Sunday, April 27, 2014

TV: The slow suicide of NBC News

If it's Sunday, people are talking about Meet The Press.

Sadly, it's not the kind of talk a struggling network like NBC wants to hear.  It's all about what's wrong with the show, why are the ratings so bad, what's wrong with host David Gregory?

These issues were bubbling before last week.

April 6th, Isaiah parodied Gregory's low ratings with  "When to Say Goodbye."

As Ann noted,  "The point of the comic was that David Letterman, who announced his retirement, knew when to say goodbye while David Gregory, who is running off viewers, doesn't know how to say goodbye."

Then last week, The Washington Post published an article by Paul Farhi which documented the long running program's ratings struggle as it dropped to the third most watched Sunday chat & chew of the big three network's faux public affairs programs. As a sign of just how the show is struggling, Gregory flounders in paragraph three attempting to sell confidence before offering, in paragraph four, a weak statement insisting "we're going to fix our problems."

No, they're not.

The program has a visual problem and that's David Gregory's face.  Short of plastic surgery, it's not going to be fixed.

The simian features could be a neutral factor or even a plus.  It could argue, "He's no pretty boy!"  But when people make an argument like that, they're trying to emphasize that the man has substance and Gregory, like his program, has none.

Last week saw The New York Times dealing with the exposure that they'd again made false claims that were part of a march to war (Iraq in years past, Ukraine last week).  This week sees elections in Iraq.  Last week saw many important developments including the US Supreme Court issued a much debated ruling on affirmative action,  Israel walked away from peace talks, US President Barack Obama went to Asia, part of that trip was about promoting a new and controversial trade pact (one that the press has largely ignored), the governor of Mississippi (Phil Bryant) signed into law a ban on abortions that would take place 20 weeks after a woman last had her period,  a new study by political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) theorized that the United States was not a democracy and was becoming an oligarchy, the FCC Chair is moving to kill net neutrality, three US doctors were shot dead in an Afghanistan hospital by Afghanistan troops, an audit revealed the IRS was providing bonuses to IRS employees who were written up and who were not paying their own taxes, the FBI lodged an objection with the Supreme Court to even hearing New York Times reporter James Risen's appeal of a lower court ruling ordering him to break confidentiality and expose his source, the Justice Department is looking for a minimal ($20 million) fine from Bank of America instead of pursuing its investigations into Bank of America's mortgage practices and filing charges, Massachusetts' Judge Rotenberg Center for children who are challenged or disabled has been using electric shocks to 'correct' behaviors, and  the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight's Chair Claire McCaskill and Ranking Member Ron Johnson announced of their "bipartisan investigation into allegations of misconduct by former Department of Homeland Security Acting and Deputy Inspector General Charles Edwards":  "The Subcommittee found that Mr. Edwards jeopardized the independence of the Office of Inspector General and that he abused agency resources."

That's only some of the important issues effecting people's lives.

Today, Meet The Press chose to lead with which of the above?


Surely, it was because they had some major breaking story, right?


They fancied posing as TMZ or Bossip today.

They opened with allegations:

David Gregory:  And good Sunday morning. Developing story this weekend to talk about. It's what we begin with. I'm joined by Civil Rights activist and the host of Politics Nation on MSNBC, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and interim president of the NAACP, Lorraine Miller, and Bryant Gumbel, host of HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, who we're so pleased to have with us, as well. Thank you all for being here. The context is important here. Here are the comments by Donald Sterling, allegedly made by Donald Sterling, first revealed on tape by the site TMZ. Listen.

Though Gregory couldn't do an adequate introduction, we'll note that Sterling owns the LA Clippers. Sterling is White.  His girlfriend (who is not a public figure so we're not identifying her) is bi-racial.

Note that these were allegations, that they didn't even know if it was Sterling on the tape.  Note also, this is a private conversation between two apparent lovers (non-exclusive ones if the tape is of Sterling and his lover). It is not about business practices or hiring.  It has no real implications beyond the two people involved in the conversation.  It has resulted in the LA chapter of the NAACP announcing today that they would cancel their planned lifetime achievement award for Sterling.

If this private conversation had been about business practices or something similar, we might give a damn.  A conversation allegedly about who he wants his girlfriend to bring to games and who he doesn't?  Not of national import, not of anything of news value.  It's gossip.

It's interesting gossip.

But the show's not called Meet The Gossip, it's called Meet The Press.

The segment was made even worse by the inclusion of Al Sharpton.  NBC News staff does not want to be associated with the ethically challenged (and FBI informant) Sharpton.  And for good reason.  Immediately after the clip of the alleged Sterling conversation was played, Gregory asked Sharpton for a response and Sharpton replied:

Well, I think that clearly the National Basketball Association must suspend him, or must say that, "We're going to remove any kind of imprimatur we have on this team if he's the owner." You cannot have someone own an NBA team in this country and have these kind of attitudes. You must remember, he settled multi-million dollar discrimination lawsuits in the past, so he has a background. So what we said in National Action Network is the NBA ought to move right away. Let's not play games. They say they're going to investigate.

Before the allegations that it's Sterling speaking have been proven, Sharpton's calling for a suspension of Sterling?

Al Sharpton is a cheap hustler whose Tawana Brawley involvement alone should have him banned from news programs.  He's a carnival barker at best.

When that's your opening segment, "he's no pretty boy!" is not bragging, it's just noting yet another failure of your supposed moderator.

Al Sharpton hosts a poorly rated MSNBC talk show.  On Howard Kurtz' Media Buzz (Fox News) today. the topic of Gregory's failures was discussed and Kurtz asked The Baltimore Sun's media critic David Zurawik about whether or not MSNBC's image was harming NBC News?  Zurawik noted at The Sun after that he avoided the question:

But, for the record, here is the answer I should have offered: I believe NBC News has seriously harmed its brand and most of its star performers through the indiscriminate mixing and matching with MSNBC.
The rabid ideology of MSNBC has been like a cancer eating away at the credibilty of NBC News, which was once a very good jounalistic institution. Gregory has been part of that. His words and actions within the highly politicized realm of MSNBC make it perfectly valid for viewers to expect there to be a liberal bias on "Meet the Press." And that expectation and perception of bias has been deadly to the franchise. 

Zurawik gets a lot right in the above.  He leaves out one issue but we'll come back to that.

Chris Wiegant (Huffington Post) tried to tackle the issues and failed miserably.  NBC, he insisted, would never cancel the show because it's the longest running show.  His view of sentimental suits running the networks is touching if not at all based in reality.  For example, CBS took the axe to Guiding Light when the soap opera turned 72-years-old.  (Both Guiding Light and Meet The Press started out as radio programs before transferring to TV.)  He then offers a weak view of right-wing criticism of Gregory and an only slightly better view of left-wing criticism of Gregory.

We're feminists, we're left.  And we can be honest and feel others should be as well.  The strongest argument against media bias right now is from the right-wing.

That's really not debatable.  We're not talking about specific details, we're just referring to is there a bias?

Why does the right-wing have the strongest argument?

Because corporate media is a collection of suck-ups.  

With a Democrat in the White House, the media sucks up to the Democrats.  It does the same for the GOP when a Republican is in the White House.

The notion that the media has any independence is one made by only the extremely foolish or the extremely well paid -- which, more and more, are one and the same thing.

Does Gregory scrape and bow towards Democrats today?

Yes, he does.

He's not doing so to be a liberal, he's doing it because he's a suck up.

In the Bully Boy Bush days, he sucked up to the Bush administration.

He's most famous for his January 12, 2004 'report' on The Today Show where he used talking points handed to him by the Bush White House to slander and defame former US Secretary Paul O'Neill.  O'Neill, he insisted, would have to explain how he got memos used by journalist Ron Suskind, how these government memos were obtained and whether any laws were broken and . . .

He continued frothing at the mouth while holding Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill.  As one of us explained to an NBC news producer minutes after the segment aired, Gregory hadn't read the book -- hadn't even read the introduction -- where it was explained that O'Neill asked the White House for the memos and they put them on a disc for O'Neill.

That's where he got the memos, they were given to him by the White House.  They weren't stolen, they weren't secretly whisked away.

Gregory wasn't trying to be a Republican that day, he was just trying to suck up to a White House.

Had Gregory hosted Meet The Press then, the left-wing would have had the strongest argument against bias.

The media is not a collective of independent voices attempting independent journalism.

They are a pack of lap dogs.

Weigant is a deeply stupid and he proves his ignorance by writing of Gregory:  "he once said mean things about Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden."

"Mean things"?

Tech Dirt reported on it in real time:

The specific question (though, watching the video gives you much more of a sense of the tone and style in which it was asked) was:
"To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn't you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?"
After Greenwald hits back hard and points out the ridiculousness of a reporter "embracing" a theory that would outlaw nearly all investigative reporting on the government, Gregory insists he wasn't "endorsing" the idea, but merely raising the questions that others had. However, watching his initial question, it sure looks like he's directly suggesting that Greenwald committed a crime in reporting on such a huge story, making a huge leap in claiming that reporting on some leaked information is akin to "aiding and abetting." 

Those are not "mean things."  Those are deeply stupid statements which are devoid of anything resembling journalistic ethics.  He accused a journalist of committing crimes for reporting facts.

Weigant's stupidity only got worse.  He's not too worried about Gregory, he explains, because the faces are going to be changing:

This means there will be a shakeup in the Sunday morning scene similar to the one now going on in late-night television. Younger hosts may take over the whole genre, to put it another way. 

How old does the idiot think Tim Russert was when he started hosting Meet The Press?

Russert was 41-years-old.  How old is 'new' late night host Seth Meyers?  He turns 41-years-old this year. CBS has named Stephen Colbert as the successor to David Letterman.  That would be forty-nine-year-old Stephen Colbert.  Jimmy Fallon took over hosting duties of The Tonight Show this year.  He also turns forty this year.

Younger hosts?

40 is middle-aged.  

To the issue of MSNBC, the chronically low-rated network has put a partisan spin on the image of NBC News.  That's only compounded when MSNBC hosts like Al Sharpton are bought on to NBC News programs.

It shouldn't happen.

But while MSNBC has tarnished NBC News, the NBC News staff has destroyed their own image.


Is that a news term?


Because Andrea Mitchell can be seen every three months, across the country, on TV, snarling "Slut!" at a woman.

It wasn't funny when it aired.

It's 30 Rock.  Andrea learns Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) has had sex and mocks her and derides her with, "Slut!"

The show's now in syndication with most TV stations choosing to air the show five times a week with two episodes each day.  That means every 13 weeks, the show is back to the Andrea Mitchell "Slut!" episode.

Andrea Mitchell wasn't the first news anchor or reporter to appear on a sitcom.  We believe Walter Cronkite was the first, doing an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1974 while he was also the host of the CBS Evening News  (February 9, 1974, "Ted Baxter Meets Walter Cronkite," written by Ed. Weinberger).  But Walter didn't call anyone a "slut."

On that episode of 30 Rock ("When It Rains, It Pours," written by Robert Carlock), the news of Liz's alleged affair is spread by NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams.

He appears on nine episodes in all, playing a vain network anchor named Brian Williams who spreads gossip.  Not only does he note Liz's alleged affair in the previously noted episode, in "!Que Sorpresa!" (written by Matt Hubbard), Brian Williams spreads gossip to Liz's staff -- the staff she supervises -- that she's pregnant. In both cases, Brian Williams doesn't just spread gossip, he spreads bad gossip -- in both cases, what he repeats is untrue. 

As a fleeting moment on NBC prime time, it may not be noticed.  Truth was, 30 Rock was watched by few people on NBC.  It's reaching many more viewers in syndication.  And every thirteen weeks, they see Brian Williams playing himself as a gossip and idiot.  (In one of the episodes, he plays a 70s broadcaster who is deeply sexist but not named Brian Williams.)  They also see him doing the "slow jams" with Jimmy Fallon.

Neither his 'comedy' 'acting' nor his 'slow jams' have a damn thing to do with news (nor did his Family Guy voice over) but it does have a lot to do with lowering the NBC News brand. 

And when a light weight like David Gregory struggles on air, he doesn't have NBC News' formerly strong image to fall back on.  That's the point we feel David Zurawik didn't address. 

Zurawik has long noted that the partisan nature of MSNBC is harmful to the image of NBC News.  He's been exactly right about that (and most at NBC News agree).  But it's not just that.  There was outcry as late as 2002 over NBC News staff appearing in scripted programming.

In 2002, for example, Katie Couric appeared in Will & Grace's "Marry Me A Little, Marry Me A Little More" (written by Jeff Greenstein and Bill Wrubel).  That may have been the first of the worst.

We don't say that to slam Katie Couric and, to be sure, she didn't snarl "Slut!" at anyone. However, Grace (Debra Messing) married Leo (Harry Connick Jr.) on The Today Show  and . . .

Katie explains in her second appearance in the episode that NBC News screwed up and hired a judge not licensed to marry anyone in the state of New York so Grace and Leo aren't really married.  The laugh is about the incompetence of NBC News. Katie and others may have been good sports, but what it really says, day after day in syndication, is that NBC News is incompetent.

Equally harmful are the portrayals of NBC News staff as shallow, vain and stupid.  That's not just Andrea Mitchell and Brian Williams.  It's also  NBC anchor Matt Lauer.  Matt Lauer had already embarrassed himself (Will & Grace, "Bathroom Humor," written by Greg Malins) in 2006 declaring, "I need to tinkle."


A grown man saying he needs to "tinkle."

A grown man who fancies himself being in the news industry saying he has to "tinkle."

He only made it worse on 30 Rock playing an idiot named Matt Lauer who interviewed an offensive Tracy Jordan and couldn't grasp the Jordan was offensive.  (Jordan was attempting to lose his Academy Award winning reputation by being offensive and outrageous.)    By contrast, his then colleague Meredith Vieira  managed to appear on 30 Rock without playing a gossip, uttering "slut" or making a fool of herself. 

NBC News should have stepped in a long time ago with a rule that their news staff did not participate in skits that mocked or belittled NBC News.  It's not a humor ban.  It's a realization that when your own news staff will be seen over and over in syndication mocking the quality of the news department, it's going to be a lot harder for NBC News to be taken seriously.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Poll1 { display:none; }