The Comfort And Safety Of The Food Network

Over the past year or so I’ve been in several different waiting room settings where there are televisions playing to entertain those who are waiting.  The one common characteristic has been the TV channel playing in every waiting room:  The Food Network.

Why is The Food Network seemingly on every waiting room TV set?  It could be because little elves creep around at night and change the default setting, or it could be that businesses consider The Food Network to be the safe choice when you are offering a generic option to help diverse people, all of whom would rather be somewhere else, pass the time while they are waiting.  In a group waiting room, where most people would never presume to get up and change the channel to their personal choice, most businesses aren’t going to risk picking a channel that might unduly bore, or deeply offend, one group or another.  Fox News or MSNBC or The Jerry Springer Show are going to rub some people the wrong way, and the appeal of the Romance Channel or the Sci-Fi Channel is pretty limited. Hence, The Food Network.

This makes perfectly good sense, when you think about it.  We all have to eat, and The Food Network programming consists of a lot of smiling people, of all sizes and types, who are enthusiastic about all things food.  They’re either going to some beautiful setting to eat it, or preparing it using carefully pre-measured ingredients and colorful bowls and gleaming aluminum utensils, wearing spotless aprons like the Mom in a ’50s sitcom, chattering happily all the while, and when the dish is finally prepared it inevitably looks mouth-watering.  Even the “reality” programming, like Chopped, is pretty low-key as reality shows go — no tantrums or personality clashes or scheming to undercut other contestants, just hopeful people who are passionate about food racing against the clock to prepare appealing dishes from bizarre ingredients and win some money.

People who regularly entertain know that guests who come over for cocktails or dinner are likely to congregate in the kitchen.  Why not?  It’s clean and warm and comforting, it usually smells good, and it’s a relaxed place — not stiff and formal like the dining room or the living room.  The Food Network is like the American Kitchen of the Airwaves.

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Where, Precisely, Do The Lines Of Propriety Lie?

Martin Bashir, a host on the MSNBC network, resigned yesterday.  His resignation came several weeks after he made an extraordinarily vulgar and offensive comment about Sarah Palin.  In his resignation statement, Bashir described his comment as “ill-judged” and added:  “I deeply regret what was said.”

It’s nice to know that, in a world where popular culture seems to grow irreversibly coarser with each new performance of a song or comedy routine, there are still some lines that can’t be crossed.  Of course, drawing the line at statements that someone should perform a gross anatomical act in the mouth of a political figure doesn’t exactly say a lot about our current cultural boundaries.  Such statements may be off limits — for now, at least — but where does the line lie?  Why didn’t Bashir immediately realize that his contemplated comment was “ill-judged” and then refrain from saying it in the first place?

This isn’t a question of free speech, or rough-and-tumble politics, or rejecting antiquated Victorian notions of correct behavior.  It is a deeper issue that strikes at the core of our society.  It isn’t improper to insist that people treat each other with respect and propriety and recognize that not every public performance or statement needs to push the envelope.  If political figures, Democrat or Republican, have to endure appalling, mean-spirited, over-the-top comments as the price for their involvement in the political world, people who might otherwise help us find our way out of our current predicament aren’t going to throw their hat into the ring.  That’s obviously bad for everyone.  We need to show that we can disagree with each other in ways that are proper and dignified and reflect well on the maturity and fundamental decency of our culture.

I’m glad Martin Bashir realized that he crossed the line with his comment, even if it took him a while to recognize that fact.  I’m hoping that this incident helps to establish a stronger, clearer line that all radio and TV hosts and pundits, regardless of their political affiliation, recognize and respect — a line that falls well short of the crassness, vulgarity, and unseemly personal attacks that we seem to see with increasing frequency these days.

First-Day “Glitches”

Today was the first day Americans could try to access health care exchanges under the Affordable Care Act — known to some as “Obamacare.”

It’s fair to say that the process didn’t go smoothly.  The Chicago Tribune reported, for example, that consumers seeking information encountered “long delays, error messages and a largely non-working federal insurance exchange and call center Tuesday morning.”  It’s not entirely clear how widespread the problems were, and are, but the prevailing theme of the news stories was about difficulties, failures, and frustrations.  As the video above shows, one MSNBC anchor tried to obtain information about options on-line, to try to help viewers understand how the process worked, and was hit with error messages, inability to resolve the issues through an on-line chat session, and finally being put on hold for more than 30 minutes before hanging up because her patience was exhausted.  

The President says there will be problems and “glitches” because we are trying to do something that hasn’t been done before.  I’m not sure that is quite right — there are commercial websites that handle significant volumes of traffic without problems — but his reaction, I think, misses a fundamental point that would not be lost on a businessman.  One of the selling points for the Affordable Care Act was that people could quickly and easily get information about competing health insurance options with a few clicks of a mouse.  Given that pitch, a business would never roll out a website without being absolutely certain that it worked well, because businesses know that consumers can quickly become frustrated — and a frustrated consumer is one that is not likely to come back.  It says something about the government mindset that they would go live with websites that clearly aren’t ready.

The people implementing the Affordable Care Act missed a real opportunity today.  The negative publicity about the websites and their problems are the kind of thing that could become fixed in the minds of the American public, with people coming to accept as conventional wisdom the notion that the websites, and exchanges, are an enormous hassle fraught with delay and failure.  When you’re trying to convince people who aren’t insured to become insured, and you’re trying to overcome the drumbeat of Republican criticism of “Obamacare,” a disastrous first-day roll-out just makes your job immeasurably harder.

(In)Tolerance

Recently, I was having lunch with a friend for whom I have great respect.  She expressed that she believes she possesses great tolerance — with the exception, she said, of those with a differing political opinion.

That statement was a great clarifying moment for me.  Here was this person, highly educated and intelligent, who is basically saying that she just can’t tolerate differing political opinions.  I think of that conversation as an “a-ha moment,” an epiphany of sorts, as to all that I find troubling in today’s political environment.

There is nothing original in saying this, but I must say it nonetheless:  I am sick, to the point of a primal scream, of this presidential contest, and of our political landscape in general.   I have reached the point where I can barely stand to watch television.   MSNBC or Fox — really, what’s the difference anymore?  Their viewpoints, sure.  But their rigid dogmas and rabid discourse?  It’s just different sides of the same coin.   I enjoyed every minute of watching the debates (as flawed as they are, the pureist thing yet in this election), but had to tune out as soon as the debates ended and segued into the talking heads and spin room.

Where is reason?   Where is intelligent, respectful discourse?  Where is objective reporting?   My j-school professor Marty Brian, God bless her, must be turning in her grave….  There is no presumption of good will or good intentions, no even slight extending of the benefit of the doubt.  They are bad; we are good.  They are wrong; we are right.  They are evil; we are honorable.

My friends, family, neighbors and acquaintances are about equally Republicans and Democrats (is that unusual these days?), and I know that it’s not that clear-cut.  I have a “D” after my name, but my friends of differing political opinions are good people — but also people whose life experiences and independence of thought (imagine!) have led them to reach different points of view from my own.   My Republican friends (my Republican-leaning husband included) don’t hate gays. They aren’t racist.  And my Democratic friends aren’t looking to create a welfare socialist state that redistributes all income and suppresses free enterprise.

Some will say I’m naive — and maybe I am.  I can see shades of gray (does that make me squishy?  I don’t think so).  But before you label me naive,  remember how inspired so many of us were, four years ago, by that gentleman who encouraged us to rise above dogma and reach across the aisle and try to get along?  Sadly, that particular experiment didn’t work out so well (there’s plenty of blame to spread around), and today those words seem almost provincial.

Of course I have my “line in the sand,” and I know there are extremist people out there who wish others ill will.   But in my humble opinion, the vast, vast majority of the people in this country, regardless of their political persuasion, have good intentions and aren’t the extremists we are led to believe.  We can’t reasonably assume that one’s party affiliation tells us the content of one’s character.

As I was writing this, I happened upon an interesting article addressing this same notion.  (In the spirit of keeping it non-partisan, I won’t credit the publication.)  It more artfully captures what I find so disappointing and divisive in today’s political environment.   Allow me to quote just a few passages….

“For the past generation or two, Washington has been the not so hallowed ground for a political war. This conflict resembles trench warfare, with fixed positions, hourly exchanges of fire, heavy casualties on both sides, and little territory gained or lost. The combatants wear red or blue, and their struggle is intensely ideological.

“Before the 1970s, most Republicans in official Washington accepted the institution of the welfare state,  and most Democrats agreed with the logic of the Cold War. Despite the passions over various issues, government functioned pretty well. Legislators routinely crossed party lines when they voted, and when they drank;  filibusters in the Senate were reserved for the biggest bills;  think tanks produced independent research, not partisan talking points. The “D” or “R” after a politician’s name did not tell you everything you thought about him.

“….The people Washington attracts now tend to be committed activists, who think of themselves as locked in an existential struggle over the fate of the country, and are unwilling to yield an inch of ground.

“…The War Between the Colors reflects a real divide in the country, the sorting of Americans into ideologically separate districts and lives.

” …the fighting never really stops.”

Second Thoughts On The First Debate

A few additional thoughts on the first debate last night, and its aftermath:

Although Jim Lehrer almost immediately lost control of the rules and format — initial two-minute answers, moderator-led discussion, 15-minute “issue pods” — I’m glad that happened.  Because Lehrer shrank into the background, we got to see direct give-and-take between the candidates.  They took the discussions where they wanted to go, and the results were revealing.  We also were spared the annoying time limit hectoring we’ve had to endure in prior debates.  The ultimate price of Lehrer’s lack of zeal was that only three minutes were available for the last, “governing” issue pod.  I’m sure America will somehow manage to stoically endure that loss.

I watched the debate on CNN, which had a real-time male/female favorability reaction meter running throughout the debate, and I later caught the Frank Luntz focus group on Fox.  These kinds of reaction measuring devices are familiar to trial lawyers, who use focus groups and mock juries to test potential courtroom themes, and they are always interesting to watch.  The peril of focus groups, however, is that they often confirm that viewers (or potential jurors) hear what they want to hear.  One member of the Luntz group, for example, thought Mitt Romney was too vague, another specifically disagreed and said he heard lots of specifics.  They both watched the same debate.  If you are the candidate (or the trial lawyer), which perception do you credit?

The Luntz focus group overwhelmingly thought Romney won, and some members said he changed their voting decisions.  Their big takeaways were that Romney was more decisive and also more capable for reaching a bipartisan consensus on issues.  Those aren’t exactly consistent qualities, yet Romney managed to convince focus group members that he could do both.  Sending that dual message is no mean feat.

I also watched MSNBC, where some commentators bemoaned the President’s performance as lackluster and also thought Romney pushed Lehrer around.  That reaction is interesting, because the President occupied far more debate talking time than Romney did.  Indeed, on one occasion the President overrode Lehrer to get “five more seconds,” then spoke for a much longer period, and on another occasion Romney cordially accepted Lehrer’s instruction that it was time to move on.  It’s another example, I think, of perceptions being colored by preexisting views.  It’s just human nature to blame the refs when your team is losing.

A Pox On Both Their Houses

Keith Olbermann was a lightning rod of sorts when he hosted Countdown on MSNBC.  A judgmental liberal firebrand, Olbermann left MSNBC early last year under curious circumstances and promptly moved Countdown to Current TV, a network founded in part by former Vice President Al Gore.

Then Olbermann dropped off the face of the Earth, because no one watches Current TV.  Countdown averaged 177,000 viewers a night — a miniscule fraction of the total audience in a nation of hundreds of millions of rabid TV watchers.

It was predictable that Olbermann and Current TV would part ways, and probably not in an amicable fashion.  That has turned out to be the case.  Olbermann has sued the cable channel for millions of dollars, claiming that its production capabilities were akin to those found on local community access channels.  Current TV has counterclaimed, contending that Olbermann didn’t show up for work, promote the network, or perform other purported contractual obligations.

It’s hard to believe that anyone — even the 177,000 or so people who watched Countdown on Current TV, for reasons known only to them and their deity — care about this dispute or the fact that Olbermann is off the air.  Who needs another “point of view” cable channel or egotistical broadcaster eager to castigate those with different viewpoints?  We’ve got quite enough of both, already.

Ending Endorsements

The Chicago Sun-Times has announced that it will no longer endorse particular political candidates for election.

The Sun-Times concludes — accurately, in my view — that people don’t pay a lot of attention to newspaper endorsements anymore, that there are lots of other sources of information available to voters now, and that many people just view endorsements as a tangible sign of claimed bias.  The newspaper will continue to publish news articles about the races, as well as the candidates’ responses to questionnaires and video of the newspaper’s interviews of the candidates.

This development shouldn’t come as a surprise; the Sun-Times is just ahead of the curve.  Newspaper endorsements used to be crucial to election campaigns and were touted in campaign advertising and pamphlets.  But in the golden era of newspaper endorsements, there was no internet, there were no cable TV and political news channels filled with opinionated talking heads, and there weren’t thousands of bloggers and “fact-checkers” and political websites.  In the modern media world, newspaper endorsements have been lost in the din.  Indeed, the stodgy, sober, platform-based appraisals of the competing candidates that tend to characterize newspaper endorsements are at a decided disadvantage in an age when people seem to crave loud, shouting, over-the-top praise and denunciation.

I’d rather see print journalism stop endorsements altogether than try to compete in the shrillness department with the likes of MSNBC and Fox News commentators.