Monday, March 23, 2009

An Open Letter To Anderson Cooper 360: The News Cycle Kidnapped Your Show And Is Holding It Hostage In The Media Bubble (Cont'd)

Hey, 360. Eliza again. I'm baaack. I know, I just won't go away. This must be very annoying for you. Very Sarah Palin-esque. I'm sorry. I promise not to drop my G's if you'll just bear with me a little longer. In my last post, I noted that your broadcast had gone from 'quirky and hip' to 'one of the same' and now even sometimes flirts with 'part of the problem.' I did a lot of explaining regarding 'one of the same,' but didn't really get to hit on 'part of the problem' much, which is where we find ourselves now.

I think you probably already know where most of my ire lies. That's right, the panels. During the election, I was sometimes slightly annoyed by their horse race focus, but I think overall they served you well because the majority of the public was so engaged--that's what they wanted to see. So what's the problem since that time? Well, we are now plunged into the greatest economic crisis of our lifetimes and you're still treating the panels like the election never ended-like it's all just politics.

Look, I'm not going to pretend like the depressing nature of our current situation isn't a big factor in people tuning out. It most certainly is. But what I'm seeing from you guys in terms of the panels is becoming increasingly more and more irrelevant to the average American. For example, just last Friday, Anderson Cooper kicked off a panel by asking whether or not President Obama had "won" the week. Now, perhaps you mean for your show to be skewed to political junkies like CNBC is skewed to the trader crowd. But I'm thinking that's not the case.

Do you understand how out-of-touch that makes you sound? Things are really, really bad for a lot of people in this country right now. It shouldn't be about who's up and who's down on a given week, you know? To quote Jon Stewart in his interview with Jim Cramer, "it's not a fucking game." It's people losing their savings. It's people unable to afford health care. It's a father sobbing an apology to his young daughter regarding his inability to stop their eviction. The down-to-earth show has become just another cog in the beltway machine.

Lately, all you seem to do is channel the pundit narrative-of-the-day. Has the GOP declared war on Obama? Is Obama doing too much? Did the Democrats set a trap for Rush Limbaugh? All of these lines of discussion originated with someone else. This is particularly annoying, because nowadays many pundits and media outlets are nothing if not self-promoting. They want themselves quoted. They want you saying their name. Hell, Politico, pusher of the Limbaugh story, even sent out a memo to their people that was all about getting their name out there.

So, they write something shallow yet shiny, you quote them, they get more prestige and credibility, they write something else, and then you quote them again because hey, they have prestige and credibility. It's like one big chattering-class case of incest. Meanwhile, the rest of us out here are wondering what kind of crack the media is smoking. I don't understand why you can't come up with the important questions of the day by yourselves. That's not to say that the pundits never posit any ideas worth mentioning, or that you shouldn't address persistent issues, but c'mon. Surely you're more in tune with what your viewers care about than some beltway pundit/reporter.

Also, if you do go with a media narrative, can we have some challenging of the analysts? Hell, can we have some challenging at all? David Gergen is probably almost as beloved as Anderson Cooper at this point, but I'm afraid he's gone a bit villager on us lately. For example, the current meme of the Washington elite is that Obama is trying to do too much. Our Gerg is totally on board with this idea and that's fine. Obviously he's entitled to his opinion. I just wish I could see someone challenge him, because you know what? Maybe he'd convince me.

I want someone to ask, for example, given how many people declare bankruptcy due to health care costs, how can we ever expect to fix this economy without addressing that crisis at the same time? Maybe he has a good answer for this. But I don't know because you've never had on an opposing view to debate him. I can't look to Anderson Cooper either. He rarely ever challenges the panel and this goes a long way in explaining why the segments can sometimes feel boring and other times incredibly frustrating. To be clear, my point isn't at all about fireworks and yelling. I love that you guys are anti-yelling.

But the panels are so formulaic. They usually go as so: Anderson presents the latest media narrative or plays a clip for one of the panelists and then asks what they think or if they agree. That person answers and then Anderson takes that answer and presents it to the next panelist, usually on the opposite side of the political aisle. Panelist number one could say something batshit insane--for an absurd example, let's say they said Obama eats babies. Anderson would then take this idea to panelist number two, "so what do you think about that, panelist two? Does Obama eat babies?" It's pretty mind numbing.

Watching a panel of people just spouting their agendas isn't exactly helpful. Anderson is always stating that a reporter should never act like they aren't there. When he's said that, he was talking about the field, but I think it should apply in studio too. He's acting like he's not there and allowing other people, like the Gerg, to do the accountability. This is all pretty peculiar because Anderson can interview. Very well. I've seen him do it. We all know he's smart as a whip, so this leaves me to assume that the lack of challenges is all due to some notion of objectivity that he's afraid he'll sully.

Before I get into specifics, I want to say that I really respect that you guys are an objective show and Anderson is an objective journalist. I can sympathize with how hard it must be becoming to remain that way--you're getting squeezed by both the left and right in terms of your competition. Opinion shows are where it's at right now and you're not giving in just to grab some easy ratings. Good for you. Also, in case it isn't obvious by my links, this is probably a good time to disclose that I'm a liberal. But I like to think that above everything, I'm a realist. And this realist isn't sure why you can't just call a spade a spade.

For example, panelist after panelist has been allowed to call Obama's tax policy a "redistribution of wealth" without any challenge whatsoever. I'm not asking Anderson to be all, "no, it's not." What I don't understand is why he can't state the fact that Obama's policy is simply to let the Bush tax cuts die, thus taking us back to the Clinton years. Then ask the panelist if he/she thinks it was a redistribution of wealth back then. He wouldn't be saying he agrees or disagrees or giving an opinion at all. How would that be unobjective?

I get that the panels are a daily thing (though to be fair, you made them that way) and you all aren't going to put as much research effort into them as, say, Anderson's interview in the Oval Office. I would also never expect the anchor to just know everything off the top of his head. But a lot of this stuff is basic. It's really frustrating when someone like me, whose foray into the news/political world is totally hobby, is left yelling follow ups at her television. I'm also aware that probably sometimes during these panels Anderson is missing a line of BS because he's got somebody jabbering in his ear. I can sympathize with that to an extent. Then again, I think about this country's situation and how fucked we are, and a part of me just doesn't care about your obstacles.

Next, I want to talk about your economic coverage itself. Oh boy, 360, where to begin? Maybe I should just start with a question: where are the economists??!! Seriously, what the hell? The financial system is imploding and you have had on a total of two economists by my count, one of which was Stephen Moore, who in 2004 wrote a book called, "Bullish on Bush: How George Bush's Ownership Society Will Make America Stronger." It gets even better than that. According to the product description, the book, "explains how Bush's tax relief policies have helped the economy grow, reversed the collapse in the stock market, and put America back to work."

Are you kidding, 360? Is this some sort of satire game? First of all, the non disclosure of this was pretty egregious, but there's a bigger issue here. You are a show that prides itself on accountability. Right now the big discussion in the country is why AIG employees who screwed up are being given bonuses. Well, where's the same outrage for the punditry class? I'm not even asking you to call out people who got it wrong, but good lord, don't invite them on your show to give us advice! There are people who saw that we were going to take this financial tumble. There are people who got it right. Would you like a list? These are the kind of people we need to be hearing from. Please stop rewarding incompetents, whether it be having them on or quoting their work.

As for the rest of your economic coverage, the field pieces are good. When you're giving facts, it's good. I'm not a fan of your "ask the expert" segments, but maybe that's just me. I'll let the commenters weigh in on that. I just think they're a big time waster that usually don't help anyone. I like that during your road trip you started to think outside-the-box. The story about the artists rehabbing Detroit homes was great--interesting and positive! You're at your best when you're out of the beltway (I don't necessarily mean physically) and connecting with viewers on a human level. But seriously though? We need some friggin economists.

So, 360, you've got some issues in my opinion. But all of this is fixable, if you do in fact think you have a problem and want to fix it. Yes, I think you rely way too much on the panels and it would be a really good idea to cut back. However, you can still make them work if you just freshened them up a bit. Besides economists, have on people who match what you're talking about. The panel you had on education that was filled with educators? Good! I talked to several longtime viewers who were pleasantly surprised by that. It's time to tweak the format.

Also, I've blogged this many times before, but I'm still wondering why Anderson hardly interviews anyone anymore. Yes, he interviewed Obama. That was a rare exception. He used to interview news makers a lot. What's the deal? His colleagues interview people all the time. No, I do not consider a panel an interview. Speaking of interviews, just to throw this out there as I wind up, I'd love to see there be a regular segment where Anderson interviews authors. Maybe a weekly thing or something. Viewers could make suggestions. It would be cool if these were authors who probably weren't going to get much face time anywhere else--sort of like many people Jon Stewart interviews. In other words, no, not Bob Woodward's latest.

That's just an idea. Maybe reader's of this post have more and they can add them to the comments. Anyway, wow, I've gone on (and on and on) forever, haven't I? As I said in my last post, I'm just a blogger. I don't really expect you to make changes based on anything I've said and my suggestions certainly don't come with a ratings guarantee, but if you're out there, I hope you at least think about what I wrote. You're a talented group and capable of great work. I wouldn't be watching you if you weren't. I just think you need to step back sometimes. I want you to do well, and I'm afraid that if MSNBC puts a successful live show up against you like they've been hinting, you're going to be reduced to fighting Nancy Grace for third place. And that makes a blogger cry sad, sad tears. Well, not really, but still, that would suck. Good luck, 360. I'll be here watching you, for the time being anyway.


Anonymous Duffy said...

Another great post, Eliza, where you say everything I've been thinking about what's wrong with 360 for some time. Your suggestion about the book interview segment could be really well placed, too, if they interviewed authors who have written prescient or timely nonfiction about the various issues they're covering. And for real, where did Interview!Anderson go? He's had some truly fine moments with newsmakers, and now it's like he's given up having to think on his feet anymore. Like god forbid someone says something he hadn't expected, or that he has to think about follow-ups. It's kind of sad to see him fallen into such an unvigorous, unintellectual slump. Here's hoping 360 listens to you.

1:29 AM  
Blogger Anne said...

Hi Eliza,

These two posts are excellent. I hope it gets through somehow to 360. Elizabeth Warren is an outstanding source for every topic regarding the middle class, she is a regular consultant on PBS. If 360 ever decides to improve, they certainly should invite her on. I can't say I disagree with anything you wrote. About those panels, I mute them or turn the station. In fact a lot of the time, I read your post to see if anything is watchable, then I look at it during the 5am rebroadcast. Foward your open letter to the staff at CNN. The best line you wrote was "It's like one big chattering-class case of incest". It can't be said better than that when it comes to how they channel the narrative of the day. Anne D.

2:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eliza, I have been reading your blog regularly, and am an avid watcher of AC360 (and have been for years). Your last two posts have been dead on correct in their assessment of the program's 'issues'. It is obvious that there are some pretty good folks working at AC360, and some excellent reporters as well. However, I have noticed lately that Mr. Cooper doesn't seem to be there mentally --- I don't see the excitement or the energy he brought to the anchor position at all. It would be a shame to see someone with such talent lose his show because his brain wasn't engaged. I'm continuing to watch, for the time being, but there are some days when I just record the program and skip it because it has become so boring. Hope it changes soon for both viewers and those who work on the program.

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anderson gently questions someone or corrects them sometimes, but he positions himself as a moderator. Sometimes he'll add something in the questions to bring in a consideration that hasn't been part of the usual dialogue. I don't think that's necessarily bad, although most cable hosts are very combative with any talking head that doesn't agree with their talking points and make big theatre out of it.

If he really takes people up on something it's usually something he knows about. He's said for years he doesn't know anything about the economy and isn't suited to math and science. I'm sure he's trying to study up some, but that's not going to be enough to make him confidence and passion to be taking on economists. Look at him when Suze Orman comes on - he's scared and at sea. He's not a guy who puts on a blustery front or tries to bully people people when he has a weakness.

I have seen people question Gerg on the "doing too much" thing. I would say about the health care that Gergen was saying to take care of a few immediate pressing financial issues, not fix the whole economy before addressing health care. Gergen had a lot of practical inside insight most people don't have, though, like about the resources administrations have and what the implications are that so many positions haven't been filled yet. When other panelists have tried to dispute him they haven't done a good job, partly because they lack any counter to that sort of experience based insight.

I think a major factor regarding panels is limited and shared resources. CNN finds people and arranges for them to be panelists on all their shows. Someone suitable to Lou Dobbs and Campbell is not an ideal fit to Anderson and his audiance. It convenience and cost saving strategy, but it doesn't serve 360's audiance. I'm not crazy about panels at all but they are a mainstay of the 24 hour news channels because they are cheap, easy to set up, and give some extra theatre to broadcasts.

2:58 PM  
Blogger eliza said...

@Duffy: Thanks! They actually sorta already did the book interview thing. A while back they had on Malcolm Gladwell. It was weird. Not the interview, but the fact that it came out of nowhere and then they never did anything like that again. I think a regular segment like that could be really interesting.

Anne: Thanks! Eh, not sure if my little posts are on their radar, but never say never.

The best line you wrote was "It's like one big chattering-class case of incest".

I was going to go with "circle jerk," but I'm trying to keep this joint classy. ;P

@anonymous 2:22 PM: Thanks for reading. I'm not going to knock Anderson for the occasional phoning it in. Everyone does that with their job sometimes. Unlike him, we don't have thousands of people watching and judging us about it. But yeah, he's had a lot of unengaged days lately.

@anonymous 2:58 PM: Oh yeah, I agree that he does gently question sometimes. I didn't mean to imply that he never did. I guess my point is that we need more than a moderator.

Though they're coming from the right place, I really hate the show's stance of "we'll let you decide." To be clear, I don't want them to take sides, but when someone says something untrue or misleading, I think it's their responsibility to point that out.

Otherwise, why are we even watching? The situation is no better than an opinion show because viewers will just believe the guest that reinforces their worldview.

I'm not asking Anderson to become an economist, but as I said in the post, some of the stuff is basic. If I know it off the top of my head, I know he knows it. I really don't think this is about our anchor's knowledge; I think it's about how the show views the notion of objectivity. To be fair, time constraints probably factor in too.

Curious, do you remember specifics regarding Gerg being challenged on the "doing too much" thing? I know he's been asked about it in a general sense, but I don't think I've really seen a good discussion.

You're right that the Gerg has a lot of practical insight many don't have, but honestly? I'm not sure how much stock I put in that. The Obama administration is clearly doing things differently that what the Washington elite are used to.

People don't like the status quo rocked. If Gergen was talking to people inside Obama's circle and they were expressing worry to him (anonymously leaking)that Obama was over his head, that might be something different, but as of yet I don't think we have any evidence of that.

My understanding is that each show has their own bookers. I wouldn't be surprised if 360 and Campbell's show shared, but other than that, I'm pretty sure 360 is its own ship.

I completely agree about the panels being cheap and easy. It smacks of laziness, actually. If they always relied on them like this I wouldn't be complaining, but the panel overload developed during the election.

6:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post Eliza, I can't add much to what you've already pointed out, but it seriously irks me that 360 seems to have a problem with simply stating actual FACTS instead of framing every issue in "controversy". I can't even remember any polls indicating that the public thought the President's agenda was too ambitious until pundits like Gergen and others started repeating it constantly and the news programs kept pushing that whole idea - soon after that the polls began to reflect the shift in opinion which I think was largely shaped by the media continuously harping on it.

One of 360's occasional panelists, Jennifer Donahue has challenged David Gergen in the past and rather forcefully--some viewers don't like her brash style, but I wish they had her on more often. But Anderson needs to do a little more challenging and questioning himself and not leave it all to the panels. He needs to stop holding himself back--the rare times that he's actually spoken up and stopped being "objective" has been when the program's come alive, but he ALWAYS retreats back into his "no opinion" mode. I agree with the other posters that he seems completely bored with the program and hasn't been as engaged as he has in the past.

I hope the road trip to Mexico can spark some life into the program, but what will happen when they return?

6:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was just wondering if they do the same show on CB, if they are trying to pick up her ratings by doing the same show as AC360. Granted 360 isn't doing great in the ratings, but instead of everyone saying AC is doing the same show as CB, maybe CB is doing the same show as AC. Does this make sence?

Another great post Eliza and I hope the powers that be see it.

8:14 PM  
Blogger eliza said...

@anonymous 6:50 PM: Thanks. Yeah, the news always gets accused of being ideologically biased. Overall, I don't think they are, but they ARE biased towards conflict and if it's not there? Well, then they just create it.

I actually forgot about Donahue. Yes, I do remember her challenging the Gerg. I don't have a problem with a brash style--it's when they get loud that it gets annoying. Like Roland Martin. I actually agree with a lot of what he says, but simma down, man!

I don't want Anderson to stop being objective, I just want him to call a spade a spade. Pointing out a lie is not an opinion. Heck, I'm a Democrat, but if someone states a blatant lie about a Republican, I'm going to say something. Obviously, things usually won't be black and white, but he can challenge without showing his hand.

For a long while, viewers were crabbing that the show never went on the road anymore. Now they are, so that's a plus, but I share your question regarding what happens when they get back. They can't just bounce around the world every week.

anonymous 8:14 PM: Thanks. Unless I missed a change, David Doss is the EP of both 360 and Campbell's show, hence a lot of the similarities. Plus, CNN always does that thing where they focus full bore on just one or two topics--that's Jon Klein's doing. Right now it seems to be taking down the network. Sad. But this is cable news--it's always a-changing.

11:10 PM  
Anonymous rosephile said...

Duffy used the words "unvigorous" and "unintellectual", and I agree. 360 has become a show for passive viewing, for staring at the pictures on the television and halfway paying attention to. Graphics and over the top sound effects don't really capture one's attention, much less stimulate viewers' minds!

Anyway, as a viewer since early 2004, I agree with much of what you've written in this two-part open letter. I've only been watching MSNBC for a few months, but it seems their prime time shows have the energetic spark I used to enjoy so much in 360 in past years, and fact-checking! They even cover the wars, and a handful of other international stories each week, yet also do the political news-of-the-day sort of stuff.

360 showed us a different kind of news show, one that could have informative segments about a myriad of stories, and have time for silly things too, which never felt like a waste of time. Rachel Maddow does this now. I'm not sure 360 has since 2006, perhaps even 2005. I keep watching for the rare, still-excellent segments from foreign correspondents like Michael Ware, Christiane Amanpour, and Nic Robertson, and the also-rare "field trip" stories, whether from Anderson or a correspondent. Sadly, the gorgeousness of our Anderson isn't enough when he's so numbingly *dull* (that interested/invested spark is so little seen anymore). I'm trying to convey my dismay/regret about this, not just sound critical--maybe I'm too nostalgic in general, but I truly rue the loss of the show's 'fire'.

2:44 AM  
Blogger eliza said...

@rosephile: I've pretty much "broken up" with Keith Olbermann. He's become a parody of himself and his show is nothing but an echo chamber. At least Maddow has on different viewpoints. She goes a little far with the cutsie stuff sometimes, but I really like her show. I just wish I had time to watch it.

I'm trying to convey my dismay/regret about this, not just sound critical--maybe I'm too nostalgic in general, but I truly rue the loss of the show's 'fire'.

Yeah, I get the "loss" feeling. You and I have been watching for so long. But besides being attached to the show, I want quality news, you know? Our country needs it more than ever right now and 360 most nights is letting themselves become part of the problem.

4:22 AM  

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