Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Sometimes you can see the steam coming out of his ears

Alright, here I go again.

Why do I get so mad at the TV people? And why in particular do I get maddest at the very TV people whose hearts I know are in the right place, and with whom I tend to agree, politically?

Cue Keith Olbermann's show last night, and his opening report, on the (apparently insane) governor of Illinois. There were two moments that irritated me about this thing. The first can be found at around 2:40 in the following vid:

To wit: Obama, in footage from an exchange with the press, responds to the Blagojevich nonsense, but declines to go into any detail. Olbermann (back in the studio, of course) interjects:

Olbermann outburst number 1: "Oh, no, not four more years of not commenting on ongoing investigations, not that crap, that's not change we can believe in. Surely there's something the president-elect could say about his involvement without compromising Mr. Fitzgerald's efforts."

[Cue to footage of Obama doing exactly that]

Olbermann outburst number 2: "Now, was that so hard?"

Let me get this straight. Olbermann, reading from a teleprompter, knew, before making outburst number 1, that outburst number 2 would be following a few seconds later?

He knew, in other words, that outburst number 2 effectively made outburst number 1 irrelevant? He knew, while he was insisting that Obama "say something about his own involvement without compromising Mr. Fitzgerald's efforts," that Obama had already said something about his own involvement without compromising Mr. Fitzgerald's efforts?

What the fuck?

Later, Olbermann interviewed Jonathan Alter:

And here we have irritating moment number 2: a glimpse of the sort of power trip that comes from manufacturing drama out of thin air. It starts when Olbermann pursues the Obama connection (or non-connection):

"Well, to that point, eleven minutes into a nightly news broadcast tonight was the headline 'Barack Obama's First Scandal,' and it was eleven minutes into one of the British news casts, ITV. As much of an oversimplification as it is, and as much as it's contradicted by what Blagojevich said on those tapes, is there a risk of the implication sticking to the president-elect that this is his first political scandal?"

Okay, I have to ask: when a broadcaster gets into "is there a risk of the implication sticking" territory, specifically concerning an implication that has not yet stuck, how exactly is that different from the classic politician's gambit of deftly raising questions about an opponent -- especially guilt-by-association type questions -- without ever coming out and accusing them of anything? Isn't it the same dynamic? Plant the seed, and then step aside while it grows (or dies) -- never thinking about or owning your own responsibility in the process?

If the "Obama involvement" angle was discredited from the get-go (and Fitzgerald himself insisted that it was), why even raise it here? Until and unless new, contradictory evidence emerges, I have to ask, again: what the fuck?

It's amazing to me how much of what passes for news these days is actually the anticipation of news. So much of what journalists (especially broadcast journalists) do is wrapped up in the pseudo-science of making predictions. In part, that's the ruthlessness of the media-industrial complex's bottom line: you have to have enough "stuff" to fill up the hour, and if you don't actually have all the data on a story by air time (but you know you're dealing with a big story), you want people to continue to believe that you are "the most trusted name in news" or whatever. So you have to convincingly extemporize your way through the subject. You want to appear authoritative, right? You don't want to appear to be as clueless as the people watching at home, do you?

(Incidentally, note to networks: my ability to trust you is inversely related to the number of times you tell me that you're trustworthy. If you have to tell me you're cutting through the bull, I'm sorry, but I'm going to think you're bullshitting me.)

At what point does this mania for prediction help to create the news? At what point is the media getting in the business of self-fulfilling prophecy? Not out of a vindictiveness toward any one politician or party, but just because it has become standard operating procedure?

Look: Obama should not be protected from media critique. (Duh! Of course.) But these broadcasters need to get a new game. Because four more years of this shit is not change I can believe in.


Kris Tiner said...

Very well said - KO has been getting way too theatrical (even for him!) lately, and I've been thinking that the post-Bush, post-election Keith was in danger of becoming a caricature of himself. But I think you nailed it. The whole show is designed to report the bad news, so it probably suits him just fine to blow something like this, as bad as it already is, up to the level of presidential conspiracy. Which usually works just fine if he's talking about the Bush admin. But here it reeks of fabrication, trying to turn bad news into worse news. It's enough to make me find something else to do until Rachel Maddow comes on...

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks, Kris!

It looks like John Cole's Balloon Juice is the go-to blog for responding to this story as it developed today: e.g. here and here.

Anyway, I'm sort of a curmudgeon (now that I'm 40, it's official), but I actually think this problem is more than just KO's. I'm hard-pressed to think of any MSM newscasters -- Rachel Maddow included -- who don't fall into these same traps. (I mean, you can't get much more narcissistic and inclined toward a negative frame than to call a regular segment "Talk Me Down." I do like RM -- a lot -- but come on...)

You're right that my impatience (my petulance?) has something to do with the emerging post-Bush world. Like, do we have to accept that muckraking is the norm for progressive journalism, just because we have had to endure 8 years in which that was the only kind of journalism that made sense?