Brian Wiliams And The Problems At NBC News

Vanity Fair Brian Wilson

Vanity Fair has a fascinating article on Brian Williams and NBC News. Here are just a few of the highlights:

Much of the blame is placed on Comcast–an easy target to blame:

Since Comcast took control of NBC, the network’s news division—famously termed Comcast’s “crown jewel” by C.E.O. Brian Roberts—has endured one debacle after another. “When Comcast took over, they had the No. 1 morning show, the No. 1 Sunday show, and the No. 1 evening broadcast,” says a former top NBC executive. “That’s all completely fallen apart. I don’t know how you blame anyone but Comcast and the people it brought in. It’s been a nightmare.”

Behind the scenes much of the blame has been laid at the feet of three executives: Turness, a British-trained newcomer to U.S. television; Fili, who had virtually no experience in journalism; and Fili’s boss, the steely, driven C.E.O. Comcast installed to run NBCUniversal, Steve Burke. Under Burke the network has done well overall—its ratings have rebounded from last to first in the coveted 18–49 demographic, and NBCUniversal’s profits were up 18 percent last year—but he and his deputies, their critics charge, time and again proved unable to rein in the news division’s high-priced talent. “News is a very particular thing, NBC is a very particular beast, and Deborah, well, she really doesn’t have a fucking clue,” says a senior NBC executive involved in recent events. “She’s letting the inmates run the asylum. You have kids? Well, if you let them, they’ll have ice cream every night. Same thing in TV. If you let the people on air do what they want, whenever they want, this is what happens.”

The problem is also attributed to Brian Williams being more interested in corporate politics than national politics or foreign affairs:

One might expect that, in the wake of Williams’s suspension, his colleagues would be brimming with stories of other fanciful tales he told. That’s not the case. There are a few tales, it’s true, but when asked for the unvarnished truth about Williams, the two topics people at NBC News return to again and again are these: his prowess as a bureaucratic infighter and his limited interest in the kind of “heavy” news topics and investigative pieces that had long been championed by such NBC stalwarts as Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert.

“What always bothered Tim was Brian’s lack of interest in things that mattered most, that were front and center, like politics and world events,” says a person who knew both men well. “Brian has very little interest in politics. It’s not in his blood. What Brian cares about is logistics, the weather, and planes and trains and helicopters.”

“You know what interested Brian about politics?” marvels one longtime NBC correspondent, recently departed. “Brian was obsessed with whether Mitt Romney wore the Mormon underwear.” (A supporter says that this characterization is unfair and that Williams reads deeply and broadly, especially about history and politics.)

Williams took the anchor chair in December 2004, after a career handling the news at local stations and MSNBC; though he had worked as NBC’s chief White House correspondent for two years, he was never a foreign or war correspondent. He was deeply insecure about this, some of his friends believe. These people suggest that his storied broadcasts from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which proved a boon to his ratings, were in part an effort to overcome the perception that he was a journalistic lightweight. In his first years on Nightly News, several colleagues say, Williams’s weaknesses were kept in check by other strong figures at the network, from Brokaw and Russert to Capus and a Nightly News executive producer named John Reiss. With the departures of each of these men, especially Russert, who died in 2008, Williams slowly consolidated his power.

Plus Williams often appeared to be more interested in entertainment than hard news:

For a while, he was. In fact, as an excellent article by Gabriel Sherman in New York magazine recounted, Williams had long displayed an ambivalence with continuing in the anchor chair. With his abundant charisma and disarming wit, what he truly wanted, it appears, was his own talk show. According to New York, he talked to Steve Burke about succeeding Jay Leno. When Burke refused, Williams reportedly pitched Les Moonves, at CBS, to replace David Letterman, who was soon to retire. Moonves also allegedly declined. Though his appearances on shows such as 30 Rock and Jimmy Fallon successfully repositioned Williams as a good-humored Everyman—and thus expanded not only his own brand but that of Nightly News—they were not popular among many of his colleagues.

“He goes on Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon and all that, that’s where his heart was, and [at NBC] that’s seen as running away from the news division,” says a former NBC executive.

A Williams partisan disagrees. “The irony is that the very things people are criticizing Brian for now were the things they loved most about him at the time, the fact that by going on all these shows, with their young audiences, he was building bridges to the younger people who weren’t watching network news anymore,” this person says. “It was something the previous generation of anchormen, like Brokaw, hadn’t been able to do. Brian was doing it.”

After refusing Williams the Leno spot, Steve Burke offered him a consolation prize: his own magazine show, Rock Center, a bid to anchor what he hoped would be the second coming of 60 Minutes. It wasn’t. Rock Center debuted in 2011 to tepid reviews and worse ratings. Its journalistic efforts received less notice than its stunt hiring of Chelsea Clinton, whose signature contribution was the interview she did with the Geico Gecko that appeared on the show’s Web site.

After more discussion of the scandal which led to Williams being taken off the air there is speculation on his future–including what might be a perfect solution:

Williams’s future, NBC insiders insist, remains up in the air. He and Andy Lack are close friends, leading to widespread speculation that Lack will reinstate him once his suspension is complete. But people close to Lack say nothing has yet been decided. Many NBC observers simply can’t imagine a network anchorman ever returning to his former position after being exposed as Williams has. The most Machiavellian scenario, floated by an NBC partisan, is that Jeff Zucker, whose distaste for Comcast executives is well known, has fanned the flames of controversy so that he can eventually snare Williams for CNN—not as a newsman but as the long-sought replacement for Larry King. “That’s the perfect solution,” a source says. “Zucker gets a star, and Brian gets the talk show he always wanted.”

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Quotes of the Day: Meyers, O’Brien, Letterman, & Fallon On Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz

“Senator Ted Cruz has officially announced that he is running for president. But if you see a T-shirt that says ‘Ted Cruz 2016,’ those aren’t election shirts. That’s just how old he thinks the Earth is.” –Seth Meyers

Bonus Quotes

“People are questioning if Ted Cruz can legally run for president because he was born in Canada. And the last thing we want to do is pave the way for a President Bieber.” –Conan O’Brien

“Texas Senator Ted Cruz announced he is running for president. Ted Cruz was born in Canada, his father fled to the United States from Cuba, and yet Ted Cruz is against immigration. Isn’t that odd?” –David Letterman

“Texas senator and tea party favorite Ted Cruz announced he’s running for president. He pledged to lead America boldly forward into the 1950s.” –Conan O’Brien

“Republican Ted Cruz announced that he will run for president in 2016. So finally, Carnival is no longer the most dangerous cruise in America.” –Jimmy Fallon

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Great News For Late Night Comedians: Donald Trump Appears To Actually Be Running This Time

Donald Trump

Donald Trump spoke of running for president before but many did not take him seriously, seeing it as a publicity stunt or ego boost. Earlier this year he claimed he was serious but few believed him, with most assuming he would continue with The Apprentice. The New Hampshire Union Leader now reports that Trump is dropping The Apprentice and is setting up an exploratory committee:

Donald Trump will launch a presidential exploratory committee Wednesday, the eve of the business mogul’s return to New Hampshire.

A senior adviser tells the New Hampshire Union Leader that Trump will not be renewing his contract with NBC for the reality television “Apprentice” series.

Combined with staff hires, Trump’s announcement that he will form an exploratory committee for the first time is a sign the billionaire is seriously considering running for the Republican nomination.

Trump as released this announcement:

I have a great love for our country, but it is a country that is in serious trouble. We have lost the respect of the entire world. Americans deserve better than what they get from their politicians – who are all talk and no action! I have built a great company, created thousands of jobs and built a tremendous net worth with some of the finest and most prestigious assets in the world – and very little debt! All Americans deserve the same opportunity. Our real unemployment rate is staggering while our manufacturing base is eroding on a daily basis. We must rebuild our infrastructure, control our borders, support local control of education, greatly strengthen our military, care for our veterans and put Americans back to work! We must stop other countries from totally taking advantage of our representatives who are being out-negotiated at every turn. I am the only one who can make America truly great again!

This reminds me of what Andy Borowitz once said: “If Trump can do the same magic that he did for NBC, the USA will be the #4 country in the world.”

To his credit, Trump was often critical of George Bush, but during the Obama presidency his political views aligned with the extreme right. He has provided far more material for comedians than serious political comment. He was a strong Birther, claiming Obama was not born in the United States. Jimmy Fallon was among the late night comedians who mocked Trump on this: “Hey, Congratulations to Donald Trump, who just welcomed his fourth grandchild! You could tell it was Trump?s grandchild because as soon as it came out, it demanded to see its own birth certificate.” Jimmy Kimmel quipped, “President Obama celebrated Passover with a Seder at the White House. This morning, Donald Trump demanded to see Obama’s Bar Mitzvah certificate.” Conan O’Brien added, “On Fox News, Donald Trump said Obama’s birth certificate could indicate that he’s a Muslim. Trump said he doesn’t trust anyone with a foreign-sounding name, and neither does his daughter Ivanka.”

Obama mocked him at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner:

“Donald Trump is here tonight,” the comedian in chief said, grinning. “Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is prouder to put this birth certificate to rest than The Donald. Now he can get to focusing on the issues that matter. Like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened at Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”

Seth Meyers also joked about Trump at the dinner, including one joke which also mocked John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as running mate. He noted that Trump owns the Miss USA Pageant, “which is great for Republicans because it will streamline the search for a vice president.”

David Letterman mocked the idea of a Republican race with both Donald Trump and Sarah Palin in it in 2010:

Sarah Palin says she’s going to run for President in 2012. 2012. Donald Trump said he’s going to run for President in 2012 against Sarah Palin. Nice to know there will somebody equally unqualified…Now that would be some presidential race. You’ve got Donald Trump and Sarah Palin and the debates. Get there early and get some seats down front for those debates. ‘You’re fired, you becha.’

Trump later canceled an appearance with David Letterman in 2011 after Letterman mocked Trump’s attacks on Obama, saying they “smack of racism.”

Trump joined the Global Warming denialists by asking, “It’s cold outside…so where’s the global warming?” He changed from pro-choice to opposing abortion. “People change their positions all the time, the way they change their wives,’’ according to the executive vice president of the Trump Organization.

Donald Trump will clearly  make the Republican circus more amusing.

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Quote of the Day: Jimmy Fallon on TSA & Ebola Czar

“TSA Chief John Pistole announced that he is stepping down. So whoever takes his place is going to have some pretty big shoes to take off.” –Jimmy Fallon

Bonus Quote:

“President Obama just appointed someone named Ron Klain as the new ‘Ebola czar’ to oversee the government’s response to the crisis. You know that’ll be a tough job, but not as tough as introducing yourself as the Ebola czar and extending your hand.” –Jimmy Fallon

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Quote of the Day: Jimmy Fallon On The Clintons

“Congratulations to Chelsea Clinton, who gave birth to a baby girl named Charlotte on Friday. Or as Hillary described the baby, ‘Third in line to the throne.'” –Jimmy Fallon

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Quote Of The Day: Jimmy Fallon on CNN

“Last Friday CNN had its worst 10 p.m. ratings of all time, with only 35,000 viewers tuning in. I left it on for my dog, and when I came back, she was reading a newspaper.” –Jimmy Fallon

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Quote of the Day: Seth Meyers And Other Late Night Comics On Chelsea Clinton’s Pregnancy

“The Christian Science Monitor is claiming ‘Hillary Clinton will be a tad less interested in running for president now that she’s about to be a grandmother.’ And if you put a grain of sand in your pocket there’s a tad less sand on the beach.” –Seth Meyers

Bonus Quotes: More on Chelsea’s Pregnancy

“Hillary Clinton is going to be a grandmother. She’s very excited about it. She’s home right now knitting a tiny pantsuit.” –David Letterman

“Congrats to Chelsea Clinton. Last week, she announced that she is expecting her first child. If it’s a girl, it’ll get some of Chelsea’s old hand-me-downs; and if it’s a boy, it’ll get some of Hillary’s.” –Jimmy Fallon

“Chelsea Clinton has announced that she is pregnant with her first child. The baby is expected to crawl after nine months and run in 2055.” –Seth Meyers

“Chelsea Clinton is pregnant. There is another one coming. A little baby Clinton. People are already wondering, is the baby a girl? Is it a boy? Is it going to run for president in 2016?” –Craig Ferguson

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Quote of the Day

“A new poll found that two-thirds of Americans are following the situation in Ukraine, which is impressive. Usually, you can’t find two-thirds of Americans who are following the situation in America.” –Jimmy Fallon

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Quote of the Day: Jimmy Fallon On Mark Zuckerberg Complaining About NSA Surveillance

“Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg apparently called President Obama directly to complain about NSA and how it spies on ordinary Americans. That’s right, the guy who runs Facebook got mad at the NSA for spying on people. Talk about the pot unfriending the kettle!” –Jimmy Fallon

“Zuckerberg criticized the NSA and called the government a threat to the Internet. Then he went back to running a website where you list everyone you’ve ever met, every place you’ve been, every place you’re going, what you had eat, your ex-girlfriends and your ex-boyfriends, which bands you like…” –Jimmy Fallon

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The Battle For Control Of Congress 2014

While the media is increasingly talking about the 2016 presidential election, we have a major election coming up for control of Congress later this year. At present it appears that it is unlikely for the Democrats to take control of the House, and they are now fighting to retain control of the Senate. Predictions that the Republicans will hold the House and possibly take the Senate are based upon historical trends and which Senate seats are up for reelection this year. Of course it is possible to see a break from past trends.

Among the trends causing people to predict this to be a good year for Republicans: minorities and young voters don’t vote as often in off-year elections, a president’s party generally does poorly in the sixth year of the president’s term, a president’s party does poorly when the president has low approval ratings, and a president’s party does poorly when the economy is having difficulties.

On top of this, the Democrats are defending Senate seats in several red states this year, giving the Republicans a chance to pick up some seats. Fortunately the situation is reversed in 2016 with more blue-state Republicans up for reelection. Based upon these fundamentals in a presidential election which is likely to already be more favorable to the party, a Democrat winning the White House should also see a pick up of several Senate seats.

The Republican Party has been working in other ways to pick up votes. They have made voter suppression a major part of their electoral strategy, along with continuing the Southern Strategy based upon racism and now xenophobia. On the other hand, their history of racism may backfire with the increase in minority voters, possibly turning some southern states blue in the near future. We saw this first in Virginia and to a lesser degree in North Carolina. In the future this could extend to Georgia, Texas, and additional states.

Republicans have an advantage in keeping control of the House as so many House districts are gerrymandered to protect the incumbent. In addition, Democrats tend to be more concentrated in urban areas, meaning that even if more people vote for Democrats than Republicans, the Republicans will win more seats by small margins while Democrats will win a smaller number with bigger majorities. More people voted for Democrats than Republicans in Congressional races in 2012 but the Republicans retained control of the House. It would probably take at least  a seven percent margin of victory for Democrats to take control of the House. Republican representation in the Senate is also exaggerated compared to their level of support due to lesser populated Republican states having the same number of Senators as more populated Democratic states.

There are some things which could throw off the fundamentals this year, but we cannot count on voters suddenly no longer being fooled by the GOP line. At present the Republicans receive far too many votes from low-information white voters. Over time the number of younger voters who receive their fake news from Jon Stewart will overtake the older voters who receive their fake news from Fox.

While Obama’s approval rating is low, Congress has an even lower approval rating. Typically in such situations people like their own Congressman even if they disapprove of Congress. This year polls show that many people also think their own Congressman should be thrown out. Based upon this, I wouldn’t be surprised if more incumbents than usual get upset, but that might not necessarily help the Democrats over Republicans. In addition, more people see the Republicans as being more responsible for gridlock, in contrast to a common false media narrative of treating each party as being equally responsible. Maybe they will surprise the pundits and throw the Republicans out.

Another factor influencing whether predictions based upon the fundamentals must occur is that any competent Democratic strategist is aware of every point here, and the party is doing far more than they did in 2010 to try to change this. They are working to increase turnout among Democratic voters this year. They  have a technological edge both in regards to get out the vote efforts and fund raising. It even appears that the same problems which are placing Republicans at a disadvantage with younger voters is also impacting their ability to recruit young tech savvy political operatives. Besides using their technological advantages over Republicans in getting out the vote efforts, they can  motivate Democratic voters with fear of the consequences of the Republicans taking control of the Senate. Tea Party extremism has led to an end to talk of a grand bargain. Democratic compromises on entitlement programs might have discouraged some voters on the left from turning out for Democrats.

I think Democrats will do better if they can successfully explain the advantages of their policies as opposed to Republican policies. Democratic economic policies turned around the economic collapse caused by Republican economic policies, even if the Republicans have managed to slow recovery with their obstructionist moves, decided upon from the start of Obama’s term. The deficit rolled up by George Bush has dropped considerably since Obama took office. The CBO  projects a deficit of $514 billion in 2014, representing three percent of the Gross Domestic Product. This is near the average level for the past forty years, and a vast improvement from 2009 when the deficit was at 10.1 percent of GDP.

Despite early IT problems, which the Obama administration does deserve criticism for, the Affordable Care Act has turned into a tremendous success on a policy level, both in terms of health care reform and its benefits for the economy. Both the Medicare Advantage plans under George Bush and the original Medicare program had early implementation problems which took a couple of years to solve. Of course Republicans will continue to spread unsubstantiated scare stories and it is possible Obama might never received the credit he deserves. Health care premiums will be remain high on the individual market as they were high before Obamacare. Insurance companies will continue to use restricted panels of physicians and hospitals as they did before Obamacare, leaving room for Republicans to blame the Affordable Care Act for problems unrelated to the law.

Other factors could come into play. The Tea Party might oust electable Republicans and replace them with extremist candidates which the Democrats can more easily beat. While doubtful, the Tea Party might force Congressional Republicans into a situation analogous to the government shut-down before the election which reduces public support for Republicans. While it is doubtful it will really alter that many votes, even the changes in the late night comedians could help the Democrats over the Republicans.

The easy prediction is now that the Republicans will keep control of the House and control of the Senate is up for grabs. Depending upon whether the factors discussed above alter the usual fundamentals, we still might wind up seeing the pundits talking about all the reasons they knew we would have a different outcome after the results are known.

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