Sunday, May 13, 2007

TV: The 'boys' are back in town

Bill Moyers returned to TV as the host of a program, Bill Moyers Journal. Greg Behrendt debuted in 2006 with The Greg Behrendt Show and is already prepping Greg Behrendt's Wake-up Call. You might think the two aren't related but you'd be wrong. Moyers works the high end, Behrendt is on dumpster duty, but notice the spaces are always provided for White male voices.

Behrendt, for the uninitiated, is a no talent of questionable looks whose claim to fame was rewording an old phrase (updating it): "He's just not that into you." There's nothing novel in the statement and the update doesn't even allow for wit but it created a mini-frenzy in women (a number of them at The New York Times) who desperately watched Sex in the City in search of answers about their own lives. The drip character got to repeat the phrase on the show and suddenly it was supposed to be a craze. The same way Sarah Jessica Parker was supposed to be a star. Of course, the thing that (originally and more recently) killed Sarah Jess' film career was the loud gasp that greeted the appearance of that chin wart on large screens, so go know.

Employing the same character audiences first met on Square Pegs and ripping off Miami Rhapsody (where Sarah Jess' character was fond of voice overs and speaking to the camera about pressing issues such as hair care products), Sex in the City gave a gay man's view of women and damned if certain, supposedly educated, women couldn't relate and identify. (Apparently, they longed to also stroll down the streets of Manhattan in a really ugly, pink tutu that emphasized all their body flaws.) With Sarah Jess' 'reborn' movie career due to fail (seriously, remove the chin wart) and the show ending in 2004, there was a desire to try to milk the franchise for any life left in it. Now you might assume that Kim Cattrall, who did all the heavy lifting and was an audience favorite, would be deluged with offers but if you made that assumption, you obviously don't know how TV works.

Instead, TV audiences were offered samples of Greg Behrendt. It was thought women would respond to Behrendt who wasn't funny (despite a stand up career -- which naturally went nowhere) and wasn't attractive. But damned if the White women of The New York Times didn't fall for it, even as women across the country pushed their buggies past the samples table while holding their noses. The Greg Behrendt Show debuted at the same time as The Megan Mullally Show. The Water Cooler Set lined up to praise the limp offerings of Behrendt and sharpened the knives for Mullally.

On her show, Mullally frequently did comedic bits (and, unlike Behrendt, she is funny) and sang (she has a wonderful singing voice). She frequently interviewed celebrities and children and, though not groundbreaking, it was entertaining. The Water Cooler Set places no value on entertainment, they're only interested in what they perceive as hipness.

So they talked up Behrendt's really bad show. What did audiences see? Trash TV too limp to go full out. They saw Behrendt nod his head to a guest's response and follow that by asking a question that gave no indication he'd even been listening. They saw him punch the air while holding his note cards a lot. Someone must have seen it as a swipe from Phil Donahue.

Of course Donahue, whether the weight was up or down, was always genuinely attractive and Behrendt's skin always looks like that of a crystal meth addict in the first week of rehab.
Sometimes he'd sport glasses, Tina Fey glasses, as though attempting to look smart. They only drew attention to his heavily lined and off balance face.

So you had a highly unattractive host who couldn't listen, offering up weak versions of the trash Jerry Springer traffics in, and this was what the Water Cooler Set got behind. Did we mention he sported really blonde (and really bad) highlights worn in TV's idea of punk rock (a mullet), circa the 1980s? (It was Lisa Hartman's hair when Knots Landing brought her back from the dead.) Somehow this was supposed to be someone viewers sought out? The Water Cooler Set cried "YES!" and informed you the Gregster practiced a "refreshingly hands-off approach to problems."

Viewers begged to differ which is how it ended up cancelled. (It's burning off the last of the episodes currently.) Now remember that we pointed out the obvious fact already: a Gregg Behrendt gets offers and a Kim Cattrell is passed over? The three ratings dynamos in daytime are: Oprah, Ellen and Rosie. So it's all the more shocking that the White guy who updated a one liner is the one handed a shot and supported despite lackluster ratings.

Over at PBS? Bill Moyers' Journal is on air. We'll get to the merits of the show in a minute but let's remember PBS' mandate of diversity (someone has to) and let's remember that mandate got trashed somewhere in the early 80s. Maybe it's Jessica Savitch's fault? Goodness knows Frontline people didn't wait for her body to be buried before airing their various complaints. They needed her for viewers and like the angry suits at CBS (in any period), they hated themselves for needing her. So somehow it was her fault that she did the job she was hired to do (wrap arounds to other people's reporting) and indicative of her lack of 'newsie-ness.'

A few weeks back when we noted the waste of federal funding that PBS was, Ty reports several e-mails coming in from readers arguing they would agree with us except for the fact that Bill Moyers is back on PBS! Of course he is. That's only surprising to those who don't know the way he played it off CBS throughout the seventies. "Temperamental" is a word that the Frontliners tossed around about Jessica Savitch which only demonstrated how uninformed they were. The 70s high drama at CBS around Moyers and another 'legend' may not have made headlines but, back then, news standards were a bit higher. It helps that, in the last few years, Moyers has been enshrined (by people who never worked with him at his height) as The Last Journlist Standing.

We're not part of the Moyers Mob but we can appreciate what he does. He prepares for interviews and he actually listens during them. His new show promises some reporting but, largely, is another public affairs chat show.

The Moyers Mob doesn't take kindly to their god being questioned. When we (Jim identified the comments, in his note, as coming from us) rightly noted the absence of women in the two hour*, special debut of the show a few e-mails came in screaming "Heretic!" and, according to Ty, accusing us of everything including, we'll assume, a violation of canon law.

"This is," Ty says one wrote, "a serious news program!"

Only if your own standards have fallen as low as TV's could a series debut that featured comic Jon Stewart qualify as "serious news program." (We know Stewart, we like Stewart. And, unlike the mob, he's the last to claim he's a journalist.)

But, 'serious news program' or not, how controversial is it to point out the obvious lack of women? That special revolved around the reporting during the lead up to the war in Iraq. Where was Amy Goodman?

We asked that question of a friend working on the Moyers' show and were told that they were focused on exploring the 'reporting.' We were told that, of course, Goodman challenged the lies of the administration and regularly called them out in real time. But the special was about the way reporters reported. We'd buy that lie were it not for the fact that Tim Russert was heavily featured and he's not a reporter. He hosts a chat & chew. Russert did no reporting and stuck to the official line. While the McClatchy Boys deserved all the praise showered on them for their work (at what was then Knight-Ridder), when you leave reporting and bring on Russert, you have no excuse not to note Amy Goodman's work. (Our friend conceded that point when we made it.)

After the special, the first regular episode featured two guests -- both male. The second show featured three guests -- all male. A woman, Marilyn B. Young, finally was invited on to the third show. If you think the previous guests were chosen because they offered something that could be filed under 'breaking news,' think again. Nor did they expound on topics that women are silent on.

If you watched last week's episode (or tonight's -- PBS stations carry programming from CPB and put it on the local schedules whenever they want), you might have groaned in disgust when Bill Moyers -- The Last Journalist Standing! -- left reality to reinforce right-wing talking points: "Last month, when the ascendant majority on the Supreme Court upheld a federal ban on partial birth abortion . . ." The transcript rightly puts the talking point in parenthesis but there was no parenthesis in Moyers' voice over, no use of "so-called" a preface to that distortion of late term abortions.

And possibly, you groaned, along with us, as he intro-de Nick Gillispie as "Reason is the magazine for libertarians and the best known of them is Reason's Editor-in-Chief, Nick Gillespie, whose heroes include Margaret Thatcher and Madonna, and whose shoulders are so straight because in a polarized world he refuses to carry water for Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives." "Whose shoulders are so straight"? Reference please? There is none. That's Moyers' (bad) call on Gillespie. We can think of a few liberals who don't carry water for the Democrats or Republicans including Matthew Rothschild, Laura Flanders, Alexander Cockburn and Margaret Kimberley. (None of whom have yet been invited on this program or who were guests on Moyers' last program.) The difference is they aren't libertarians. Hearing that intro, we wondered if Moyers' brain had gone soft?

Gillespie won't carry water for liberals or conservatives . . . because he's a libertarian. That's not a branch of conservatism. It is its own (heavily pushed) strand of political thought. It is hell bent on destroying the federal government (it's actually hell bent on destroying all government but today's make over focuses on the federal government as it tries to gather new recruits).
Though not as heavily funded as the right-wing echo chamber, they are well funded. And they've pushed various treaties over the years. In the eighties, some brain damaged liberal professors took to making the thought-free Left, Right and Baby Boom required reading in various courses. Though heavily (and wrongly -- it was shoddy poli sci) promoted on campuses, it didn't create the great break off (from either the right or the left) the funders had hoped for. So in the 90s, the big push was outside of educational institutions and instead focused on an 'interactive' book (no diskette or disk included, though it was supposedly interactive) entitled Gen-X. Amidst lengthy movie quotes, the 'tarians pushed the lie that Social Security was going bankrupt and that old geezers were living the High Life at the expense of young people.

The book sold well and, by being non-academic, avoided the sort of serious scrutiny Left, Right and Baby Boom was greeted with. Most of all, by using music and movies to grab the 'kids,' they ended up with a captive audience that they could repeat their myths to. That basically explains Nick Gillespie's approach to Reason which tries to make the dismantling of civil-society go down easy.

Bill Moyers didn't tackle that or Gillespie's much noted admiration from Maxim magazine. He did tell viewers: "Reason has been named one of the best 50 magazines three out of the past four years and is widely acknowledged to have one of the best political blogs on the web." OMG! One of the best 50! Well, if you consider The Chicago Tribune the last word in magazines, then yes. We don't. For the record, that's who selected Reason as one of the best 50 (and The Trib has a number of libertarians on staff -- shh, no one's supposed to notice that). Who "widely acknowledged" that the magazine has "one of the best political blogs on the web"?
As unattributed, on air, as the claim of one of the best 50, this praise largely comes from the right-wing gossip rag Washingtonian and Playboy.

When you've produced a two hour special that didn't manage to interview one woman and you've made it through your first two programs without inviting women, maybe using Playboy as a critical resource isn't the best way to go?

At one point, Nick Gillespie self-defines his crowd: "But what we believe is that in a grand tradition that dates back to the 17th century and to the founding of this country, which is that the individual should be given as much freedom to live his life or her life as he sees fit as long as he's not screwing up somebody else. We believe in free minds. We believe in free thinking. We believe in free speech. And we believe in free markets. We believe people and goods and ideas should be able to traverse the world as freely as possible." It was the perfect time to ask about the safety net and, considering the libertarians long war against Social Security, to zoom in on that issue. Moyers didn't.

The third segment gave us historian Marilyn Young (co-editor of Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam). For that we were grateful -- and for no longer having to wonder if Nick's large gay following rests on that 70s Butch Daddy stereotype he cultivates? Young was a lively guest and not afraid to call out Charlie Rose's nonsense. Much to the discomfort of Moyers. (Moyers brought Rose into the big time, in the midst of one of his his pit CBS against PBS maneuvers, and Rose was always a good soldier.)

A clip is shown of The Charlie Rose Show where Condi Rice lies through her teeth and sidesteps every question while Rose allows one lie after another to go unchallenged. Moyers thought it was great journalism, Young didn't and pointed out that Condi continues to get away with lying in public "because she remains a person of authority; because she is absolutely amazingly implacable in her re-statement, statement and re-statement of half-truths and outright lies. And that kind of certainty in one's own authority and the correctness of one's own position can look very persuasive, especially on TV, especially when you're not pressed." (Our emphasis.)

Moyers attempted to rush to his protege's rescue insisting, "Charlie did keep coming back to her, trying to get her to talk about this" but Young cut him off with, "What he came back to over and over again was an exit strategy. And she said, as they've all been saying, there is no plan B. We're going to succeed with plan A."

Who was right?


She brilliantly demolished every one of Condi's lies. The 'we were all wrong' myth sailed over Rose's head as Condi lied that "it wasn't just America's intelligence services, of course, that thought that he had weapons of mass destruction; this was a worldwide intelligence problem, because the UN thought he had weapons of mass destruction." Rose just sat there. Young noted (to Moyers), "The Germans looked into it and said, you know what? Your information is wrong, it's useless. So there were other intelligence services involved, but they disagreed with ours, which she didn't say. Then she said the U.N. thought there were WMD's. But that's for people with really bad short term memory loss. Because Hans Blix, who was in the U.N. as inspector, was quite persuaded that in fact, there were no weapons of mass destruction."

Condi told Rose, "The United States is in Iraq because the Iraqi Government asked us to be there and they asked us (inaudible) a UN Security Council mandate." Rose didn't challenge it. Young offered reality (to Moyers), "The most extraordinary one, though, the really one that just takes my breath away, is where she says we're in Iraq because the Iraqi government invited us there. And we're there under a U.N. mandate. Saddam Hussein certainly didn't invite us in. And the UN mandate that she refers to, it's a resolution, it's not a mandate-- it says, after all, we're all agreed that everyone should help in the reconstruction of Iraq. That's all. It's not a mandate for occupation, at all."

Charlie Rose conducted one of the worst interviews of his career (which is really saying something) and yet Moyers praises it? He hails the interview noting, "My friend and colleague Charlie Rose conducted a remarkable interview this week with Condoleeza Rice. It was mesmerizing." And when Young (rightly) notes that Rose didn't press Rice on her lies, Moyers responds, "Charlie did keep coming back to her, trying to get her to talk about this". Though it's one thing to offer loyalty to your lackeys who stood with you against the big, bad Charles Kuralt, praising Rose for offering his usual fluff will only result in your own journalistic abilities being questioned.

If this seems like a hit-job on Moyers, we'd respond you need to know your history and not the eternal hype that is put out there today. There is no more difficult or temperamental news 'diva' than Bill Moyers. Were he a woman, everyone would know about it. Because he's a man, it's excused, even the newsroom tantrums (which didn't have to do with the quality of news) don't raise eye brows outside of the group that witnessed them. That bears noting because many a woman has been run off your TV screens for much less.

We find the shop talk amusing. We don't think it goes to whether or not Moyers can deliver 'magic' onscreen (he can and has very often). But we do think it bears noting that nothing stops the White male. Not low ratings, not bad on-set behavior. Moyers has delivered magic onscreen. He's one of the (realtively few) White males who have and, because of that, there's a misconception that White males are the go-tos for the magic.

It's why PBS has Charlie Rose to begin with. A bad interviewer who failed in countless formats -- in fact a man who left tabloid TV and immediately set up shop at PBS. That's how it works for the male entertainers. As Kat pointed out last week, low ratings are being offered as proof that Katie Couric couldn't handle the news when the reality is that Couric's ratings are amazing when you consider that she's faced non-stop attacks from media watchers since the moment she was announced as the new anchor. (NBC actually started the attacks before she left and water carriers, such as one at The New Yorker, were happy to advance them.)

The same ones that hype Moyers today were appalled that Couric did sit-downs with people on The CBS Evening News. These sit-downs were intended explore. When Moyers does it (or did it, though our media watchers seem to have little knowledge of TV past), it's "news." When Couric does it, it's "soft" and a sure sign that women can't handle "news."

Moyers returns to PBS and his first regular (one hour) show contains an interview with comic Jon Stewart but he's still given a "news" pass? No one decries the 'softening' of the format. Don't think there's not a double standard. Couric's working for a network that owns the program and that stated they were going to 'shake it up' before they'd ever decided on an anchor. But all criticism centers on Katie Couric. One minute, chatterers put out the tidbit that women are featured on air less now that Couric is the anchor, the next they're saying women are featured more. It's nothing but mud being thrown out and hoping something sticks.

There's a cottage industry being built on the efforts to take down Couric. It's not based on journalism or anything she's done, it's based on gender. That's entertainment for you. Moyers coasts through with little serious criticism, the Gregster flops publicly and ABC signs him to a development deal, and always the (false) line that Couric is the root of all things evil.

Today it's Couric, next year it will be another woman. Roseanne, Cybil, Mary, Whoopi, all women who had to be taken to task for things other than doing their job (delivering viewers). Men get arrested (even while working for Disney), leave their wives for baby sitters, get busted for drugs, go down the list. None of it gets them drummed out of the profession or even sticks to them. When Kuralt's real life emerged after his death, that did lead to a few whispers but his two-lives were well known in real time. Just not printed. Even today, there's a whole crowd that tells you two 'wives' really isn't about who Kuralt was.

We're not saying it is. We are saying that much less is regularly used to take down women, to 'cow' them, to disempower them, to erase them. You see that in play with the reaction to the dismal ratings for Greg Behrendt. The fact that viewers couldn't stand him isn't an issue. He's White male, he gets a development deal. You see that in play with Moyers who returns to PBS with the softest 'news' show he's ever offered. A woman like Linda Ellerbee gets run out of TV news proper. There are few second chances for women. It's why Judy Woodruff is a 'substitute anchor' on PBS's NewsHour while the (White male) host with the bad dye job turns 74 this week and will continue dottering on air for another decade unless someone does a serious intervention.

As soft as it is, we recommend Bill Moyers Journal. And we don't dispute the fact that he has (and will continue) to make 'magic.' We just don't see his return as (a) the second coming of news, (b) reflective of the diversity PBS is supposed to offer or (c) a good thing for women. One woman, in three hour programs and a two-hour special, has been allowed to speak thus far. One woman. In that show he repeats the distorted label for late-term abortions. And can't stop singing his sidekick's praises even though the sidekick doesn't warrant praise for anything done air. We're not surprised he's back at PBS. (We'd be surprised if he were invited back to CBS. Actually, we'd be shocked.) And we don't see the return as any reason to "save" PBS.

Moyers raised the funding for his show himself. He could do the same thing weekly on HBO -- and without commercials! Now, unlike the Gregster, we'll actually watch Moyers. We'll even grant that he is the best thing PBS has to offer today. We'd argue that fact is just one more indictment against PBS. Diversity was the mandate -- initially strived for but never achieved and now abandoned. And when their biggest star after Big Bird and Cookie Monster can't use his platform to improve PBS' lousy record of presenting women, we're not seeing a second-coming.
Added: *Ava and C.I.: Ty says a number of e-mails came in on the length of Buying the War. Some noted it was two hours and wondered why people were saying 90 minutes? Many more stated it was 90 minutes. We know that on the PBS station we watched it, at the end of the first hour we were treated to "coming attractions" including a nature show -- we made a joke about that in our notes -- and we know that it ended 10 minutes shy of two hours. We were flipping the channel and ended up on a really bad sitcom and made notes on that in case we want to tackle it this summer -- it's a sitcom in syndication. The special itself is 90 minutes. What we saw basically filled out two hours and apparently had a bit more commercials than some stations used. The New Adventures of Old Christine basically runs 23 minutes each week. We call it a half hour show because, with commercials that's what it is. When Ty told us about the e-mails, we shrugged. When he told us about them a second time, we pulled out our notes. It occupied one hour and fifty minutes. Judging by the e-mails, some saw a similar broadcast but many saw the 90 minutes with no interruptions. We're sticking with two hours because that's what we saw.
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