Sunday, April 01, 2012

TV: Cable Nation's New Model

Keith Olbermann has burned another bridge. On Friday came news that Current TV had fired him. Charges were tossed back and forth over the last few days and a big lawsuit is currently expected. Several friends assumed we'd be rejoicing and were surprised when their phone calls were met with yawns on our part.

new tv

Keith Olbermann is a sexist pig and we've spent years calling him -- and those who enable him -- out. We last wrote of the diva in June of 2011 ("TV: The Fawning") and like any rational person covering TV, we knew he would be off Current TV in less than a year. But it's hard to do a jig or dance of joy when his departures no longer matter -- not when the spawn of his seed carry on his work across the cable nation.

Never a widely popular brand but always an immensely copied one, Olbermann and all he spawned can be seen as driving the 'genteel' (by comparison) Larry King and others off the airwaves. Though Keith Olbermann would prefer to be seen as an original, he's a copy himself, a negative photo copy of Bill O'Reilly of Fox News.

We don't clutch the pearls, so Keith adopting Bill's shrill tone never bothered us one bit. His inability to stick to the facts did. At first he rivaled Bill in the fact-free department but he quickly surpassed O'Reilly and the Fox News host was left looking like a fact checker by comparison.

There was a time in the late 90s, after Hillary Clinton had accurately spoken of "the vast right-wing conspiracy," that a lot of talk and space were turned over to the need for the left to develop their own media to get the facts out.

Looking back, it's so obvious that was never going to happen.

It was at this time that right-wing hitman David Brock was in the midst of his conversion phase. He would go on to lead Media Matters which would morph into something other than a fact checker, something far removed from facts. When he would tell his story, we hoped people would respond to the horror of it, the lying about people, the lying to people, the never-ending deception.

Then along came Air America Radio. Centrist at the start but at least Lizz Winstead was listened to and the point was to inform and entertain. Following Al Franken's departure for the Senate, the goal of Air America Radio became to indoctrinate. Information and entertainment were out the window and never ending screeds were broadcast near constantly.

"You wanna know what I think?" is what a news producer at NBC, a friend, called that programming. And maybe for a week or two you do. For about that long, you may be interested. But after two weeks, unless you're sleeping with the person, do you really care that much what they think?

With the Lizz Winstead model, the hope was that by providing information and entertainment, press lies could be combatted and overcome. That Air America really was about a smarter listener. The never ending rants were about indoctrination and, let's be honest, on airs' huge egos.

At that point, MSNBC and Air America Radio were hand-in-hand. Hand-in-hand? Hell, they were two identical twins dry humping one another to the shock of all around them.

Air America Radio ran off listeners at an alarming rate. (They can delude themselves that, having indoctrinated a listener, they then lost him or her as he ran out into the streets to indoctrinate the masses.) And then it went belly up. Several friends with NBC News feel the same fate awaits MSNBC with its current evening and nightly line up.

MSNBC became a mirror copy of Fox News. Gone were the notions of getting the truth out, up went the need to silence debate and facts. (Most recently, Kat's BFF Kevin Zeese reported he was kicked off radio row in DC because he wasn't going to parrot the Democratic Party message. When he stated he had been invited by a radio host who wanted to interview him, the Democratic Party operative told him he was leaving and that, "I tell them who to interview.") They are not about news, they are not about information. They are the James Carville War Room, 24 hours, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, year after year. Campaign spin passed off as news. Issues picked up or tossed aside depending solely on whether they think their candidate will benefit from America noticing whatever event.

Monday, this went up at The Common Ills:

One visitor has been lobbying in the public e-mail account repeatedly since Saturday morning for us to include the death of Shaima Alawadi. No, thank you. In this morning's four e-mails, the visitor argues that surely the Iraqi press must be covering the woman's death. They are. Here for Al Mada. They're also covering that Omar Sharif's grandson "admits" he's gay and half-Jewish. We're not going to be devoting space to that story either. For those who don't know, the woman is an Iraqi-American who came to the US in the early 90s. She was beaten and she's died. That's what's known. The coverage is a bunch of items that are speculation. And inflated outrage. It allows people to pretend they care about an issue, these momentary topics that flare up every few months. But they don't really have much to do with news. To be clear, her death is tragic, unfortunate and all too common for women in the US and around the world. However, nothing is known. When we covered the Iraqi woman run down in the US, killed by her own father, there were eye witnesses and that was a story the media didn't want to touch. This isn't any such story. The media has portrayed it as 'killed by an outsider who hates foreigners' and that is easy to cover, no real risk to anyone and allows everyone to mount their soapboxes. I'm sure there's already a Facebook outrage page for the woman, there are not, however, any real facts about who killed her or why.

When facts are in short supply, the likes of Fox News and MSNBC don't hesitate to 'create' facts, to 'improve' on them and to render real facts invisible. Cable 'news' is nothing but severe indigestion -- in other words, lots and lots of gas.

And, oh, how quickly the gas baggery turns into modern day vigilantes.

For weeks now, they've avoided real stories that effect people's lives to do the cheapest broadcast possible: Gas bag, gas bag, gas bag.

If you missed it, March news and 'news' has been all about the February 26th shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by 28-year-old George Zimmerman. African-American Martin was on an evening candy run, Hispanic Zimmerman was doing a neighborhood watch.

Other than that that, there's been never ending speculation.

One of the few voices of reason in the whole coverage has been Bob Somerby of The Daily Howler. He's noted problems in the coverage and problems with the claims.

In doing so, he's frequently asked about Zimmerman's calls to 9-11 since that's a detail that changes constantly and supposedly a telling one. Last Tuesday, Somerby noted the following claims on numbers:

* Lizette Alvarez reported for The New York Times that Zimmerman called 9-11 46 times "in the last 14 months"
The Orlando Sentinel said he called 46 "in the past 15 months"
* CNN said 46 "since 2001"

* AP said 46 "since 2004"
Washington Post said 46 times "since 2004"

Who's right, who's wrong? First, thank you to Wally's grandfather who went to the police department for us, got the record of the 9-11 calls and faxed them to us. We count 46 calls. The New York Times and The Orlando Sentinel are wrong. CNN is 'kind of' right and AP and The Washington Post are exactly right. There are 46 calls and the first call documented is in 2004. Since there's no record of any calls prior to 2004, presumably none were made which would make CNN right. But why they would go with 2001 when the records show the first call was August 12, 2004, we have no idea.

Somerby notes the NAACP's Ben Jealous told Meet The Press (NBC) that the police should have known Zimmerman should be behind bars because he was "somebody who they had talked to 46 times in 56 days. I mean, they should have known something was off with this guy, when he called the cops 46 times just this year." Ben Jealous is wrong and helps no one by repeating 'facts' that are not, in fact, facts. Somerby noted Goldie Taylor told CNN's Don Lemon that Zimmerman had called 911 46 times since the start of this year. She apparently thought she could lie easily. Lemon 'corrected' her that it was 46 times in 1 year (again, it was 46 times from 2004 to last month) and she insisted, "In any jurisdiction, even 46 times in a year, two years, make that five years, that person would have been named a nuisance caller."

Goldie Taylor may have made the mistake of reading Frances Robles' report for The Miami Herald where that claim is made -- and despite being published on March 17th, the claim has never been corrected in the article.

Goldie Taylor's wrong all on her own about X number of calls to 9-11 leading to you being ruled "a nuisance caller."

Where does these people live? All these experts?

One of the things we did last week, in the surrounding areas of DC, was ask people (including police officers) about neighborhood watches. If you're doing a neighborhood watch and see something, the police want you to call.

If you're going to say someone's a nuisance caller -- wrongly say that, then you should probably know what they were calling about. In the calls, we see loose dogs (a pit bull), we see fire alarms going off, pool and club house use (often loud) after both are apparently supposed to be closed, etc. (We also see that sometimes Zimmerman didn't give his name.) Race doesn't figure into most of the reports.

Race pops up the first time in a June 24, 2007 call when three males are attempting to open a car with a slim jim -- 2 Hispanics, 1 White is how the report reads. In 2011, it pops up again with
two 9-11 calls -- one on 2 Black men, one on 1 Black man. In 2012, there are two calls where the person that's concerned Zimmerman is Black. So that's five calls where race was noted. One of the 2012 calls is Zimmerman's call about Trayvon Martin and, as we all should know after NBC edited that 9-11 call, the 9-11 operator asked Zimmerman about race. Presumably, such a question was asked in the other four calls. And presumably, it was asked throughout and not noted in the report when it was only a White person or two or more only White people. Asking about the race isn't racism, the operator is attempting to get a description to supply the officer(s) dispatched with. However, the police not including race identification in the bulk of the reports may indicate some sort of bias (or may not).

In the 9-11 call on Martin, the police tell Zimmerman that they don't "need" him to follow Martin. They don't say, "Don't do that" -- despite cable claims that he was told to stop. In the bad Miami Herald article we noted earlier, Wendy Dorival pops up, the "police volunteer program coordiantor," who insists that, in a September 2011 presentation that Zimmerman was one of the attendees of, "I said, 'If it's someone you don't recognize call us. We'll figure it out.'" That's not telling someone, "Don't follow." She also states she said, "Observe from a safe location." Again, that's not telling someone, "Don't Follow." "There's even a slide," she insists, "about not being vigilante police. I don't know how many more times I can repeat it."

She can't repeat it because she hasn't once said it.

There are a number of ways this could play out in court. Two possibilities are that Zimmerman is found guilty or that Zimmerman is found not guilty. (A hung jury is another possibility.) If it's either of the first two, Martin's parents should consider suing the police.

They never told Zimmerman not to follow Martin. Wendy Dorival and her little slide show didn't tell Zimmerman not to follow.

Most importantly, Wendy Dorival may have been criminally negligent. As the police volunteer program coordinator -- especially as one who insists that you don't follow a suspect (that "you don't recognize") -- she should have been getting points across. Her little teach-in of September 2011 doesn't cut it.

It especially doesn't cut it as we read over the record of the 9-11 call Zimmerman made April 22, 2011. As it's recorded, it appears Zimmerman is following someone he finds suspicious while the police are on the line. Hopefully, the 9-11 operator told him not to. But that the record exists should have meant that Wendy Dorival was aware of it. And it should have meant -- if indeed there is a no-follow policy -- that Dorival was immediately meeting with Zimmerman -- one-on-one, not some slide show seminar -- to discuss what happened and explain why it shouldn't.

Again, the Martins could have a case for criminal negligence because it appears the police -- which wants to insist that you don't follow if you're neighborhood watch -- had a record suggesting Zimmerman did just that and yet there was no follow up done by the "police volunteer program coordinator."

There were a lot of details in the 9-11 call logs. Others might interpret them differently or find other elements key. That's fine. We're offering our take on them. But we had to wonder, reading over them and thinking of all the claims put forward on TV about Zimmerman and the 9-11 calls, had most bothered with reading them? Judging by their statements on air, they hadn't.

Tuesday, Bob Somerby was noting MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell's on air claim that, "I feel like a prosecutor tonight. I better dress like a prosecutor. And -- and you know, that's the way I'm feeling about it." Somerby rightly felt O'Donnell was departing from journalism as evidence by that statement. While we agree that O'Donnell's a lousy TV host, we'd go further, he's a lousy pretend prosecutor. A good prosecutor -- real or pretend -- would have familiarized him or herself with the evidence and, yes, that would include the 9-11 calls.

More ridiculous than O'Donnell (yes, it is possible) would be Al Shaprton. As an NBC reporter asked us last week, "How does the network justify Sharpton leading protests demanding Zimmerman be arrested and convicted while at the same time hosting and covering a program each night that explores the Martin killing?"

That's a damn good question.

Anyone who caught clips of Sharpton yelling into the microphone at a rally, demanding Zimmerman be put away, suffers no delusions that Al Sharpton is impartial and why MSNBC is allowing him to use his nightly hour to cover this case is one for a journalistic ethics committee.

In fairness to Sharpton, he's got no training in journalism.

These are the children of Keith Olbermann.

And before you say, "Well Current TV was right to drop him," you might consider that Current TV is no better than MSNBC. For all of Al Gore's lofty claims (and journalistic background -- he actually is a trained journalist) and talk of the need for facts, Current TV is a cesspool overflowing with ignorance.

We watched the programming. The typical original 'news' programming last week, from Current TV stressed the Martin shooting. And the March 28th episode of The Young Turks was fairly typical of what the network offered all week.

There was Cenk Uygur -- a joyous Cenk -- fanning the flames of racism with the highly uninformed law professor Jody David Armour.

Cenk Uygur: So are you saying that race could be part of the defense?

Jody David Armour: No question.

Cenk Uygur: So -- so [Laughter] Oh, this is beautiful. So Zimmerman can say since he was Black I had a reasonable expectation that he might do me harm.

Jody David Armour: He wouldn't have to say that explicitly but he will subtly get that in. He will have -- He can just point out to the jury, "Look at the person who was approaching me, look at the hood over his head, where have you seen hoods like that before? In grainy film where people are holding up stores and the like." So when an ordinary person -- that's the reasonable person test -- an ordinary person in my situation would have feared for his life when he looked at this Black, young person -- you'll consider gender, you'll consider age, you'll consdier race. "Somebody dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit you're going to treat differently than somebody in a hoodie," is what he's going to say.

Really, is that what's he's going to say?

Strange because there's yet to be charges filed, let alone a court date set but Jody David Armour
already 'knows' that Zimmerman will represent himself.

As any educated law professor knows, Zimmerman -- or anyone -- would have to self-represent to speak to the jury during a trial. The defendant is not allowed to address the jury. Even if he takes the stand, a witness is not allowed to address the jury. A witness responds to the judge and the attorneys. Only the judge can address the jury throughout the trial. Opposing counsels get to address the jury twice -- in opening statements and in summations.

Believe it or not, even Jody David Armour knows that. However, you can't demonize Zimmerman for something his attorney does and demonization is all this cable trial has been about. A witch hunt.

It's so very telling that the cable nation decries Zimmerman for vigilantism but they're practicing it themselves.

They have made themselves judge and jury. They know what happened (Martin murdered in cold blood) and they know why (racism) and they can't understand not just why Zimmerman's not been charged but also that you don't start calling for a conviction. You are not the law.

And it's really sad to see the crazy on display. To see the frothing at the mouth and, especially with Cenk, the enjoyment. If you don't know, there's nothing more fun and emotionally elevating than to call someone else a racist. Doesn't matter if it's true or not, you'll still catch the same giddy high.

And that's all the cable nation has offered us: cries of racism presented as fact when they may or may not be. Zimmerman presented as guilty in the same way Wen Ho Lee was wrongly presented or Richard Jewell was wrongly presented or . . . You get the idea.

No, Lawrence O'Donnell, journalists aren't supposed to be prosecutors. But hour long blocks of speculation aren't supposed to be billed as "news" or "public affairs programming."

What they are is gossip. The gossip mavens of today, these children of Olbermann, picked that up from their Deadbeat Daddy as well. Whenever time permitted (very often, actually), Olbermann would break away from news to attack Paris Hilton or a beauty queen. As the cable nation chases its own tail, how fitting that Keith Olbermann flames out again. It's as if the Idiot Box is saying, "After Cenk Uygur disgraced himself and Current TV with the monologue praising Al Sharpton for covering the case on TV (that coverage is filled with multiple errors including the false claim by Sharpton that the police didn't take Zimmerman's gun) and leading the rallies, we have reached the point where we have surpassed Olbermann and rendered him obsolete."

And facts are rendered obsolete. At this point, it is not known why Martin was shot. Zimmerman may have shot him out of racism, out of hatred for teenagers or any other malice. Or Zimmerman may have a reason -- maybe even a solid reason -- for the shooting. We don't know. But conjecture and speculation reign supreme in Cable Nation. This morning on NPR's Weekend Edition, Eric Deggans offered a very mild critique of the coverage but even he had to note:

Unfortunately, what's also happened is that people have a lot of other discussions they want to have. They want to talk about the demonization of young black men, undue suspicion cast on people of color when they're in certain neighborhoods. They want to talk about how the police investigate crimes involving people of color and they're sort of piling all of these issues on top of a very specific incident that people are trying to get to the truth of. And I think sometimes that clouds the issue and makes it hard for us to figure out exactly what's going on.
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