The recent cancellation of Megyn Kelly Today demonstrates the folly of putting popularity abovegood business principles. When NBC, which is owned by NBCUniversal (which is owned by cable corporation Comcast), recently signed the Fox News personality to a reported $69 million contract, the broadcasting unit severely overestimated Kelly’s value.
NBC’s executives should’ve read my review of her debut on Fox News. Kelly’s hard, self-centered manner may have been suited to the Fox News cable television brand, but her brand is defective. It’s not surprising that audience reception and ratings have been mediocre at best.
The astronomical price tag for such a vapid hostess, or, if you insist, “celebrity journalist”, underscores the media industry’s fixation on ratings, metrics and short-term gain to the detriment of quality and credibility, proper standards and practices and long-term profit and progress.
Megyn Kelly, an intelligent lawyer who has more in common with the president and other vulgar, showboating sensationalists than she does with able-minded journalists, has never been serious (read my comparison of Kelly and NBC’s other overpaid darling, Trump, here). By hiring Megyn Kelly as it did, NBC showed its desperation and a willingness to do anything for a hit as a presumably non-leftist counterpoint to its leftist brand. Unfortunately, NBC’s supposed goal to gain intellectual balance probably will be abandoned, as against the network’s fixation on getting up fast hits.
While NBC backtracks on Megyn Kelly, with whom it’s apparently still negotiating, for dubious reasons, Comast’s competitor AT&T has made the call to cancel its Turner-branded streaming service for independent films, FilmStruck. This service, affiliated with the Criterion Collection and Turner Classic Movies (TCM), represented a real commitment to streaming thoughtful, harder-to-find motion pictures. AT&T terminated FilmStruck, which was part of Turner’s parent WarnerMedia company, for FilmStruck’s lack of a wider audience. WarnerMedia may launch its own streaming service to compete with Disney’s proprietary streaming service and outlets such as Netflix.
The termination is another AT&T mistake. As Comcast fails to grasp why metrics and popularity alone are not proper tools for forecasting success, AT&T’s decision to nix FilmStruck shows the media corporation’s failure to understand the same idea. While FilmStruck, which for full disclosure I wrote scripts for last season, was too focused on intellectuals and with an ivory tower slant, as a brand FilmStruck showed potential for appealing to wider audiences.
Experimenting with new ideas is crucial for media success. AT&T, which, in my experience is mostly incompetent at delivering goods and services, doesn’t know how to cultivate its assets any better than NBC knows how to apply better judgment to the business of earning its television, streaming or media customers’ trust (i.e., NBC News, especially MSNBC).
FilmStruck ends its operations in America and the world late next month. I think that, in the current cultural context, it’s unlikely that WarnerMedia will replace it with a classic movie streaming service or brand, though the company, with its vast Warner Bros. archive of great movies, should do exactly that. Cynical Megyn Kelly, on the other hand (or more empty vessels like her), is unfortunately likely to return to media in some other program or format.
Both cancellations, with Kelly’s cancellation coming in the aftermath of her controversial comments — further eroding the media industry’s commitment to defending the freedom of speech — are a sign that the culture’s plunging down. Ditching Megyn Kelly for being controversial — her problem is lack of coherence, consistency and authenticity, not any among her ginned up controversies — and abandoning movie streaming for being intellectual portend more of the anti-intellectualism already spreading fast in American culture.
America is already besieged by increasingly bloodthirsty irrationalists, from assaults on softball diamonds and gay nightclubs to mass shootings at the nation’s churches and synagogues. The United States needs more serious, controversial and thoughtful programming, not fewer choices among the status quo.
Americans in media, producers and consumers alike, should ease up on the asinine pictures, memes and clips and focus instead on producing and consuming more intelligent, radical material and make and watch it faster than ever. Comcast and AT&T, through whomever remains subversive at NBC, Universal, Turner and Warner Bros., and I know you’re out there, should take note: replace Kelly and FilmStruck with more rational programs, discourse and ideas, not more pap. There’s value to gain. There’s little value, such as credibility, left to lose.
The distinction between media and social media is, as I’ve forecast, disappearing. Years ago, when gossip tabloids first started reporting, accurately as it turned out, about the American president’s sexual dalliances, the establishment media, such as the New York Times, driven by competition with the rise of the Internet and sites such as Matt Drudge’s aggregation website, followed suit. This smut-based media coverage came to dominate the Clinton presidency, causing some to accuse the president of launching military strikes against Islamic terrorist camps as a diversion. The strikes, as has been reported, were very limited, extremely ineffective — the president refused to approve bombing the terrorist planning to attack the World Trade Center, for instance, because intelligence indicated that he was in a tent being used as a mosque — and America was attacked on September 11, 2001.
The terrorist group that launched the attack still exists. Other terrorist groups have been created. The states that sponsor Islamic terrorism have, or can get, nuclear weapons.
The media matters. How reporters approach topics matters. So, when social media, with its instant and direct access to the public and lack of proofreading, fact-checking, editing, selectivity or curation and double and triple-checking, came to dominate the media — the news media is now driven by social media and vice versa — the facts, stories and analysis became less reliable, less credible and more suspect (as I wrote here).
No where has new media’s impact been greater than in the Me, Too movement targeting, naming, accusing, maligning and attacking men for sex crimes and transgressions. Stories with unsubstantiated allegations, anonymous sources and multiple discrepancies, claims which often cannot be corroborated, would have been spiked before going to press. The media knew, for instance, about President Kennedy‘s dalliances, which include accusations of drugging at least one subordinate woman for sex, and did not report it. Similarly, there were rumors about Clinton, Bush and other powerful men for decades which went unreported unless legal or publishing, i.e., an accusatory memoir, action had been taken. As recently as a few years ago with the rape claims against Bill Cosby, the media was cautious in its reporting and careful to point out that these were, whatever their volume, claims and allegations, not proof of guilt.
Not anymore. Ever since the New York Times and New Yorker reported at random on certain claims against Harvey Weinstein, ushering in the wave of countless, largely unsubstantiated and difficult to corroborate sexual assault and harassment allegations against numerous men, the Me, Too movement marches on. Even before that, the media was becoming as salacious and smutty as the gossip tabloids. The San Francisco Chronicle published a column by an ex-wife detailing alleged infidelity of movie director Joss Whedon. As I forewarned in a post about the public campaign to destroy Harvey Weinstein, dozens of men in prominent positions in business, many of outstanding ability, have been maligned, most without charges or evidence, accused and marked for total ruin in a national frenzy conflating sex claims of varying degrees of accused wrongdoing. Though some of the men admit to actions they claim to regret, most of the accused deny wrongdoing.
Note that most of the accused men are neither charged with crimes nor named in civil court proceedings by the victims. Weinstein, for instance, has not been charged with a single crime, though he was, in fact, physically attacked by a stranger who photographed the attack. The Me, Too campaign to persecute accused men by public opinion through social media rages on. Any woman who makes a claim is instantly branded a heroine. Any man who is accused is instantly branded a monster.
I first questioned this herd mentality and mob action through social media with posts questioning the punishment of Brian Williams. Last year, with the coordinated attack on the nation’s top cable news host, I questioned the firing of Bill O’Reilly. By last October, New York’s vaunted publications were publishing major pieces accusing a studio boss of rape and sexual harassment. I questioned then, too, swift and sudden pronunciations of guilt without evidence or trial of moviemaker Harvey Weinstein, who, like Brian Williams, had immediately admitted certain transgressions, showed remorse and sought to make amends — in each case, not on the grounds of innocence or guilt but because the means by which the accused, maligned man was being judged, persecuted and punished was deeply flawed, lacking or disproportionate.
Recently, others started questioning this mob mentality, expressing doubts and criticism of the Me, Too movement. Challenges and questions have recently been raised by Margaret Atwood, Liam Neeson, Catherine Deneuve and others.
As I forewarned, the Me, Too movement is becoming an anti-sex movement intent on imposing government controls on people’s private affairs, dictating work terms, contracts, sex training, demanding the purge of men from the workplace to be replaced by women because they are women. The Hollywood commission proposed by Disney’s powerful Lucasfilm boss, Kathleen Kennedy, who demanded that feminists, activists and college professors be put in charge of strict new workplace controls, already exists. The commission boss is Anita Hill, who embraces the aim to restrict contracts and impose programs designed to spread workplace egalitarianism based on one’s sex.
The Me, Too movement, which has been heralded by the left and the right alike, not only threatens sex, privacy and free trade; the movement suppresses free speech. Again and again, anyone who speaks out against the Me, Too movement is castigated and maligned — observe the Me, Too response to Ms. Atwood or The Atlantic reporter whose article questioned comedian Aziz Ansari’s accuser — and any dissenter, no matter her nuance or deviation, is crushed on social media. Meanwhile, daily claims based on pictures, posts and Tweets destroy careers within hours.
Even men who are not accused of sex crimes are presumed guilty. The deal to adapt Jeffrey Toobin’s bestselling book about convicted felon Patty Hearst as a movie was terminated hours after Hearst attacked Toobin’s book on the grounds that she was a sex crime victim.
The hysteria is stirred by short-term gains in ratings and ad revenue but the feeding frenzy continues to inflict real damage to and prohibition of the free exchange of thought, speech and ideas. The most diligent observer and rational consumer can’t avoid today’s constant onslaught of posts, headlines and articles about the flimsiest of claims. A barrage of vulgar and lurid sex scandals, as against a thoughtful examination of sexual assault and impropriety, regardless of the legitimacy of any claims, overshadows crucial and urgent news about more deadly and imminent dangers.
Consider, for example, an Islamic terrorist’s June 12, 2016 act of war at a gay nightclub, in which the jihadist, Omar Mateen, gunned down 49 Americans and clubgoers (and wounded 68 people). The trial of the woman charged with lying to investigators and aiding and abetting the Moslem terrorist, Mrs. Mateen, Noor Salman, who admitted seeing her husband leave the day of the shooting with a backpack full of ammunition, starts March 1. How widely is this fact known? How many in the news media reported this fact, which is based on actual evidence, and how deeply was it examined?
Do you know about the disclosures of facts about Mrs. Omar Mateen? Did you know that she knew her husband “was going to do something very bad” before the Islamic terrorist attack?
Did you know that the fingerprints of the Las Vegas shooter’s partner, Marilou Danley, are reportedly all over the weapons used in the attack, which killed 58 Americans and wounded 851 concertgoers, replacing Islamic terrorist Mateen’s assault as the worst mass gun murder in modern U.S. history?
You may have known that she had left the United States and was traveling but did you know that Danley deleted her Facebook account before the attack? Did you know that she has not been charged with a crime? Did you know that she was considered by the FBI to be “the most likely person who aided or abetted Stephen Paddock”, according to federal court documents made public last week?
As hysteria replaces journalism and the New Yorker, New York Times and broadcast news mimic the tabloid gossip they once, not long ago, routinely dismissed as speculative sensationalism, blowing accusations out of proportion, publishing what amount to smears and insinuations and dropping the context of someone’s claims while failing to report news that matters, consider the toll this takes on how you know what you know. Whether you knew that Marilou Danley knew that Stephen Paddock was acting strangely before the mysterious attack on over 20,000 concertgoers may be a byproduct of chronic media attention to gossip that is not news.
Or consider whether you know how an errant missile launch alert happened this month in Hawaii. And who, in particular, down to his (or her) name, rank and specific job responsibilities, activated the missile warning. When one knows only that a man is accused of sexual wrongdoing, and that, hours later without a legal claim let alone criminal charge against him, he’s lost his job, his career, and, possibly, his livelihood for life — but you do not know the name of the person who sent millions of civilians running for cover from a nuclear strike — the free press is severely diminished and compromised. So, too, is your ability to learn, sort and judge facts, information and new knowledge.
When the free press becomes a farce, and the exercise of free speech is mocked, maligned, suppressed, attacked and all but vanished — when, in essence, only the claim “Me, too” is reported and tolerated — your rights and your life are more than ever at risk.
The Post manufactures its own spin on the true story of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, thousands of copied top secret pages disclosing the U.S. government’s systematic deception over the Vietnam War, to fit what redounds to a feminist perspective. This drama by Steven Spielberg (E.T.) may be the first major post-sexual harassment claims hysteria movie, given its director’s stature, though the proto-feminism of Star Wars: The Last Jedi arguably merits that distinction. If you can stand this shift, which tilts the movie’s plot, performances and theme, The Post capably depicts brave and decent acts of journalism.
But The Post is not Mr. Spielberg’s best work and, unlike the dignified Lincoln or like his tunnel-visioned Bridge of Spiesor his dismal Munich, it lacks crucial context and essential dramatic points. As Washington Postpublisher Katharine Graham, Meryl Streep is, as usual, overly mannered, this time to distraction. Her Graham is less like a real human being and more like Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady, Kramer Vs. Kramer, Into the Woods), all facial tics, fidgeting and halting, breathy playacting. It’s one of her worst performances and that’s saying something because Streep is already the most overestimated actress of our time. Tom Hanks (Sully, Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan), on the other hand, in the less showy role, performs as well as can be expected as Kennedy crony and Post editor Ben Bradlee. Hanks is largely confined to what amounts to impersonation, a few mini-speeches and gruff concern, hobnobbing and consternation. Both leading actors give the net impression with this script that this is not at all how Graham’s and Bradlee’s decision-making and conferences over publishing the historic papers really happened.
An opening ambush scene in the wet jungles of Vietnam provides the only hint at what ought to drive any serious movie about Daniel Ellsberg’s act of defiance against the government to reveal shocking truths about what the military and executive branch knew was a futile, unwinnable war in Indochina. But other than tossed in references to soldiers, the heft of what values were at stake in 1971 are never sufficiently dramatized to the necessary degree.
What’s left is a sometimes stagy, sometimes skillful, newspaper suspense about the urgency of exercising the right to free speech (in this case, defying the status quo with the free press). The Post scores its best scenes when depicting the incestuous connection between members of the press and government officials, an incestuous link which climaxed under the Obama administration, the presidency which most closely resembles the Nixon presidency depicted here, not just because of the readily apparent parallels with Obama’s stubborn, anti-American, horrifying persecution of journalists, Apple and the heroic Edward Snowden.
Streep’s Graham is rarely shrewd or intelligent, which strikes me as far from the truth. For a widow who inherits her wealth, she chiefly spends most of her time plagued by self-doubt, which makes her sudden, abrupt decision to publish the papers seem more strikingly random and emotional, at least as portrayed by Streep. Her defining characteristic is her comfort with cronyism, complete with parties and lunches with big shots such as the former secretary of defense (Bruce Greenwood, Eight Below) most responsible for the highly irrational Vietnam War quagmire. Graham’s best line — “it’s my company” — goes completely unearned on The Post‘s terms. There’s not a single moment or scene in which she shows real interest in the creative byproduct of her newspaper, let alone making money from it.
Details of the tense hours leading to the article’s publication provide some of The Post‘s most compelling drama, though it’s muted by the focus on Graham, which takes up most of the screen time. Long takes of dogged research and lawyering at Bradlee’s home, where his wife and kid serve sandwiches and lemonade (reducing Sarah Paulson to wifely, if empathetic, sisterhood), sustain interest in these makeshift smoke-filled rooms. But newsroom scenes are dreadfully dull and uninspired, as if Mr. Spielberg consciously avoids comparison to All the President’s Men and other newspaper-driven movie classics. The Washington Post‘s competition with the New York Times similarly gets drifted (read the truth of the Pentagon Papers publication, including the Times‘ great Abe Rosenthal, here) in the Bradlee-Graham vs. old boy network paradigm shift.
The Post is not a bad movie. There’s a plot, benign characters with a sense of purpose and clear progression. But what drives the tale of reporting the Pentagon Papers in defiance of the state and the recent history of a whistleblower and those who amplified his whistling are too obviously and conveniently — and much too histrionically — downsized and revised to depict what should be spine-chilling drama. And isn’t.
How do you know what you know? This is the question studied in the field of epistemology. If you go by reason, it’s important to apply the question to today’s media, too. The freedom of speech implies freedom of the press and, as censorship and so-called soft censorship or suppressed speech worsens, trusting the facts you read, watch and hear becomes more challenging.
CNN’s recent report linking Russians to fake Twitter and Facebook accounts constantly posting about racism, police brutality and Black Lives Matter (BLM) — one fake Facebook account for “Blacktivist” had thousands more ‘like’s than BLM’s official account — underscores the potential power of foreign and domestic enemies and adversaries to affect the course of American news, events and laws. The whole police-are-racist position may have been impacted by such false posts, claims of outrage and expressions of disgust. CNN’s report (read it here) shows that the Russian state-sponsored smear campaign against police, whites and American law enforcement was conducted with specific targets including Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, where controversial police shootings were being protested by BLM, leftists and others — and feverishly covered by the press.
CNN’s report raises disturbing questions about reporting, gathering, aggregating, disseminating and consuming facts, assertions and conclusions regarded as “the news”. Does Russia, which reportedly tried to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election in favor of Trump, consider black outrage over police brutality and institutional racism to be distinctly pro-Trump in political terms? If so, what other steps if any has Russia taken to foster leftist and BLM outrage? Are riots and attacks by anarchists who show up whenever Nazis exercise free speech — or vice versa or both — funded by Russia? Amid a national sports controversy purportedly instigated by opposition to police racism, it’s legitimate to question the origins, sourcing and funding.
This is especially true because, increasingly, journalism in all forms is unduly influenced by unseen, anonymous and secondary sources such as posts on Twitter and Facebook. Today’s news assignment and segment producers and editors are as whim-worshipping as the president. The coverage of purported trends is often highly charged with emotionalism, sensationalism and hyperbole. News often comes in spurts to match short attention spans. Suddenly, the news is dominated by events in Houston — Florida — Puerto Rico — depending on a variety of factors, including ratings, advertising, favoritism, related crony-controlled entities and political bias.
In today’s perceptual-based media, news aggregators and prodcuers tend to pounce on whatever third-hand (or, sometimes, non-existent, as happened in Mexico) reports emanating from some batch of real, premeditated, purchased or automated posts that, in turn, feed pre-programmed algorithms calculated to determine what’s trending. This estimate then regurgitates the same false, distorted or misleading claims. This invariably feeds your small or large screen or page as what’s news.
Earlier this month, I cautioned against deciding which movie to see based on what a band of programmers decides by consensus (read my post on Rotten Tomatoes here). This week, as Saudi Arabia prepares to let women obtain permission to drive, someone using a word commonly and quite distinctly associated with Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) followers (the flipside of the left’s social justice warriors or SJWs) threatened to kill anyone supporting women drivers (read the article here). This makes me doubt whether the threat is credible.
Is someone really trying to stop any attempt to bring Saudi Arabia into the modern, civilized age? Who stands to gain from the press and public assuming that Saudi Arabia is encountering, facing and defeating opposition to women drivers? False claims of horrific threats have in some cases been found to have been self-generated by members of intended victim groups. Arsonists, in certain cases, are the firemen whose job is to put out fires. America’s history of enemy agents who infiltrate the highest levels of American government, movements, industry and institutions, from Soviet Russia’s Communist spies to Islamic terrorists’ agents in place, must also be kept in mind. The nation is deeply and severely fractured and divided over a range of complicated and serious issues. It stands to reason that America’s enemies will exploit the divisions.
So, CNN’s report is more evidence that outsider and insider forces have every reason to divide Americans, which makes one’s need to read, think and judge with ruthless rationality more urgent. Anyone opposed to statism is well warranted to conclude that failed statist schemes such as ObamaCare might be intended to fail — to lead to total statism. Or that terrorist threats feed the total surveillance state. And it is reasonable to suspect that fake news propagates the media, including social media — to achieve total government control of the media. Congress is now considering legislation to regulate social media, a threat that reeks of censorship which authoritarian Trump seems seriously predisposed to enact.
What can stop it is you, or, more broadly, each American reading, thinking and judging for himself or herself what’s real, what makes sense, whether a claim has a credible source, makes a credible assertion, fits a particular agenda, context or policy goal, who’s making the claim (and who influences, owns or controls who’s making the claim), what’s at stake, where reports are coming from, how it’s being delivered, i.e., with breathless emotionalism, and why it’s coming out now.
I first warned about the emergent need to better discern how media’s consumed in a February 13, 2015, blog post on “New Media and You” (read the post, in which I first used the term ‘fake news’, here). I addressed the issue again later that year after Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly engaged in a televised spat, which I saw not as a real conflict but as two sides of the same mangled and defective coin (read “The Circus Cycle” here).
More than ever, the reader, thinker and trader — anyone who thinks for himself — must beware of what’s news and, as a corollary, assert his absolute right to judge what’s news for himself.
The best this longtime Playboy subscriber and reader can say about Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who died this week at the age of 91, is that he was a passionate advocate for sex. I think his early years were his best, really, as he introduced the Playboy brand, which began with journalism and women’s nudity in a magazine described as “entertainment for men”, across multiple platforms.
Lacking an explicit philosophy, however, I think his reach, influence and legacy is limited and he had mixed results. How he went from a young entrepreneur from Chicago‘s northwest side to worldwide icon of a hedonistic men’s lifestyle in Southern California parallels in essence how he went from publishing nude but not explicitly pornographic pictures of women, the centerfolds, and serious, thoughtful articles, such as Alvin Toffler’s 1964 interview with Ayn Rand, erotic fiction and the outstanding Playboy Advisor advice column to supporting the re-election of President Obama in 2012.
RIP, Hugh Hefner
Hefner’s work and record speak for themselves and he has some grand and amazing achievements, especially in providing fact-based articles about sex, news and the culture, even some of his activism against religionism, which he regarded as Puritanism, and the absolute right to free speech. Hedonism as an alternative to Puritanism, however, has a similarly constrictive effect and I think this, too, showed in Hefner’s work and life (and, possibly, in his face; Hefner rarely looks happy, especially in his later years). Accordingly, Playboy began in the 1950s as a bold voice of sexual liberationism, featuring nude photographs of Marilyn Monroe in its first edition, and faded in popularity and influence in the 1980s, culminating in a recent low point with the numerous accusations of rape and sexual assault against Bill Cosby, which included an alleged attack at the Playboy Mansion in LA’s Holmby Hills. Based on what I’ve seen, heard and read, I think the tales of anything-goes depravity at Playboy parties are probably true.
In her book, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment, according to an article by Rick Kogan in the Chicago Tribune, author Barbara Ehrenreich asserts that the conventional wisdom about Hugh Hefner and his sexual-themed empire is 100 percent wrong. Playboy, she writes, offers “not eroticism, but escape — literal escape from the bondage of breadwinning.” The posed Playmates, she wrote, “were necessary not just to sell the magazine, but to protect it. When, in the first issue, Hefner talked about staying in his apartment listening to music and discussing Picasso, there was the Marilyn Monroe centerfold to let you know that there was nothing queer about these urbane and indoor pleasures.”
On this point, I think Barbara Ehrenreich has Playboy exactly right. It was an airtight digest packed with pictures of beautiful women, outstanding journalism and tips, tools and advice for man at his best, on everything from sports, wine, travel, grooming and art to contraception, foreplay, lubrication, masturbation and the joy of sex.
The worst article I’ve read about Hefner is published in the Los Angeles Times. It’s a commentary by Robin Abcarian and she starts by complaining that he cultured women to be subservient pieces of flesh for men’s indiscriminate approval, an argument that might have been more persuasive had she provided evidence and not ended her column with her seeking a man’s opinion — to validate her own? the reader wonders — especially because the man is her father and, in Abcarian’s telling, he agrees with his daughter’s low estimate of Hugh Hefner as a sexist. The best Hefner obituary I’ve read appears, appropriately I think, in the Chicago Tribune. It’s an extensive piece by Rick Kogan who, like Hugh Hefner, was born and raised in Chicago. It’s longer and more thoughtful than the usual fluff. Kogan writes like he’s thought about Hugh Hefner, not like he’s spinning an agenda to malign someone’s character, and he offers a broad range and wide scope view of the life of one of the 20th century’s only voices of reason on the topic of sex. I learned nothing in the former article. I learned a lot (such as Ehrenreich’s thoughts) about Playboy‘s founder in the latter, just like when I read an edition of Playboy. So, I think, will you. Read Kogan’s article here.
Before the Colors Fade (Knopf, New York, Hardcover 1981) by the late ABC News anchorman and 60 Minutes correspondent Harry Reasoner is a light, simple and rewarding tale of the media’s recent past. I came across this unique out-of-print memoir while conducting research on modern media. Instantly, I felt an affection I hadn’t experienced in years.
It’s a feeling one gets from the predominant era of that instantly familiar visual media format, television. Unlike today’s invasive visual media, which is everywhere and therefore constantly intruding upon one’s controlled experiences, such as desktop, laptop and mobile machines, TV was at once a shared and intimate kind of visual media—watching the Apollo 11 moon landing, Roots, Donahue, sports, Frasier was both very direct and easy to like, discuss and share with others—and Harry Reasoner was one of the best broadcast journalists in the later postwar 20th century.
His voice was as sonorous as Morgan Freeman’s—they shared that even-toned, slightly graveled sense of wonder at the world—his look affable yet knowing and he brought a mildly biting sense of humor to his reports. This quality, which most readers probably remember from his segments on Sunday’s CBS series 60 Minutes, is fully expressed in Before the Colors Fade. Reasoner’s memoir is peppered with refined storytelling. It’s also filled with teases, such as his mention in the introduction that he interviewed one of the world’s worst terrorists, a woman named Leila Khaled who hijacked and threatened to crash passenger jets to force the West to create a Palestinian state, unfortunately none of which he details.
In this sense, his book is a bit like wandering into the bar after the game lets out and finding a salty old pro at the corner who’s already had a few drinks and doesn’t mind holding court until it’s time to head home. Reasoner assesses his early broadcasting career with an admission that he thought he would “never make it in studio work” because he thought he had “no presence” and did not open his mouth when he talked, which was “probably the result of an adolescent reticence about showing bad teeth.”
One viewer had noticed that, too, and she wrote to tell him so. “Years later, [while] co-anchoring the ABC News with Howard K. Smith,” Reasoner writes, “I got a letter from a deaf person. Howard and I, she said, were virtually useless to her as broadcasters because we didn’t open our mouths and articulate the words in a way to help her lip-reading. “Howard is terrible,” she wrote, “and as for you, Mr. Reasoner,” she went on, “if you ever fail in the news business, you should do very well as a ventriloquist.”
Harry Reasoner, who comes across as extremely ambitious, reports that he languished for a while until a media critic gave his work a short, passing and positive notice in the New York Times:
If the individuality in Mr. Reasoner’s broadcasts … reflects a broader CBS policy to encourage members of its news staff to be themselves and not echo a corporate pear-shaped tone…”
Reasoner uses this fellow journalist’s clever compliment, which was also a dig at Big Media’s sameness, to reflect on some of his own reports and explore the industry in detail, noting with an intelligent—and predictive—thought of his own that “…news broadcasters should not be humorists … but if the news itself, viewed in a certain way, reveals wit or insight or comment, it’s all right to go ahead. So we did.”
Reasoner’s balance of the sacred and the profane was a key component in his outstanding success and popularity; what made Harry Reasoner light and enjoyable was the sense that he took the news, ideas and life seriously, as he did in one of his best TV broadcasts, his report of a deadly plane crash. He told viewers about Captain Charles White, “an Eastern Airlines pilot and former combat pilot, who died in the Constellation crash yesterday…” explaining that, “after the collision, the plane was unflyable. But he flew it.” Knowing that viewers must have been both horrified and gripped by news of the commercial aviation disaster, Reasoner went on: “As a result, some fifty people are alive who might logically be expected to be dead.”
The newsman described reports of the damaged passenger plane’s “crazy motion”, adding that Captain White’s
alternately powering engines on one side and then another, warning his passengers, and then picking out a field and coming in as softly as you can with that many tons at that kind of speed with no control—coming in flat and uphill—so that before the airplane burned up, almost everyone got out alive. And, now, tonight, Eastern Airlines tells us something else about Captain White: his body was found in the passenger cabin. Eastern’s conclusion is that he could have gotten out, but that he died because he went back to see to the safe evacuation of his passengers.”
Harry Reasoner goes on with a perspective that’s rarely on display among today’s anchors—in an act of decency that’s unthinkable to the generic put-down artists posing at TV desks delivering what passes for the news: “The pride in a man like this radiates out in lessening circles of intimacy—from his family to his fellow employees at Eastern, to all pilots, to all his countrymen, and finally the pride you have in just being a member of the same species. That’s the news. This is Harry Reasoner. Goodnight.”
Not that he couldn’t be arch and knowing, too, as when he reported on one of Elizabeth Taylor‘s weddings to Richard Burton, noting that the couple “were married today in Montreal. They met two years ago while working on the movie Cleopatra in Rome and have been good friends ever since. That’s the news. This is Harry Reasoner. Goodnight.”
Buy the Book
His breezy Before the Colors Fade glides from witty career notes to commentary on the press, TV and behind the scenes at CBS News, grazing history with Reasoner’s thoughts on “the night East Germany built the wall…”, “very sexy and trivial and irresponsible network news…” and how “[a]n argument with Betty Friedan” may have gotten him the job he wanted. These make for interesting snippets and they are precisely that and not more than that, so read Reasoner’s account for its facts, lessons and glimpses of a better media, not for his deep insights, though he does have them.
For instance, writing about his job, Harry Reasoner argues that “…even though the most important quality a reporter can have is detachment, you have to be able to love, too.” Though it’s true that he doesn’t go deeper and point out that to love is to value, etc., honestly, what journalist of Reasoner’s stature today would dare make such an assertion?
Some of the most penetrating parts are thoughts on his reporting from Gio Linh, Vietnam. “He was not a bad man, or a war-lover,” Reasoner writes about a Green Beret who commanded troops with whom Reasoner was embedded on a combat mission: “He was a professional. The worst casualty of the Vietnam War may have been the spirit and confidence of men like that. They are as yet, in an imperfect world, indispensable. We just asked them to do things for us that we should not have asked.”
Good writing makes reading Before the Colors Fade a treat. The author covers encounters, thoughts or bits on Phil Donahue, Fred Friendly, Lyndon Johnson (whom he describes as a “big, ebullient, manic-depressive Texan”), David Halberstam, Salvador Dali and Peter O’Toole, whom Reasoner writes he’d declined to interview, observing that the star of Lawrence of Arabia “had been out all night and was disorganized.” About one of his favorite 60 Minutes journalists, he writes: “Andy Rooney is my best friend. We just don’t talk to each other much. Well, that’s my essay on Andy Rooney. That would be his ending to that paragraph. Mine would be that he, like Don Hewitt, changed the face and course of American non-fiction television.”
This is how I remember Harry Reasoner as an anchorman and as a correspondent; straightforward, accessible yet judgmental in the best sense. In that example, he doesn’t explain why he thinks Hewitt changed TV, and, while reading Before the Colors Fade, I found myself wishing more than a few times that Harry Reasoner had gone deeper in his analysis. I certainly would have welcomed an opportunity to have interviewed him. He goes by facts, and this is what the best newsmen did and do, though too often he declines to examine facts and their implications, particularly on issues such as the existence of God, religion and ethics. But reading a book by a journalist who goes by facts is surprisingly refreshing and another reminder that the lights have dimmed and grow dimmer, to paraphrase Leonard Peikoff. Harry Reasoner appeared braced for this possibility, judging by his book’s title.
Harry Reasoner thought for himself and it’s clear that he saw himself as a whole man. Reading what were his thoughts about life in its everyday ordinariness, especially in retrospect now that he’s no longer alive, contains key clues about what was then the future, and offers lessons for the future now, despite and due to today’s media-savvy and media-saturated culture:
I wish readers would be a little less herdlike. If there is one rule I would recommend to any reader not specifically engaged in studying for an examination, it would be to read only what you like. It doesn’t matter what it is: if you don’t like it, don’t read it. Reading is a pleasure or it is nothing. Following this rule will mean you are left out in the cold in a lot of literary discussions, where the basic standard for a book seems to be that it be unpleasant, but you can always go in the next room and pick up your copy of Ian Fleming or Richard Hughes or Rex Stout or Ernest Hemingway or Loren Eiseley and improve on most conversation anyway.”
Or consider his take on cigarette smoking. After referring to smoking as one of “life’s most rewarding pleasures”, he writes that
The idea of trying to outguess life, to avoid everything that might conceivably ever injure your life, is a peculiarly dangerous one, I think; pretty soon you are existing in a morass of fear and you have given up not only cigarettes, prime beef, good butter, fine whiskey, spinach, tennis, sleeping on your side, riding without seat belts, air travel, train travel, your chiropractor — maybe, next month, love.”
Harry Reasoner’s most credible thoughts center upon his profession: the press. He warns against what came true throughout this light, slender book, observing its practitioners’ pompous and pretentious tendencies and transgressions and concluding: “I blame the colleges, partly; so many of them took broadcast journalism out of journalism and put in something called a “Communications” major, turning out people who knew all about how but not what to communicate.” He correctly describes the premise of the phenomenally successful 60 Minutes as holding to its tagline “that “all of reality is the grist of news.”
Long before media critics noticed the revolving doors, the cronyism, the concealed biases and the cozying up to power-lusters of state, Reasoner wrote that “too many of us interview the people we have had dinner with the night before. I think journalists and subjects can be mutually respectful friends, but when you are close enough so that you are no longer adversaries, our profession or craft or racket—craft, I think we decided—is in trouble.”
Yes it was, which led to distrust among the public, which is leading to faster acceptance of censorship. Conservatives often ignore that the freedom of the press they find so fashionable to doubt or denounce is part of the freedom of speech that they claim to support. Leftists do the same in reverse, ditching freedom of speech (by calling it “hate speech” for instance) while purporting to recognize freedom of the press, which is impossible without absolute recognition of the former. That’s unfortunate for many reasons, one of which is the disengagement or disenfranchisement of thoughtful journalists such as Harry Reasoner, who exercised his absolute right to free speech with Before the Colors Fade including commentary on the media’s complicity in Big Government, which of course he doesn’t describe that way. He gets at the corruption which was to come with breaking down the press-state distinction:
Knowing people, being on first-name terms or even privy to diminutives, has some advantages. But it is also very dangerous. Maybe we have been too successful, which is why we are, I’m afraid, a bit prematurely old. We have lost some strange and invigorating sense of being outsiders.”
He goes on, however, and this is what the best journalists do, noting the withering away of America’s innocence, as he softly applies this idea to universals, such as the state of the nation’s underlying sense of life…
Because along with the justified cynicism, and the justified feeling that everything seems to be going to hell, we retain our basic optimism, and some inside feeling that man as a whole and Americans in particular don’t have to be like the whispering curlew. We ought to be able to make some sense out of what we’re doing, and stop the worst of it, and limp along…We have on some precious occasions, like July 4, 1976, held each other’s hands and said I love you.”
Harry Reasoner doesn’t stop there. Rather than be accused with some justification of being overly sentimental, he refers to that above excerpt and adds that: “Journalism cannot and should not foster this sort of thing; it should, however, report it. It should be human without being maudlin, aware of sentiment while shying from sentimentalism. It should be awake.”
These last four words are the essence of everything decent and good about his old, tattered, out-of-print memoir Before the Colors Fade, which I found in a used bookstore for a few dollars, like a yard sale treasure. And the last two words are his straight, upbeat and dead serious warning to you, the reader, about navigating what was only starting to become the information glut at the peak of the broadcast media age. So, definitely read Before the Colors Fade if you do as a kind of warning. But revel, too, in Harry Reasoner’s flinty moments of bright writing, such as this diversion, a marvelous affirmation of the benevolent universe:
In case we have another day of it, the thing to do is to be outside, or by a big window, at just about 6:15 in the morning, in this longitude at least. Position yourself on high ground, with the ground sloping away from you sharply to the east and then climbing again; the west bank of a ravine does nicely. Right then you’re looking at the black and white of the world: the other side of the ravine is absolutely black — there could a city or a pride of lions or seven houses of neighbors hidden there—and the sky above the line of the hill is a bright, silvered white—no color at all. And then, before you get too cold to watch, the pink and orange of the sun comes, and the black of the hillside rolls down from the top, down to the river, and there are no lions there at all, but the empty branches of the trees are so clear you think you’ve never seen a tree before. And then you go milk the cows or catch a train or cook the cocoa or whatever it is you do at 6:25 in the morning. And whatever it is you do, it’s easier.”
Neither Harry Reasoner’s grit nor gleam fully makes and completes this conversational memoir, which is frosted by his fabulous sense of humor. At one point in Before the Colors Fade, the late, great Harry Reasoner, who embodied the American sense of life, capsulizes his distinguished career in a few beats that, on the surface, seem to herald the attention-deficit age but don’t, not really, and very much on the contrary if you catch the writer’s drift:
You will notice in these chronicles how often I have been a co-something. A surrogate for Cronkite. Me and Mike Wallace. Me and Mary Fickett. Me and Andy Rooney. Me and Howard K. Smith. And, briefly, me and Barbara Walters. I have gotten over worrying about what all this means and whether I should have inferiority feelings about it: things seem to work better that way. But I would like to note that this book is all mine (unless we decide to treat it as a pilot, recall it, and get a co-author).”
I get it, accept it and miss journalists like Walter Cronkite, Edwin Newman and Harry Reasoner. This is all his, catchy, clever title and all, and thankfully none of it reads like a perfunctory thank you list. If only there were more books like Before the Colors Fade and funny, thoughtful and factual reporters like Harry Reasoner, the world would be a better place and stand a better chance.