Martin Bashir, Sarah Palin, and cable news

There’s the clip above, and now, Martin Bashir has resigned from MSNBC. He had been there since the end of summer 2010. The big aspect of this story is two-fold: (a) Alec Baldwin also just got popped by MSNBC (he’s off the air now too, and fired a few shots back at the network for keeping Bashir over last week’s Thanksgiving holidays) and (b) it brings into light the whole conservative vs. liberal split of cable news in the modern era. MSNBC, perceived as liberal, just basically forced a guy out from attacking a conservative brand name. Does that all mean anything? In sum, probably not.

Let’s start with Bashir. I watched his show a total of two times, for less than seven minutes each. I actually once told a friend of mine that it is literally impossible to watch MSNBC from 6pm onward for more than about 10-12 minutes in a setting. Obviously, this is a personal viewpoint, and others may hold different ones. I think all their nightly personalities are pretty terrible, although I have moments where I love Rachel Maddow (her show’s website is actually very good) and I have moments where I love Chris Hayes (I have fewer of the latter moments). I say this as one of the more liberal people you could ever come across. I just thought Bashir was boring and talked down to people who don’t have NPR-centric dinner parties; this is probably the first time in media analysis history that this comparison has been made, but I feel the same way about Bashir that I feel about Barefoot Contessa. Every episode of that show, she’s running to some place in East Hampton to buy $17 bread and $50 cheese. What the ever-loving fuck? You can cook really good, Hamptons-level shit at a much cheaper price point. Now I realize Bashir is on cable, so he’s not going to come out and say “shit in her mouth!,” but even the way he presented it all — “Darby’s dose” — underscored what’s wrong with him.

There’s controversy over the Bashir-Michael Jackson interviews too (the full clip is above), but I don’t care as much about that. First of all, in terms of Michael Jackson being painted in an unflattering light, well … Occam’s Razor, you know? And secondly, I tend to think of television-based journalists (by and large, not all) the same way I think of college football coaches (again, by and large; not all) — they’re probably cheating. It’s a question of who’s getting caught. That’s part of the real game. (This was a whole story arc on The Newsroom in Season 2. It was a little drawn out, but amongst the rest of Newsroom Season 2, it might have been the best sequence. Plus, Milton from Office Space was a decorated veteran. Odd.)

Part of this whole sequence with Bashir and his resignation/being forced out comes back to some of the central problems of cable news. At no point in the history of the idea of cable news — the beginning, the middle, or the present — was there enough content to fill 24 hours, 7 days a week. There just isn’t.

People seem to forget this basic part a lot: cable news is a business. Those companies are competing for advertising dollars with other companies. Journalists are not business people. They are interested in telling stories, and telling them accurately (for the most part), and advancing a discussion (again, for the most part). That’s the people who are the lifeblood of a network. If you ever talk to a journalist and then talk to a network executive, it’s literally like having conversations in Greek, then in Chinese, and at the end you just want to crawl under a desk and take a nap. One is about the story and the process, and the other is about money and ratings and dollars and shares and view counts and oh my God we’re only No. 2 this week. That sucks — that what drives a network and who makes decisions for a network aren’t on the same page, or even speaking the same language (parallel: when HR controls hiring, but doesn’t communicate with those the hires will report into).

Over time, the cable news networks had to establish brands for themselves to help differentiate among the ad people — because remember, an ad person will always favor TV, but now there’s stuff around like Gawker’s traffic charts and Buzzfeed’s traffic charts, and maybe those are becoming attractive options — so you have FOX as the conservatives, CNN as the breaking news people, MSNBC as the liberals (a lesbian at 9pm!), Current as the storytellers no one can find on their dial, PBS as the good guys, etc… it’s all polarized. In a way, that’s better; you watch what you understand, and what you gravitate towards, and hopefully the products that people want to sell through TV are targeted to the things you’re interested in anyway. That’s all good. That’s how advertising and TV should be working together, in a way.

But there’s problems too. For example, if you only watch Fox, do you ever need to hear a competing idea from those you embrace?

The broader idea of cable news is broken — they shouldn’t be on the air as long as they are, for one. They need to refocus on what’s important. Even 20 years ago, it was nearly an impossible idea in America that newspapers would start to die out; now, that’s happening. (Will they ever completely disappear? Probably not.) Cable news was huge in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the landscape is changing. The social web is a powerful thing: in the last three years, probably 650 times I’ve been at the gym and seen topic bars on CNN, FOX, MSNBC, etc… and it’s something I just read on my phone. The only difference is that maybe the cable segment has video (which my phone more than likely had) and they’re probably bringing in 2-3 people on a split screen to get all sassed up about it (which I don’t really care about unless I like one of the people or find them interesting, and I probably have no idea who either is). So, I already know the story via something that’s with me all the time (which TV isn’t), and I don’t really care about the talking heads they’re bringing in (“Eric is a professor of sociology at Colorado State…”), so what is my incentive to watch? I imagine a few other people feel this way. Over time, it’s led to erosion, and I think that attitude leads to stuff like Bashir’s actions. People want to say things that are salacious or dynamic — but hopefully not cross the line in the process — so that Huffington Post or The Daily Show will reference what they did, and BAM, social cache and cultural relevance in a world where you’re constantly fighting for it! (And that means more ad dollars, no?)

Another quick point on The Daily Show, too: Jon Stewart is remarkable (his facial expressions coming out of clips should be shown to all actors trying to train in comedy), but could that show possibly be as well-regarded and funny as it is if cable news wasn’t a giant shit show most of the time? Probably not.

Here’s maybe the best example of all-time of why cable news networks shouldn’t be 24 hours, by the way (very violent):

Alright, so … what’s the new model? First of all, don’t report on the base stories, or if you do, wrap ’em up in a three-to-five minute package, roll it every 2 hours, and put it front and center on your YouTube Channel or base website (on days without breaking news or major events). Recycling the same stories over and over that someone saw on ViralNova or even The New York Times is boring. You’re paying your contributors a decent amount — make them go find new stories and find interesting takes on those stories. You’re telling me that nothing relevant has ever happened in Cheyenne, Wyoming? Something has. Find out what and tie it back to a broader national trend. Malcolm Gladwell makes millions of dollars doing just that, and no one’s purposely letting him have a show on MSNBC. So, change the types of stories. Explain something to me that I couldn’t find everywhere else; just having an opinion on something (“I want to shit in Sarah Palin’s mouth!”) doesn’t make me care about your program or want to come back. I want the stories to go to places I don’t expect. (Again, this is one man’s series of recommendations.) Then, extricate the business side and the content side except for twice a year. Every six months, the business side can tell the content side, “We’re getting fucking killed. Come up with something else.” Two meetings a year. That’s it. Reversing course all the time is jarring for the viewers, both the core ones and the drop-in ones. Consider going to infomercials at midnight, dropping in for a 1-2 hour morning show, back to infomercials, and then back in the late afternoon with some summaries, rundowns, and a tee up of the nightly news and your lead dogs.

Final thing, as this is getting long and I don’t want to bore anyone: computers have changed. TV has changed. Radio has changed. The Internet has changed. Things change all the time. Why do we use the same format for cable news? Central host, series of correspondents, flashy technology, maybe 1-2 “side sets?” I know people are always bringing in “the Internet reporter” (“Tell us the latest and greatest out there on the web, Sarah!”) but can’t we experiment with this format a little? Can’t we shake it up here and there? The medium is reaching a legitimate tipping point. Let’s try a few new things.

Maybe what this will really take is the 20-somethings of today, who are probably PAs in these operations, rising up the ranks while the 70-somethings of today, likely clinging to SVP spots, eventually start to retire. But then there’s the whole issue of coming up the ranks at a place = being indoctrinated by the ideals of the place, so … point is, cable news needs fixing. Martin Bashir resigning is because he did something stupid and should walk away, but it’s also one small aspect of the decline of a once-reputable medium.

Ted Bauer