Monday, August 25, 2014

Weakly News

I knew things weren’t going well for Meet the Press. I had read that its ratings had sunk since the sudden and untimley death of its long-time host Tim Russert six years ago.

People decided that Russert’s successor, David Gregory, was the problem. In April there were bizarre reports that NBC had actually undertaken a psychological evaluation of him, apparently trying to figure out how to make him more the kind of person people would want to watch on television on a Sunday morning. Now Gregory is gone. He wasn’t allowed to do even one more show after his unceremonious dismissal, to say good-bye to the viewers. And he wasn’t just removed from hosting duties. He is gone from NBC altogether. He had to sign an agreement not to badmouth his former employer. It reminds me of the time that an employee was caught pirating software at a company where I worked and security made him clean out his desk on the spot and then escorted him off the premises with no chance to say good-bye to anybody. Kind of humiliating.

I also knew things weren’t going well for Meet the Press because I used to watch it (actually, listen to it, as a podcast) and and then I stopped. If you try to listen to too many Sunday news programs, you wind up getting a lot of repetition. Often the same government official will be interviewed on more than one of them, so you end up listening to the same answers over and over. If anything is different from one interview to another, it’s the questions—which tell you more about the interviewer than about the interviewee.

Since there are only so many hours in the day, I usually limit myself to two Sunday morning news podcasts a week. Currently those are ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopolous and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. CBS’s Face the Nation might have made the cut, but that podcast is full of too many annoying ads.

To be fair, Tim Russert was a hard act to follow, and whoever replaced him was going to have a struggle emerging from his shadow. Russert was a political animal who loved the issues and the discussion. He knew his stuff, and he knew the questions to ask. His interviews were in-depth. It was not unusual for an interview to take up an entire segment of the show, if not the entire show. Russert came by his acumen through experience in the political trenches. Earlier on, he had worked for some major New York politicians, Senator Daniel Moynihan and Governor Mario Cuomo. Despite the fact that he was clearly a Democrat, he always understood the arguments on all sides of an issue and made sure all those sides got their airing. He may have had his own partisan leanings, but it didn’t matter because he was generally fair. For political junkies, during the Russert era (and before) Meet the Press was must-see viewing.

That changed after Gregory took over. But how much of the ratings decline was his fault and how much had to do with changes at NBC News? As the business strategy for the company’s cable channel MSNBC became more focused on catering to the left-wing demographic (being the Fox News of the left, as some observers put it), the lines got blurry—at least in public perception—between the news division and the stable of personalties hosting opinion-oriented shows on cable. The same problem is regularly raised about Fox News. Critics always lump the prime-time opinionators together with the journalists who are doing straight news reporting. But Fox News was born as a cable channel and so has always had that identity. NBC’s news division, on the other hand, has a long and prestigious history. Seeing their journalists as part of a continuum with hosts such as Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Matthews, Al Sharpton and Ed Schultz has tended to alienate conservative-leaning viewers and maybe even some moderate ones.

But the tainting of serious news with related opinion programs doesn’t really explain NBC’s troubles. After all, Fox News uses the same formula for a moderate-to-conservative audience and it sits atop the ratings pile for cable news channels. MSNBC’s ratings have been well behind Fox’s, and the channel was recently surpassed by the previously languishing CNN. The original cable news channel has recently been able to improve its viewer numbers through nonstop coverage of a series of ongoing news events that have riveted public attention—beginning with the disappearance of that Malaysian airliner.

So unless you believe that there are simply more conservative TV news viewers out there than liberal ones, something else is going on at NBC. True, the nightly evening newscast with Brian Williams has been leading its network competitors, but the overall audience is shrinking. People are getting more of their news from other sources, and it’s hard to measure exactly where, since there are so many sources now available in so many different and new media.

When it comes to Sunday morning, Gregory was definitely a big part of the problem—if not the entire problem. I found him hard to watch. Where Russert was all business and nearly prosecutorial in his interviews, Gregory strove to be chummy, at times ingratiating and occasionally fawning. Where Russert always seemed to be of the same stature of the people he was talking to, Gregory could come off as obsequious. No wonder they brought in the psychologist. They needed him to be more of an alpha male. Or actually, just an alpha. When they brought in substitute hosts like Erin Burnett or Savannah Guthrie, there was a noticeable improvement.

Will Chuck Todd do any better? He is nothing if not a political wonk, so maybe. But the real question is whether the traditional Sunday morning news program has outlived its usefulness. As with weekly news magazines like Time and Newsweek, the weekly news round-up seems less relevant in the era of a virtual 24/7 news cycle. On the other hand, the delivery of “all news all the time” doesn’t leave consumers much time for perspective or context. Maybe we actually need those Sunday (or whatever day) weekly shows more than ever. But maybe they also need to do some evolving in order to catch up with the rest of the world.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Last Refuges

“A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.”
—Comedian Steven Wright

A Facebook friend of mine recently liked something posted by Daily Kos and, as a consequence, it showed up in my newsfeed.

The graphic was a brilliant and compact bit of rhetoric. Under the heading “5 Years of Obama,” there were two columns of economic data, one with the heading “Jan 2009” and the other with “Today.” Needless to say, the current numbers looked a heck of a lot better than the 2009 numbers. Underneath were the words “Oh, those pesky facts. Well done, Mr. President!”

You have to admire anyone who can muster enthusiasm for touting the current state of the U.S. economy. You would think the country would demonstrate its gratitude, when asked by pollsters, by giving the president a higher approval rating.

The brilliant thing about the chart, besides its simplicity and directness, is that if you eliminated the 2009 column and displayed only the current numbers, the 6.7 percent unemployment rate alone would be a devastating indictment of the administration’s economic management. I can remember a time when it was a given that a president was in political trouble any time the jobless rate was above five percent. But that was then and this is now. We’re in an era of dramatically lowered expectations.

The tactic of comparing the current numbers with the height of the 2008-2009 recession is a bit like saying, well, we’re certainly much better off now than we were during the Great Depression. But the chart is a useful reminder that the financial crisis that set off the recession was well under way before Barack Obama was elected president. So it is not fair to blame him for the recession itself—only for the quality of the recovery during his more than half a decade in office.

Let us note also that the “current” numbers are cherry-picked and, in some cases, already out of date. Let us further note that the dramatic drop in the GDP deficit is actually a by-product of the stubbornly sluggish economy and of the budget sequester, which the president strongly railed against. But the deficit, which can fluctuate quite a bit over time, isn’t nearly as important an indicator as the national debt. And that number has ballooned to more than $17.6 trillion under Obama. As a percentage of GDP, this is higher than at any time in the country’s history, apart from World War II. Not surprisingly, that particular number was left off Kos’s chart.

The top economic datum touted in the chart was the stock market as measured by the Dow Jones index. It has more than doubled under Obama. So, yes, if you are a serious investor, you have probably done very well under this president. But why has the stock market gone up so much during an under-performing economy? Because the Federal Reserve has been pumping up the stock market for years now with printed money, also known as quantitative easing. This amounts to a de facto wealth transfer from those holding cash to those buying and selling shares.

The president himself could be heard last week citing the stock market rise to The Economist as evidence of how good he has been for business. But he seemed more than a bit miffed that businesses were not more grateful. He and his surrogates have taken to calling companies that transfer their headquarters overseas unpatriotic. But companies wouldn’t be doing that if the U.S. didn’t have the highest business taxes in the industrialized world. Essentially, the U.S. tax code penalizes companies for creating jobs in the U.S. as opposed to doing it in other countries. Furthermore, money earned abroad gets penalized when it is brought into the U.S., giving additional incentive for investment abroad.

That is the key reason that the recovery has been so disappointing and only looks good when compared to the depths of the recent great recession. The administration has consistently prioritized the maximizing of federal government revenues over domestic job creation. Yes, you can blame companies for being logical and rational in their (completely legal) business decisions. And you can even attempt to pressure them by invoking “economic patriotism.”

But it is worth remembering the words of Samuel Johnson in April 1775. “Patriotism,” he said, “is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Talk and Action

“The Jews are a peculiar people: things permitted to other nations are forbidden to the Jews. Other nations drive out thousands, even millions of people and there is no refugee problem. Russia did it, Poland and Czechoslovakia did it, Turkey threw out a million Greeks, and Algeria a million Frenchmen. Indonesia threw out heaven knows how many Chinese—and no one says a word about refugees. But in the case of Israel the displaced Arabs have become eternal refugees. Everyone insists that Israel must take back every single Arab. Arnold Toynbee calls the displacement of the Arabs an atrocity greater than any committed by the Nazis. Other nations when victorious on the battlefield dictate peace terms. But when Israel is victorious it must sue for peace.”
—Author/longshoreman/philospher Eric Hoffer, writing in The Los Angeles Times in 1968

Let us stipulate that the killing of hundreds of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is a tragedy and a travesty and should not have happened. Let us further stipulate that, while Israel did not initiate the current military conflict with Hamas and Israel has the right to self-defense, those facts by no means confer absolution on Israel for the loss of innocent life directly at its hands.

(As I write this, yet another cease-fire has been announced. Let us pray it holds.)

Having stipulated all that, let us look at the best course for ending the violence. Two things seem pretty obvious to the detached observer. The first is that, when Hamas stops its rocket attacks on Israel, then Israel stops its not-always-pinpoint-accurate retaliation against the launch sites in Gaza. The second is that, when Israel stops its assault on Gaza, Hamas does not stop its attacks on Israel. So from a practical point of view, the obvious solution would lie in getting Hamas to stop its attacks.

Why then does the diplomatic pressure seem directed mainly at Israel?

It is because Israel is a democratic constitutional state and thereby susceptible to moral pressure. Hamas, on the other hand, is an organization that wields power largely through the force of its weapons and which has been designated by many countries as a terrorist group. It is by definition virtually impervious to moral persuasion. But that does not mean that it is impervious to other kinds of persuasion.

The week before last, Secretary of State John Kerry made a fool of himself by consulting with two of the very few governments who actually support Hamas, Qatar and Turkey, and then presenting Hamas’s wish list to Israel as a proposed cease-fire agreement. As recounted by The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, this not only (all too predictably) upset the Israelis but also most other Arab nations as well, particularly Egypt which shares a border with Gaza and which was shut out of the discussion and also the Palestinian Authority, the so-called moderate Palestinians who are technically in partnership with Hamas but remain rivals with that group and would prefer to see it out of Gaza.

When Kerry gets praise for his diplomatic efforts, it usually takes the form of “well, at least he’s trying” or “at least he is doing something.” That is what many commentators said when he energetically threw himself into new Israel/Palestinian talks after succeeding Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. In hindsight, it is easy to see why the wilier Clinton—and the Bush Administration before her, after some early forays—did not go near the Palestinian situation. They were savvy enough to realize that there is no reliable negotiating partner on the Palestinian side. Clinton would know this particularly well. In the final days of his presidency, her husband actually managed to get Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to agree to about 95 percent of what Yasser Arafat had insisted upon. Realistically, there was never going to be a better deal for the Palestinians than that one. And yet, knowing that winning that agreement would never satisfy his hard-liners, Arafat walked away. Two months later the Second Intifada began, and it continued for more than four years, resulting in thousands of deaths. Similarly, less than three months after Kerry’s talks broke down in April, Hamas dramatically escalated its rocket launches against Israel.

So the question is, if the immediate goal is to stop the violence, why bother continuing to put pressure on Israel, which will never agree to sit back and endure bombardments without responding? Why not put very public pressure on Qatar and Turkey for their support of Hamas? Or, more importantly, why not put public pressure on Iran, which provides missiles to Hamas? Maybe even sanctions? Oh, wait…

Perhaps Iran does not get called out so as not to complicate the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. The irony is that those talks are another Kerry diplomatic initiative that is likely to have the exact opposite outcome than what is intended.