Double Vision

The networks just say no to camera restrictions on the debates.

I never thought I’d say this, but the Fox News Channel is kind of rad. It was Fox’s camera operators that provided footage to the multi-network news pool covering last night’s debate, and it was Fox that openly ignored  the provision in the 32-page debate agreement prohibiting images of one candidate’s face while the other was speaking. Instead, they provided multiple camera feeds to all the networks, allowing them to edit the footage together as they chose: cutaway reaction shots, simultaneous split-screen, or a polite focus on one speaker, then the other. Especially after the ethics dustup at CBS last month, it was heartening to see how networks across the political spectrum flatly refused to be subject to the televisual equivalent of a gag order from the Bush and Kerry campaigns. “We’re providing all the networks’ coverage and we’re not going to follow directions from outside sources,” said a Fox spokesperson, invisible fist raised in defiance. NBC news declared that “we will use pictures as we see fit,” while ABC sniffed that “”We don’t enter into agreements with the people that we cover.”

If it’s generally agreed that Kerry won the spoken part of the debate last night, there’s no question that he triumphed in the unspoken one. In the split-screen coverage, Kerry could be seen nodding thoughtfully and scribbling notes as he awaited his turn to speak (a gag on The Daily Show imagined a sneak peek at his notebook: “I am so crushing him.”) Meanwhile, a nervous Bush at times appeared to be blinking out a message in Morse code: “Mission Accomplished”? “No New Taxes”? “Mayday”? The president fidgeted and grimaced, occasionally giving the audience a deadpan glance as if to ask, Can you believe this guy? For once, Kerry’s relative lack of expressiveness worked in his favor; awaiting for his turn to speak, he looked tall, calm and Rushmore-like. When Bush stammered that “You cannot lead if you send mexed miss… mixed messages,” Kerry’s impassive face said more about the unintentional irony than an Al Gore sigh ever could. Luckily for the Kerry campaign, the president’s visible discomfort at the podium was sending a fewed mexed missages of its own.

Thursday, Sept. 30, 2004

Watching George and Laura Bush on the Dr. Phil show this afternoon, I wondered: What are the journalistic ethics of the reaction shot? When you cut to someone’s face after a question, are you ethically bound to use the actual footage that was shot at that moment, or can you sneak in a piece of film from somewhere else in the interview? I ask this only because I would love to know what the President’s and First Lady’s faces looked like at the moment the good doctor asked them about “the epidemic of oral sex in the middle schools.” (For the record: They’re both against it.) When the camera cut to the first couple, they had the same expression of warm, measured concern they’d had through the rest of the interview, but I would have given anything for that moment when you saw them each somberly weighing the pros and cons of hot teen-on-teen action.

Dr. Phil, of course, is not really journalism (what is these days?). It’s a parenting-advice show, and a notoriously self-righteous, patronizing one at that. The First Couple’s appearance was a Karl Rove brainstorm, taped at the height of the pre-convention campaign crush last August and cannily saved to be aired the day before the first presidential debate. Dr. Phil’s stolid, no-nonsense, socially conservative persona has a lot in common with George W. Bush’s, and from the moment the four of them—George, Laura, Dr. Phil McGraw, and his apparently sedated wife Robin—sat down together at the Bushes’ Crawford ranch house, it was clear that the doctor was shelving his bad-cop persona for the occasion. There was nary a mention of the economy, terror, the war in Iraq, or even the upcoming election. In essence, the scrupulously apolitical interview was an hour-long, family-focused commercial with a guaranteed audience of middle-class women—among the voters most likely to be on the fence this late in the election.

Apparently, the Bush parenting style is all about the soft bigotry of low expectations. The president reflected on his twins’ future: “I know if I said to them, girls, my goal for you is to be the governor of a state, it’s an unrealistic goal and it’s unfair.” (Yeah, how could someone possibly aspire to a governorship without any preparation or experience or … wait … never mind.) Irrefutable yet meaningless observations flew hither and yon, with the president opining that “In many ways, a parent is educating the next generation,” while Dr. Phil affirmed his commitment to “putting family back in America.” The wives bonded over their husbands’ shared tendency to be “ornery” (or onnery, as Dr. Phil, a fellow Texan, folksily pronounced it). The president freely admitted that, when it comes to tracking mud into the house, “Sometimes I’m not as considerate as I should be.” There are whole international bodies that would agree with that assessment.  Honey, could you wipe your boots before you invade Iraq?

Dr. and Mrs. Phil’s final verdict? “It was very, very much fun to be with those two people,” Robin told a cheering live audience after the interview segment. The doctor concurred: “I found them to be very real, genuine people. I mean, they’re Texans. What can you say?” On Oct. 6, John and Teresa Heinz Kerry will appear on Dr. Phil to discuss the challenges of their “blended family.”  Teaser quote from Mrs. Kerry: “I was a witch with my children.” … 5:13 p.m.

Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2004

Nietzsche once wrote that “the surest sign that two people no longer speak the same language is that both say ironic things to one another, but neither one senses the irony.” He could have been talking about the current state of political discourse in this country: not only the non-dialogue between the Bush and Kerry camps (to be continued in the non-debate this Thursday), but the playground-level exchanges between talking heads in the media. In a statement yesterday, Comedy Central execs actually  bothered to address  Bill O’Reilly’s charge that the majority of the audience of The Daily Show is made up of “stoned slackers.” (“Eighty-seven percent are intoxicated when they watch it,” O’Reilly informed a bemused Stewart in a recent interview  on The O’Reilly Factor.) Nuh-uh, countered Comedy Central president Doug Herzog: Nielsen research shows our viewers are more likely to have a college education than yours! Doug, honey, don’t you see how that plays into the right-wing media’s hands? Now they can spin it that CC audiences are not only perpetually hammered, but members of the very “cultural elite” that O’Reilly loves to savage on his show. Comedy Central should have just accepted the “stoned slackers” label and flown it high and proud. That’s the first rule of both debating and playground strategy: I am rubber, you are glue.

In a separate frontal attack on political comedy as we know it, there’s an Internet petition circulating to encourage Jon Stewart to come out and endorse a presidential candidate. Don’t rise to the bait, Jon! Your mission is, as it has always been, to bring the nonpartisan funny. And frankly, anyone who, just weeks before the most important election of our time, is looking to a late-night comic to decide their vote for them is too dumb to pull the lever anyway. … 1:56 p.m.

Last night’s 50th anniversary Tonight Show had a clubby, nostalgic show-business feel. Oprah wheeled in a huge birthday cake and jitterbugged with Jay. Garry Shandling sat beside him on the sofa, reminiscing about the old days with Johnny, like an uncle at a family reunion. Clip reels of famous moments with the show’s three previous hosts, Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson, celebrated the show’s venerable history. But in the midst of the lovefest, Leno’s announcement that he’ll be replaced in 2009 by Conan O’Brien sounded strangely resentful, even passive-aggressive. In less than two minutes, Leno managed to place the blame on NBC for subtly edging him out of his job (“They came to me and said, ‘We don’t want to lose Conan O’Brien.’ I said, ‘Oh, OK, what does that mean?’ “) and for ruining his relationship with David Letterman back in ‘92 ("Quite frankly, good friendships were permanently damaged”). At the end of his speech, he went so far as to compare the passing on of the Tonight Show post to a dynastic succession: “You hold it, and then you hand it off to the next person.” And as we all know, smoothly conceded transfers of power never leave any bad blood in their wake—right, Al Gore?

One hour later, in a rerun of Late Night, you could catch Conan poking fun at the recent NBC/Universal merger in a goofy surrealist segment called “Let’s Look at the Far Reaching Implications of the NBC Universal Merger.” Citing downsizing concerns, he asked the audience to choose a Universal Pictures character to throw in the “Late Night wood chipper” (it was E.T. that wound up in shreds on the studio floor, one severed finger still glowing). Granted, it was a rerun—O’Brien would probably not have chosen to mulch one of the boss’ properties on the very night he was handed the keys to the executive washroom. But it pointed up a fundamental philosophical difference between late-night and late late-night programming. What will Conan do when he has to stop ridiculing the dinosaurs of the entertainment industry … and start dancing with them around the birthday cake? 9:52 a.m.

Monday, Sept. 27 , 2004

Starting pretty soon—OK, in five years—Conan O’Brien will no longer be able to build his nightly standup routine around jokes like “I don’t get paid enough to care.” Today, NBC announced that O’Brien will be handed the plum position in the talk-show universe, host of The Tonight Show, when Jay Leno retires in 2009 after what will have been 17 years in the job. The long-suffering O’Brien has been toiling in the dues-paying 12:35 a.m. slot since 1993, and NBC’s move seems a dangled carrot to stave off another Letterman-style defection—O’Brien has spoken in print of the network’s failure to get behind his show in the past. The senior vice president of late-night programming at the network issued a statement that smacks of chop-licking: “With today’s announcement about Conan, we have locked in the future of this daypart for years to come.” (Daypart? Oh, yeah—the part of the day in which a given programming block airs. Catchy.) No word on who NBC has in mind to replace Conan in insomniac’s corner—surely Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart will be up to bigger and better things by then. Anyone interested in advancing very slowly up the late-night corporate laugh ladder should start drafting that audition monologue now. Surfergirl will be tuned into NBC tonight for further juice. Have a nice daypart! 1:24 p.m.