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JOE GANDELMAN: Cable TV transforms solid journalists into ratings grabbers

OPINION: Invasion of the Political Entertainment Media Body Snatchers

Joe Gandelman

Joe Gandelman

(Sigh.) And so we see another example of a cable political personality’s previous branding bite the dust. Another apology. Another brand altered.

This time it was MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, the writer and political science professor at Tulane University. When her weekend show debuted on MSNBC last spring some called it dull. She recently urged her panelists to be funnier and within minutes they all thought it was just hilarious to make mocking comments about a Mitt Romney family Christmas photo showing Romney’s tiny adopted African-American grandson on his knee. Their basic joke was that here was this one black kid among a lot of whites, just like the Republican Party. Partisans later claimed it was only aimed at the GOP but — no — it was aimed at a black kid in a photo appearing with the white Romneys.

After the inevitable firestorm, Harris-Perry tearfully apologized. Romney graciously accepted it and noted that even he has made mistakes. Some now attack MSNBC. But there is a far bigger issue.

The issue is what happens to people who get high-profile — high paying — cable gigs because of their previous branding.

Do they keep the qualities they had that contributed to them getting their new job, or do they shed them to blend with the political entertainment media’s existing snarky, partisan-on-the-left-and-right existing culture? Do their qualities help shape the political entertainment media culture, or do they atrophy? Can they remain thoughtful, professional pundits and interviewers, or do they morph into yet one more highly paid political advocate who does whatever necessary to tweak ratings to get more viewership, higher speaker fees and sell merchandise associated with the cable re-branding?

We’ve seen many transformations. Bill O’Reilly was a solid ABC and CBS newsman before he left to do Late Edition and become Fox News’ hottest polarizing political property. Glenn Beck was a traditional conservative talker before he jumped into television and started building a paranoia-based media empire. Martin Bashir was a respected ABC News “Nightline” anchor until he decided to pooh-pooh his training and got fired for outrageous comments on MSNBC.

Rush Limbaugh was once a more traditional broadcaster. Ed Schultz was not always a liberal talker. MSNBC’s popular Chris Matthews was a superb reporter and newspaper columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle with an impressive record for political prognostication until his cable show transformed him into a living Mad Magazine parody. “Hardball” viewers know the most dreaded six words in the English language are “Chris Matthews has a new book.” Get ready for MONTHS of his tying in JFK or Tip and the Gipper to topics in his “Let Me Finish” segment and constantly announcing book signing details.

In the case of the Harris-Perry fiasco, The Daily Beast political columnist’s Sally Kohn nailed it on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” when she said there’s “always this incentive to say something that’s newsworthy, attention-getting, but it’s real easy to cross the line into offensive and stupid.” And live TV (yes, I’ve been there) is fast: you give your take ASAP with no long, thoughtful pauses.

American politics has long been freewheeling and aggressive, and although candidates’ children have been off limits, sometimes this taboo has been broken. What’s new is the non-stop frenzy to get attention — anything that sticks in the viewer’s memory. It’s all about relaxing previous personal and professional standards and getting noticed in a world with many other platforms, distractions and a 24/7 news cycle. The old branding disintegrates into the existing political media culture.

It’s kind of like a media “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” where a serious interviewer now becomes less serious and a thoughtful analyst who valued nuance will now considers it a dirty word, and reverts to “high concept” analysis or partisan demonization.

But, hey? It attracts an audience, which gets advertisers to fund more shows — which means you need to go further over the top to get noticed as others scramble to get noticed so they can get more advertisers. There’s nothing wrong with lowering the bar unless the bar gets lowered on your head. That’s what matters. Isn’t it?

Email Joe Gandelman at jgandelman@themoderatevoice.com.

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