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Odds and Ends: Lots of Little Stuff Gets My Goat These Days



If you want to know why an otherwise rational public body might lose its mind when deciding how to schedule school holidays, blame one force:

The media.

Not so much the local and national news services who carried stories on the Hillsborough School District's original decision to put some distance between its schedule of school holidays and religious observances.

But the shrill braying of the conservative-oriented media echo chamber, which seized on the story of the board's vote and cast it as a God-vs-heathens debate which eventually shamed this hapless body back into tying school vacation days to specific religious holidays.

My old pal Bill O'Reilly, in particular, featured the issue at least four times in the last 2 1/2 weeks on his Fox News Channel show, The O'Reilly Factor -- complete with shrill appearances by Hillsborough County commisioners Brian Blair and "Help Me" Ronda Storms.

O'Reilly seems to have a thing for the Tampa Bay area, featuring commentary about issues, events or newspapers here about 20 times in the last six months (many times, I'll admit, he has complained about the St. Petersburg Times -- from our insistence that Sami Al-Arian get a fair trial, to our contention that prosecutor Mark King should follow the law in determining whether to charge John Couey's roommates with a crime in the Jessica Lundsford case)

What is disappointing about these diatribes is the insistence that public institutions should turn their direction themselves over to the will of a presumed majority. Forget about protecting the rights of all citizens or considering subtlety in public policy. And pundits such as O'Reilly, well aware of the power that comes from making their audience feel like a victimized group, know how to generate controversy and viewership by bullying public officials into seeing things their way.

O'Reilly even took on the Tampa Tribune, hardly considered a liberal bastion, because columnist Dan Ruth had the nerve to challenge his assertion that a school board member was pressured not to appear on his show, when the official said she chose to attend her daughter's soccer game (Ruth, unfortunately, had to eat a little crow after the newspaper ran a correction to his assertion that O'Reilly was a "serial sexual harasser," when the Fox News anchor settled the one sexual harassment allegation against him without admitting wrongdoing.) This, despite the fact that the Tribune editorial pages opposed the school board's action in the first place.

Without doubt, Hillsborough school officials handled the situation clumsily. And now that the School Board has caved to the pressure, viewers are left with a public debate which was clouded, not clarified, by a component of the national media whose success depends on inflaming hot-button social issues nationwide. A troubling trend, indeed.

I have a tough time understanding why all the long knives are out for newly-ascendant CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. To hear certain critics and letterwriters tell it, a no-talent hack with blue-eyes just pushed out God's gift to TV journalism when Cooper unseated Aaron Brown to become the new face of CNN.

I understand that reaction. As someone who interviewed Brown several times, I liked him personally and really liked his obvious respect for and consumption of newspapers. But Brown also wasn't willing to do the kind of globe-trotting, always on camera coverage that has increasingly become CNN's strategy. And a little of the introspective, overly-intellectualized reporting that was Brown's trademark (along with fellow ABC refugee Jeff Greenfield) goes a long way in any medium.

The fact is, casting Cooper's rise as the victory of a callow superficiality over a real journalist disrespects the solid reporting Cooper has done over the years at CNN, gives Brown too much leeway for his own shortcomings and shortchanges the logical decision to make the face of CNN fit the focus of its coverage and target audience.

If the nation's TV writers want something to complain about, consider MSNBC's decision to hire Maury Povich and Connie Chung to host a weekend morning talk show (although, considering the fact that the last two people to have such a gig were wrestler-turned-politician Jesse Ventura and talk radio racist Michael Savage, perhaps the decision wasn't so bad, after all)

To get a sense of what viewers may be in for, consider recent topics for Povich's syndicated talk show Maury, and Chung's now-canceled CNN show, Connie Chung Tonight.

Povich topics: "Paternity Tests Revealed -- Cheaters Exposed"; "I Had Sex with Two Cousins: Who's My Baby's Daddy?"; "She Let Her Looks Go...Make My Wife Sexy Again!"

Chung topics: Jehovah's Witness members accused of child abuse; Substance from human joints used to eliminate wrinkles; Overweight fliers sue Southwest Airlines for forcing them to buy two tickets.

Of course, when Chung was canceled after nine months on air, her CNN show was attracting about 1 million viewers. Her successor, Fox News refugee Paula Zahn, attracted about 791,000 recently, compared to O'Reilly's 3.1 million viewers.


Want to know how screwed up the TV industry is? Poor ratings have forced Fox to cancel its creative family sitcom Arrested Development, while ABC has handed a full season's worth of shows to Freddie Prinze Jr.'s mind-numbing comedy, Freddie.

I've become convinced that, in a sea of mostly-middling product, success comes down to canny scheduling and public relations more than anything. How else to explain the hit status of ABC's mediocre drama about a female president, Commander-In-Chief, while NBC's smart, bold reinvention of its White House drama, The West Wing, can't catch a break?

Yes, I know lots of critics carped about West Wing's live debate episode, but I think those know-it-alls have got it wrong. What did they expect from an hourlong episode centered on a debate? A guest appearance by George Clooney as a madman assassin? Instead, we got two actors with presence and energy delivering the kind of fantasy debate we wish our real-life leaders had the guts to present on live television. Alan Alda, in particular, showed his stage chops, performing so well a Zogby poll showed he turned around an audience skewed mightily against him before the episode aired.

West Wing is attempting a courageous makeover -- changing lead characters in midseason while following an election storyline which has allowed them to dramatize contemporary events, such as the CIA leak case. And the same critics who constantly complain about the lack of smart TV programming now have the gall to keep taking shots at the show.

That's lots off my chest. Anything you'd like to get off yours?

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:34pm]


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