Mike Kueber's Blog

March 27, 2011

Sunday morning talk shows

Sundays are special to me partly because of Sunday morning talk shows.  It’s probably a sign of the times that my three favorite shows can be found on three relatively new channels:

  1. ESPN’s The Sports Reporters.  I have loved this show for at least 15 years.  I remember Tina Spencer and I often sitting in my office for too long on Monday afternoons in A Building, comparing notes about the show, which we watched religiously.  Dick Schaap was the host until September 2001, when he died unexpectedly from surgical complications, and he was replaced by John Saunders.  Although Schaap seemed the perfect host, Saunders has equaled him.  The rotating three-guest panel often includes newspaper reporters Mike Lupica (NYC), Bob Ryan (Boston), or Mitch Albom (Detroit).
  2. CNN’s Reliable Sources.  This show is exceptional not only because its host Howie Kurtz is such a smart, middle-of-the-road questioner, but also because of the subject matter – i.e., the media.  I am fascinated by the role of the media in modern politics, even though the media has a generally-accepted bias toward liberal positions.
  3. FOX’s FOX News Sunday.  I have only recently started watching FOX News Sunday (FNS).  As with the other three major Sunday Morning Shows – NBC’ s Meet the Press, CBS’s Face the Nation, and ABC’s This Week – they key to success is the host.  FNS’s host is Chris Wallace, and he has the same traits as Howie Kurtz – he is smart and middle-of-the-road.  (Although Wallace is the son of 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace, he was raised by another newsman.)  

On this morning’s FNS, Wallace reported something disturbing.  He said that the Obama administration had made Secretaries Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates available to the talk shows on the other three networks, but not to FNS even though FNS often has higher ratings that two of the other three shows.  If that were true, that would indicate that the Obama administration was getting paranoid about FOX.  But I haven’t  been able to confirm that Wallace’s statement about the ratings was true.  According to the latest ratings that I could find from mid-February 2011, NBC, CBS, and ABC had ratings that were roughly comparable, while the ratings for FSN were about one-half of theirs.

Regardless of the ratings, Wallace’s show is better than his competitors’.  Some might suggest that Wallace is a conservative, but he reportedly has been a registered Democrat for many years.  I will attempt to learn whether he misspoke when he said his show was more popular than Face the Nation and This Week.

January 23, 2011

Sunday book review #10 – The Next Big Story by Soledad O’Brien

Full disclosure – I read The Next Big Story with a disposition not to like Soledad O’Brien because I recently heard her interviewed on TV justifying her affirmative-action admission to Harvard.  In the interview, she cited her mother for saying that it was better to get into Harvard because you are black than to be excluded from Harvard because you are black.  I think that philosophy is wrong, even if it comes from a saintly mother.

The first story described in the book supported my theory that Soledad was a life-long elitist with a feeling of entitlement.  The incident concerned an 11-year-old Soledad and her 14-year-old sister Estela visiting a local Long Island photographer to have their picture taken for a gift to their mother.  Although the 30-year-old white photographer was “exceeding polite,” he rocked the girls’ world by asking, “Forgive me for asking, but are you black?”  

While Soledad is speechless because the “nice-sounding words make her feel small and embarrassed, my sister is light-years ahead of me.  She starts to shred the guy.  ‘Offend us?  Offend us?  By asking if we are black?’ ….  Estela is totally on it.  I am very impressed that she can articulate her anger so well at fourteen.  She is already able to take apart a grown man.  She’s so much more on top of it than me.  ‘Forgive me if I’m offending you…’  We don’t have to take this crap.  And from a photographer?  Estella gives me the universal body language for ‘we’re taking a walk’ and off we go.”

I don’t know how Soledad defines “articulate,” but I fail to discern anything articulate in Estella’s speech.  Further, I don’t know what is impressive about a 14-year-old girl being able to take apart an exceedingly polite 30-year-old photographer.  And finally, I don’t know what being a photographer has to do with level of insult one should accept.

Only a few pages later in the book, Soledad irritated me even more in insulting her hometown of Smithtown on Long Island.  Although Soledad admits that Smithtown was a wonderful place to grow up, she gratuitously impugns Smithtown by describing recent litigation over the town’s resistance to accept Section 8 housing from non-residents from the NYC environs:

  • This is one of the reasons my town was split into two – a landing place for the American dream had slammed the door shut on anyone new.  That is not what being American is about.  Our communities thrive because they renew themselves with people who bring in new ideas and refresh out culture.  Smithtown could have only gotten better by welcoming people aspiring to make good.  The duality of my home town didn’t have to exist.  They had the choice to embrace new people and encourage change or reject newcomers and limit growth.  My parents had so much to contribute to Smithtown, including six children who appreciated the obvious benefits of where they lived and went on to succeed.  We are proof that a choice to welcome newcomers can help a community thrive.”

The preceding passage is incredible.  Is it disgraceful for a rural city to resist an influx of Section 8 people from the NYC metro area?  Why does Soledad think her parents chose to live in Smithtown instead of NYC?  Does Soledad seriously equate the value added to a city by her family (headed by a college professor and a high school teacher) with that of a family living in Section 8 housing? 

Soledad left Smithtown to enroll like her four older siblings at Harvard.  Instead of directly addressing the role of affirmative action in her matriculation, Soledad mentions it only indirectly – “I am here because I have strong grades.  They like strong grades.  I was a woman and they needed women, a person of color and they wanted people of color.”

After college, Soledad became a “minority writer trainee” for an NBC TV station WBZ in Boston, and the doubts about her qualifications began – “Once you’ve been tagged a minority, the strange process begins.  At times I feel like I have a question mark hovering over my head.  Why are you here?  It is your race?  Do you have any skills, anyway?…  I demand to know what I need to know to get to the next level.”  That sounds to me like a prototypical sense of entitlement.

In 1993, after five years in Boston as a field producer, Soledad moved to an NBC station KRON in San Francisco because her boyfriend lived there.  Although she made less money, she would finally be on the air. 

In 1996, after floundering for three years at KRON (“I feel stuck at KRON.  The news director is clear I’ll never have a chance to anchor.  I feel like I am one woman too many.  I am frustrated because I am not growing my skill sets.”), Soledad landed a local job with newly-created MSNBC anchoring a technology show.  Although the technology show was quickly cancelled, MSNBC offered Soledad a job in NYC anchoring its morning newscast, Morning Blend.

In 1999, Soledad moves to NBC to anchor Weekend Today with Jack Ford and later David Bloom (and a third anchor she never names).  The experience is not a good one because there is only one serious interview a day, and Ford/Bloom fight her for it.  The rest of the time is spent on cooking and fashion.

In 2003, Soledad left NBC to move to CNN, where she became an anchor on American Morning with Bill Hemmer.  She says she moved because she wanted to get back to serious reporting.  Her first big story on CNN was Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  From that experience, Soledad learned that people will do incredible things to take care of themselves and that this skill is essential because government is so incompetent at taking care of its citizens, especially if those citizens are minorities or disadvantaged:

  • The hurricane hit on Monday.  It’s Friday.  This all makes no sense to me.  By now this place should be abuzz with rescue services, with government relief from a storm.  I feel like I am in another country….  How can this be?  I see the fear, the panic.  Anger rises into a tight knot behind my forehead….  I join the clutch of exhausted CNN staffers.  No one says more than they have to.  I begin to report.”

Don’t you get chills just reading how noble and selfless Soledad and CNN were?  She goes on to say:

  • “The places hit by Hurricane Katrina couldn’t rely on regular services; they required a massive national response, a cavalry of forces only a country can muster.  Yet the cavalry didn’t arrive.  To survive, you had to be ready to help yourself.  If that makes you angry, it should.  It makes me angry, too.  But anger doesn’t get you pulled off the roof of your house when the waters rise.”

A noteworthy incident with Jesse Jackson occurred while Soledad anchored American Morning.  During a lunch, he begins grousing to her about the absence of black anchors on CNN.  Soledad naturally cuts him off and reminds him that she anchors American Morning:

  • “He knows that.  He looks me in the eye and reaches his fingers over to tap a spot of skin on my right hand.  He shakes his head.  ‘You don’t count,’ he says.  I wasn’t sure what that means….  I was angry and embarrassed, which rarely happens at the same time for me.  Jesse Jackson managed to make me ashamed of my skin color….  I am immediately upset and annoyed and the more annoyed I am, the more upset and pissed off….  I am a product of my parents (black woman, white man), my town (mostly white), multiracial to be sure, but not black?…  After two weeks of stewing, I sit upright one day, angry at myself for not telling this man he is wrong….  So I should have called him up and said, ‘What the heck does that mean?’ But I didn’t.  I slunk away.”

Obviously, this was not one of Soledad’s finer moments.  After all these years, she still didn’t have the confrontational fire that he sister Estela displayed while a 14-year-old.  Or perhaps she was acted this way because she was dealing with Jesse Jackson instead of a photographer. 

Only recently, Soledad called Jackson and asked for an explanation.  He responded that he wasn’t aware that she was black.  He thought her brown skin tone came from somewhere other than Africa.  This was a simple misunderstanding that could have been corrected it Soledad had managed to speak up.

As the Katrina debacle wound down, so did the ratings of American Morning.  Bill Hemmer was replaced by Miles O’Brien (no relation), but the hemorrhaging of ratings did not stop.  With no hard news stories, the ratings for American Morning dropped 6% and it was “overshadowed by the personality-driven Fox & Friends.”  Even the ratings for MSNBC’s simulcast of Don Imus grew by 39% and passed American Morning.  Soledad and Miles were told that they were “great reporters but not magnetic anchors” and were fired in 2007.  Soledad was reassigned to long-form documentaries called CNN Presents.

Soledad’s first documentary was a two-night, four-hour special called Black in America.  Following the special, Jesse Jackson’s slight became more prevalent as bloggers openly challenged Soledad on whether she was black enough to report about blacks.  One said, “Can Soledad O’Brien embrace blackness while not looking black, not sounding black, and not being married to a black man?”  Soledad’s response was that, way back in Smithtown, her mom and dad had decided that their kids would identify themselves as black Latinos.  This was convenient because Soledad’s next big documentary was Latino in America

Following Latino in America, CNN created a new unit for Soledad called In America, which was to provide a voice to “voiceless communities” and “marginalized individuals.”  Although the unit was to focus on Americans, the next big story was Haiti, and Soledad refused to miss it:

  • I am dying to go.  The newsroom duties just vanish at moments like this.  I’m a journalist.  I have a perspective on how to tell the human story that is unique.  I won’t go and do what everyone else is doing.  I will add something more.  I need to be there.  But how am I going to get in?  At the moment no one is asking me to go…. I grab my producers and we go from office to office….  I go home that night and want to scream up at the sky.  How unimaginably awful it must be in Haiti.  I want to be there.  I want to help in the way reporters can help.  I want to spread the word of what the people need….  There is an emotional line you cross as a reporter from feeling an embarrassing thrill at the magnitude of the story you are telling to experiencing a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach.”

Naturally, the SVPs from Newsgathering and Programming eventually gave Soledad the green light.  She was “to focus hard on something no one else is doing.  He wants us to come back with something special so the pressure is on.  We are bound for Haiti.”

 Upon arriving at Haiti, Soledad was reminded of the desperate people in New Orleans.  She expects nothing of Haiti, but is amazed at the relief efforts underway.  “This makes it all the more remarkable that our government allowed its people to languish in New Orleans.  I feel as if the Americans here are the same ones who materialized in Louisiana once they realized that the government wasn’t up to the task.”  Based on her comments, you might think Soledad believes people should be able to sit on their hands while goverment rescues them. 

Soledad finishes her book by taking a nostalgic return visit to her childhood friends in Smithtown.  Some have done well; others haven’t.  She doesn’t understand why everyone in America can’t be as successful as she has been. 

Soledad’s success is especially remarkable when you consider that she has been a weak or mediocre performer in virtually every job she has held.  Yet she has the audacity to walk away from that job and demand and receive a better job.  Where do you get chutzpah like that?  To borrow Ann Richard’s joke about Bush-41, Soledad was born on third base and thought she hit a triple.

December 21, 2010

Soledad O’Brien and the American Dream

My favorite Sunday morning TV show is CNN’s Reliable Sources, with moderator Howie Kurtz.  Although the theme of the show is a bit narcissistic – the media talking about media coverage of news – I love it.  Although Howie Kurtz occasionally reveals himself as a liberal elitist, he usually is smart and even-handed with his questions. 

During this week’s show, Howie interviewed CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien for two lengthy segments to discuss her new book, The Next Big Story.  I’ve never been a fan of Soledad because (1) she always seems to be pushing for affirmative action, and (2) I feel like one of the targets for her reverse discrimination.  But during the interview, I found her to be an honest, engaging, and warm person.  Her book has definitely moved to my reading list for early 2011.

Two topics brought up during the interview were especially fascinating:

Mixed-race

Soledad mentioned that the level of her blackness, like that of Barack Obama or Tiger Woods, has been questioned, by Jesse Jackson and others.  Several years ago, when Soledad was an anchor for American Morning, Jesse Jackson complained to her about the lack of black anchors in America, and she interjected to say, “What about me?”  Jackson responded by pinching her skin and saying, “You don’t count.”  Soledad was poleaxed:

  • “I was both angry and embarrassed, which rarely happens at the same time for me. Jesse Jackson managed to make me ashamed of my skin color which even white people had never been able to do. Not the kids in the hallways at Smithtown or the guys who wouldn’t date me in high school.”

The Jackson insult was compounded a short time later when a blogger raised a similar concern – “Can Soledad O’Brien embrace blackness while not looking black, not sounding black and not being married to a black man?”  Soledad’s response – “And what does that mean, not looking black, not sounding — I don’t sound black? Well, I sound like a girl from Long Island who went through voice classes so she could become a TV anchor.  Not looking black? You know, I could show you pictures from my childhood where I have a giant afro.”

Recently, Soledad confronted Jackson about his insult, and he apologized by explaining that he meant no insult – he had thought she was Hispanic.  Well, so did I until this weekend.  In fact, Soledad’s father is an Anglo Australian-American and her mother is an Afro-Cuban-American, so technically Soledad can claim to be Anglo, African-American, or Hispanic.

Affirmative Action

Soledad’s first job was titled, “minority writer trainee” for a TV station in Boston.  When Kurtz questioned her about her basis for getting the job, Soledad conceded that her skin color had something to do with it (duh?), but it was a golden opportunity. 

  • No, it was the conundrum of always, you know, on one hand, what a great gig, and you have an in. And you finally get a skill, which was something that would differentiate you from the rest of the PAs (?) in the group.  But also, clearly, you know, we picked you because you’re a person of color, and we need more people of color, and we want to da- da-da-da. And so I think that there was always that rub.  My mother used to always say, you know, “Better to get into Harvard because you’re black than not get into Harvard because you’re black.”

Yes, Soledad, that’s the rub, and although the cute bromide from your mother has some superficial attraction, it doesn’t hold up under analysis. 

  1. You exemplify the type of person, like Barack Obama and Julian Castro, who benefits from affirmative action – not a disadvantaged person who needs and deserves a break, but rather advantaged minorities who leverage their skin color to put themselves ahead of more deserving people.  According to Wikipedia, your parents met at an exclusive American university (Johns Hopkins).  You dad became an engineering professor and your mom a French teacher.  You and your five siblings were all able to attend Harvard and the siblings are a law professor,  corporate lawyer, business executive, eye surgeon, and anesthesiologist.   Doesn’t sound like you kids were a very disadvantaged lot.  And thanks to Sandra Day O’Connor and the Grutter decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, you have at least another 20 years of college affirmative action to benefit your kids.  Maybe by then, you and your family will see the possibility of living the American dream.
  2. More importantly, I think a self-respecting, self-reliant person would rather get rejected by Harvard because of their skin color than get accepted to Harvard because of their skin color.