to be a more effective force for change.

What’s different is the blurred line between reporting the news, especially if it purports regularly and routinely to be the epitome of fair and balanced as its brand, but then uses those same broadcasts to appeal directly and solely to a specific political leaning.  It seems expectable that those who register will be parsed and shared with campaigns and PACs, and there are few, if any, limits to how those individuals will be culled and contacted in the environment of social media.

Is there a line and has it been crossed?  Should a national news voice use its power to effect political change in the contemporary environment, and if so, does it need to be more clearly disclosed?  Or is it obvious?

Is it too much for a program host to attend a political rally? Or tell listeners specifically where a rally is planned? Sean Hannity has done both even encouraging his audience to attend if they share his political beliefs.  But is his show even news or is it a talk show about contemporary events? And if it is just that, then he is not subject to the long-established rules guiding journalists and journalism?

There are many who believe FOX News presenters share a conservative bias.  There are even sites which are hyper-critical of Fox News, notably Media Matters which catalogues what it perceives to be daily examples of misreporting and misinformation. In fairness to Fox News and its president Roger Ailes, FOX does draw a line between its news presenters and talk show personalities.  For instance, on election nights the network’s most prominent show hosts, including Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, are not utilized as anchors but rather as commentators separating fact from opinion.  It may be a thin line, but it is a line that is crossed most notably by Keith Olbermann on MSNBC who is offered to the audiences doing both dispensing news and commentary within the same program.

Fox News self-promotes itself as the “new media” and seeks to differentiate itself from all the other networks, decrying them as “mainstream” and old-fashioned, horribly out of touch with their audiences who purportedly are crying out for better reportage. FOX News is not alone; each night John Stewart and Steven Colbert do much the same – making fun of the traditional models in satire and skits.

FOX News is a brilliant, contemporary business which may understand audiences better than any of its competitors.  It has cast off the traditional model of informing and instead has grasped the higher levels of communication theory, specifically to persuade audiences to think as it does and even, at the highest level, to motivate audiences to think that they had the ideas originally.

There is an open question: when does mixing news reporting with social media cross a line of independence, when does reporting with any bias become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is it OK for established news casts? What about for an organization without a formal news organization, for instance Google, which is offering corporate customers the opportunity to advertise on programs specifically created about their business and its audience appeal? Is that news? Is that propaganda? And once you start producing custom content for a specific purpose, business or government, when does it end, and how will the audience recognize the difference?  When does currying to an audience go too far?

The issue is – if that happens, then they will cover only news that interests their audience, or that their audience already believes in?  What happens to other  viewpoints and under-served communities? Will those voices be hear or be subjected to ridicule? Is that a danger today with FOX Nation – where it says all opinions are welcomed… but are they?

The question is simply this — other than in paid and disclosed advertising, should the cable airwaves or the public channels be used to actively promote a political party or belief? Does the audience care, should they? Should we care on their behalf? On that last question alone I believe the answer is an absolute Yes!