The news that two opinionizers, Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews, will be co-anchoring MSNBC’s “hard news” coverage of the inauguration along with a diminished Brian Williams seems to have been greeted by media watchers as it always is: with a yawn. Like the increasing use of opinion people in reportorial roles it’s all but ignored as “media reporters” write eyewash about MSNBC’s newfound commitment to hard news and straight reporting.
Similarly, writers like Gabriel Sherman call Tucker Carlson’s ascension to FNC prime time “Trump TV.” Silly to anyone who actually follows Carlson’s career and libertarian instincts, even sillier when it’s used to characterize the entire channel. But when was the last time you heard Gabriel Sherman refer to MSNBC as “DNC TV?” Your Cable Gamer took a closer look at MSNBC prime time, using the last day where full posted transcripts were available: January 16. Who were the hosts, who were the guests, and how did they align? How many were left? Right? Pro- or anti-Trump? Let’s go to the transcripts:
- Ted Lieu (D)
- Hakeem Jeffries (D)
- Debbie Stabenow (D)
- Jonathan Chait: Pro-Obama
- Ilan Goldenberg: Anti-Trump
- Cedric Richmond (D)
- April Ryan: Ostensibly impartial but praises Obama
- Jonathan Capehart: Anti-Trump
- Mark Thompson: Anti-Trump
- Wesley Clark (D)
- Richard Stengel: Obama appointee
- Howard Dean (D)
- Steven Brill: Pro Obamacare, anti-repeal/replace
In three hours of prime time there was quite a spectrum of opinion: from pro-Obama to anti-Trump. But if you hoped to hear even one person with a viewpoint in favor of Trump or his proposals, you were watching the wrong channel, because there were none at all. Zero. It was as close to DNC-TV as you could get without just putting Donna Brazile in charge of leaking the questions.
In contrast, that night’s opinion programs on Fox News, while reflecting a right-of-center perspective, included people from the left like Mary Anne Marsh (D) and Jehmu Greene (D). Bill O’Reilly goes out of his way to include opposing views on his top-rated hour. Tucker Carlson Tonight, the show that so alarmed Sherman, has made its bones with the lively, often-riveting exchanges between Carlson and people who vehemently disagree with him. Only Hannity had no dissenting voices on January 16 (though usually he has at least one Democrat on).
Your Cable Gamer just made up the moniker “DNC-TV” for MSNBC prime time. Yet it’s far more truthful and on-point than the “Trump-TV” taunts from anti-Fox partisans like Gabe. Meanwhile, tomorrow MSNBC will reduce the discredited Brian Williams to the role of sidekick for two partisan co-anchors: a political hack, and a far-left talk show host. And call it “news coverage.”
Recently The Cable Gamer took some time off to explore the world of twitter. She found it to be a fascinating universe, but with its share of frauds, fibbers, and fabricators. Agendas are everywhere and when that happens, facts can be the first casualty. The other day she noticed this from Gabriel Sherman:
When The Cable Gamer saw this her Spidey senses started tingling. Sherman delights in this sort of thing (in this case making people think Fox was avoiding the Trump controversy). And some of his followers aren’t exactly critical thinkers who will know what he’s up to and see through his verbal sleight-of-hand. But some people did:
Indeed it does. When The Cable Gamer checked the record it turned out that discussions of Trump and his “hot mic video” were the hour’s #1 topic at the time Sherman tweeted (7:33):
- 7:00 hurricane
- 7:02 Trump
- 7:10 WikiLeaks
- 7:13 break
- 7:17 debate/Trump
- 7:21 break
- 7:24 hurricane
- 7:27 immigration
- 7:30 break
- 7:39 break
Fox covered both theWikiLeaks revelations and the Trump news in “fair and balanced” fashion, with the latter getting a tad more airtime than the former (thanks to additional coverage in the 7:17 segment, which incidentally fell within Sherman’s carefully curated 15 minutes). But why should Sherman be honest when he can wait for the right moment, then cherry-pick a snippet and suggest it represents the whole? At least it gave The Cable Gamer her first entry dedicated to Trickery in the Twitterverse. Watch for the next episode.
Hang on. It’s not your Cable Gamer saying that. It’s Brian Flood, long-time Cable Gamer at TV Newser, now an ace reporter for The Wrap. You may have seen his incisive piece taking a closer look at Gretchen Carlson’s ratings woes:
“The Real Story” was the network’s lowest-rated program in both June and in the second quarter among the key demo. Carlson’s show has now lost to CNN more than any other FNC program since the network’s new lineup changes took effect back in October 2013.
What spurred Mr. Flood to make the headlined statement was the first half of today’s Reliable Sources, entirely devoted not to coverage of the Dallas ambush or police shootings or Hillary Clinton’s emails. Only one topic was discussed in the first 30 minutes: Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit against Roger Ailes. Needless to say there was no one to represent the defense though there were multiple prosecutors, including a women’s activist, a gentleman from NPR, and the man of a thousand “sources,” Gabe Sherman. (The Cable Gamer cringed to hear David Zurawik say of Sherman “he does good work, he’s a good reporter”—readers of this site know better.) So Sherman was free to cite the allegations from his “incredibly credible” anonymous sources without challenge.
We have to wonder how heavily the hand of Jeff Zucker plays into this program. Some industry watchers have suggested host Brian Stelter carries water for his boss, and that might explain why, after a week of tumultuous, worldwide-headline news in America, Reliable Sources put all that on the back burner to spend time taking shots at a competitor.
Things weren’t much better when they did get around to more important stories. In discussing several high-profile police shootings with a black activist from Netroots Nation (no representative of an opposing point of view was present), Brian Stelter tossed in this gratuitous gem:
STELTER: I don’t know if FOX News viewers even knew about these police shootings in detail.
What a preposterous, utterly baseless thing for a “media reporter” to say…unless he still hadn’t made his quota of cheap shots against Fox News.
There was also a segment picking apart an interview Don Lemon did with Joe Walsh. Through the entire discussion Brian Stelter managed to make no mention whatsoever that both Lemon and CNN’s Charles Blow erroneously accused Walsh (after he had left) of something he clearly didn’t do. Reliable Sources would have been a good place to correct the record, but CNN doesn’t like to turn a critical lens on the media when it involves one of their own.
How much better to convert the first half of the show into a jeremiad against FNC so untiringly one-sided that one of the top media reporters in the country calls it “declaring war on Fox News.” If, as the saying goes, “all war is based on deception,” then Jeff Zucker has his general in Brian Stelter.
The Cable Gamer is trying to decipher what’s behind Gabriel Sherman’s latest grab-bag of imaginary sources and conspiracy theories. Some of it even contradicts Sherman’s own “reporting.” He goes on for paragraphs describing how Fox has fallen into line behind Donald Trump (painting Trump a victor is a common thread in most Shermanesque tales). There are “revelations” of secret phone calls and negotiations in order to seal the deal. But it was just last month that Sherman had a juicier explanation: Trump had secret dirt about Fox News that effectively blackmailed the news channel into backing him. Sherman ran that one up the flagpole in April but few outside his circle saluted. So now it’s forgotten. Inoperative.
Mr. Sherman also wants you to believe Fox anchors secretly speak to him:
A Fox anchor told me that the message from Roger Ailes’s executives is they need to go easy on Trump. “It’s, ‘Make sure we don’t go after Trump,’” the anchor said. “We’ve thrown in the towel.”
Really? Nobody is allowed to air negative Trump news? Plotting like this would be ludicrous in the most surreal sitcom. Presenting it as fact is preposterous, unbelievable and utterly disconnected to the way news organizations work—not to mention a smear of every anchor on Fox News. And is easily debunked by a plethora of examples.
But Sherman’s biggest target is Megyn Kelly. You may recall how quickly he advanced the notion that Fox went too far defending her against Trump’s insults. And now, since she stands as a visible refutation of his latest conspiratorial twist, Mr. Sherman strips from her the achievement that placed her on the media map:
In fact, according to one high-level Fox source, it was Murdoch himself who directed Kelly to hammer Trump during the debut GOP debate, in Cleveland, that sparked the feud in the first place. “Rupert told her to do that,” the source said.
See? She was just following orders. But doesn’t this mean Gabriel Sherman is calling Megyn Kelly a liar? Because her version is considerably different:
Fox News research assistants put together massive binders on the candidates, on everything they’d ever said on every topic. As she read Trump’s, a couple of themes began to emerge. The one that hadn’t been explored was his sexism. Knowing that if Hillary were to be the nominee she’d hit him with that issue, Kelly had her first question. “I wrote it. I researched each line item myself. It was interesting to me after the debate when people started fact-checking my question. My own reaction was ‘Bring it on.’ You think I’d go out there and ask a question like that at the first G.O.P. debate without making sure I was bulletproof on every single word?” She drafted and re-drafted it, and showed it to her fellow moderators, Chris Wallace and Bret Baier, whose initial reaction, Baier recalls, was “Wow, let’s think about this … there clearly was going to be pushback.”
Kelly almost didn’t get a chance to ask it. The morning of the debate, while doing debate prep, she got violently ill. But, she says, “I would have crawled over a pile of hot coals to make it to that debate. No one was going to be sitting in for me, reading my questions.”
For all the hullabaloo over the questioning of Trump, it’s generally forgotten that Ms. Kelly and her colleagues didn’t single out The Donald: they were tough on the other candidates too. Which makes the notion that Murdoch had to order her to be tough on one of them even more nonsensical. Mind you, at the time Sherman was saying the tough questions to Trump were no surprise. But that, like the “secret dirt” on Fox, is now a discarded theory from yesteryear, forgotten in the light of a shiny new “scoop.”
So in Sherman’s World Megyn Kelly is reduced to an unprincipled puppet, sacrificing integrity for job security, and ultimately saying whatever her male boss tells her to say. It’s an ugly portrayal, but thoroughly Shermanesque.
You know Sherman: nice kid, but kind of clueless without Mr. Peabody to explain stuff to him. So when Sherman says something, it helps to look behind the curtain to see who’s playing Mr. Peabody these days. Case in point, Gabriel Sherman’s latest, highly touted opus about the Trump campaign:
OPERATION TRUMP: Inside the most unorthodox campaign in political history.
A lengthy article goes into excruciating detail about the Trump effort, and it’s clear that Sherman’s new-found status as chief engineer on the Trump Train may have given him actual, non-fictional sources, mainly The Man himself. The article is peppered with quotes from The Donald: “Trump told me,” “he told me,” “he said of Rubio,” “Trump said,” “he said,” “Trump shouted,” “he said,”—no way is anyone going to critique Sherman for fuzzy anonymous sources this time.
Slog through this War and Peace of campaign puffery far enough and you’ll find a nugget relating to The Cable Game. It involved Brian Lewis, a Fox News PR executive, and his attorney:
Lewis hired Judd Burstein, a powerhouse litigator, and claimed he had “bombs” that would destroy Ailes and Fox News. That’s when Trump got involved. “When Roger was having problems, he didn’t call 97 people, he called me,” Trump said. Burstein, it turned out, had worked for Trump briefly in the ’90s, and Ailes asked Trump to mediate. Trump ran the negotiations out of his office at Trump Tower. “Roger had lawyers, very expensive lawyers, and they couldn’t do anything. I solved the problem.” Fox paid Lewis millions to go away quietly, and Trump, I’m told, learned everything Lewis had planned to leak. If Ailes ever truly went to war against Trump, Trump would have the arsenal to launch a retaliatory strike.
This allegation made headlines at places like Slate, Talking Points Memo, Media Matters, Huffington Post, National Review, Salon, Gawker and others too humorous to mention. Needless to say it made Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources newsletter. In fact it was the top story:
Is this Trump’s “Trump card” against Fox?
What dirt does Donald Trump have on Roger Ailes?
Mr. Stelter notes:
Crucially, this info is not anonymously sourced: Trump is on the record saying Ailes “called me” to mediate…Why was Trump involved in the first place? Maybe because Burstein had briefly worked for Trump many years earlier. “Fox paid Lewis millions to go away quietly, and Trump, I’m told, learned everything Lewis had planned to leak,” Sherman writes, describing it as the “arsenal” for a “retaliatory strike” against Fox…
With so much of Sherman’s story not anonymously sourced, why does Mr. Stelter single out one statement as crucial? And why does he completely overlook the elephant in the journalistic room? Throughout Sherman’s interminable account “Trump said” is cited way more than any other source. And yet there’s a unique phrase that, in over 7,000 words, only appears once:
Fox paid Lewis millions to go away quietly, and Trump, I’m told, learned everything Lewis had planned to leak.
“I’m told.” Passive voice: one of the greatest fact-avoidance tools in the English language. “Rocks were thrown.” “Mistakes were made.” “I was told.” Funny that should turn up in the one paragraph that got so many media headlines. This matter-of-fact reversion to an unknown source, without even a description (e.g. “a high-level source in the Trump campaign”) to give it a fig leaf of verisimilitude, has been pretty much ignored by all the people promoting Sherman’s claim.
STELTER: Well, these are clearly sources that were in the room with Roger Ailes. You know, authors like Gabriel Sherman don’t make up this stuff.
STELTER: We’ve seen a lot of anonymous sources and I wonder if there’s any way around that. Because when readers and viewers hear anonymous sources, they’re very skeptical. They wonder if they should trust the information.
Would that Brian Stelter settle for “I’m told” as all the sourcing necessary for a headline story? Especially when the premise is inconsistent with known facts? Ailes and Fox refused to remove Megyn Kelly, issued many statements defending Ms. Kelly and ripping Trump (one of which Sherman even suggested was too harsh!), and ultimately gave up a scheduled debate that was cancelled because Trump was displeased and refused to appear. None of this is consistent with a Roger Ailes trembling in acquiescence because Trump has “bombs” that could destroy him. In fact, it suggests just the opposite. Brian Stelter’s only comment on this enters the Lame Explanations Hall of Fame: “Maybe the candidate is showing uncharacteristic restraint.”
Another writer noticed the disconnect between Sherman’s claims and reality:
OK, this might explain why Fox News talent such as Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Greta Van Susteren and all of Fox and Friends appear to big Trump supporters. But, Fox News is one of the few networks to call Trump out. The network did release a public statement against Trump and his attacks on Megyn Kelly.
So, the bigger question……
What dirt does Donald Trump have on Jeff Zucker? That’s what we want to know.
Placing an incendiary charge into an overlong, little-read treatise is standard self-promotional procedure, but the way it was done here is considered journalistically unacceptable:
Be as specific as possible. Negotiate hard with your source to agree a description that is sufficiently precise to enable readers to trust the reliability of our anonymous sourcing. “A source” or “sources”, “observers” or “quarters” with no further description is vague and unacceptable.
Thanks to the passive voice, Sherman didn’t even give us “a source” or “observers.” No descriptors necessary!
Trump has been playing Mr. Peabody to Gabriel Sherman for months now. And if that’s where the story about “bombs” came from it’s obvious why Sherman wouldn’t want readers to know: Donald Trump’s rep for honesty and truthfulness is pitiful at best. Who’d believe him?
Sherman desperately needs a better, more trustworthy Peabody. Too bad the original is unavailable, being a dog—and a cartoon dog at that. Mr. Sherman could use a man like Mr. Peabody again.
GREAT MINDS UPDATE: Moments after publishing, The Cable Gamer learned that Erik Wemple of the post had just written an article tackling this same subject. Recommended reading.
There’s nothing Gabriel Sherman likes better than his fantasy of Roger Ailes as a Presidential kingmaker. Sherman fancies that Fox News is actually like Del Floria’s tailor shop—only when you pull back the curtain you find not the U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, but a crypto-Republican political organization intent on picking the next leader of the free world. And in the boss chair, no doubt stroking a white cat, is Ailes, as he manipulates the pieces on his chessboard to put his chosen favorite into the White House.
The problem with Sherman’s comic-book-level scenario is that he keeps getting it wrong. First Fox was promoting Trump. Only Trump went to war with Fox News because they were embarrassing him with tough questions, and called for his followers to boycott the network. Sherman called Rewrite and gave them a new meme: Fox is pushing Marco Rubio. It was even a “pro tip.”
That didn’t last either, so today the latest Sherman meme:
According to three Fox sources, Fox chief Roger Ailes has told people he’s lost confidence in Rubio’s ability to win. “We’re finished with Rubio,” Ailes recently told a Fox host. “We can’t do the Rubio thing anymore.”
Sherman doesn’t say when “recently” was, but just today Marco Rubio was welcomed to the highly-rated America’s Newsroom on Fox News for a 7-minute interview. If Ailes really said “We’re finished with Rubio” this is a funny way to show it. As if that wasn’t enough, the Florida Senator showed up again tonight for a session with tomorrow’s debate co-moderator Megyn Kelly.
Keep in mind Marco Rubio has been making appearances on Fox as regularly as ever—and so are his rivals. Doesn’t this give Sherman’s promoters pause? Are Sherman’s invisible friends ever right about anything? Published in New York Magazine, exposed as false within hours—this has to be the shortest-lived meme ever. Why?
Consider how these purported political machinations are witnessed by not one…not two…but three anonymous sources, all of whom immediately tattle to Gabriel Sherman. Does that preposterous scenario sound believable? Do you believe three Ailes confidants would rush to reveal secrets to someone whose main claim to fame is trying to to discredit their friend?
When snake-oil turns out to be colored water, how many bottles do you have to buy before you stop recommending it and instead expose the fraud? Yes, we’re talking about you, journalistic community. It’s not like you haven’t been conned before.
Bits and pieces scraped from the bottom of our cable barrel, linked by a common factor: what wasn’t said…
The Cable Gamer has had a few interactions with Gabriel Sherman on twitter; he’s been cordial and willing to exchange ideas even though we disagree. His twitter feed is worth following, but the downside is that every now and then he comes up with the odd interpretation of something that seems perfectly normal and not in need of an ulterior motive:
It appeared to The Cable Gamer that there was a more likely, less conspiratorial reason for Dr. Carson’s increased airtime:
Mr. Sherman rightly suggested that both could be true, and The Cable Gamer thought we had arrived at a stalemate. But then came this:
A genuine point. If Sherman’s single, unconfirmed source is to be believed, Roger Ailes issued an order to push Ben Carson at all costs, and everyone just ignored it?
Mr. Sherman never responded. Perhaps he knows when silence is the better part of valor.
Another twitter exchange concerned the Megyn-to-CNN rumors Sherman ignited. As Inside Cable News pointed out, his reporting has been extrapolated to promote rumors that are neither accurate nor imminent, but still persist:
Sherman’s been tweeting since that was asked, but so far has let this stand without reply. Fascinating, on several levels.
The Scoop Machine
We wrote about Dylan Byers, who forgot to credit Mediaite‘s Joe Concha for breaking some big news about MSNBC. Now The Scoop Machine (so dubbed by Brian Stelter) just posted a piece announcing Kate Snow’s afternoon anchor slot, coyly describing it as one of the “long-expected changes” there. Of course it’s long-expected, because it was reported by Joe Concha weeks ago. But, consistent with Scoop Machine policy, Concha got no mention or credit. It’s startling to look like Byers is kind of stingy that way.
Shaking Up Is Hard to Do
Speaking of Mr. Byers, he co-wrote a story on how MSNBC is going to “emphasize news” as part of a major shake-up of the daytime schedule. It’s peppered with exactly the sort of quotes one expects:
- straight-forward newscasts
- a straightforward news network
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, The Cable Gamer notes that MSNBC continues to hire far-left opinionators and lets them pretend to be “correspondents.” And they are used during their “straightforward news-oriented” daytime newscasts, like the ones anchored by Thomas Roberts and Tamron Hall. They hired another one from HuffPo and the Howard Dean campaign just last week, though it got little attention outside of these pages.
Why is it that neither Dylan Byers nor his co-author Tom Kludt thinks any of this relevant to the “shake-up” hyped in their headline? How “straightforward” is the news when it’s reported by non-journalists with a partisan axe to grind? This horse isn’t dead yet and The Cable Gamer is determined to keep beating it.