Opinion

Jack Shafer

Unsolicited advice for Jeff Zucker, CNN’s new boss

Jack Shafer
Feb 22, 2013 22:53 UTC

After the bosses at Time Warner installed Jeff Zucker as president of the 23 news and information brands that constitute CNN Worldwide, the press (Ad Age, Marketwatch, Politico, Guardian, New York Times, et al.) speculated on which strategies he might employ to return the network to ratings and cultural primacy, positions it lost long ago to Fox News Channel and more recently to MSNBC.

As the auteur behind the Today show’s return in the 1990s to No. 1 in the ratings, Zucker knows all about network comebacks. As the former president and CEO of NBC Universal, who was pushed out in 2010 as Comcast purchased controlling interest in the operation, Zucker craves a personal comeback. Although he only took over a month ago, his first moves as CNN’s leader indicate a plan that plays to the network’s existing strengths and the competition’s inherent weaknesses.

CNN’s decline began in 1996 when Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch started Fox News Channel, acting on their hunch that conservative consumers of television news and talk were woefully underserved and would respond to a network that served as the Republican Party’s light infantry. MSNBC also arrived that year, but it didn’t make its mark in the cable news and talk racket until midway through the past decade, after positioning itself as the liberal mirror image of Fox. For all the talk of decline, CNN has remained hugely profitable, estimated to be making $600 million in operating profit in 2012, second only to Fox. So it’s not as though Zucker had been called on to rescue a failing enterprise.

Fox and MSNBC’s aggressive courting of right- and left-wing audiences has left many to judge CNN as centrist by default. MSNBC just renewed its lease on liberal-land by signing longtime Obama aide David Axelrod and former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs as political “commentators.” Fox has made a similar move, rotating in Scott Brown, the former senator from Massachusetts, and Herman Cain and rotating out Sarah Palin and Dick Morris.

With the exception of Glenn Beck’s short tenure as the host of a conservative show on CNN’s sister network, HLN, CNN has generally packaged partisanship in offsetting pairs — Tom Braden versus Pat Buchanan; Michael Kinsley versus Robert Novak; Eliot Spitzer versus Kathleen Parker, and so on. But calling CNN centrist because it has conducted a 30-year-long balancing act accords the network a more distinct definition than it deserves. To paraphrase George W.S. Trow, CNN has long possessed the character of no character.

Infrastructure rhetoric is a bridge to nowhere

Jack Shafer
Feb 15, 2013 19:08 UTC
Whenever the phrase “our crumbling infrastructure” passes the lips of a politician or appears in the pages of a newspaper, I change the password on my checking account and move my wallet to the front pocket of my jeans. So when President Barack Obama invoked our “aging infrastructure badly in need of repair” in his State of the Union address on Tuesday and Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria used his perch yesterday to complain that Obama wasn’t proposing near enough for infrastructure, I closed my bank accounts, canceled my credit cards, converted my liquid investments into gold bullion, dumped them into 55-gallon drums, rolled the drums into a backyard pit and poured a load of cement over the heap.

It’s not that infrastructure doesn’t crumble — everything turns to dust eventually. Obviously, useful bridges, ports, airports and highways need to be maintained, and as a country grows it needs new ones. It’s just that the press allows members of the civil engineering-industrial complex to bamboozle them into believing that all calls for building infrastructure are equal.

The bamboozling usually begins with a sweeping declaration about America’s shoddy highway bridges and the urgent need to repair them. Obama hit his mark in his State of the Union speech where he plugged his “Fix-It-First” program, which would mend the “nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.” Zakaria finds Fix-It-First insufficient, calling it a mere “Band-Aid on America’s growing cancer of failing infrastructure.” Citing the 2009 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which gave the nation’s infrastructure a “D” and estimated the cost of repairing it at $2.2 trillion, Zakaria demands the dramatic expansion of American infrastructure. The ASCE recently upped its estimate of how much should be spend on infrastructure by 2020 to $2.7 trillion (pdf), which is two-thirds greater than the feds, the states and local governments are expected to spend on it by then. Zakaria expressed even greater enthusiasm for spending infrastructure trillions in a November piece for Time.

Horsemeat hysteria

Jack Shafer
Feb 12, 2013 23:22 UTC

Disgust, the gag reflex and flights to the vomitorium greeted this week’s news that horse flesh had breached the beef wall to contaminate burgers and frozen beef meals (lasagna, spaghetti Bolognese, shepherd’s pie, meatballs) all over Europe. Some of the “beef” products contained 100 percent horsemeat, and early forensic tests hinted that the contamination might go back as far as August 2012.

Both the British government and the European Union called for “horsemeat summits” to investigate the food scandal, with British officials surmising that a criminal conspiracy would be found responsible for adulterating beef products with cheaper horse. But for all the horsemeat hysteria recorded and amplified by the press, “no risk to consumer health” was posed by the products, as the Food Safety Authority of Ireland reported. The injuries from eating horsemeat were not physical, they were psychological, and where they were not psychological they were anthropological, or else simply nonexistent. According to the Ireland health authority, every beef-and-horse burger it analyzed tested negative for phenylbutazone, a common horse medicine that’s banned from the food chain.

Horsemeat — as those who have sampled its pleasures will attest — should not be feared. Looked at rationally, it’s merely the other, other red meat, as our French cousins are forever reminding us. It’s a domesticated and hooved grass and grain eater with a tail, big eyes and a tannable hide, just like the cattle that most of us consume. That’s not to suggest that the folks who were sold horse burgers when they paid for beef burgers have no right to gripe. They were defrauded and deserve refunds, a few pennies’ worth of damages and the satisfaction of seeing the defrauders (if the contamination was deliberate) sent to jail. But that’s about it.

The theater of economic sanctions

Jack Shafer
Feb 8, 2013 00:19 UTC

Today’s edition of the New York Times visits Tehran and reports on page one that the economic sanctions leveled against Iran by the United States are not working — if by working one means that the country shows any signs of ditching its nuclear program.

Oh, it’s not like the sanctions have completely flopped: Inflation is gargantuan, and the currency has melted. But the Times reporters find that Iran’s citizens have yet to riot over prices. New high-rises are rising high over Tehran and a Chinese-built highway interchange  is similarly soaring. Shops are filled with goods, and new eateries seem to be opening daily. In response, the Obama administration has decided to do the thing it does when sanctions don’t work (and not working is something sanctions frequently do): It’s adding more sanctions. (Print headline: “U.S. Ratchets Up an Economic War Against Tehran; Web headline: “U.S. Increases Pressure of Economic War on Tehran.”)

For all the clarity the Times brings to the subject, the piece could have been headlined “U.S. Doubles Down on Hopeless Initiative Against Iran.” Not only are the existing sanctions not working, the Times reports, but unnamed senior Obama administration officials doubt that the new sanctions will work. In detailing the mechanics of the sanctions, the piece leaves the reader to understand that just about the only positive thing about sanctions is that they’re not as nasty as war. But that might change, too. The Times‘ kicker reports an upcoming military exercise in the Persian Gulf in which the U.S. and its allies will practice intercepting banned weapons and technology bound for Iranian ports, which may result in the worst of both worlds — sanctions and war.

Obama’s dicey license to kill

Jack Shafer
Feb 5, 2013 22:46 UTC

Last night, NBC News investigative reporter Michael Isikoff published a revelatory article based on an undated 16-page Department of Justice “white paper,” representing the arguments contained in classified memos produced by the Obama administration that describe the criteria that must be met before the administration plans the killing of a U.S. citizen.

Who would have surrendered such a sensitive document about the president’s “kill list” to NBC News?

It’s a valid question, and a little bit silly at the same time. Not to diminish the intrepid reporting of Isikoff — who should be made the grand marshal of the next Tournament of Roses Parade for his scoop — but Washington often leaks in directions to further stoke policy fires that are already burning. (See this taxonomy of leaks compiled by Stephen Hess.) Such a Washington fire has been burning for many months, with Congress demanding that the Obama administration explain its targeted killings of U.S. citizens. Yesterday, before the Isikoff story broke, 11 senators sent the president a formal request that any and all legal opinions devised by the White House about the targeting of citizens be forwarded to the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.

Unsolicited advice for New Republic owner Chris Hughes

Jack Shafer
Jan 29, 2013 23:01 UTC

For more than a century, rich guys who think they’re smarter than the rich guys who came before them have been buying money-losing publications under the impression that by spending more money than their deep-pocketed predecessors, they’ll turn the red ink black. This tradition, whose ranks include such modern vanity moguls as Mortimer Zuckerman (Atlantic, U.S. News & World Report), Sidney Harman (Newsweek), Arthur L. Carter (Nation, New York Observer), Philip Anschutz (San Francisco Examiner, Weekly Standard), David Bradley (Atlantic, National Journal), Michael Bloomberg (Bloomberg Businessweek), Richard Mellon Scaife (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review), and Martin Peretz (New Republic), gained a new adherent about a year ago when Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder whose net worth currently bounces around in the vicinity of the half-billion mark, purchased the New Republic.

Since then, Hughes has followed the century-old script to a T, wheel-barreling a load of cash into the magazine, replacing the top editor with the former top editor, adding staff, opening a New York office, making plans to move his Washington staff to a nicer home, and ordering a makeover of both the magazine and website. This week, those redesigns debuted, with the magazine getting slicker and thicker, and the website receiving a sumptuous transformation that makes the competition look like they’re squatting on GeoCities sites.

Like the rich guys who have come before, Hughes has also set the goal of making the magazine profitable in “a couple years.” Making money is a wonderful ambition for the New Republic, which was losing about $3 million a year several years before Hughes began the current expansion, according to Martin Peretz’s ex-wife, Ann Peretz. Everybody should make money! But the ambition is more loony than it is wonderful. In today’s publishing environment it’s almost impossible for a journal of opinion or national general-interest magazine that’s not part of a larger magazine group that handles ad sales and back-office matters (e.g., Time Warner and Time; Condé Nast and the New Yorker and Vanity Fair) to maintain profitability.

Does anyone actually believe in a ‘second-term curse’?

Jack Shafer
Jan 24, 2013 14:52 UTC

Just as farmers plant and reap with the seasons, political journalists consult the calendar for the best time to scatter seed and harvest, with second-term inaugurations being the preferred juncture to deploy temple-tapping discussions of the “second-term curse,” the notion that special doom awaits any modern president who wins the White House a second time.

Like most predictions, this one is for suckers. To begin with, the definition of a second-term curse has become so elastic that anything from a few policy setbacks to death can be interpreted as fulfillment of the curse. Even the definition of a second term has been debased by those who call vice presidents who complete a dead president’s term and win one on their own — Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman  and Lyndon Johnson — two-termers.

Also, as David Greenberg recently argued in The New Republic, the audit of supposedly failed second terms usually neglects to mention the triumphs, such as President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy successes in Kosovo and Northern Ireland in his second term, President George W. Bush’s winding down of the Iraq war in his second and President Ronald Reagan’s retreat from “Strangelovean apocalypticism” that created a soft-landing place for the collapsing Soviet empire.

Manti Te’o and the press get blitzed

Jack Shafer
Jan 17, 2013 21:53 UTC

Deadspin’s exposé of Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o's nonexistent girlfriend — which does double duty as an exposé of the dozens of news outlets that accepted his word that she had been injured in a car wreck and then died of leukemia — doesn’t conclude that Te’o was simply the victim of a hoax or that he became a willing accomplice in the deception.

But the ultimate subject of the investigation, written by Deadspin’s Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, is not the collegian at the center of it but the press corps, which swallowed the girlfriend story whole. Just a little more early pushing by reporters and a few skeptical questions by editors would have separated the bogus from the true, as the piece amply illustrates.

Of course, few reporters have the time or energy to contest every statement of fact from their subjects. Date of birth, place born, schools attended, honors won, jobs worked, countries visited, political and religious views and other aspects of personal history too numerous to catalog usually originate from the mouths of news subjects when they’re first interviewed. Because part of journalism is the business of discovering lies — and because the human soul is a deceitful thing — reporters know that everybody tends to fudge their pasts. Actors might make themselves a little younger in an interview. Law school attendees might encourage you to believe they graduated when they did not. Someone who climbed one major mountain peak might suggest he had climbed several.

When advertorial bites back

Jack Shafer
Jan 15, 2013 22:01 UTC

At about noon today, the Atlantic put on a very snug hair shirt, issuing a statement of apology and regret for having posted on its website Church of Scientology “Sponsor Content” yesterday.

The Scientology advertisement, composed by tone-deaf propagandists unable to write a sentence about the church’s alleged worldwide expansion without including a superlative – “unparalleled,” “unrelenting,” “unprecedented” (twice) – was taken down just before midnight after being up for about 11 hours. (See Erik Wemple’s tick-tock.)

A cached version of the Scientology advertorial is preserved on freiz.it, but be forewarned that there isn’t much there to interest you unless you’re an admirer of the church and love to read nice but bland things about it, or you detest Scientology and enjoy nothing better than to have a good laugh at the church’s expense and that of its “ecclesiastical leader,” David Miscavige. It’s really that lame.

Chuck Hagel and the nomination pageant

Jack Shafer
Jan 8, 2013 23:33 UTC

I can feign as much excitement as anybody in the press corps when the president nominates someone to a vacancy in the Cabinet or the Supreme Court. But when deadline time comes, I really don’t care who gets nominated; unless there are outstanding warrants for the arrests of the nominees, the president should be allowed to hire and fire, as long as we can fire him.

The rest of the press pack, alas, does not have that luxury. They must tackle every nomination with the same fervor they gave to their previous nomination stories, which isn’t as difficult as it may seem. All they need to do is update and rearrange their old copy to confirm with Shafer’s First Law of Journalistic Thermodynamics, which states, “Copy can be cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form.”

A full three months before President Barack Obama got around to nominating former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel to head the Defense Department yesterday, the trial balloons had been lofted to test Hagel’s suitability to the position, and the press corps busied itself dusting off its nomination-coverage templates and completing the blanks. Hagel’s nomination did not catch anyone by surprise; few such nominations do, since the White House and others maintain comprehensive short lists for the day a Washington appointee dies or resigns. By virtue of her age (79) and her announced intention to serve on the Supreme Court as long as her hero, Justice Louis Brandeis, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has encouraged White House short-listers to prepare for her departure and the arrival of a new justice by 2014.

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