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LET THEM ENTERTAIN YOU! You might not mind their mugging and clowning—if their reporting was good: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 1, 2009

The Shailagh Murray show: On the one hand, your HOWLER keeps getting results (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/31/09). On the other hand, this news report about the budget procedure called “reconciliation” seems a bit like a “Truman show.” You think you’re reading a news report. But is that what’s really occurring?

The report was written by the Washington Post’s Shailagh Murray, who clearly understands why this procedure matters so much at this time. Will Democrats need 60 votes in the Senate to pass health care or climate-change legislation? Under the procedure called “reconciliation,” they’d only need a simple majority. Will it take 60 votes—or will 50 suffice? The fate of Obama’s legislative agenda turns on this key question.

That said, you’d almost think Murray would want to know why some senators oppose using this procedure. You’d almost think she’d want to explain the “rules” behind use of the process. President Bush and President Clinton both used this procedure to pass key proposals, she explains. You’d almost think she’d want to know why some solons oppose using it now.

If you thought that, you don’t understand the way “The Murray Show” works. Here’s what Arlen Specter said when approached by the hard-charging scribe:

MURRAY (4/1/09): Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), a moderate Republican, warned that adopting reconciliation would be "a colossal mistake." Democrats remain two votes short of a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate, and Specter is a key swing vote.

"There are those of us on this side of the aisle who have cooperated" Specter said. "I think it fair to say that to misuse the reconciliation process would be a very strong blow against bipartisanship and cooperation.

Specter doesn’t want the process to be “misused.” But in what way is “misuse” being threatened? Murray doesn’t seem to have asked. But then, she only gives this vague explanation for why some Democratic senators oppose use of the process:

MURRAY: Some Democrats oppose the procedure because of its potential to polarize the health-care debate. "Everything I've tried to do for five years, going to listen to 85 senators in their offices to discuss health care, has been designed to make the issue of reconciliation of health care irrelevant,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), author of a bipartisan reform bill.

That’s a very vague explanation—but it’s all we get. Murray quotes Max Baucus saying its use would be “unwise”—but she doesn’t ask him why. She quotes Kent Conrad saying he’s “strenuously” opposed. She doesn’t make him explain either. Nor does she attempt to explain the Senate rules which theoretically regulate use of the procedure. This has the look of a news report—until you actually read it.

But then, there’s one more thing Murray doesn’t explain. It appears right in her first paragraph:

MURRAY: Senate Democrats are increasingly receptive to using a controversial budget shortcut to ease passage of health-care reform legislation, a shift in stance encouraged by the White House but denounced by Republicans, who say the maneuver is an unfair partisan trick.

Republicans call it an “unfair trick.” But why do they express that view—especially since the GOP used the procedure in the recent past? The question would occur to a 3-year-old child. It didn’t occur to Murray. (Who knows? There may be an answer.)

Truman Burbank thought he was living a life—until he learned that his life was a show. Similarly, some folks thought they were reading a news report when they scanned Shailagh Murray this morning.

Special report: Still dumbing us down!

PART 3—LET THEM ENTERTAIN YOU: We’ll say one thing for Countdown and its companion program, The Rachel Maddow Show; if you watch these comfort-food shows, you’ll rarely have a dull moment. Mugging and clowning and masterful wit are part of these “news” programs’ culture. Last Friday night, to cite one example, Keith Olbermann treated his audience, once again, to the fruits of his masterful wit:

OLBERMANN (3/28/09): Breaking news in unexpected places tonight: Vince the ShamWow guy was arrested for beating up an alleged hooker! This is probably not the time he wants people to be reminded that on national TV, he has repeatedly been heard saying, quote, “You are going to love my nuts!”

If you read Olbermann’s full report, you’ll see more of these masterful stylings about the hooker and ShamWow guy’s nuts. And there’s more! If you watch the tape of this segment (just click here), you can hear staff lackeys providing a laugh track. This has now become the norm on both these liberal “news” shows.

On Countdown, the laughs come thick and fast. (It’s amazing how often Keith’s masterful jokes involve words like “nuts” and “hooker.”) That said, it’s Maddow, even more than Olbermann, who has almost transformed the cable news format through her mugging and clowning. Hey, look me over, this host seems to cry; we’re inundated with jokes and puns and clowning of every description. This Monday night, to cite one example, Maddow started her program with an odd skit in which, using an actual phone, she posed as the mincing secretary to federal judge Jay Bybee. (Bybee is being investigated for war crimes by the Spanish government.) Maddow pretended to be making a phone call explaining that Bybee is under indictment. “Can you imagine the calls going out from the secretary desk at the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals?” she asked. (To watch the performance, click here.) With that, she had completed her set-up. According to the cable news anchor, it just might go something like this:

MADDOW (3/30/09): (holding phone; mincing, secretary-style voice, with slight hint of Fargo) “Um, yeah, we’re sorry—Judge Bybee? He’s going to have to cancel his speech in London this month. Oh, well, it’s because he’s wanted for international war crimes. You didn’t hear? We’re so sorry for the inconvenience. Yeah, yeah—he’s still workin’. We`re keepin’ him on the bench, ruling on federal cases here. Yeah, he apparently won’t be arrested as long as he doesn’t leave the country. No. We don`t have a problem with that. Why?”

The spirit of Newhart hung in the air as Maddow hung up the phone. “Isn`t this all sort of embarrassing?” she asked as she hung up and came out of character. She seemed to refer to the possibility that a federal judge might be charged with war crimes. But our analysts imagined a different context for the (valid) question.

Should we feel embarrassed—should it somehow seem “wrong”—when Maddow stages such skits? Not necessarily, although we’ve seen versions of this movie before, and those films have tended to end somewhat poorly. Several other current news figures began their careers with high-minded theories about the palliative role of humor; over time, these figures have tended to devolve into simpering messes. (Clearing throat and coughing; under breath: “Cough! Gail Collins.”) But Maddow persists with her fun. We think it’s beginning to hurt.

An interesting exchange on this topic occurred in mid-October. David Frum appeared on the Maddow Show; he criticized the “heavy sarcasm and sneering” he said he’d observed as he waited to be interviewed. Frum and Maddow engaged in a long, fruitful exchange on the topic. Eventually, Maddow defended her style, in a somewhat unusual way:

FRUM (10/13/08): I’m suggesting...that we should be the change we want to see, or that we say we want to see. And so if we want to have a more intelligent, more grown-up politics—and I think we all say that—then we ought to do it...

MADDOW: I didn’t intend for my interview with you to be about this, but because you raised it, I feel like I’ve got to talk to you about it. And I guess when you say that you want the discourse to be more grown-up and more intelligent, I agree with you on intelligent. I don’t necessarily agree with you on grown-up. I think there’s room for all sorts of different kinds of discourse, including satire, including teasing, including humor. There’s a lot of different ways to talk about stuff and Americans absorb things in a lot of different ways.

Maddow agreed we should be “more intelligent.” “More grown-up?” She wasn’t quite sure.

There’s nothing necessarily “wrong” with the theory Maddow outlined that evening. But are the sneering, the snarking, the clowning, the mugging overdone on Maddow’s program? At present, we’d strongly suggest that they are. Speaking with Frum, Maddow defended “my tone on the show—sarcasm, being playful.” But by last week, we’d have to say that the balance had swung way out of whack—that Maddow’s “sarcasm, being playful” were harming her reporting and her analysis. Along with the endless comfort food in which Republican blunders were endlessly whacked, Maddow’s viewers were getting large helpings of humor last week. To us, it often seemed that the news got deep-sixed so Maddow could impress us rubes with her masterful wit.

You might not mind Maddow’s mugging and clowning—if, in the process, she got the news right. But increasingly, Maddow’s mugging and clowning have begun to overtake and undermine her reporting. For decades, dating at least to Ted Baxter, the self-involved TV news anchor has been a subject of widespread ridicule; Steven Colbert still plays this card every night, mocking Bill O’Reilly’s affectations. But has any news person, in TV history, ever made her own performance the centerpiece of her show in the way Maddow does? Is this show about news, or is this show about Maddow—about her utterly masterful wit, her unparalleled skill with snide snark?

First, consider the intellectually weak, clown-heavy performance Maddow authored last Thursday night. The lengthy segment opened the program. It seemed to us the reporting and analysis were quite weak—while the mugging and the clowning actually were “embarrassing.”

At issue was the House GOP’s semi-bungled presentation of an alternate budget. John Boeher had promised a budget that day—but what he presented was a mere budget outline (a “blueprint,” he said); he said the party’s actual fiscal projections would be supplied in a week. This error was dumb, but inconsequential; no, to be honest, it wasn’t huge news, except on cable news programs designed to give libs big helpings of comfort food. (The major news will start today—if Republicans do present their projections.)

That said, there were some things you could say about this budget outline—about a few things it included. Indeed, Maddow’s guest, Ryan Grim, made a fully sagacious comment about an obvious apparent problem—but he literally made it in the last ten seconds of a long report which extended almost eleven minutes. Most of that segment was devoted to mocking the very-dumb GOP—and to letting us sit and admire Maddow’s masterful wit. Her analysis was rather weak this night—and she basically lied in our faces early on (details tomorrow). But the mugging and clowning were quite widespread. We rubes got a full serving of comfort food—and a whole lot of good entertainment.

How hard did Maddow clown in this segment? You’ll have to watch the actual tape to see how the anchor performed (click here). But less than one minute into the segment, Maddow, in thrall to a snarky and somewhat dishonest premise, was loudly paraphrasing Obama’s call for the GOP to present its own budget:

OBAMA (videotape): To a bunch of the critics out there, I’ve already said, show me your budget. Show me what you want to do and I’m happy to have that debate.

MADDOW (loudly; gesticulating with both hands): I dare you! I double-dog dare you! Go on! DO IT!!!

Good grief! Maddow was already mugging hard, and she had no plan to stop. She ostentatiously rolled her R’s when she read the name of the GOP budget outline. (“The Rrrrrroad to Rrrrrrrrrrrrrecovery.”) She slowed her delivery to let us enjoy a bit of masterful word-play: “Triple-down economics.” (No, her use of “triple” didn’t really make sense—except to set up her joke.) Indeed, she mugged and clowned so hard this night that the analysts began to float the idea that she’d somehow gotten into Chris Matthews’ private stash of Diet Colas. And then, as she prepared to introduce Grim, she played tape of Boehner again, then let it all hang out:

BOEHNER (videotape): Today, we are offering our blueprint for where we believe we can help grow our economy again and you’ll see the details of the budget portion of this next week.

MADDOW: Next week? (Clapping hands) Oh please, oh please, oh please, oh please, oh please! (Muffled staff laughter.) More details coming! Republican Congressman Paul Ryan will reportedly present more details next Wednesday. And so, we officially unveil with baited breath—see that down there? Our Rachel Maddow Show “show us your Republican budget” countdown clock. Yaaaay!

Embarrassing? Actually, yes. And perhaps a bit of an insult to the news, which involves the lives of actual people—people who haven’t ever crawled on their bellies to get big salaries from GE, the way Maddow did in January 2008, taking back the accurate thing she’d accidentally said about Matthews. Good God! As Maddow said, “Oh please, oh please, oh please...” she clapped her hands together five times, like an overwrought five-year-old child confronting her first birthday cake. This would be embarrassing stuff, even if her report and analysis were strong. But the report and analysis were rather weak—and Maddow’s general premise for this segment was driven along by something which came close to being a lie.

We’ll discuss this weak segment tomorrow. But in our view, Maddow’s love of “satire” and snark overwhelmed her reporting this night. But then, we’d already sat through the gruesome, bungled, erroneous report she had broadcast two nights earlier—the report in which she channeled Sean Hannity, again while letting her appreciative viewers enjoy her masterful wit.

This report involved the claim that Barack Obama’s fey administration had issued a very odd directive, demanding that the phrase “war on terror” be replaced by a comical term: “Overseas contingency operations.” Maddow was working from this blog post—a blog post in which the Obama Admin had flatly denied this improbable claim. But so what? In her long, joke-driven report, Maddow simply asserted, as if it were fact, the claim which had been flatly denied. She never mentioned the admin’s denial, which seemed extraneous to her interest. Instead, she used the long, bungled segment as a chance to showcase her wit.

We thought (and think) this segment was gruesome—in part, because it was simply wrong, in part because its sub-text seemed obvious. For the most part, Maddow seemed to be doing this segment so we could be entertained by her wit. Here’s the full segment, in all its glory. (Sorry! The Maddow Show no longer offers the tape, though you can see everything else from that program.) “Big news today from the Obama administration,” the host absurdly began:

MADDOW (3/24/09): And big news today from the Obama administration that, frankly, is going to take a little getting used to. There is yet another new name we are supposed to use for the wars. In fact, we’re not even supposed to call them “wars” any more.

OK, for a refresher: After 9/11 the Bush administration, of course, quickly declared a “war on terror.”

BUSH (videotape): Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda but it does not end there.

MADDOW: The “war on terrah,” the “war on terrorism.” That’s what we were first supposed to call American military action after 9/11. And if you want to get picky, a war on terrorism is a war on a tactic, which is kind of a hard thing to win, and a war on terror itself is a war on a bad feeling, the feeling of terror which is also sort of hard to declare victory over. Eventually the word "global" was added to the phrase "war on terror.”

BUSH (videotape): It’s a victory in the global war on terror.

MADDOW: So it went from a “war on terrah” or a “war on terrorism" to a “global war on terrorism.” Then Donald Rumsfeld threw a wrench in the works by stopping using the phrase “war on terror” at all. He instead started talking about—

RUMSFELD (videotape): The struggle against violent extremism is going to take a long time.

MADDOW: A global struggle against violent extremism. Mr. Rumsfeld even put an acronym on it, G-SAVE: “Global struggle against violent extremism.” He put that in writing a few times: G-SAVE. The problem was, that phrase, “global struggle against violent extremism,” is a little clunky and hard to remember. And sometimes trying to remember something that you only partially recall can lead to really awkward make-it-up-as-you-go-along moments:

BUSH (videotape): We’ve actually misnamed the war on terror. It ought to be the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world.

MADDOW: That one didn’t catch on either. “The struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world?” The acronym for that one was TSAIE WDNBI FSWHT UTAAW TTTST COTFW— and I kept getting that wrong. Despite how catchy the acronym was, it didn’t catch on. To simplify, there was a brief effort to recast all of those things as simply “the long war:”

BUSH (videotape): West Point has given you the skills you will need in Afghanistan and Iraq and for the long war with Islamic radicalism.

MADDOW: As in “the long war, hey, Muslims, we’re going to stay in your countries for a long time.” So that one never really caught on either, even though it’s easy to remember.

Now, after all of those etymological iterations, after all of those different brand names have been tried and found wanting, President Obama’s administration has picked something new. And they put it in writing.

Al Kamen in the Washington Post reports today that speech-writers and other Pentagon staff have been notified by e-mail as of this morning that per instruction from Obama’s Office of Management and Budget, quote, “This administration prefers to avoid using the term ‘long war’ or ‘global war on terror.’ Please use ‘overseas contingency operation.’”

“Overseas contingency operation.” From here on out, except for Iraq and Afghanistan and everything else? “Overseas contingency operation.” OCO! That’s going to take some getting used to. And probably some explaining, too.

What a pile of self-regarding crap. POSRC!

Everybody got the chance to laugh and admire Maddow’s acronym humor. (And her ponderous recitation about the history of brand names for the war.) We saw her make fun of Bush’s accent; we saw her pretend that Bush had tried to sell a comically-long “brand name.” She said that “the long war” was once a brand name, although we have no such recollection, and can’t seem to find this supported on Nexis. (We’re willing to be corrected.) But this added to the satire! Sadly, Maddow failed to cite the Administration’s flat denial of this peculiar charge—and she made the nonsense even sillier with her “OCO” fun. And of course! Even as she pimped this blather, Sean Hannity and a gruesome panel were pounding away at what this incident said about Fey Feckless Weakling Obama (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/25/09). Dems have been harmed by this sort of crap for years. On this show, it provided the latest occasion for some good solid “word nerd” fun. (Maddow’s term from Monday night, when she did her third report about “OCO.”)

You wouldn’t mind Maddow’s incessant mugging—if her reporting and analysis were strong. But her reporting on the budget has been rather weak; her reporting on “OCO” was simply bungled. Sorry, people! You can’t omit a flat denial because it might kill all the fun.

But then, on this particular cable program, the news often seems to make way for the host. Indeed: Last week, through her mugging and clowning, Maddow made Ted Baxter seem like a guy crushed by massive self-doubt. And uh-oh! Her reporting and analysis were often weak—and, at times, were flatly dishonest. Jokes about “hookers” and “nuts” seem refreshing, compared to the joking found here.

Tomorrow—Part 4: Honesty