Sunday, September 04, 2011

TV: ABC's Infotainment

"From the global resources of ABC News," boasts Nightline at the start of each broadcast, promising so much more than it could ever deliver while signifying that 9-11 changed nothing -- at least nothing changed for the better.


The show began in 1979 with the Iranian hostage crisis and tracking the number of days of "America Held Hostage." Quickly, the show ditched anchor Frank Reynolds and installed Ted Koppel in front of the cameras. Also rather quickly came accusations of bias against the Carter administration. The accusations only grew louder the following year when Jimmy Carter became the first elected president since 1932 to run for a second term and not be re-elected. Bias or not, the program is now credited with taking down the Carter presidency. As PBS' American Experience observed:

On November 4, 1979, an angry mob of young Islamic revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking more than 60 Americans hostage. "From the moment the hostages were seized until they were released minutes after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as president 444 days later," wrote historian Gaddis Smith, "the crisis absorbed more concentrated effort by American officials and had more extensive coverage on television and in the press than any other event since World War II."
[. . .]
Relatively little happened during the summer, as Iranian internal politics took its course. In early July, the Iranians released hostage Richard Queen, who had developed multiple sclerosis. In the States,
constant media coverage -- yellow ribbons, footage of chanting Iranian mobs, even a whole new television news program, ABC's Nightline -- provided a dispiriting backdrop to the presidential election season. As Carter advisor and biographer Peter Bourne put it, "Because people felt that Carter had not been tough enough in foreign policy, this kind of symbolized for them that some bunch of students could seize American diplomatic officials and hold them prisoner and thumb their nose at the United States."

It's not just PBS offering that interpretation, the federal government's White House Historical Association includes this in their lesson plan:

The Iranian hostage crisis contributed greatly to Jimmy Carter's loss of the presidency in the 1980 election. Americans had lost confidence in their leader. It wasn't difficult. Each night television newscasts relayed images of angry anti-American mobs outside the embassy in Tehran, shouting "Death to America," "Death to Carter."8
The creation of the television program, Nightline, devoted strictly to discussion of the crisis, was a blatant reminder of Carter's failure to secure the hostages' release. Each night TV news commentators posted the number of days the hostages had been held in humiliating, terrifying captivity, their president impotent in finding a way to bring them home. "This is the 325th day of the Iranian hostage crisis," the journalists would say, and on and on it went. Election day was the anniversary of the seizure, an irony that wasn't lost on the American people, who voted for Ronald Reagan by large margins.

In addition, James Fallows (The Atlantic) noted:

To Jimmy Carter and senior members of his administration, [Ted] Koppel's famous Nightline program on ABC was a dramatic example of the way media sensationalism could distort, or at least affect, public life. On November 4,1979, exactly one year before Carter would stand for reelection, Iranian radicals seized 66 American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Within a few days, ABC had launched a nightly 11:30 p.m. special report on the crisis, which soon was called "America Held Hostage: Day 15." Then it was "America Held Hostage: Day 100," and the night before Americans went to the polls, "America Held Hostage: Day 365," with Koppel anchoring the news each night.
There are many reasons Carter lost that election to Ronald Reagan; a prime interest rate of 20 percent during the spring symbolized economic problems that might have been sufficient to do him in. But "America Held Hostage" surely played a part. It was an early illustration of the way in which a choice about news coverage -- namely, to offer a daily countdown of America's humiliation -- converted a problem into an emergency. Koppel told me that years after the hostages were released, he met Jimmy Carter at a ceremony in Washington. "President Carter said there were two people who were better off because of the hostage situation," Koppel told me. "The ayatollah. And me."

Jimmy Carter's presidency was a one-term presidency due to a number of variables and while we would include Nightline, we'd also note that Carter repeatedly sounded alien to American voters (the idiotic Playboy interview where he confessed to lusting after women other than his wife in his heart, his word usage such as malaise, etc.), there was the vast and unchecked paranoia of Zbigniew Brzezinski on all matters big and small (one example, Shirley MacLaine has long told the story of returning from Cuba with a box of cigars Fidel Castro was sending as a gesture to Carter's Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan and of the massive hysterics and drama from scared bunny Brzezinski who just knew it had to be a bomb and all but peed his pants as the box was opened) and, among other things, Carter's failure as a politician. Failure as a politician?

When you run for the presidency, you are the top of the ticket. You are supposed to be a draw that helps your party win other races. In November 1980, with the West Coast still voting for at least another hour, Jimmy Carter delivered his resignation speech thereby likely supressing turnout on the West Coast.

So Nightline wasn't the only variable, but it was a variable and it was an important one.

The show has many great moments to look back on; however, they all tend to come before Koppel left the show in November 2005. There were interviews that stood out (such as with Desmond Tutu, a rare African-American guest for the program), surprising choices (an episode covering D-Day as breaking news) and basic news decisions that others weren't making (such as listing the names of US military personnel killed serving in Iraq).

The show also has many embarrassments to endure. Most cite the Madonna episode, where Nightline became an informercial for Madonna, playing the MTV-banned "Justify My Love" and helping its home video sales. It was a bizarre moment but not the worst by any means. This was the show that booked War Criminal Henry Kissinger more than any other guest, that showed Ted repeatedly and publicly fawning over Kissinger. (Had Ted continued as anchor, War Criminal Colin Powell might have overtaken Kissinger. If so, it would have at least helped Nightline be less of an all White program.) This was the program that thought providing a right-wing expert and a centrist expert as well as the right-leaning Ted Koppel made for balance. This was the broadcast featuring interviews with people who couldn't see Ted (they stared into a camera) while Ted saw them and made all sorts of facial expressions as they spoke, undercutting any point that they might make.

Many called out the above but, for our money, the best critique of Koppel came on the sitcom Ellen, when Ellen (Ellen DeGeneres) had lunch with Audrey (Clea Lewis) ("The
Anchor" written by David S. Rosenthal).

Ellen: So, um, did you see Nightline last night?

Audrey: Oh, don't you hate Ted Koppel? He's so superior. It's like there's only one opinion in the world and Ted has to have it.

Yes, he could be pompous. But it wasn't really Ted's opinion, it was the opinion of his 'betters.'
As Gore Vidal's noted, ". . . if you want to know what the ownership of the country wants you to know, tune in to Nightline and listen to Ted Koppel and his guests" (Vidal, The Decline of the American Empire, p. 44).

Koppel's departure from the program could have been liberating and provided the show with new life. The decision to utilize different anchors (currently Cynthia 'Lockjaw' McFadden, Terry 'The Moron' Moran and Bill 'Picture Me In Just A Jock Strap' Weir) could have meant different points of view. But that was not to be. The show still has the same pompous and single voice.

The only real surprise is that it uses this voice not to cover the news but to serve up pop and trash culture.

To watch a week's worth of Nightline is to enter a world where there is no Iraq War, there is no Afghanistan War, there is, in fact, no world beyond the US borders other than "sea world" and the only disasters are natural ones like hurricanes and not economic ones like unemployment.

Last week, this program that brags "from the global resources of ABC News" served up such important "news" stories as "What's Susan Lucci like when she's not working," "hilarious big screen bloopers," "Marc Anthony speaks [. . .] in his first interview since their break-up," "plus baby for Beyonce."

At least the Marc Anthony segment was broadcasting for the first time. The show's been cut from 30 minutes down to 25 (17 without commercials) and it still can't fill a show with new material. So you got "an encore presentation" of the interview with soap opera star Susan Lucci and an "encore presentation" of a segment that was part of their "Faith Matters" series -- Christians who kick box.

In fairness, we should note there was a health story last week. Are you worried that, as Verizon is currently doing, your employer will drop your health plan (possibly as a result of ObamaCare in 2014)? Well they didn't address that. Maybe you're concerned about the continued rising costs of health care? Well they didn't care about that either.

But they did find a health story they cared about, one that apparently effected them deeply and personally. Cynthia McFadden breathlessly announced "a health crisis in a billion dollar business" and explained that a porn actor had just tested HIV-positive. And, such the news woman!, McFadden even provided context, reminding viewers that this also happened in 2004 before continuing, "Here's David Wright for our series 'Modern Sex in America'."

That's what passes for a news story on Nightline. For that, they'll interview a public official or two and squeeze them in between repeated shots of women's breasts -- on those repeated shots, were they attempting to imply that contact with female breasts promoted the spread of HIV infection? And, most of all, they'll get all cutesy.

David Wright, possibly worried that since porn can only be legally filmed in California or New Hampshire audiences were wondering why this was even a news story and not just a headline, suddenly insisted near the end of the segment, "It isn't just porn stars at risk. Many adult performers supplement their income by escorting on the side."


He means prostitution.

He'll go on to ask the ex-porn actress about "escorting" and how many people you could have sex with in one month by "escorting?" She'll provide him with a double-digit answer and he'll attempt to look simultaneously thoughtful and aroused. (He'll succeed only in looking stupid.)

Friday the latest economic report was released. Job growth was zero and the official unemployment rate remained at 9.1%. In the midst of ignoring this economic disaster, Nightline decided to focus on a natural disaster -- one they admitted they'd heavily over-advertised: Hurricane Irene. It wasn't the disaster they expected, Dan Harris informed you, as he was mainly videotaped on the streets of Manhattan. In the same story, he also 'informed' viewers, "Only in Manhattan do they have 24-hour McDonalds."

We're not big fast food fans, but we seem to remember being in downtown Dallas in February 2008, having finished speaking to a group at 1:30 in the morning and joking to the cab driver that we wished we could have chocolate malts and his informing us there was an open-all-night McDonalds just a few streets from our hotel. And his taking us there. And our ordering chocolate malts at a 24-hour McDonalds. Closer to home, we were also aware of the 24-hour McDonalds in San Diego. So we wondered over Dan Harris' 'fact' that, "Only in Manhattan do they have 24-hour McDonalds."

In a 2007 Businessweek cover story, it was reported, "
Since 2003 more than 90% of the 13,700 McDonald's in the U.S. have extended their hours beyond the basic 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. day. Nearly 40% operate nonstop, up from 0.5% in 2002. Breakfast is busting out of its old boundaries. It now stretches up to seven hours at many locations, and the company is considering making it an all-day option. Next on the agenda: snack foods and fruit smoothies for between-meal refuelings and late-night munchies." So in 2007, a little less than half of all McDonalds were open 24-7? 'News' program Nightline decided to offer fluff and couldn't even offer fluff that was correct? It's not just that they want to wallow in trash, it's that they don't even care enough to get their trash correct.

We noted there is a world beyond the US borders that gets covered . . . sea world. So we got "Happy Feet," a stranded penguin. Who mistook sand for snow and made himself sick eating it. And was then given non-stop medical care and surgery. Love to know who footed that bill. Now he was headed back to the South Pole and, how very holistic!, he'd been implanted with a GPS tracker. In addition, Matt Gutman offered a story last week where he reported from an undisclosed location "somewhere in the Bahamas" and spoke with a woman who estimated that in a few decades, people will be able to speak with dolphins. This was intercut with footage of Matt frolicking in the water as dolphins swam.

Other stories (don't call them 'reports') included an infomercial for travel agencies, an 'expose' on cheese cake ("It's not all sugar & spice! Just how many calories are in those portions?" -- well, actually, sugar would account for many of the calories), the chance that science might one day erase fear from your memory (presented as a good thing, forgetting that fear is a natural response that is hardwired into mammals for good reason), Brian Ross attempting to do an actual news report without the time needed or the resources (he was left posing the question of whether no US planes being hijacked since 2001 was due to "good security or good luck" -- that would be an investigative series and not a brief segment) and a look at the Libyan War.

Well, no.

Not a look at the Libyan War. That's beyond the show these days and might harm the feel-good mood that demands Marc Anthony swear he and Jennifer Lopez still love each other and nothing went wrong they just decided to divorce because . . . To garner headlines? Who knows? His answers made no sense but Nightline lapped them up as reality.

So 'Libyan War coverage' was nothing but a bash-the-bitch segment by Nick Watt (who specializes in hatred of women) in which he trashed Ayesha Gaddafi. Strange Tricia and Julie Nixon never received this treatment from Nightline and there father was responsible for many more deaths than Watts said Muammar Gaddafi was.

Ayesha Gaddafi was trashed. She was trashed for the living quarters her father provided her with (while Marc Anthony and Susan Lucci were praised for their spacious and palatial homes). She was trashed for representing Saddam Hussein in the trial that saw him sentenced to death. (Ayesha's part was mentioned quickly in order to move on to recounting the evils of Saddam Hussein. Staying too long on Ayesha Gaddafi might have forced Nick Watt to admit that she was at least a smart woman since she had a law degree and was a practicing attorney.) He mocked her looks repeatedly as he brought up that she was called, by some, "the Claudia Schiffer of North Africa." He then declared, over a series of unflattering (but not unattractive) photos, "Claudia Schiffer? I don't know."

He 'forgot' to mention that she didn't call herself that which was strange since this part of the story took up more time than all but the section where he made her out to be a coward.

He did that by reading a statement she made decrying NATO's bombing of Libya. He didn't read it, sorry. He 'enacted' it. In violation of every policy ABC News has, Nick Watt did a heavy dramatic reading of the statement. Then he noted that she had left the country.

"Oh the coward," viewers were to conclude.

He added that allegedly she had recently given birth, a single sentence, a fleeting thought.

Ayesha Gaddafi is the mother of four children -- the last was born August 30th. The children's father is Ahmed al-Gaddafi al-Qahsi. Nick Watt wasn't concerned with that. We doubt he was trying to imply Ayesha was the Virgin Mother and instead think it was another attempt to trash her. But where is the father now?

Oh, that's right. He was killed at the end of July.

A pregnant Ayesha Gaddafi remained in Libya through most of August, despite the fact that her country was being bombed, despite the fact that her husband was killed in the war and despite the fact that she was now nine months pregnant. As her father's regime fell, she left the country and gave birth. Hardly the way Nick Watt chose to portray her.

It reminded us of the lurid stories about Condi Rice that have emerged as "Libyan War" coverage. Muammar Gaddafi kept an album with pictures of Rice. There are many reasons to call out Condi Rice and over the years we've touched on most of them.

Rubbing your legs together and making snide remarks and insinuations about her because some man chose to keep an album filled with clippings of her says far more about the jerks salivating over this non-story than it does about Condi Rice. By the same token, Ayesha Gaddafi is being singled out to be trashed because she's a woman.

Nick Watt offered up Libyans for about 30 seconds. Maybe a little less. He toured Ayesha's quarters with them and then asked them what they thought about her living conditions when they lived in poverty?

No one brought poor Americans into Susan Lucci's home or Marc Anthony's to ask them that question.

But hey, the 'news' report on Susan praised gluttony as it took us expensive shoe shopping and informed us that "she can afford them because she is, after all, the most famous soap star of all time."

As Nick Watt's bash-the-bitch finished, there was Terry Moran, all glassy-eyed, declaring, "Thanks to Nick Watt for that," demonstrating that the biggest idiot ever working for ABC with the surname of Moran was not, in fact, Erin.

9-11 changed everything, we're falsely told. On the ABC News front, all it's done is taken a conservative-leaning half-hour news program, trimmed 5 minutes off it and turned it into fluff -- fluff so inaccurate that Entertainment Tonight is harder hitting and more factual. The anchors take their turn in the chair, one-by-one, but offer the viewers insipid happy talk as though they're hosting the morning shows and speaking to someone paid to find them delightful.

There is nothing delightful about this program and, if this is what Nightline is going to be, cancel it and bring Jimmy Kimmel on right after the local news. There's more honesty in five minutes of Kimmel than there is 25 minutes of Nightline.

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