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The Critical Mass

TV pundits are dicks

The TV was on this morning, and in an intellectually unguarded moment was tuned to the MSNBC coffee-klatsch nonsense called Morning Joe. I’ve changed the oil in my lawnmower engine more times than I’ve watched Morning Joe. So as luck would have it, this morning I saw the pundit Mark Halperin call the President of the United States, Barack Obama, a dick.

 As we all know, anyone can be a pundit, especially on TV. No-longer relevant rocker Ted Nugent is a pundit. The ill-informed Sarah Palin is a Fox News pundit. The thoroughly racist Pat Buchanan is a pundit. Even the deadpan actor Ben Stein – whose famous defense of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, charged with raping a hotel maid was, “Can anyone tell me any economists who have been convicted of violent sex crimes?” – is a pundit. So pundits can be consistently wrong, illogical, ideology-driven and rude.  

Now, calling Obama a dick wasn’t a simple slip of the tongue.  Right before he did it, the Morning Joe staff was giggling like a junior high gym class over the fact that Halperin asked permission to use a nasty world to describe what he thought of Obama’s press conference the previous day.  Sure, said hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, the show was on a seven-second delay.

The problem wasn’t that the show’s producer didn’t know how to work the seven-second delay button, as they all chortled after Morning Joe ‘s audience heard Halperin call the President of the United States a dick. Even if they had successfully bleeped out the comment, it would have been properly reported, to similar outrage. No, the real problem was how everyone reacted to it. They yukked it up. Made jokes of it. They even included a camera shot of the show’s producer, laughing and shrugging his shoulders and explaining how he’d hit the wrong button. The only one of the five people sitting around on the comfy couches during the segment who seemed uncomfortable with what had just happened – and even she seemed to be laughing a little – was Brzezinski.

When the group returned from a commercial break, slightly saner heads among the show’s executives appeared to have been heard. Halperin issued an apology that seemed genuine. The rest of the panel, particularly Scarborough, were still chuckling, displaying the same lack of judgment. Except Halperin. The smirk was gone. He looked as though he’d seen a ghost. He knew what was coming. Quite rightly, he was quickly suspended by the network.

So now we know: Pundits are dicks.

But why did Halperin think calling the president a name was OK? Why did most of the Morning Joe staff seem to agree? It’s not like Obama was suddenly Mel Gibson. Halperin was disagreeing with the president criticizing Congress for its lack of action on the debt issue. Here’s one of the points Obama made at Wednesday’s press conference:

We’ve got to get this done.  And if by the end of this week, we have not seen substantial progress, then I think members of Congress need to understand we are going to start having to cancel things and stay here until we get it done.  They’re in one week, they’re out one week.  And then they’re saying, Obama has got to step in.  You need to be here.  I’ve been here.  I’ve been doing Afghanistan and bin Laden and the Greek crisis.  You stay here.  Let’s get it done.

Millions of Americans cheered Obama’s comments. Perhaps Halperin thinks we’re all dicks, as well.

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: April 9

I’m planning on smoking ribs slow over mesquite wood this morning, starting at maybe 11 a.m. But as of now, 7 a.m., snow is whirling past the windows and settling on the deck, at the feet of the Adirondack chairs. The scene looks like a calendar photo, except for the incongruity of the lush backdrop of trees with their new, bright green foliage.  Snow. It’s Mother’s Day. And yeah,  I gotta call Mom in a few hours….

1, “The fear that began in Athens, raced through Europe, and finally shook the stock market in the United States is now affecting the broader global economy,” The Times‘ front page story says of the financial collapse of Greece, “from the ability of Asian corporations to raise money to the outlook for money-market funds where American savers park their cash.” How odd it is that the cradle of western civilization, and a bit player all of these centuries since, is threatening to bring us down. For those folks who haven’t acknowledged that U.S. economic policies, fueled by the deregulation mania of the Bush era, dragged down the rest of the world’s economies in 2008, just consider for a moment what Greece’s little hiccup in the global economy has done.

2, It’s a new world, and we’d better get used to it. “Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie and as British as Afternoon tea,” says Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric, born in the U.S., now living in Yemen. We can no longer keep at arms’ length the terror tactics that have plagued much of the world for centuries. As we saw last week, all of the military expenditures we can wring from our citizens couldn’t keep a disturbed loner from trying to blow up Times Square with an SUV loaded with fertilizer. And it couldn’t keep a disturbed loner from going on a shooting rampage  at Fort Hood. And it couldn’t keep a disturbed loner from trying to set his underwear on fire while flying into Detroit on an airliner. They were all hearing voices in their heads from the other side of the world.

3, No surprise, but in a front-page story, The Times reports that BP – the company responsible for what could be the biggest single environmental disaster this country has faced, the Gulf Coast oil spill – “continues to lag behind other oil companies when it comes to safety, according to federal officials and industry analysts.” After several serious accidents in the past few years, some of which caused deaths, the company promised to clean up its act, yet didn’t.

4, A headline that really didn’t need the accompanying story: “Republicans’ Calls For Offshore Drilling Have Grown Quieter.”

5, So far, the war in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of 1,044 American servicemen.

6, In The Week in Review, William Dalrymple writes of the many parallels between today’s war in Afghanistan and the First Anglo-Afghan War. Politically and culturally, the Afghanistan that the British invaded 150 years ago feels like the Afghanistan of today. Dalrymple’s essay focuses on the inhospitable terrain that 18,000 British troops and perhaps half that many Indian camp followers found themselves retreating through in the winter of 1842. Frostbitten and picked off one by one by snipers, the British force was eventually surrounded and wiped out. One man was allowed to survive to tell the story.

7, In sports, the Boston Bruins’ pleasantly surprising run in the NHL playoffs has been aided by the acquisition of a “cagey veteran,” as they say in sports cliche, who wasn’t even on a team at the start of the season. And he does have the best jersey name in all of sports: SATAN, as in Miroslav Satan.

8, A stunningly beautiful photo on the front of the Travel section shows a set of 800-year-old ruined towers, Chateaux de Lastours, perched on a rocky crag for defensive purposes, in southwestern France. The defenses didn’t work. The Cathars, anti-Catholic zealots, were wiped out here in 1209 by “cross-bearing warriors from northern France and Germany obeying the holy call,” who went about “slaughtering the heretics and pillaging their lands with a savagery that was startling even by the standards of the Middle Ages.” According to writer Tony Perrottet (author of Napoleon’s Private Parts), the crusaders’ leader, “the sadistic Simon de Montfort, resorted to primitive psychological warfare. He ordered his troops to gouge out the eyes of 100 luckless prisoners, cut off their noses and lips, then send them back to the towers led by a prisoner with one remaining eye.” God is on our side, indeed.  Today, it’s a region of vineyards and olive groves, invaded by tourists in fine hiking boots, who afterward start their meal with a baked chevre.

9, Travel writer Simon Akam has come up with a dandy idea. He purchased a 100-year-old Baedeker Handbook to Great Britain and followed one of the suggested routes, a train trip from Glasgow to Fort William. According to a recent poll in Wanderlust Magazine, that trip remains “the most scenic railway journey in the world.” An accompanying photo seems to agree: it’s the Glenfinnan Viaduct, with a romantic loch in the background (Although that purity is a bit tainted by the note that the scene is “familiar to many from its role in the Harry Potter films”). Akam offers this amazing piece of history.  “In 1942, after the Royal Air Force devastated the German port of Lubeck, the Nazis reputedly walked their way through the Britain guidebook, and bombed Exeter, Bath, York, Norwich and then Canterbury.”

10, Liesl Schillinger, thank you for putting into words exactly how I feel about TV news anchors. In her profile of MSNBC newsheads Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, Schillinger writes, “With the attention deficit disorder of the last decade, as channels have multiplied, neurotic networks have dumbed down their morning mainstays in an attempt to retain distractable viewers, cramming the programs with cooking segments, scripted happy talk, interviews with grinning tourists and endless puffy promotional appearances with celebrities – plugging new movies, diets, beauty books and so on. A sprinkling of hard news is thrown on top to sop up some of the sugar.” Schillinger builds a case for the show, Morning Joe, as breaking that mold. Only slightly. “I tend to watch almost anything like this in terms of: Is this romantic comedy?” says director and writer Nora Ephrom. “And it is.”

11, In discussing the increasing chasm between news and opinion, Frank Rich points out an incident that illustrates news reporting’s complete disconnect from its responsibilities. Apparently, Fox News’ Sean Hannity asked his viewers to vote, via text message, “if you think the Times Square Bombing suspect acted alone,” or with Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Fox viewers chose – apparently incorrectly, by the available evidence – Al Qaeda.  “So what if the correct answer is the Pakistani Taliban?” Rich writes. “Fox viewers are officially entitled to choose their own facts. You’d think that if America is at war with terrorists, it might be helpful if we new precisely which terrorists we are at war with.” Not to defend Fox, but I’ve seen many examples throughout the media of viewers and readers being polled in such a manner, often on questions that even well-informed authorities don’t yet have all of the facts.

12, The Magazine reprints “asparagus alla fontina,” a 1977 recipe that combines asparagas, proscutto, eggs and gruyere cheese in a casserole situation. Carlo Mirarchi, a Brooklyn chef, has modernized it for 2010 appetites. “The unfailing difference between old vegetable recipes and new ones,” writes Amanda Hesser, “is that cooking times have plunged.”

13, In the Book Review, Jim Baggott’s The First War of Physics: The Secret History of the Atom Bomb, 1939-1949, examines why the Nazis weren’t the first to drop the big one. One German scientist suggests they could have completed the atom bomb if they’d wanted to. Baggott leans more in the direction of an under-funded German program; German scientists were afraid to ask Hitler for enough development money, out of fear the thing wouldn’t work. “It was America’s strengths as a society,” writes reviewer Michael Dobbs, “and not simply as a military power, that led to victory in both World War II and the cold war.”

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