Ben Smith arrives at the Times: It isn't what we'd planned to discuss in this afternoon's post. But just consider what Ben Smith has done at the New York Times.
Smith spent ten years as Buzzfeed's editor. In January, he became the Times' media columnist.
This morning, he takes dead aim at our tribe's cable stars. Just look at the names he calls them:
SMITH (3/9/20): [A]fter his stunning setback on Super Tuesday, Mr. Sanders bent the knee and submitted to a barrage of not particularly friendly questions from the most powerful progressive on TV, the MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.You can read Smith's column to take in his overall point. We were struck by the way he described "progressive" stars like Maddow.
He had been avoiding the network, suspicious of its wealthy hosts and corporate owners. He told Ms. Maddow in mild exasperation that one of his challenges was “taking on the corporate media, if I might say so.”
Mr. Sanders is right...that much of the U.S. media still covers elections as if they’re sporting events and that the affluent New Yorkers who run and appear on television networks are not inclined to like him. The narrative of Joe Biden’s comeback was an irresistible story to the media—one that often eclipsed the coronavirus, never mind discussion of health care or poverty—on cable news in recent days.
Mr. Giridharadas said he wanted to make TV that is a rebuke to cable news as it now exists. “When you get to that level of television, everyone is prosperous at the table,” he said in an interview. “I’m not sure I’ve ever sat next to an uninsured person on television. I sit next to uninsured people on the subway all the time.”
Smith described these popular stars as "wealthy" and "affluent." He quoted MNSBC's Anand Giridharadas describing that channel's guests as "prosperous."
Giridharadas was making a point we first made at this site in the fall of 1999:
Prosperous people who have good health care may not care about discussing the problems of low-income people who don't.
That thought first occurred to us after the first Gore-Bradley debate in October 1999. The candidates spent the bulk of their time discussing their respective health care plans.
The candidates talked about health care. But at the Washington Post, Pulitzer winner Mary McGrory devoted the bulk of her next column, and part of the column after that, to mocking commentary about Candidate Gore's unappealing wardrobe selections. Part of her thoughtful commentary went exactly like this:
MCGRORY (10/31/99): Vice President Albert Gore came to his fateful encounter with newly menacing challenger Bill Bradley carrying heavy baggage. He was wearing an outfit that added to his problems when he stepped onstage at Dartmouth College: a brown suit, a gunmetal blue shirt, a red tie—and black boots.She barely mentioned the health plans at all. A possibility occurred to us as we read her insulting column—the scribe had excellent health care herself, and possibly didn't care a whole lot about other people who didn't.
Was it part of his reinvention strategy? Perhaps it was meant to be a ground-leveling statement—"I am not a well-dressed man." It is hard to imagine that he thought to ingratiate himself with the nation’s earliest primary voters by trying to look like someone seeking employment at a country music radio station. Maybe it was the first step in shedding his Prince Albert image.
Today, we all know—it's one of our tribal dogmas—that journalists only attack female candidates for the way they're dressed. Few examples are even given. Gore was massacred for months on end for his wardrobe selections.
That said, Smith's column today brings a new feel to the Times. He suggests that wealthy cable stars don't want to discuss heath care plans or poverty. He suggests they want to send Kornacki to "the big board" to entertain us with polling data.
We don't know who selects the topics which get discussed on MSNBC. We also don't know how much the channel's affluent hosts get paid. You aren't allowed to know such things, and you aren't encouraged to wonder.
Smith discusses several people and orgs who are trying to create thoughtful alternatives to the current offerings on cable news.
We have no confidence that they'll succeed. But we were amazed by the naughty way Smith described our own tribe's stars—the affluent hosts who want you to think that you're numbered among their best friends.
Is Smith allowed to say such things? It looks like we'll get to find out!
That said, none of this will matter. We're already well past the end.
With this we return to our irregularly scheduled very bad case of toothache. We're back to normal tomorrow.
That first Gore-Bradley debate: That was the debate where 300 press members, watching on closed circuit TV in a nearby press room, hissed, jeered and booed every word Gore said.
So reported press corps snitches Tapper, Pooley and Mortman, in three separate reports. You've never been told that remarkable story because such things simply aren't done.