On Leaning Forward

It’s good to know someone in the news business, like Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta – he was part of the team that founded CNN way back when, after he had earlier worked for Roger Ailes, and Rick established much of CNN’s satellite infrastructure. And after Rick left CNN his wife stayed on, a key producer in the background of all the major events. And of course the two of them know everybody and have lots of stories – stories that cannot be revealed here. And Rick can keep you honest. When you write something where you’re railing about the failure of the press to do this or that, Rick will leave a comment here and straighten things out. The role of the press is tricky – objectivity is harder than you think, or sometimes easier than it seems. Rick has explained this now and then – see CNN and the Death of Serious TV News – The Inside Story (2005) and this item a year later on press objectivity – and he still leaves comments.

But a lot of what goes back and forth between Hollywood and Atlanta is what the two of us call “inside baseball” – ratings issues vis a vis Fox News and why Jonathan Klein was fired and then Rick Sanchez, and who is calling the shots, and stories of Larry King’s crew or Lou Dobb’s golf game or whatever. None of that merits a column, and much of it is both arcane and sort of privileged information. But sometimes it’s about the product – what CNN thinks it is offering – neither the rabid Tea Party stuff from Fox News, nor the scattershot progressivism of MSNBC. The bet seems to be that people just want the news, and the key underlying details – and that is that. Glenn Beck didn’t last long at CNN, and when Lou Dobbs got on his high horse and decided to be a prophet of doom – and started calling for Obama to really, really prove he was born in America – Dobbs was gone too. CNN does the news. And their ratings stink. Of course those ratings jump when there’s a major disaster or a war or whatever. That’s when people want to know what is going on, without sneering or attitude.

But it all comes down to attitude. If you want people to watch your news programming you do have to do a bit of marketing. And marketing is all about attitude. Your product is all about the attitude of those who use that product, and how you want to be associated with such people. Of course you do. Pepsi was once for those who think young. If you drank Coke you were obviously a useless old fart. And the advertisements parade by – chic people use this, bold rebels use that, and this other thing is used by intense masterful athletes who need say nothing, because they’re the best of the best. The car you drive and the shoes you wear and the shampoo you use show your attitude – and in life it’s all about ‘tude. That is who you are, or who you want people to think you are.

And it seems to be the same with news organizations. Fox News is selling an attitude. For Pepsi from 1961 to 1963 their product was for those who think young – and for Fox News it seems to be that Fox News is for those who are pissed off, pissed off at the liberal media run by the elite and arrogant Ivy League bastards in Manhattan, who don’t know how to be Fair and Balanced, especially about Real Americans, and pissed off at the immigrants and the gays and the minorities getting special favors, and pissed off in general. The bet was that there are a lot of people like that out there – and it was a good bet. CNN seems to have bet that there are a lot of people out there who are more curious than pissed off, who just want to know what’s going on – the folks who find all the anger really, in the end, both limiting and kind of boring. That might have been a bad bet.

But that leaves a third alternative. Maybe there are a whole lot of people out there who are all optimistic and inclusive and generous and happy, who want things to get better. Think of them as a new Pepsi Generation – they don’t want to be told who to hate, and who to fear, and who to mock. They just want to fix things and make the country better, for everyone, even the gays and the minorities, and even those sourpusses on the right. It’s that Obama thing that started with his keynote speech in Boston in 2004 – we’re all in this together:

If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs, and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process – that threatens my civil liberties.

It is that fundamental belief, it is that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.

Glenn Beck is still mad about that. That’s socialism! He’s calling for the redistribution of wealth! He has a deep-seated hatred of white people! This is America – I get to keep my stuff and no one can tell me otherwise! And there are people who we SHOULD hate, and who we SHOULD fear, and who we SHOULD mock!

Sigh. Well, what Obama was championing worked for a time, and Obama got himself elected. There were enough people who were apparently inclusive and optimistic, at the time.

The curious thing is that MSNBC seems to think they’re still around:

Cable news network MSNBC said Tuesday it is launching a two-year, multimillion-dollar marketing campaign, embracing its politically progressive identity with the new tagline “Lean Forward.”

The network hopes the campaign, featuring television ads directed by Spike Lee, will lift brand awareness and boost ratings, building on recent audience gains that have lifted it to the No. 2 news channel, ahead of CNN and behind industry leader Fox News.

“We’ve taken on CNN and we beat them,” MSNBC President Phil Griffin told employees at a series of celebratory “town hall” meetings Monday. “Now it’s time to take on Fox.”

That’s pretty explicit. Look at the video. It looks like an old Pepsi commercial:

The campaign, which also includes print and online components, takes a swipe at the nation’s strident and divisive political culture with lines like, “Celebrate the best ideas, no matter where they come from,” and “One nation, in progress.”

Executives did not offer a price tag but said it would be the biggest ad campaign in the network’s history.

They’re going all out with this bet. Of course they hired Spike Lee to create these slick ads – they must have a deep-seated hatred of white people. They couldn’t find a white director? But the bet is that people don’t mind, that more people want to be associated with a let’s-all-pitch-in-and-fix-things attitude than with the angry old white man yelling at the kids to get off his lawn. The thought must be that they can swing some people over their way. That would be someone watching the eighth person in a row in the last half-hour on Fox News screaming that they’re angry and they’re outraged, and this group or that is ruining everything – watching such folks, red-faced with their veins bulging, does get a bit tiresome. Some of those watching such folks might cross over.

Or, as you see in a typical reaction for the blogs on the right, they might not:

The difference between a communist and a liberal is that a communist shows the boldness to be straightforward about his ruinous statist objectives. Instead of striding boldly toward totalitarian hell, liberals usually take furtive half steps. For example, communist dictator Mao Zedong killed millions with his Great Leap Forward. The liberal weenies at MSNBC match this by nauseating millions with their hokey multiculti ad campaign featuring the slogan, Lean Forward…

The only way they could make their obeisance to Obama more obvious would be to change the slogan to Bend Over.

So the lines are drawn. The righteously angry face off against the pragmatically hopeful. And CNN is left with what’s left.

It’s hard to imagine what sort of marketing campaign CNN can mount. They say that they’re the Most Trusted Name in News. What does that have to do with anything? But you might remember how Coke responded to Pepsi – I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke – it’s fine cola, and universal, and everyone knows it, and it’s the Real Thing of course. CNN is down with that. They’re there now, saying the same sort of thing, without the catchy tune or the kids on the hillside.

But that’s all inside baseball. In the real world it plays out differently:

President Barack Obama called Monday for Congress to approve a $50 billion plan to begin upgrading the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, saying such an investment is vital to creating much-needed construction jobs and keeping the nation competitive in the global economy.

In a Rose Garden statement at the White House, Obama called for bipartisan support when Congress returns after the November 2 mid-term elections so that the first phase of a proposed six-year infrastructure development plan can begin.

“We’ve always had the best infrastructure,” Obama said, noting that one in five construction workers are unemployed right now. “This is work that needs to be done. There are workers ready to do it. All we need is political will.”

There’s no point in fussing and fighting – let’s all just pitch in and get something useful done. And this was as MSNBC was rolling out its Spike Lee happy-ads. It all fits together.

But it doesn’t fit together. At salon.com Joan Walsh argues that Obama is playing fantasy politics. There’s no point in Democrats pretending that spending on infrastructure has Republican support:

The president brought along two Republicans, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as well as the man who had that job under George H. W. Bush, Samuel Skinner, harking back to a time when spending on roads, tunnels and bridges was a bipartisan issue. After all, congressional Republicans passed a record transportation bill after they took back Congress in 1994, right?

Those were different times. It’s no accident Obama dragged along a Republican from a 1980s White House. Now even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, touted by some as a pragmatist, is making a big show of canceling his state’s long-delayed rail-tunnel project. Republicans are rejecting infrastructure spending because they think it’s good politics to do so right now, and the fact that such spending creates jobs as well as builds or modernizes crucial public projects doesn’t seem to matter. In fact, the job-creation aspect of Obama’s infrastructure plans probably counts against it, as Republicans seem determined to block any effort to put Americans back to work if it could benefit Democrats politically.

MSNBC is going to have to run a lot more Spike Lee ads for any of this to change:

The ever-optimistic Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who appeared with Obama today, is insisting the infrastructure bill will get Republican votes eventually. “Infrastructure has always had bipartisan support. I think it is something that Republicans, if they do win [the House] could come together with Democrats on,” Rendell told Politico. But Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell countered: “After the administration pledged that a trillion dollars in borrowed stimulus money would create 4 million jobs and keep the unemployment rate under 8 percent … the administration wants to do it again, this time with higher taxes for even more new spending.”

And that’s that, even if the other guys are fudging things a bit:

There are many things wrong with McConnell’s statement (the stimulus wasn’t a trillion dollars, to start, and the higher taxes funding the infrastructure proposal involve closing loopholes for oil and gas companies as well as tax breaks for offshoring American jobs). But the GOP Senate leader got to the heart of the problem Krugman laid out so well this morning: The inadequate 2009 stimulus bill saddled the president with the political baggage of being a big spender, but gave him none of the political advantage, because it didn’t do enough to create jobs.

She is referring to Paul Krugman’s “Hey, Small Spender” column in the New York Times that same morning:

Of the roughly $600 billion cost of the Recovery Act in 2009 and 2010, more than 40 percent came from tax cuts, while another large chunk consisted of aid to state and local governments. Only the remainder involved direct federal spending.

And federal aid to state and local governments wasn’t enough to make up for plunging tax receipts in the face of the economic slump. So states and cities, which can’t run large deficits, were forced into drastic spending cuts, more than offsetting the modest increase at the federal level.

It seems that number of government employees has fallen by 350,000 since Obama took office, most of it because of cutbacks by state and local government. And Walsh adds this:

If Democrats are taking the blame for big spending, it would have been nice to at least have the economic and political benefits actual big spending might have delivered. This paradox goes to the heart of why the party is struggling on the eve of the midterm elections. But continuing to pretend Republicans want to do the right thing – in the face of massive evidence to the contrary – seems a little crazy to me. I’m happy to have a Republican like Ray LaHood say, “The idea that the stimulus hasn’t worked is nonsense,” but they don’t make Republicans like LaHood any more, at least not in the halls of Congress.

Under pressure from LaHood, Christie is promising to reconsider his New Jersey tunnel decision, but that just makes my point: A governor is forced to be at least slightly pragmatic, not merely ideological; in the Congress run by McConnell and John Boehner, there’s no such pressure.

And maybe it is all about attitude.

And MSNBC and Obama may have it wrong about America being a land full of optimistic sorts who just want to get things done, for the common good we all share. See Christopher Hitchens on that matter:

I have lived in Washington, D.C., for almost three decades. My own generation is now getting long in the tooth, having lived through some intensely political decades, but when I reflect back, I can only think of two or three members of it who ever tried to run for Congress. Some of this had to do with a ’60s-based suspicion of what used to be dismissively called “electoral politics,” but the general reluctance goes far deeper than that. And among the politically conscious who are decades younger and up-and-coming, the revulsion appears to be more profound still.

I could introduce you to dozens of enthusiastic and intelligent people, highly aware of “the issues” and very well-informed on all questions from human rights to world trade to counterinsurgency, to none of whom it would occur to subject themselves to what passes for the political “arena.” They are willing to give up potentially more lucrative careers in order to work on important questions and expand the limits of what is currently thinkable politically, but the great honor and distinction of serving their country in the legislature is only offered to them at a price that is now way too steep.

And he says he is not ignoring “the apparent flood of new political volunteers who go to make up the Tea Party movement.”

But how fresh and original are these faces? They come from a long and frankly somewhat boring tradition of anti-incumbency and anti-Washington rhetoric, and they are rather an insult to anyone with anything of a political memory. Since when is it truly insurgent to rail against the state of affairs in the nation’s capital? How long did it take Gingrich’s “rebel” forces in the mid-1990s to become soft-bottomed incumbents in their turn? Many of the cynical veterans of that moment, from Dick Armey to John Boehner, are the effective managers and controllers of the allegedly spontaneous Tea Party wave we see today.

And these days the whole thing is degrading:

Populism imposes its own humiliations on anyone considering a run. How many times can you stand in front of an audience and state: “I will always put the people of X first”? (Quite a lot of times, to judge by recent campaigns.) This is to say no more than that you will be a megaphone for sectional interests and regional mood swings and resentment, a confession that, to you, all politics is yokel.

And Anne Applebaum argues that the smart people stay away from this stuff:

The old Establishment types were resented, but only because their wealth and power were perceived as “undeserved.” Those outside could at least feel they were cleverer and savvier, and they could blame their failures on “the system.” Nowadays, successful Americans, however ridiculously lucky they have been, often smugly see themselves as “deserving.” Meanwhile, the less successful are more likely to feel it’s their own fault – or to feel that others feel it’s their fault – even if they have simply been unlucky.

I can see how this is irritating, even painful. But I don’t quite see what comes next. When Ginni Thomas tells a cheering crowd of Virginia Tea Partiers that “we are ruled by an elite that thinks it knows better than we know,” who, or what, does she want to put in its place? Young imagined a revolution (led, interestingly, by the wives of the high-IQ elites) and a classless society to follow. Unfortunately, this idea has been tried before – and let’s just agree that it wasn’t an overwhelming success.

In America, the end of the meritocracy will probably come about slowly: If working hard, climbing the education ladder, and graduating from a good university wins you only opprobrium, then you might not bother. Or if you do bother, then you certainly won’t go into politics, where your kind is no longer welcome. We will then have a different sort of elite in charge of the country – and a different set of reasons to dislike them, too.

Yep, and in the background you have three major news organizations providing context for all this – suggesting the proper attitude one should assume about it all. Turn off the television.

But then how would we know what’s going on?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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