Throwback Thursday: Major Garrett–What’s the Real Story on His Departure from Fox?

Screen shot 2010-08-26 at 11.30.43 AMIt sounds incredibly noble the way Major Garrett is describing his departure from Fox News, and his transition back to print. As everyone knows by now, Garrett is leaving Fox to take a position with the National Journal, a niche politics-and-policy publication in DC, best known for 10-page articles about utility regulation. End of story, some would have you believe, Major is going to go from TV star to wonk. Nothing to see here, folk, just move along.

In this telling, Garrett’s departure sounds noble and old-fashioned in a charming way—he wants to “return to his roots,” the soon-to-be-ex-Foxman says. Indeed, Garrett, 48, was a longtime print reporter before coming to TV. So is there a problem here? No, there’s no problem, Garrett is doing nothing wrong.

There’s just a lot more backstory, that’s all.

One who gets it is Joe Pompeo, writing for The Business Insider the trendy business-news blog—hat’s his headline, screen-grabbed above. As that header suggest, there’s a bit of mafia diplomacy—DC style—at work here. Politico editor Jim Vande Hei sends its congrats over to National Journal, even though NJ is trying to “kill” him. Nice! And tantalizingly, Pompeo sees Garrett’s move as a part of a “Politico Killer” plan.

Politico, of course, is the super-hot publication, mostly online, that has revolutionized political coverage in the last three years. In so doing, Politico has snagged a lot of the blue-chip corporate-lobbying advertising away from more traditional media, both print and TV. If you want to make an impression, you advertise in say, “Mike Allen’s Playbook,” which is a must-read morning blat for DC insiders; on Playbook, one regularly sees ads on Playbook for such blue-chip companies as Starbucks and Intel. As such, Politico is now the benchmark—and the one to beat.

And why does TBI see more than one “Politico Killer” out there? See this screen grab of a Google search, which reminds us that the once-mighty Washington Post, too, wants to be part of this game:


So is Garrett about to become a killer—metaphorically, of course? Is he joining, some political-media war machine—metaphorically, of course? Garrett denies it. As he related to Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post, his departure from Fox is high-minded. In television, he told Kurtz, you learn 20 times as much as you are able to report on the air. Kind of a dig at TV there, wouldn’t one say? And in dismissing the deep-explanation power of TV—whatever happened to “a picture is worth a thousand words”?—Garrett completely ignores websites. Every TV network has one, where writers can go into as much detail as they want. Yet Garrett implicitly takes a dig at Fox, as he spills to Kurtz, who, of course, doubles as a CNN anchor. Garrett continued:

You get so bogged down by the logistics of what video do you have and what studio is available. I want to return to enterprise reporting that consists of a pad, a pen and a phone…I just want to allow my brain and my spirit to have a little bit more room, and play with words, and have fun with them again.

To be sure, Garrett is a smart and able reporter, who earned the respect of all who knew him—even Robert Gibbs liked him. But for him to say that he is off to become a print reporter is a little like saying that, say, Clark Clifford or Roy Black or Gerry Spence were just country lawyers. Call it modesty and soft-spokenness if you want, but you can also call it, deliberate vagueness. Indeed, vague talk about “roots” and “words,” The Cable Gamer believes, conceals a much broader and bigger plan for creating a new player that will not only take on Politico, but will also be an active participant in The Cable Game.

In fact, National Journal, the publication that Garrett is officially joining, is just a tiny cog in an enormous operation, Atlantic Media, owned by billionaire David Bradley, who has long harbored vast media ambitions—to shape the news, as well as cover it. As its website proclaims:

Based in Washington, DC, Atlantic Media Company is a rapidly expanding and service-first media enterprise whose mission is to inform, elevate, and challenge the national discourse. Atlantic Media’s flagship publications — The Atlantic, National Journal, and Government Executive — are among the most influential media outlets in America, engaging opinion leaders from Pennsylvania Avenue to the Pentagon, Wall Street to Harvard Square. Impacting over 1.5 million decision makers spanning the ranks of business, politics, government, and academia, Atlantic Media is a unique company in a dynamic industry.

But for all his money and ambition, Bradley was beaten by Politico. Bradley’s publications, including National Journal, had once been hot—but not anymore. As Bradley told The New York Observer‘s Felix Gilette in a May 2010 interview, he admired Politico for its “velocity,” but not its “quality”:

It was much happier to do what we were doing until Politico arrived in the world. Politico introduced a whole new standard of, I wouldn’t say quality, but I would say velocity and metabolism. I responded way too slowly.

That was quite a dig Bradley took at Politico, but there’s obviously admiration, too, in his voice as he lauds Politico’s energy. Expect the various Atlantic Media brands to start rivaling, even mimicking, Politico. But of course, Bradley will insist that they are doing it better! Enter Major Garrett, whom everybody agrees is a terrific journalist, and a great guy, to boot. He will be able to help Bradley’s team a lot. And so that’s the story, TCG believes: Major got an offer he couldn’t refuse—and didn’t want to refuse.

OK, so Atlantic Media and Politico—which has deep pockets of its own, in the form of Albritton Communications—are at war. But what’s that got to do with The Cable Game? And the answer is that all media are converging—onto digital platforms.

Converging, as in, TV and computer screen becoming one screen—think Hulu, think iPad, for example. Those are convergence tools. And think all the things that Comcast has cookin’—the cable giant is in discussions with Michael Eisner, the legendary chairman of Disney, about taking charge of the Tribune Company, which could be bought for about a song. Yes, the dead-tree newspaper biz is bust, but perhaps Comcast and Eisner can revive Tribco’s well-known brand in text-video form—over Comcast cable, of course.

Speaking of text-video, there’s tons of video on the Politico site now, as well as text. And it’s a safe bet there’ll be a lot more video, soon, on the various Atlantic Media properties.

And so, as noted here many times before at TCG, we are going to see convergence, but not harmony. There will be fierce competion as everybody tries to get space on your smart phone or flat-screen. That is, print—including print on a screen—and TV and anything else you can think of will be fighting for eyeballs on the same little screen, or big screen. The competition will take the form of text, pictures, video, and even hybrids, such as Vook, and Taiwan’s NMA, which creates re-enactments of news events. (Want to see a visualization of an event that was not photographed or filmed—just punch in NMA! Major Garrett could do it, from his desk.)

But of course, something tells me that Garrett will be spending plenty of time before cameras at Atlantic Media. TCG is happy to believe that he will do plenty of writing, but TCG also predicts that he does plenty of interviewing and expressing his words on video and audio, as well as text.

So we’re going to see a multi-portal war: First, the the old media, what’s left of it—although you can bet that The New York Times, and CBS, and all the rest are studying these developments. Second, the cable carriers, such as Comcast. Third, the hybrids, such as Politico and now Atlantic Media. And fourth, The familiar Cable Gamers. Am I leaving others out, such as Starbucks, which I wrote about earlier this month? Sure. There are plenty more players out. As The Cable Gamer always says, the more the merrier.

And as TCG now says: Major, I will miss you at Fox, but I have no doubt that I will see you, soon, on a screen near me.

Reposted from The Cable Game, 26 August 2010

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