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.

WHAT THEY HAVE TO DO TO WIN

The first of three televised Presidential debates—the Holy Grails of electioneering—arrives Monday as the race enters its homestretch. Finally.

Lights, cameras, arrrrrrrgh!

Somehow we feel cheated if we are not entertained by two candidates who aspire to head the planet’s most powerful nation. Or see it as failure when they don’t come across as warm and fuzzy TV characters yucking it up with Jimmy Fallon.

By historically framing presidential debates as entertainment, in fact, TV creates expectations among voters that have no bearing whatsoever on the realities of good governance. And they use the expectations they’ve created to justify their future reporting.

So get ready for even more excruciating noise, high-volume hooey and crescendoing gab. From Trumpet and Hillary Clinton? Oh, sure.  But equally those tuneless kazoos known as media.

After a stint as party convention critics, many TV reporters and pundits have spent September recasting themselves as debate coaches, just as Trumpet himself has made several dozen costume changes since this odyssey began.

Instead of media chewing on what Trumpet and Hillary must do to serve wisely and honorably in the White House—do you believe in miracles?—their comments about each candidate these days center mostly on potential debate performance and stagecraft.  In other words, the image each must present on camera to prevail in November.

It’s the horse race within the horse race, as if the candidate who meets the most of his or her debate goals is best suited to be President.

Forget that most TV journalists and pundits have no idea what it takes to “win” a presidential debate. Or even what that means. The very idea that many reporters believe their role is to give advice to candidates of either major party—in effect offering tips on campaign strategy and how to sway voters through image rather than substance—is not only surreal but outrageous. It contradicts every tenet of responsible journalism.

The few that remain.

The question of the hour: What does he/she have to do to win Monday?

An MSNBC voice cautioned Hillary not to be “mean” with Trumpet, adding:  “She should be gracious and show “good humor.”

Noted a chin-stroking CNN sage: “He tugs at the heart, she tugs at the head, So she’s got to up her game in talking to the heart, he’s got to up his game in talking to the head.” And if one of them tugs a different body part? Don’t ask.

“She’s very defensive,” noted another CNN voice. “If that Hillary surfaces, the show’s up.” And a guest on Bill Maher’s HBO show proclaimed: “She must come out aggressively.”

But not too aggressively, right? After listening to all of this, I think I get the picture:

Hillary must be aggressive without appearing to be aggressive. She must convey softness through strength and resoluteness. She must make Trumpet appear to be a bully without appearing to be bullied. She must demonstrate she has prepared for the debate but not overplay her hand by appearing to have prepared.  She must display superiority while not giving viewers the impression that she regards herself as superior. She must display command of facts, but not too many facts. She must have knowledge but not too much knowledge. She must show humility, for otherwise she’ll come across as someone Americans just cannot tolerate.

A smarty pants.

If Hillary must show strength without appearing insensitive, Trumpet, on the other hand, must show sensitivity without appearing weak. He must exploit Hillary’s aggression by veiling his own aggression in passivity without appearing passive.  He must avoid the trap of being himself by not being himself while appearing to be himself. He must avoid being overbearing by being underbearing, letting Hillary appear to control the debate while actually controlling the debate himself.  He has to be superior by appearing to be inferior while turning inferiority into a strength that makes Hillary appear inferior. He has to talk straight but not too straight, for what Americans despise almost as much as a smarty pants is a straighty pants.

Yet this strategy could favor Hillary, whose best chance to win the debate is to appear to lose the debate without sacrificing superiority.  Got it? I thought so.

USA! USA! USA! USA!

Urlaub in Brügge 22. bis 25. Mai 2008After college, my wife, Carol, and I spent several backpacking, backbreaking months hitchhiking through Europe.

We began in Scotland, then made our way from Glasgow south through England. We took the ferry to Belgium from Dover, landing in Ostend, and then caught a ride to the charming, canal-threaded city of Bruges in the north.

It was early evening when we were dropped off, tired, cold and hungry, near a youth hostel where we planned to spend the night. We crossed a small, postcard-ready stone bridge and approached the building, which appeared as old as Flanders itself and somewhat foreboding. We entered…

And heard mandolins.

Mandolins!

A dozen or so graying seniors were seated in a half circle, plucking intensely. I don’t recall why—if these happy fingers were playing for fun or giving a concert for the community of travelers.

What I do remember is the large space swelling with their music, and the two of us being greeted warmly and served hot coffee in bowls at a long wood table. And I remember this: we were enthralled.

We didn’t stay long in Bruges, and I vaguely recall being picked up at the edge of the city and later passing through Antwerp on the way to Germany.

But our evening in Bruges, those many years ago, is my memory of Belgium. It will always be my memory of this small nation.

I mention this, of course, in connection with this week’s massively covered terrorist slaughter in Belgium.

Blog Bruge photoBelgium, you say? On what planet is Belgium?

Which is the point, for I’m fairly certain that if not for this horrific carnage the overwhelming bulk of Americans wouldn’t know Brussels and Belgium from beeswax.

On MSNBC Monday night, a seemingly troubled Chris Matthews derided the dangerous “nationalist sentiment” of Donald Trump’s relentlessly xenophobic message and the response to it from many of his red-white-and-bluer-than-thou followers.

I get it: Trumpet has emerged this election season as the nation’s bombasting big poopah of flag flaunters: American Gothic and the American Legion rolled into one. In making his point, though, Matthews ignored the culpability of Trumpet’s audience and America’s arrogant, chest-thumping culture of superiority, a trait nourished by our general ignorance of the wider world.

It’s this culture that Trumpet plays to, even though the concept of American superiority is undermined by his own presence as a viable presidential candidate.

The USA! USA! USA! USA! chants at Trump events are a metaphor for this raging ethnocentrism. Bottom line: we are full of ourselves and celebrate the U.S. as the center of the universe: a God-granted occupancy that comes with a lifetime lease.

Wrong!

We’ve flourished as the globe’s richest, most powerful nation for so long that Americans don’t realize how tiny a blip we are on the landscape of time. Other cultures—Greeks, Romans and so on—have had their own 15 minutes of fame, only to see fame inevitably move on.

Sharing the blame for our inflated national ego, by the way, are decades of U.S.-centric media coverage, most notably by television whose cameras—or lack of them—manufacture their own reality. Rarely do we witness global news that doesn’t center on bang-bang—violence and other mayhem. So the picture we get is mostly skewed, fostering a belief that human life beyond our borders is largely inferior, largely barbaric…

And Belgium is a place where only bad things happen.

******

The setting was Nablus, the West Bank’s largest city. The year was 1988, during the first Palestinian Intifada or uprising against Israeli occupation.

With my Palestinian “fixer,” I sat facing six other Palestinians who looked to be in their twenties. They had agreed to meet with me and discuss media coverage of the Intifada for my TV column in The Los Angeles Times.

They were with Fatah, then the political arm of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) led by Yasser Arafat. They were cordial, spoke passable English and seemed to be nice guys. They ticked off their grievances with the coverage: they felt western media were mostly biased against them, just as Israelis insisted to me that the opposite was true.

I raised the question of bombings that killed innocent Israeli children and asked how they could possibly justify these acts. One referred to children as “Israeli bullets.” Another explained, “These children grow up to be Israeli soldiers.” He said this resolutely but calmly and without emotion, as if the lives of such children were abstractions. And of course, to him they were.

That was that: six nice guys who happened to endorse indiscriminate murder in service of their liberation goal.

I suppose I always knew it was impossible for the rest of us to comprehend the radical mind. But this fleeting episode pounded the point home and came to mind as I watched TV coverage of human wreckage in Belgium.

The place where only bad things happen.