Opinion

Jack Shafer

Kurtz moves from CNN to Fox with the same old song

Jack Shafer
Sep 10, 2013 20:57 UTC

After “Reliable Sources” host Howard Kurtz parted ways with CNN in June and announced the move of his Sunday morning TV act to Fox News Channel, he had a chance to retool the media-news-and-criticism formula he purveyed on the network for 15 years. Instead, he has dressed his old CNN show in Fox bunting. In the Sept. 8 debut, he recruited members of the “Reliable Sources” stock company (David Zurawik, Nia-Malika Henderson, Lauren Ashburn, and Michelle Cottle) to chat with him about the week’s news. The new show even appears in his old CNN time slot, 11 a.m. The only new thing about the show is its name, “MediaBuzz.”

There’s always hope that Kurtz and his Fox producers will rethink the show in coming weeks, but his initial reluctance to fiddle with the “Reliable Sources” format indicates that 1) he thinks the old show was perfect as it was, and/or 2) he has no new ideas on how to report on the state of the press on TV. My assessment of “MediaBuzz” is by no means universal — it engaged the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple and attracted an audience nearly double that of the Sept. 8 “Reliable Sources” – but I am certain it is correct.

If ever a franchise needed refreshing, “Reliable Sources” is it. With the exception of the show’s modern graphics and its HD resolution, the tone and texture of “Reliable Sources” has changed very little since 1992, when it was launched with veteran reporter Bernard Kalb at the helm. Back then, the media looking at the media smacked of onanism, and I mean that as a good thing. But since the rise of Fox News Channel and MSNBC, so much of cable news has become bellyaching about the press, with Fox’s people griping about the liberal press and MSNBC’s knocking the conservative media. If the show was ever distinctive, it stopped being so in the late 1990s.

Ostensibly a critical look at the press and mass media, “Reliable Sources” long ago devolved into a talk show about the news. All of that cross-chat on “Reliable Sources,” maestroed by an all-powerful anchor, has made “Reliable Sources” an echo of what the cable news networks air at other hours and days of the week. You can imagine most of the guests, topics, and questions appearing on any number of shows run from this eternal template: The host asks his guests about their views on the news. Quarreling and interruption follow, like an over-lit dinner party where no food is served but lots of booze is consumed on the sly. After eight or nine minutes, the host intones to a guest, “I’ll give you the last word.” Then he previews the next segment before yielding to four minutes of commercial pitches for expandable garden hoses and other mail-order novelties.

“Reliable Sources” and Kurtz could easily have done better. Compare, for example, its archives to those of NPR’s “On the Media.” Both shows are about the press. Both shows broadcast for an hour. Both have been around since the 1990s. Both address three or four topics per episode. And both shows rely heavily on interviews with journalists and other media authorities. But the similarities end there. Where “Reliable Sources” guests ramble, “On the Media” guests stay on point. It’s not that “On the Media” hosts Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield are better wranglers than Kurtz — although their questions might be smarter and their sense of “media” a tad broader. It’s that instead of depending on the live, or live-to-tape approach generally taken by “Reliable Sources,” “On the Media” is tightly edited. The show’s producers make no secret about their editing. In this “On the Media” segment from 2007, which they rerun now and again, the show’s producers explain how its editors (and other NPR editors, for that matter) distill coherence into recorded interviews filled with false starts, stuttering, and many, many “ums” and “ahs” by the interviewees.

The NSA never takes “no” for an answer

Jack Shafer
Sep 6, 2013 21:47 UTC

At several recent junctures, the U.S. government has publicly sought to expand its power and control over the electronic privacy of its citizens. At each point, the government was roundly foiled by the public and the majority of the political class, which rebuked it. But that has evidently never stopped the government from imposing its will surreptitiously. As the reporting of the New York TimesProPublica, and the Guardian about the National Security Agency’s programs exposed by Edward Snowden showed once again yesterday, when the government really wants something, it can be temporarily denied but rarely foiled.

In the early 1990s, computer scientist and activist Phil Zimmerman created an encryption program called Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP for short, to block the government and other snoopers from reading the emails and files of users. To retard PGP, the government targeted Zimmerman with a criminal investigation for “munitions export without licenses” after the program appeared overseas, explaining that the program’s encryption exceeded what U.S. export regulations allowed.

Zimmerman and his allies eventually won the PGP showdown, as did privacy advocates in the mid-1990s, defeating the government’s proposal for the “Clipper chip,” which would allow easy surveillance of telephone and computer systems, and again after 9/11, when Congress cut funding for the Defense Department office in charge of the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, a massive surveillance database containing oceans of vital information about everybody in the United States.

Journalism’s new Marquee Brothers

Jack Shafer
Aug 21, 2013 22:03 UTC

When Nate Silver packed his FiveThirtyEight.com flag into a box this summer and trundled it from the New York Times, where it had flown for the last three years, for planting at ESPN, he cemented his status as one of the Marquee Brothers, that fraternity of overachieving reporters whose journalistic triumphs have inspired media outlets to grant them nation-state status inside the greater organization.

In exchange for a mountain of ESPN cash and the authority to hire a team of his own, Silver will now apply his statistical hoo-doo to every sporting event, political twist, weather record and market phenomenon for which sufficient data has been assembled. In addition to running the sports numbers for ESPN on his own site, scheduled to launch January 1, Silver will also be performing political and polling analysis for the network’s cousin, ABC News. “Sports might be a third of the content,” he said about his site. “Politics might be a third.”

Other brotherhood members include Ezra Klein, the lord of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog; Walt Mossberg, perhaps the Ur-brother, whose Wall Street Journal column about personal tech birthed a conference business and more at All Things D [see addendum below]; Andrew Ross Sorkin, the founder and boss of DealBook at the Times; Andrew Sullivan, whose AndrewSullivan.com crew has operated inside  Time magazine, the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, and is now independent; the Freakonomics guys (economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner), who were indie, set up shop at the Times, and went back to being indie, and the various sports stars, Peter King of Sports Illustrated, who captains The MMQB, and Bill Simmons, who does a slew of things for ESPN, Grantland (founded 2011), The B.S. Report and TV. (Depending on how liberally you want to define the brotherhood, baseball writer Peter Gammons may also fit. He just launched Gammons Daily for TruMedia Networks.)

Jeff Bezos has two words for you: ‘No comment.’

Jack Shafer
Aug 19, 2013 22:12 UTC

When journalists pressed William Henry Vanderbilt in 1882 about his plan to discontinue his railroad’s popular but unprofitable mail run, the richest man in the world reportedly exclaimed, “The public be damned!” Whether Vanderbilt said “be damned” or not — he claimed to have been misquoted — business titans of the Gilded Age routinely assumed this default posture.

Extending the big buzz-off to the press and the public is a tradition that Jeff Bezos’s Amazon.com Inc. has restored to the commonweal, as the New York Times slyly noted yesterday in its business section feature about the $25 billion man. As many journalists noted, the piece quotes James Marcus, former Amazon employee and current executive editor of Harper’s magazine, talking about the company’s sense of reserve. “Every story you ever see about Amazon, it has that sentence: ‘An Amazon spokesman declined to comment,’” said Marcus. The next line of the Times story went completely meta, reading, “Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, declined to comment.”

It doesn’t matter whether the topic is Amazon operations, the number of Kindles it has sold, the company’s video plans, a new Kindle commercial that tweaks the iPad, Bezos’s plans for his Blue Origin rocket or Bezos’s recent salvage of the sunken Apollo 11 rocket engines: “no comment” is the default response by Bezos and the company. Today, when the entire Amazon site went down for about 45 minutes, some reporters couldn’t even reach a company spokesman to gather an explanation for the outage. 

News never made money, and is unlikely to

Jack Shafer
Aug 15, 2013 19:26 UTC

Sometime in the mid-1990s, the Web began to peel from the daily American newspaper bundle its most commercial elements, essentially the editorial sections against which advertisements could be reliably sold. Coverage of sports, business and market news, entertainment and culture, gossip, shopping, and travel still ran in daily newspapers, but the audience steadily shifted to Web sources for this sort of news. Broadcasters had dented newspaper hegemony decades ago, absconding with breaking news and weather coverage, and inventing new audience pleasers, such as traffic reports and talk. But it was the Web that completed the disintegration of the newspaper bundle that dominated the news media market for more than a century. In addition to pinching the most commercial coverage from newspapers, the Web has also made off with the institution’s lucrative classified ads market, simultaneously reducing its status as the premier venue for content and advertising.

This isn’t to say newspapers deserted the commercial news categories. Newspapers have maintained their presence in the sports-weather-business-entertainment-culture departments to attract readers who attract advertisers. Even so, circulation has eroded and ad revenues have fallen to below 1950 levels in real dollars. The units of the newspaper bundle not yet ransacked by the Web — international, national, state, local, and political coverage – have (to paraphrase Frank Zappa) little-to-no commercial potential. Traditionally, newspapers have struggled selling space to advertisers by invoking these news varieties unless the news is absolutely spectacular or sensationalized. As the bundle fragments, it becomes more difficult for publishers to support non-commercial news.

Outlets such as Politico (a child of the Web) and the Bureau of National Affairs (a pre-Web entity, now owned by Bloomberg), which were designed to commercialize news about politics, the federal government, regulatory affairs, political campaigns, law, and lobbying, have succeeded in targeting an elite Washington, D.C., audience with this kind of news. But those successes don’t subtract from the fact that Washington news is a loss leader for most mainstream newspapers. The same is largely true of international and national news. No mass audience is willing to directly pay for such news outside of the one already served by the New York Times (combined daily print and digital circulation, 1,865,318). Even At the Times, subscribers now contribute more revenues than advertisers, indicating that they value its mission more than Madison Avenue does.

The next publisher of the Washington Post is…

Jack Shafer
Aug 12, 2013 21:19 UTC

I resist making predictions if only to avoid the inevitable disappointment when they fail to peg future events. As best as I can tell, every forecast, every prophecy, every reading of entrails and chicken bones that I’ve committed to print (or its digital equivalent) has failed to come true. But this time I think I’ve read enough into my tea leaves to confidently assert my suspicion that in early October, after Jeff Bezos consummates the deal he made with Donald Graham to purchase the Washington Post for $250 million, one of his first acts of ownership will be to name Vijay Ravindran his publisher of the newspaper.

Ravindran, who holds the title of senior vice president and chief digital officer at the Washington Post Co., seems like such a logical fit for the job I feel guilty about killing that goat and boiling a chicken to confirm my hunch. Ravindran’s company biography makes him sound like a research product bred specifically to replace the Washington Post‘s current publisher and chief executive officer, Katharine Weymouth.

Ravindran previously worked as a software engineer and technical manager between 1998 and 2005 at Bezos’s Amazon, where he labored to help bring 1-Click ordering, Amazon Prime, and other advances to the online shopping. From 2005 through the 2008 election, he was chief technology officer at Catalist, a D.C.-based vendor of voting-list databases for progressive clients. Since joining the Post Co. in 2009, Ravindran has sought to transfer some of Amazon’s technological gravitas to its online operations. WaPo Labs, which Ravindran founded and leads, has developed several experimental services including Trove, a news personalization site that I use daily, and others that I’ve never touched, including the Post‘s Social Reader and its Poll Watch app. As part of his techno-push, the company has also recruited such talented folks as Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda of Slashdot fame. Last year, SocialCode, the Post Co. social advertising agency that Ravindran helps lead, made news when it “acquihired” 15 engineers from the previous incarnation of Digg.com.

Jeff Bezos is an owner who knows how to deliver

Jack Shafer
Aug 5, 2013 23:21 UTC

As the American newspaper business began its red-ink slide in the late 2000s, I fully expected a billionaire to rescue the financially struggling Washington Post. But I never thought its savior would be Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who purchased the paper today for $250 million.

I put my money on Michael R. Bloomberg’s money, in a July 2012 column titled “How Bloomberg can still run Washington” because he seemed like such a logical buyer. Unlike Bezos, Bloomberg already owned a media empire comprised of a news service, a cable channel, a weekly magazine, and more. Unlike Bezos, Bloomberg had toyed in semi-public with the idea of buying either the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the Financial Times. Unlike the 49-year-old Bezos, who has been building spaceships and an eternal clock with his mad money, the aging (71 years old) Bloomberg seemed to need one last great gesture in his career before called to paradise. He wasn’t ever going to be president, a campaign he had gamed out. As for running the World Bank, a job Bloomberg was reportedly shopped to fill, well, that would be a step down from Emperor of New York City.

My matchmaking ploy failed. Washington Post Co. CEO Donald E. Graham, whose family owns a controlling interest in the company that owns the paper, humorously rebuffed my proposal in a tart email. Bloomberg didn’t knock on my door offering to pay me a finder’s fee. My idea was completely forgotten — even by me! — until today.

Nate Silver and a general theory of media exodus

Jack Shafer
Jul 22, 2013 21:44 UTC

The defection of statistics-wrangler Nate Silver from the status peaks of the New York Times for the flatlands of ESPN and ABC News puts a dent in the newspaper’s self-esteem and the orthodox view that for journalists, a Times position equals career success.

Instead of second-guessing Silver’s decision to leave the Valhalla of journalism, media writers are playing his move as a blow to the paper. Like LeBron James bolting Cleveland for Miami, writes Marc Tracy of the New Republic. “It’s a huge loss for the New York Times,” assesses USA Today’s Rem Rieder. ESPN and ABC “stole” Silver, as Politico‘s Mike Allen puts it, and in his new perch he’ll be allowed to expand beyond his FiveThirtyEight political stats-and-predictions blog to explore whole new realms of data journalism, including sports, education, economics, weather and Oscars predictions. “No way to sugarcoat this one: It’s a huge blow for the Times,” offers Forbes‘s Jeff Bercovici. “He’s outgrown the New York Times,” states Business Insider’s Walter Hickey.

Adding blood and broken bones to the psychic wounding others inflicted upon the Times was Adweek‘s headline, “Nate Silver Dumps New York Times for ESPN.”

From Tom Paine to Glenn Greenwald, we need partisan journalism

Jack Shafer
Jul 16, 2013 22:33 UTC

I would sooner engage you in a week-long debate over which taxonomical subdivision the duck-billed platypus belongs to than spend a moment arguing whether Glenn Greenwald is a journalist or not, or whether an activist can be a journalist, or whether a journalist can be an activist, or how suspicious we should be of partisans in the newsroom.

It’s not that those arguments aren’t worthy of time — just not mine. I’d rather judge a work of journalism directly than run the author’s mental drippings through a gas chromatograph to detect whether his molecules hang left or right or cling to the center. In other words, I care less about where a journalist is coming from than to where his journalism takes me.

Greenwald’s collaborations with source Edward Snowden, which resulted in Page One scoops in the Guardian about the National Security Agency, caused such a rip in the time-space-journalism continuum that the question soon went from whether Greenwald’s lefty style of journalism could be trusted to whether he belonged in a jail cell. Last month, New York Times business journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin called for the arrest of Greenwald (he later apologized) and Meet the Press host David Gregory asked with a straight face if he shouldn’t “be charged with a crime.” NBC’s Chuck Todd and the Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus and Paul Farhi also asked if Greenwald hadn’t shape-shifted himself to some non-journalistic precinct with his work.

When death comes in installments

Jack Shafer
Jul 12, 2013 21:42 UTC

“Inconsiderate to the last, Josef Stalin, a man who never had to meet a deadline, had the bad taste to die in installments,” wrote New Yorker press critic A.J. Liebling in the magazine’s March 28, 1953 issue. His piece deserves rereading every time a Hugo Chávez, a Margaret Thatcher, or now, a Nelson Mandela, drag their feet in their last approaches to their final reward.

The lengthy illness of a former or current world leader tends to agitate the hard-core news hounds. Their attitude: if you’re going, please go. As Liebling observed, only 10 percent of the obituary will contain any real news, anyway, the remainder is just a history lesson or clip job. The unexpected and sudden death of a world leader — preferably one in power — has greater appeal to the newshound, if only because there’s news in the surprise. Fifty years on, we still hunger for details about John Kennedy’s life and death, and Abraham Lincoln’s obituaries will never stop entertaining us.

World leaders do readers a disservice when they die on installment. Their obituaries, which newspapers pre-write and store in their pantries for that special day, can be refreshed a limited  number of times before they start to read like Wikipedia entries. When dying or aged leaders cheat death or push their way back into the news, they dilute their prepared obituaries. Liebling succinctly expressed this press corps’s lament in his Stalin complaint. Should they publish the meat of the full obit when the leader is close to death or should they hold back, publishing mini-obits in the form of news stories, columns and recollections? The leader who won’t die on a schedule forces journalism interruptus upon both the press and news consumers.

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