Democracy Soup

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Tribune Company dumbs down politics on TV to win the Media Putz

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Originally published on on January 7, 2010

Tribune Company

Are these the new faces of political discourse?

So what happens when you put a shock jock in charge of a long-established journalism company? Try Jerry Springer vs. Bill Cunningham on TV in sound bite political “discourse.”

The Tribune Company is producing a TV pilot mixing the worst of “Crossfire” and Americans’ inability to think beyond 60-90 seconds on a topic.

The show is being portrayed as a political version of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” where sports topics get a few minutes for discussion.

You can almost imagine how it would go: “Should President Obama close the prison at Guantánamo Bay?” Sum up each position and have a discussion, but you better hurry; 60-90 seconds is a short time when two personalities are each trying to get their say and be somewhat coherent.

How much would you as the viewer learn about the topic in 60-90 seconds? At least with “Crossfire,” there were a few minutes of shouting back and forth on each topic.

If Bill Cunningham’s name sounds familiar, you might remember his sense of “cheerleading” before a John McCain rally in Cincinnati in February 2008 that earned him a Media Putz award. While based in Cincinnati, Cunningham’s radio show is syndicated.

As you will see, Cincinnati runs more rampant throughout this story than 5-way chili or the Big Red Machine.

Jerry Springer’s Cincinnati background falls under city council member (when he wrote the check for the ‘massage’ service), mayor (as elected by the city council), and anchorman/commentator for WLWT, the NBC affiliate in Cincinnati.

But the name behind the concept of this latest political mudwrestling stunt has received little attention: Randy Michaels.

Michaels, whose real name is Benjamin Homel, has a long history as a shock jock and radio executive at one point with Clear Channel.

Michaels and Sam Zell, who bought the Tribune Company and has led the downhill spiral of the company, go way back.

In 1993, Michaels ran Cincinnati-based Jacor Communications (later swallowed up by Clear Channel, naming Michaels as its CEO), and persuaded Zell to invest $70 million in Jacor. When Zell sold Jacor to Clear Channel in 1998, his $70 million investment produced a $1 billion profit.

Michaels hired Cunningham to work at the famous 50,000 watt AM powerhouse WLW (then owned by Jacor and swallowed up in the Clear Channel deal).

Things must have worked out well for Zell and Michaels, since Michaels was a key hire for Zell when he took over reigns of the Tribune Company.

Michaels hired away Sean Compton, Tribune Co.’s senior vice president for programming who worked under Michaels at Jacor, from Clear Channel. Working his way up a short ladder, early last month, Michaels was named the Tribune Company’s Chief Executive Officer.

The yet-to-be-named Springer/Cunningham show fits the tradition of Michaels. After all, as a Salon 2001 profile notes:

“Behind the mike he made a name for himself back in the ’70s and ’80s farting on the air, cracking jokes about gays and tantalizing listeners with descriptions of “incredibly horny, wet and ready” naked in-studio guests. Along with getting hit with a sexual harassment suit, Michael (sic) pulled in big ratings wherever he went.”

There are countless stories about allegations against Michaels, sexual harassment accusations, including some listed here. One lowlight was this:

Randy himself was sometimes spotted roaming the newsroom with a “flexible rubber penis” tied around his neck, according to another former employee.

Compton had this to say about the TV pilot, as described in the Chicago Tribune.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I said I wanted a down-and-dirty pilot, but not this down and dirty.'”

Then again, we shouldn’t be surprised about this pilot, given Michaels’ sense of journalism. When Michaels was “only” the Tribune’s chief operating officer, his “brilliant” contribution to journalism was to measure success by the number of column inches produced. No matter the content or whether truth or quality was involved.

It gets worse. Despite his lack of newspaper background or even news experience, Michaels decided there should be a 50-50 ratio of advertising to reporting and opinion. By Michaels’ logic, if you have “too many words,” you might have “too many journalists.” And by that thought process, as ad pages go down because we’re in a severe recession, the number of editorial pages falls even further.

In an era where time is short and the need for political information is stronger than ever, the idea of a pseudo-boxing match between stereotypical Liberal and Conservative nameplates — and that is assuming the best that Springer will be like his Air America persona and not the ringmaster of trailer-park trash clashes — insults our intelligence.

As for the attention span element, let’s have Cunningham describe the concept:

“We’d go at it minute or two, a bell would sound, and then we’d go onto the next one,” Cunningham said. “At the end, we’d each have a 60- to 90-second commentary.”

In-depth? Not here. We can handle discussion of a political topic past 90 seconds.

The Tribune Company plans to test the pilot, and if the show passes that test, wants to offer it to a few Midwestern markets. But in a sense of the deep shame they must feel for the show, the Tribune people won’t show it on superstation WGN.

Yet, their shame doesn’t extend to those who might be subjected to this mess. A once proud, vibrant media company has been turned over to the likes of Sam Zell, Randy Michaels, and Sean Compton. This new approach shows in the Jerry Springer-Bill Cunningham political shoutfest. And they wear the Tribune Company hats with pride.

For dumbing down the political discourse, even by TV standards, the Tribune Company wins this week’s Media Putz award.

Though the Tribune Company hasn’t won a Media Putz, Sam Zell, who did start this mess, won the award on December 11, 2008.


Written by democracysoup

January 7, 2010 at 6:00 am

Posted in media criticism, MSM

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