It Really Is Time for TV News to Grow Up.

A moment of wishful thinking, if you don’t mind. About a week ago CNN’s Soledad O’Brien had Romney spokesman/flack and ex-New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu on her show. Political junkies know that Sununu is not just a crusty old bastard, but a veteran deep DC-insider crusty old bastard, a guy who long ago came to understand how the mutual stroke fest of politics and media goes, what the rules are, and who to avoid for routinely breaking those rules.

The fascinating thing that happens in what should have been just another completely forgettable celebrity anchor-flack interaction was that O’Brien clearly decided ahead of time that not only was she going to go in armed with actual homework, but also crusty bastard or not, she was not going to put up with Sununu’s bullshit. Here’s the link to what happened.

For those of you too busy to watch … O’Brien, armed with various fact-checkers’ indictments of the Romney campaign for flagrantly “misleading” assertions about Medicare “cuts” in Obamacare, demands that Sununu acknowledge reality — those damned pesky facts — and explain how what is verifiably not true can be asserted as truth just because it is emitted as an official campaign position of Team Romney. Sununu doesn’t like this, accuses O’Brien of being in the tank for Obama — as by inference would everyone else who refuses to accept unreality as reality, and what’s false as what’s true.

But she doesn’t back down.

Sununu eventually departs, looking an awful lot like a gaseous hack, and probably was on the phone to CNN’s news chief and a couple of Time-Warner board members within the following hour, threatening, by God, to hold back an “exclusive” with Mittens or Paul Ryan in retribution for a network anchor so flagrantly violating the accepted rules of political theater. Since then O’Brien has played the same fact game with Our Boy, T-Paw, who at least had his usual sociopathic good sense to laugh and smile while accusing her of … being in the tank for the Democrats. Later she also had a fine moment questioning Christine “I Am Not a Witch” O’Donnell about what exactly she means when she prattles on about “socialism”. (Spoiler alert: O’Donnell doesn’t know what she means.)

You may have heard that over the next nine weeks the two campaigns are going to drop something in excess of a billion and a half dollars of ad money into the television industry, mainly corporately-owned television stations in major media markets in the so-called “battleground states”. Viewers elsewhere, like us here in Minnesota, will get a taste — a nauseating one to be sure — of that action, but still, our local network affiliates will enjoy a very nice, very fat windfall of easy money from the theatrics of the election season.

The point is that it really is time for TV news to grow up, and it may be happening, in part because the internet and social media can roast a reporter’s reputation in a heartbeat if/when they get played for a chump — which is what they look like if they don’t come armed with homework and a touch of “confrontation”, instead of merely observing the hoary rules of the game. We all know the vibe: the chummy, excessively respectful/reverential celebrity “get” attitude where even the most flagrant deception/lying is tolerated as “just part of the shtick”. Did you catch the poor rube in Denver who accepted Mittens’ conditions for a … five-minute “exclusive” with her station?

Conversely, some like O’Brien, by remaining persistent and poised in the face of rhetorical turpitude and blustering accusations, very quickly build a reputation among colleagues and sectors of the cyber-universe for having gonads where so many others dare only to perform a limp eunuch flop.

If there’s a trend building, why now?

Well, for one very significant thing, this year’s Republican campaign(s) are so far over the line in terms of flagrant distortion — which they shamelessly repeat in the face of repeated repudiation — that the sheer damned outlandish bogus-ness of their charges becomes the story. This allows normally queasy reporters to easily substitute out the usual “he said – he said” in their interviews about Medicare “cuts”, or Obama stripping work requirements from welfare, not to mention the “legitimate/forcible rape” fiasco. Where that average corporate TV employee/reporter, under implicit orders to be “balanced”, is reluctant to wade anywhere close to where they might be accused of “taking sides” or being “confrontational” (God forbid!), it becomes a different context when the essence of an entire campaign strategy is an unflinching wall of deception and outright lies. At that point, demanding a direct answer to already heavily reiterated facts becomes a much less risky game. There’s cover. It’s OK, because, “Hey, everybody’s talking about it!”

Also, and here I concede a dense whiff of wishful imagining, I suspect that among the actual press corps, the buffoonery of the entire GOP election cycle to date, is having its effects.

Much as they have a journalistic responsibility to play “fair”, treating a candidate like Romney as though he has (detectable) serious beliefs, and pretending that guffaw-inducing caricatures like Todd Akin, or (today’s contender for the Gaffe Crown) Pennsylvania Senate candidate Tom Smith, or GOP executive committee member Pat Rogers who is still standing up for George Armstrong Custer, have anything like adult credibility is a whole series of bridges too far. More to the point, continuing to pretend otherwise, that these are mature, intelligent, sensible people is simply asking too much. When a guy presents himself with a fright wig of orange hair, a red rubber nose, a garish smile and size 52 shoes it’s fair game to treat him (or her) like a clown, or risk looking like one yourself.

That obviously is the ground-level press corps and their anchor brethren. It’s their faces hanging out. They’re the ones getting mocked on Jon Stewart and YouTube. I strongly suspect a whole other attitude (continues) to pervade the offices of their supervisors and executives. Those would be the people tallying up the campaign windfall and conveying an “understanding” to the minions, that “confrontational” isn’t something to pull on your best clients.

The Vice-Presidential Puzzle Box

Rumor has it that Governor Romney has settled on – and will soon announce – his vice presidential candidate.  The conventional wisdom is that the list is down to Ohio Senator Rob Portman, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and – maybe – Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.  Florida Senator Marco Rubio and former Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice were floated either as trial balloons or to demonstrate the alleged breadth of their selection process before they pick the white guy (no, Jindal is not a “white guy” but read below why he won’t be picked according to the logic of vice presidential picking).

What a yawn fest.  Any group in which Tim Pawlenty is judged to be the most dynamic and energetic member has a serious personality deficit.

In truth, though, vice presidential nominees tend to be on the uninspiring side of the ledger and are usually picked for one or more of the following reasons:

  • Safe (i.e. no skeletons, no surprises)
  • Bland (doesn’t overshadown the top of the ticket)
  • Balance (geography, experience, political spectrum, age, religion)
  • Key attribute (ethnicity, swing state residency)

Let’s review the list of some of the most recent vice-presidential nominees and see where they fit:

  • 2008:   Biden – balance (age, experience), safe; Palin – (see below)
  • 2004:   Edwards – key attribute (swing state), balance (geography, religion)
  • 2000:   Lieberman – balance (political spectrum); Cheney – balance (experience, geography, age), safe
  • 1996:    Kemp – balance (political spectrum, geography), safe
  • 1992:    Gore – safe, bland, balance (experience)
  • 1988:    Quayle – bland, balance (age, political spectrum); Bentsen – balance (experience, political spectrum, geography), safe
  • 1984:    Ferraro – (see below)
  • 1980:    Bush – balance (age, political spectrum, experience, geography)

Thirty-two years of electoral politics is enough to make the point, but the pattern is discernible in every election.  The most common reason for picking a vice president is “balance” in terms of geography, experience, etc. Only rarely does picking a vice presidential candidate deliver that person’s home state – Lyndon Johnson being the only example that comes to mind.  Other attributes come into play when there are particular flaws at the top of the ticket.  George W. Bush, for example, had to pick a Cheney-esque figure to counter the perception that he was too much of a lightweight to be president.  By contrast, George H.W. Bush picked Quayle in part because he was so lightweight that there was no possibility that he would overshadow his boss.

Which brings us to the last reason why vice-presidential candidates are chosen: as “game changers.”   There are only two people in this category in the last eight presidential elections – Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sara Palin in 2008.  Both were picked by campaigns desperate enough to throw Hail Mary passes in the hope of an end zone miracle.  Both failed: Ferraro’s selection couldn’t possibly hold back the landslide that re-elected Reagan in ’84 and Palin made the ’08 loss a little worse (though a “safe” pick from one of the traditional categories wouldn’t have made a difference).

Mitt Romney is NOT John McCain and even without the immediate example of Sara Palin as a warning there is no chance of him picking a game changer.  First, he has an actuary’s dislike of risk and has never as far as I can tell taken a high-risk step in either his personal or professional life.  Second, he’s in no way desperate; the election is still a jump ball and he has $1 billion or more on his side to help him jump higher than the other guys.

So…applying the logic of vice-presidential candidates to the current crop, Jindal is out.  Portman is tempting, but I think in the end our own Tim Pawlenty will be the guy bounding onto a stage somewhere in a swing state sometime soon to tell us how proud he is to have been asked to join Mitt Romney in reclaiming America.

Wa-hoo!

– Austin

Memo to Minnesota Republican Candidates

He spooned with John McCain in 2008, and promised that Minnesota was a purple state that a Republican could win with the help of his considerable home state clout. McCain lost Minnesota by 10 points.

Then, the celebrated Minnesota pol endorsed Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, and Emmer used that golden endorsement to become one of the few Republicans to lose, to a decidedly non-charismatic DFL opponent, amidst a tidal wave of 2010 GOP victories.

He ran for President in 2011. Polls showed Minnesota’s favorite son getting beat in his home state by President Obama, despite the fact that the incumbent President was politically weakened by a sluggish economy.

After abandoning his somnolent presidential run polling in single digits, he next laid his North Star scepter on the favorite in the race, Mitt Romney. In Minnesota last night, Romney lost, by 28 points. The well-funded frontrunner ran against a perennial bottom feeder running on a platform of legalizing meth and hookers, in a Republican caucus process dominated by social conservatives. And with Tim Pawlenty leading the way, Romney got pasted.

Minnesota Republicans, trust me on this. If former Governor Tim Pawlenty comes offering to endorse you for anything in Minnesota – dog catcher, class president, Water Buffalo Lodge President, Klondike Kate contest — run. Run very fast.

– Loveland

Bad Neighbor

First, it was Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s smack down in the Iowa Straw Poll, which prompted his premature evacuation.

Then it was Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann going from first to worst in the blink of an Iowa eye, followed by her Iowegian Chairman stabbing her in the back yesterday.

We Minnesotans have met our Waterloo, Iowa.

Iowa, oh Iowa. We’ve given you Minnesota’s very finest, and you’ve rejected them, for what? A farm subsidy hating Texan? A Bay Stater? Really?

We’ll grant you, our Governor is deadly boring, even to a citizenry that regards boring as a high virtue. And Bachmann’s act — Palin but dumber and meaner — is wearing thin on us too.

But still, we’re freaking neighbors. Does a 275-mile shared border mean nothing to you people?

Maybe it’s Floyd of Rosedale envy. Maybe it’s because we didn’t send enough buses of Minnesotans down to pay your Straw Poll ransom. Or maybe it’s because you’re tired of driving all the way up here only to see our Vikings, Twins, Wild and Timberwolves stink up the joint like an overflowing hog confinement in July.

But come on now, you still have the Food Court at the Mall of America, right?

Whatever it is, we just have to say, it hurts.

– Loveland

Romney Rally Anthem

Don’t be angry. Don’t be sad.
And don’t sit cryin’ over good times you’ve had.
There’s a girl right next to you.
And she’s just waitin’ for something to do.

And there’s a rose in the fisted glove.
And the eagle flies with the dove.
And if you can’t be with the one you love,
honey, love the one you’re with.

Love the one you’re with.
Love the one you’re with.
Love the one you’re with.

– Stephen Stills

A Little Too Rowdy Of A Crowd

Political communicators work day and night to control everything about political events. The stagecraft. The music. The tempo. The supporting cast. The wardrobe. The make-up. The messaging. The media coverage.

But there is one thing that seems to be increasingly difficult for political handlers to control. The audience.

At this phase of the campaign cycle, the Republican frontrunners’ campaigns are doing their best to win partisan primary and caucus voters without spooking less partisan and zealous General Election voters watching TV coverage of events. It’s a tricky balancing act under any circumstances, and the audiences at Republicans events are making it much more difficult.

The boisterous zealots bellowing forth at nationally televised Republican events are diverting attention from the front-runners’ carefully focus group tested messaging, and instead making the candidates look bloodthirsty…

intolerant…

and heartless…

These candidates look extreme by association. These are not the warm and fuzzy images that the political handlers strive to create. Long after background flags are returned to the rental company, these Gladiator-esque reactions of the Republican crowd are what many of us remember about the moment.

A winning Republican formula in the past has been to run candidates with warm-feeling personalities to mask the harsh impact of the conservative policies they support. Reagan, Pawlenty, McCain and Romney are among those who played that game especially well. But the discordant chorus at Republican events is taking the sheen off the frontrunners’ carefully managed nice guy images.

This is not an insignificant issue for political communicators in the age of extreme political polarization. If I were a Republican spin savant, I’d be spending less time obsessing about the size of the candidates’ flag pin decal, and more time on crowd control.

Loveland

Dayton’s “Dog Doe”

“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” That quote, falsely attributed to Harry Truman, may be on Governor Mark Dayton’s mind as the bachelor prepares to adopt his THIRD black German Shepherd.

Dayton is in the news today inviting Minnesotans to help name his adorable new pup. To give you a sense of the Governor’s naming tastes, the first two were named Mingo and Mesabi, and Dakota recently passed away.

Some of the early nominations for Dog Doe’s new name:

• From Republican Senate Majority Amy Koch: “Marx.”
• From DFL Chair Ken Martin: “Taxable.”
• From Democratic U.S. Senator Al Franken: “Smalley.”
• From accuracy challenged U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann: “Cat.”
• From Minnesota Democrats Exposed blog: “Dog of Satan.”
• From Former Governor Tim Pawlenty: “President Pawlenty.”
• From MN Independence Party Chairman Mark Jenkins: “None of the Above.”
• From GOP Chair Tony Sutton: “Target Practice.”
• From South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard: “Overtaxed.”
• From Governor’s Mansion neighbor: “ANOTHER?!”

Okay, surely you can do better. Nominations are open.

– Loveland