I JUST READ A GREAT BOOK – MINE

Chris Hayes is one of the brightest, most informed, perceptive and incisive figures in news media. Hayes works for MSNBC, the largely Trump-trashing and least-watched—but arguably smartest —of the three major cable news channels. His early evening hour of interviews and commentary is “All in with Chris Hayes.”

Hayes, still shy of 40, has the gift of clarity, the rare ability to size up, deconstruct, strip to the bone, articulate and decode complex political issues so even I understand them.

As a bonus, he’s a kick-ass interviewer, a needle in the eye of anyone who ignores, evades or finesses one of his pointed questions.  Most TV interviewers are bricks; getting it right—especially live, without benefit of editing to make the questioner look good—is high art. With Hayes you don’t escape by pirouetting into a fog of obfuscation; he can be tenacious, no prisoners taken—overbearing at times, but mostly very effective.

When MSNBC splits the screen for his interviews, I’d swear his eyes are crosshairs as he revs up to reframe and rebut if he thinks the answer is crap or merely illogical. The expression on his face: Are you kidding me?

Time after time he asks follow-ups most TV interviewers wouldn’t touch: either they recognize and process bullshit too slowly or lack the courage to risk alienating a guest they may want to return.

As you can see, I like Chris Hayes a lot and wish there were more like him.

What I don’t like is self-promotion under the aegis of news. In other words—you should pardon the expression—fake news.

“Meet Chris Hayes,” headlined the Barnes & Noble ad in the Los Angeles Times last week. It was a signing, the New York-based Hayes in town promoting his freshly published non-fiction book, “A Colony in a Nation.”

I didn’t have to meet Hayes. I watch him almost nightly.

Nor did I have to meet his book. I’d been watching it almost nightly, too. Sort of, that is, if you count Hayes relentlessly plugging it on his news program various ways, at least once somehow sliding right it into a story he was reporting.

Book signings are one thing. They go with publishing and deliver exposure and potential royalties to authors, and bless em’ for it.

But presenting self-promotion under the broad umbrella of news, as Hayes has on his show, and with MSNBC’s blessing, is dishonest and indefensible. And oh, yes, sleazy.

As a Hayes admirer, I was stunned by this from someone too smart and insightful not to know he’d been crossing a line when plugging his book in news venues as if schmoozing with Jimmy Fallon. To say nothing of some of his fellow MSNBC hosts (Rachel Maddow, for one) joining in by setting aside small segments of their programs to blow him and the book kisses.

Hayes is no Chris-come-lately. For decades, SELF has been as much the soul of TV’s news culture as hair spray and richly paid outside consultants designing ratings strategies to promote messenger over message. And by far the most news anchor-centric venue on the planet is not MSNBC but CNN where Anderson Cooper is glammed and fussed over as if his image were carved into Mt. Rushmore. Plus locally, personality worship continues without constraint, as in Los Angeles where KCAL-TV’s consultant-driven anchors end evening newscasts by announcing: Here is my favorite story…

As we await, breathlessly.

MSNBC’s Hayes book hype fits this environment, with self-promotion—which many media rightfully find so disgusting about Donald Trump—now so ubiquitous in newscasting it’s become routine, likely desensitizing viewers to its ugly implications. “I just began the second week of my book tour,” he capped off his Monday program from Los Angeles before listing where he’d be signing books.

In the movie “Broadcast News,” fed-up TV reporter Aaron Altman aims sharp sarcasm at his own medium’s narcissism: Yeah, let’s never forget, we’re the real story, not them.

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MEGA MEGYN

What stands tallest in news, the message or the messenger? These days it’s a toss-up.

Meet the latest addition to media’s Mount Rushmore.  Actually, you already have. So ubiquitous is she, how could you not? In case you’ve spent the year hermetically sealed in the Middle-earth, though, try this:

Anchors a week-night newscast. Check. Smart, articulate, quick witted. Check. Blonde charisma galore. Check. Laser blues with lots of lash. Check. Face of Fox News, talk shows and magazine covers. Check. Soon-to-be author of a memoir sold to HarperCollins for a reported $10 million. Check.

And Tuesday night she’ll head her own prime-time special, boasting a marquee sit-down with of all people, the famously flawed and offensive Trumpet. You remember him, the insult geyser who ballooned her already thriving career into something much, much HUGER!!!!!

Our sympathies; cosmic fame is a heavy burden. Yet she appears to be adapting nicely. The title of her Fox special is Megyn Kelly Presents. A more accurate title:

Megyn Kelly Presents Megyn Kelly.

These are amazing times for journalists in an election season conferring celebrity on many of the used-to-be anonymous.  For that we can thank ever-orbiting social media and cable news channels that fill their gaping news holes with panels of pundits titled “contributors.”  The result is not just endless repetitive chatter—the same people jawing about the same people—but also fame for the conga line of participants, most of them once-obscure ink-stained wretches now queueing for their close-ups.

Kelly beams high wattage in this expanding galaxy of star media, a phenomenon that is worrisome. Anchors and other celebrity journalists flourish largely because of their stature as personalities, the problem coming when their renown overshadows the news they cover. And it often does.

Here was the headline on a Yahoo News account of a recent Kelly interview whose subject, Dan Patrick, didn’t make the cut: “Megan Kelly Hits Hard Against Texas Lt.  Governor Over Trans Bathroom Laws.”

Tom Grunick2As Aaron Altman, the newsroom conscience of James Brooks’ film, “Broadcast News,” says sarcastically, “Let’s never forget, we’re the real story, not them.”
“Broadcast News” is a needle in the eye, its mocking of the ego and ethical values of TV news as relevant now as when the movie was released in 1987.  In one pivotal sequence, the network’s Washington anchor Tom Grunick (William Hurt) wraps a live report following a swiftly resolved military flare-up between the U.S. and Libya, assuring viewers, “I think we’re okay.”

Whereupon his bureau chief mutters: “Who the hell cares what you think.”

In other words, messengers should stay the hell out of their stories, a commandment that benefits everyone. In fact, just the presence of a celebrity journalist can intrude, especially in interviews when the high profile of the questioner threatens to overshadow the interviewee.

Anderson Cooper4

That’s certainly so with CNN star Anderson Cooper, whom a recent poll found to be the nation’s most recognizable newscaster. And no wonder; the guy is everywhere. He’s had his own syndicated daytime talk show. He’s on “60 minutes” in addition to anchoring a weeknight prime-time newscast and hosting most of CNN’s special events, including its giggly annual New Year’s Eve bash with comic Kathy Griffin. Prior to this election season, he would cap each newscast with The Ridiculist, an infantile comedy monologue that stomped on a new hapless schnook each night. And he’s published two memoirs.

There’s a reason why news anchors from San Diego to Slippery Rock are paid more than everyone else on the staff, and it’s not because they are smarter or better journalists. Don’t be shocked if the opposite is true. I know Los Angeles anchors who have had a pretty fair day when they get their shoes tied in the morning.

Newscasts, both national and local, have always been built largely on personalities, with focus groups and other high-priced audience research put in as bricks and mortar.

Back in the day, that Cro-Magnon Walter Cronkite was paid top dollar by CBS News not because he parachuted over Normandy with U.S. troops during World War II. He became the nation’s Uncle Walter—a must watch—because he was magnificently avuncular, something indefinable in his face, voice and manner earning America’s trust.

He, too, was the personification of celebrity. As was ABC News icon Barbara Walters, whose tell-all celebrity chats in prime time generated giant ratings along with tears. I once proposed a new show  titled “Me,” in which a different celebrity would interview her each week. Tonight, Julia Roberts shares secrets about Barbara’s life, loves, secrets and regrets.

All of that is quaint measured against the ego journalism epitomized by media-blitzing Kelly. In the grand tradition of celebrities, she is completing a week-long press tour promoting her prime-time special that The Los Angeles Times splashed across the front page of Sunday Calendar, selling the “Kelly-Trump show” as a clash of titans ala David Frost quizzing Richard Nixon in 1977.

“TAKES TWO TO TANGLE.”

What’s next for Kelly?  No one has said, but don’t rule out “Dancing with the Stars.”