NOT READY FOR HER CLOSE-UP?

Shane, come back! Come back! Shane!

–Brandon de Wilde calling to heroic Alan Ladd in “Shane”

 

Can it, already. I’m back.

And plenty steamed. Give me a break here. I’m away only a few measly weeks with blogger’s block, and everything falls apart.

Where to begin…

How about here? Oh, please!

That’s my response to Megyn Kelly’s defense of her scheduled NBC sit-down with that creep Alex Jones, a raging, fringe-right conspiracy theorist who famously has questioned whether the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre actually happened.  No wonder Sandy Hook families and others are outraged, even threatening to sue NBC should the interview run.

This is Kelly’s second go in her new prime time series opposite “60 Minutes” on CBS. Not quite ready for her close-up, her recent marquee debut with Vladimir Putin didn’t even register on the Richter Scale.  Kelly now gets Jones, who is the worst kind of raging provocateur:  one with a radio show (on which, by the way, our yutz in the Oval Office was a guest in 2015).

Her goal with Jones, Kelly insists, is to “shine a light—as journalists are supposed to do—on this influential figure, and yes—discuss the considerable falsehoods he has promoted with near impunity.”

My goal is to shine a light on her BS.

Her true agenda is a bit less lofty than advertised. It’s to dangle Jones’ notoriety as a bright shiny object to lure viewers and demonstrate she is a doyenne of daring who can kick ass. Never mind that in the process she will grant Jones his widest platform yet, without legitimate justification.  There is a cynical financial hook—ratings—but no news hook.

What, she’s going to expose him as a dangerous crackpot? The thinking world already knows.

This has familiar resonance. There was a time when Los Angeles newscasters and some national programs regularly granted Charles Manson camera access from prison during ratings sweeps periods, and then promoted his inevitable rantings to inflate their ratings. Stations would send a news anchor north for a tough-guy image reboot, and the camera-loving Manson, knowing his lines, was pleased to star in the role of murderous lunatic. In those days, you made your bones in local news by “boldly going one on one with Charlie.”

Inmates are now off limits to media in California, but the imagery endures, and Kelly hopes to make her bones going one on one in the same tradition.

Putin was Kelly’s bright shiny object in her opening show, and NBC’s promotion of it was thunderous, as if she would bring this shrewd guy to his knees. Oh, sure.  Instead, she asked, he answered, sort of like this:

–Do you? Nyet.

–Have you? Nyet.

–Will you? Nyet.

— Would you ever, ever? Nyet.

What, you really thought Putin would turn patsy and confess because his interrogator was Megan Bombshell? Yes, I screwed up your presidential election. Yes, all of Trumpdom is palsy walsy with me.   

The interview produced blotto, no news other than the news that Putin agreed to do it, a heavily hyped celebration of process over content, a growing media strategy of recent decades.  He said nothing, but what counts, it was to our very own Megyn Kelly he said nothing.

And why did Putin agree to this, as he did to filmmaker Oliver Stone’s strangely chatty and unthreatening multi-part interview now creeping along on Showtime? Because he wants to present soften U.S. public opinion toward him and present himself as good old accessible Vlad.  Will questioners like Kelly shake that image?

     Nyet.

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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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AND NOW, FOR MY NEXT SCRIPTED AD LIB…

Let’s schmooze.

The tortuous cavalcade of presidential primary debates slogs on repetitively like a reality show with no limits—much as Bill Murray faces the same 24 hours again and again in “Groundhog Day.” As I write this, New Hampshire is hosting Real Candidates of Manchester whose GOP characters on ABC Saturday night hurled wild charges like kids splashing in a pool.

The debates feel Homeric, yet—is it possible?—the odyssey is only beginning.

An oft-stated argument for televised debates is that they rev up public interest and, above all, are irresistible draws. Uh-huh, so are auto wrecks.

Yes, I know, The Trumpet and his tidal-wave comb-over have been a three-ring hoot, and televised debates magnify, bulge out and widen it like the mirrors in a fun house. Most media, moreover, don’t merely adore the debates but swoon over them. Giddy is the word I’m looking for. And the multitudes watch the sniggering and swaggering in astonishing numbers. The range so far, say the Nielsen ratings: 24 million viewers in August for the first GOP candidate debate on Fox to 4.5 million MSNBC viewers for Thursday night’s hastily arranged Bernie and Hillary show.

Since the landmark Kennedy-Nixon clashes of 1960, TV debates have become the popular currency and Holy Grail of electioneering, as much a part of our culture as the Super Bowl (minus the clever commercials, sadly). Each debate is dusted off and examined microscopically as if it was treasure from an archeological dig.

Oh, sure!

Now look, I like science fiction as well as anyone, and televised debates can be an entertaining way to pass an evening in the Twilight Zone. I haven’t missed one, don’t plan to.

But time for a reality check.

Televised debates are the ultimate fantasies and one of the biggest redundancies of presidential campaigns. They reveal little beyond which candidates give the better performances in front of television cameras, after learning their lines as other actors do and practicing looking presidential: strength but warmth, brilliance yet plain folks, the insider’s knowledge without the insider’s mentality.  Yes, Bernie Sanders projects realness, but he, too, is a member of this stock company.

After each debate comes the show after the show, conveyor belts of media bullshit under the pretense of analysis and Machiavellian myth spinners pumping up their candidates.

In fact, televised debates mostly emphasize qualities that no thinking voter should desire in a president.

–They stress flashy TV skills over substance. It’s true that the nation’s medium of choice remains TV, apologies to the Internet. And a president who cannot communicate with the nation through TV is at least partially disabled. Not as severely, though, as a TV slick who turns out to be a dope in the Oval Office.

–They stress speedy answers. Candidates so thoroughly practice and cram like students for an exam that surprise questions are a rarity. Yet the candidate who does weigh a question thoughtfully before responding, a trait you’d want in a president, appears flustered, out of touch or just a little bit slow.

–They stress glibness and quick, agile wit (read rehearsed ad libs), the stuff of good TV but not necessarily good leadership.  Mr./Madam President, Kim Jong Un has hit South Korea and Japan with nuclear missiles. Got a joke about funny hair?

All of it is theater. So how fitting that the campaign trail’s media crowd includes the show-biz trade paper Variety spitting out live, minute-by-minute blogs of the debates. As in Thursday night:

“But her (Clinton’s) statement gives Sanders an opening to, once again, focus on the corrupting influence of money in politics…” And: “Clinton sees a weakness in Sanders foreign policy…”

What was this, Cam Newton vs. Peyton Manning? Bernie Sanders has said, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Perhaps, but it’s often covered like one.

As the nation’s first stand-up comic seriously campaigning for president, Donald Trump is the poster boy for klieg light candidates. He is the logical extension of an incestuous linkage of entertainment, news media and politics. In a broad sense, all work the same street.

Well before Trump sought to make Washington D.C. his zip code, presidential hopefuls began parachuting into late night TV for softball chats with the hosts and 15 minutes of no-fee exposure.  While Trump was reportedly blowing much of his fortune in 1992, Bill Clinton was blowing his sax on Arsenio Hall’s show. And most of the current crop of candidates have hit the late-night boards in search of free media and the public affection they hope comes with it.

Media members galore have historically traveled this road across an ever-widening celebrity journalistscape. Most notable today is Megyn Kelly, the Fox anchor who has parlayed Trump’s verbal abuse into abundance, earning a gig with giggly Jimmy Fallon on NBC and another on CBS with Stephen Colbert during Sunday’s post-Super Bowl show, to say nothing of a book deal with HarperCollins.

Call it an extended curtain call, journalism’s latest troubling metaphor for messengers becoming the message.  If not for these TV debates, she’d now be just another rising media star, largely obscure beyond Fox, and we’d be just as smart about the candidates of both parties.