Part 1—Also, Mika's first book: These 5-year-old children today!
We base our remark on a recent conversation with one such observer. The previous evening, her 11-year-old sister had spotted a porcupine, or something like one, on the back lawn of the sprawling, southern Maine home her grandparents had rented for the week.
The next morning, the subject arose again. This exchange ensued:
11-YEAR OLD GREAT NIECE: [Mentions her close encounter]Whatever happened to truthful hyperbole? These 5-year-old children today have taken dead aim on the practice!
UNNAMED MEDIA WATCHER: I'd like to be with you the next time you spot it. Let's go back there tonight!
[Skillfully turns to 5-year-old]
You may not know this, but I'm often described as "the porcupine whisperer."
5-YEAR-OLD GREAT NIECE (almost pityingly): We can tell you're joking, Uncle [Name Withheld].
We spent our summer vacation engaged in such thoughtful discussions. Also, we read All Things at Once, Mika Brzezinski's first book.
You may not have known that Mika has written any books. All in all, they haven't produced much discussion.
Basically, she has written three books, starting with All Things at Once, her 2010 childhood-to-present day memoir. After that, she wrote a book about her neurotic inability to demand the level of pay she so richly deserves, followed by another book about her lifelong compulsive eating behaviors.
Upon our return from Maine, we learned that Mika has recently inked a deal to produce three more books. We had decided to read her first book after the Joe-and-Mika profile grew in the past month, a reaction to the pair's engagement and to the release of Joe's first EP, the one with the songs about so-called bad girls.
Based on a skim, years ago, of Mika's second book, we assumed that All Things at Once book would be somewhat interesting. In truth, the book was fascinating, in an array of ways.
Full disclosure: we've never liked Mika as a pundit. More accurately, she strikes us as one of the worst of our many pundits and analysts—as someone whose basic temperament poorly suits her to the task.
That doesn't mean that she's a bad person. It doesn't mean that she may not be good at something else.
But we've never shared the favorable view with which James Srodes started his review of Mika's book in the Washington Times. We say that because we agreed with virtually everything else he said in his generally unfavorable review, which started like this:
SRODES (1/29/10): At the outset, please know that I like the television personality Mika Brzezinski and am a regular viewer of the wake-up chatter show she co-hosts—“Morning Joe”—with former Congressman Joe Scarborough and their cast of jolly cronies. Mika’s program persona is that of the serious one of the team, the one who reads the hard-news bulletins and who regularly has to damp down the flights of craziness that the faux-folksy Mr. Scarborough lapses into. You get the feeling you would like to work with Mika, to be her next-door neighbor.Oof. We're not sure that we perceived an "incredible sense of entitlement" in All Things at Once. But as we read Brzezinski's book, we were struck by the other traits Srodes described, including some he notes later in his review.
Except maybe you wouldn’t. The Mika Brzezinski portrayed by Mika Brzezinski in this memoir is a person almost totally consumed by ambition, but with a startling naivete about the real world of work. That personality is also layered with numerous sub-strata, including an incredible sense of entitlement, deep-rooted insecurity and compulsive behavior patterns that have led to poor career choices along the way.
Please note—we aren't citing this review because it's from a conservative publication. Very few newspapers reviewed All Things at Once. The only other review we find is this short, perfunctory effort from the New York Times.
We're citing Srodes' review because his reactions to the book uncannily matched our own. That said, we were struck by one other trait Srodes doesn't mention, except glancingly:
There's no nice way to say this. But we were struck by the fact that the book often seems weirdly dumb.
What makes us say that? Consider what Mika tells us about her second stint at CBS News, which started in early September 2001, when Mika was 34.
Did we mention the fact that Mika was 34 years old at this point? That she had been working in broadcast news since she graduated from college?
That she had already served one stint at CBS News, followed by a two-year stint at MSNBC, during which she covered the Bush v. Gore maelstrom in Florida? That she was 34 years of age when we're told this occurred?
BRZEZINSKI (page 146): I loved my new little office. I loved that I was back in mid-town Manhattan, after trudging out to the MSNBC headquarters next to a strip mall in Secaucus for the past two years. Those first few days back at CBS, I got into the habit of coming in early, trying to read all the newspapers and soak up as much as I could. I did this on the advice of my new colleague Byron Pitts, one of the network's top correspondents. Byron said, "Come in early and be the first to get the story." That was his thing, and I thought it made good sense, so I made it my thing, too.Say what? At age 34, Brzezinski began "trying to read all the newspapers" on the advice of a top correspondent? At age 34, after thirteen years in the news business?
Our view? It's odd to think that this could have happened when Brzezinski was 34. It's amazing to think that, at age 42, she put this anecdote into her book, apparently failing to see how strange this story would sound.
That said, the book is full of anecdotes and episodes which are remarkably strange. This includes anecdotes from Mika's personal life which she self-deprecatingly identifies as strange, without seeming to realize that they sound remarkably strange.
Srodes makes a point of saying that the book is "readable" and "well-written." (He attributes this to the book's high-level co-writer.) That was our observation too, on a line-by-line basis.
As an easy-reader, summer page-turner, the book is quite well written. But the book is clogged with puzzling episodes and strange deductions—and with highly unflattering portraits of the people in broadcast news.
How horrible are those people? In the passage shown below, Mika explains what happened during her second stint at CBS when she was told, by the head of CBS News, that she should meet with Jeff Fager "to discuss the possibility of doing some work for him."
At the time, Fager was executive producer of 60 Minutes. Mika says she didn't know this, and she says she asked a bunch of colleagues who this fellow was.
This is her account of what happened as a result. We were struck by the behavior she attributes to her colleagues, and by the peculiar way she seems to view the journalist's "professional skill set:"
BRZEZINSKI (page 162): Naturally, it got around that I didn't know who Jeff Fager was. It also got around that I was meeting with him—another mistake of my own doing. The buzz began to spiral out of control:("Who did she sleep with?" Good God! Also, deeply sad, whether it was said or not.)
Mika is meeting with Fager?
Who did she sleep with to get that meeting?
She thinks she's so great, she pretends not to even know who Jeff Fager is!
My naivete set in motion the nonsense that plagues every newsroom: the petty gossip and back-stabbing, the speculation and intrigue. We're reporters, after all, so our antennae are always up and out, listening for a good story. We invariably turn our professional skill sets on ourselves and our colleagues.
A few pages later, Brzezinski describes another episode of poisonous, anti-Mika whispering. More specifically, she describes "a whole lot of finger wagging and head shaking and interoffice rumor mongering that would in many ways mark my second tenure at CBS News."
Later, she describes the way she was shunned by her colleagues when her standing at CBS seemed to be sliding. All in all, her colleagues seem to be horrible people.
Mika doesn't name the whisperers or explain how she knows that the rumor-mongering occurred. That said, we were struck by two things in the passage we've posted above:
We were struck by her ugly portrait of the people who bring you the news every night. In fairness, this portrait of the people at CBS may or may not be accurate.
What can't be disputed is Mika's weird portrait of the "professional skill sets" of the modern journalist. In the passage posted above, she seems to say that gossip, back-stabbing and speculation are all part of this "professional skill set."
Presumably, that isn't what she would say she meant, but it's what she clumsily said. In truth, she makes such weird, tone-deaf remarks all through her peculiar book.
Mika has struck us, for many years, as the weirdest of all our pundits. Of all our pundits, she seems least suited, by nature of temperament, to this particular task.
There's no nice way to say what follows, but it has also seemed to us that she isn't especially sharp by the standards of modern punditry. In part, that may stem from the "deep-rooted insecurity and compulsive behavior patterns" to which Srodes refers.
Deep-rooted insecurities and compulsions are, of course, always regrettable. If someone's afflicted in some such ways, that doesn't mean that he or she's a bad person.
On the other hand, it may help make the person in question a fairly lousy pundit and analyst. In many ways, Brzezinski's book might make a person wonder about our world of professional news, in which a person like the author could rise to a point of such prominence.
Do the gods on Olympus laugh at the "professional skill sets" of our upper-end journalists?
We're going to guess that they do. In the reports which follow this week, we plan to review some points we haven't been able to get to in recent weeks. As a spoiler, we'll say this:
Again and again, the professional skill sets of our prominent journalists are perhaps a bit less than impressive. For what it's worth, this can even seem to be true of our corporate liberal journalists, who tell us the stories we like!
All week long, we'll examine those professional skill sets. In this, the age of Donald J. Trump, the weakness of these skill sets has helped create a dangerous situation, perhaps an existential crisis.
These 5-year-old children today! They won't believe a thing you say!
Then too, we have the professional skill sets of our most famous journalists. Sacred Homer suggests that these sets may be a joke of the gods.
We think we can tell that the gods are joking! Few people seem to agree.
Tomorrow: Privilege and loathing