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Special Re-flogging Edition

Faster, Kurtz, kill, kill!


Posted Saturday, June 24, 2000

        Two more articles have now appeared (in the New Republic and Slate) piling on Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, declaring him doomed as a VP pick--a conclusion that almost instantaneously became the conventional wisdom the moment those Los Alamos hard drives were found to be missing.

        But are we so sure of this? Consider once again the implications of the Feiler Faster Thesis (FFT), which holds that voters now process political information at record speed, allowing room for ever more plot twists in an ever shorter time. The most obvious recent example: With eight months to go until the election, it was widely and respectably argued that George Bush didn't have time to reposition himself in the center after his visit to Bob Jones U. With seven months to go, Bush's problem had already disappeared.

        Mightn't Richardson's problems disappear quickly as well? Suppose a) the hard drives are examined, witnesses are grilled, and espionage is ruled out; b) Richardson takes bold action to punish whoever was sloppy and institutes sweeping security reforms; and c) gas prices go down. Will anyone remember these problems by mid-July, much less mid-August, when Al Gore has to make his pick? Then, if Gore really needs Hispanic support ...

        OK, not even I buy this, but mainly because I never bought the idea of Richardson as a VP prospect in the first place. His "historic" selection would not-so-subliminally annoy African-Americans--and the Hispanic vote (as the Washington Post's Dana Milbank has pointed out) is concentrated in states that aren't up for grabs in November anyway. But if there were a compelling reason to pick Richardson, I'm not sure Los Alamos would kill his chances.

        For a simpler, more definitive violation of the FFT, we can turn to PBS analyst Mark Shields, who on June 16, after William Daley replaced Tony Coelho as Al Gore's campaign manager, declared that "Gore cannot go to a fourth campaign manager without really imploding." This statement is ridiculous on several levels, but one is its failure to recognize the shortened half-life of scandal in today's faster politics. If Gore was at all damaged because switching campaign managers gave the impression of disarray (a questionable proposition), that impression would surely run its course through today's body politic and be replaced by another impression in a matter of days, if not hours. I'd say Gore has time to go through about three more campaign managers before the election ...

        Mission for Kurtz: The previous installment of kausfiles took a shot at Howard Kurtz, the media reporter for the Washington Post, mainly because of his obvious conflict of interest in holding down a second job co-hosting a show on CNN, which is part of the AOL Time Warner media empire, which is about 50 percent of the universe Kurtz is supposed to be covering. My point was that Kurtz is a hypocrite when it comes to conflicts of interest; I said I was "not arguing that Kurtz is soft on CNN or Time Warner."

        But an alert kausfiles reader points out that there's a way to test that last concession. Here it is, in the form of a special Post-baiting edition of Mickey's Assignment Desk:

        Assignment: The decline of CNN under Rick Kaplan.

        Assigned to: Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post.

        Synopsis: CNN's president, Rick Kaplan, was hired with great fanfare to create "appointment" programming that would attract viewers to the network even when there wasn't a breaking news story. He poured money into CNN's Newsstand, a joint venture with Time Warner's magazines. Newsstand has gone from being a debacle (its first show featured the soon-retracted "Tailwind" story) to a mere dud. Do you know anyone who watches it? CNN's ratings in the first quarter of this year are down by almost a third over the entire day and down 20 percent in prime time. It is losing market share to its rivals, CNBC, MSNBC, and Fox.

        There have been recent rumors in the press--admittedly stoked by the New York Post, which is owned by Fox--that Kaplan is "on the ropes," because (according to an anonymous CNN detractor), "[h]e's diluted the brand with all his soft features." Certainly CNN is, as the Post reported, "abuzz with talk" that "Kaplan will be booted," and it's widely assumed that the future of the all-news network hinges on whether or not he gets whacked.

        Now, for all I know Kaplan is a journalistic giant and not the blowhard he occasionally appears to be in his press clips. But it's clear there is a story here to be reported, and not just a business story. Were Kaplan's changes good for CNN's journalism, or a waste of resources that might have produced good news shows that people actually watched? Where are the compelling personalities who might make substantive journalism entertaining? What about the decline of investigative reporting in the wake of the Tailwind disgrace? I do watch CNN quite a bit, and it sure looks to me like there's nothing very exciting going on.

        How about it, Howie? Biases tend to affect what one doesn't write about more than what one does write about. While the Post ran its Kaplan-is-on-the-ropes story in April, you haven't mentioned him in over a year, according to NEXIS. During that period the Wall Street Journal, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Broadcasting & Cable have all run negative features on CNN. Will you take on CNN and risk angering Kaplan (not a man reputed to forget criticism) and losing your key CNN TV gig?

        Kurtz responds: In answer to a kausfiles query, Kurtz e-mailed the following:

CNN is clearly struggling with depressed ratings, but I don't think that automatically means its "journalism" is in decline. I pitched a story a couple of months ago on "whither CNN," pegged to its 20th anniversary, but my Washington Post editors weren't interested in assigning it to me or anyone else. ...
Kausfiles says: Pitch it again! And don't make it sound so interesting this time. ...

        [So you just re-flog these two old themes--Kurtz and this "faster" business--and say it's a column?--Ed. Please, call them "legacy themes."]

        This Week's Seemingly Non-Ironic Quote That Suggests the New Economy Really Is Different:

"It was really hard. The people we had to let go had been here an average of two or three months."

--T. Paul Thomas, president of TurboLinux, which recently laid off about 50 of 300 employees, quoted in the New York Times, June 22.

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Is Robert Wright a Marxist?

posted 03.20.00

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