Our Incompetent Broadcast News Media: A Frustrating Morning With Soledad O’Brien

Soledad O’Brien, paving the road to Athens

This morning, on CNN, I managed not to change the channel as I usually do when Soledad O’Brien is on the screen. It was a mistake. The long-time CNN anchor is as low as newscasting can sink short of MSNBC when it comes to smugly-biased commentary, and unlike some of MSNBC’s lefty warriors, O’Brien is just not very bright. This doesn’t keep her from visibly wincing, rolling her eyes or winking at the supposedly simpatico viewer when she thinks her opinion is superior to someone she is interviewing, as unprofessional a habit as I have ever seen. She has a job because, I suppose, she is pleasant to look at and exudes confidence, though it is confidence unsupported by any actual skill, insight or knowledge.

I hate to pick on Soledad, who I’m sure is a nice person, but I was just watching the riots in Greece and thinking about how these pathetic, trapped people, some of whom may be relatives of mine for all I know, are furious because they were deceived for decades by cowardly leaders who didn’t have the competence or courage to tell them, “No, you can’t retire at 50 with full benefits, ” and “No, you can’t have a guaranteed government job if you have no skills” and “No, the government can’t afford to maintain a welfare state while not forcing people to pay their taxes.” The Greeks never should have had the absurdly generous programs they enjoyed, because the country couldn’t pay for them, but get them and enjoy them they did, thanks to elected officials who wanted to be popular rather than responsible. Now the nation literally has no options but cruel austerity, and the public is screaming in pain, as  onlookers say, “Those selfish, stupid Greeks! What did they think would happen?”

Well, I agree to some extent: it is dumb, and selfish, to protest wildly when you asked your elected officials to be reckless and they complied. On the other hand, who were the leaders, whose job it was to say, “Sorry, there are long term financial stability issues here”? The public trusted them to do the right thing. Did the Greek news media try to explain to the public why they couldn’t get everything they wanted, and why it was better to sacrifice moderately over time rather than suffer Draconian measures in a crisis?

I suspect not. I suspect the media in Greece was like Soledad O’Brien, as she interviewed Republican Congressman Jeb Hensarling of Texas today. He had announced his opposition to President Obama’s budget proposal, which projects a nearly one trillion-dollar deficit. The Congressman explained that he felt the budget was irresponsible, because it didn’t address the 15 trillion-dollar debt at all, and projected an unacceptable deficit.He said he was bitterly disappointed that it made no effort to deal with the “drivers of the deficit,” meaning entitlements.

O’Brien (smirking at the camera): “So is there not one thing you like?”

Congressman Hensarling, maintaining his composure better than I would have, replied , “I’ve only had 16 minutes, so I haven’t read the entirety of it…”

O’Brien ( mockingly): “Only 16 minutes, but enough to be bitterly disappointed.…” [Translation for slow-witted viewers: “You see? These guys will hate whatever the President proposes!] Then she read off various items in the budget…all wonderful, of course: hiring more firemen and police, renovating schools, “job creation,” infrastructure…and said, I kid you not,

“You’re against all of those things?

Hensarling responded that this wasn’t his point; it didn’t matter what was good or bad in the budget, the point was that it didn’t balance or reduce the deficit, added one trillion to the deficit, and that this was dangerous and unacceptable.

O’Brien (sighing and cocking an eyebrow in her best, “Can you believe this guy, now watch me nail him” manner): You’re against all of those things???

This is nauseating, and O’Brien undoubtedly doesn’t even know why. She thinks that she is standing with her audience against legislative gridlock (and with the President, as if that is responsible journalism) by hectoring an  apparently reasonable member of Congress who was making a point worth comprehending, and one that really isn’t that hard to understand. When you are in a hole, stop digging. When you are in financial distress, start prioritizing. When I’m having trouble making the mortgage in a given month, and my son says that he has picked out the perfect racing bike to replace the one he’s outgrown, and I say that it’s out of the question until we have some surplus funds built up, it isn’t productive for him to keep asking, “What don’t you like about the bike?” In fact, it’s stupid.

But O’Brien was 1) being a political advocate, which she has neither the brains, experience, or right to be in her role  as a news anchor; 2) was dragging the discussion to an infantile level by insisting that the focus be on whether the Congressman was “against” specific programs or not when budgets are supposed to lay out priorities and how they will be paid for. The impossibility of cutting the deficit and debt is created by narrow interest groups only focusing on the benefits that their pet programs represent, and refusing to focus on the absolute necessity of raising revenue and cutting expenses. O’Brien’s 4th grade-level coverage makes coherent policy discourse more difficult.

She could have illuminated the discussion in a dozen ways. She could have asked the Congressman about how he would suggest the budget prioritize objectives so as to reach responsible budget goals and allow for sufficient economic growth. She could have asked if there were specific big ticket items that he agreed were so essential—the infrastructure’s repair is an obvious example—that he agreed had to be part of the package. She could, in short, have helped inform her viewers, but because she  1) was determined to act as a mouthpiece for the Administration, and decided that it was her place to defend the budget, 2) was unable to rise to any level of professional objectivity, instead being disrespectful and unfair to a U.S. Representative by acting as if he was the idiot in the conversation, when he was not, and 3)does not possess the sophistication to contribute substantively to the budget issue, but is under the delusion that she does, all O’Brien did was warp the exchange into a “Here is the President trying to do all these good things, and the Republicans won’t let him” display of classic media malpractice.

If a newscaster can’t discuss the issues above an infantile level, and Soledad O’Brien clearly cannot, then she should handle interviews the old fashioned way: let the guest give an opinion, ask neutral, non-loaded questions for clarity, and allow the viewer to do the rest.

It used to be called “journalism.”

11 thoughts on “Our Incompetent Broadcast News Media: A Frustrating Morning With Soledad O’Brien

  1. What absolutely irks me about this whole situation regarding the budget….

    no one ever proposes a balanced budget!

    A balanced budget should be the starting point. Let the negotiations happen after a balanced budget is proposed and if the negotiations result in an increase, fine. At least we know where those increases came from and who is responsible for them. We can then hold their feet to the fire, if necessary.

    It shouldn’t be the White House’s job to put forward a budget that appeals to all people. It should be their job to do the best they can within the parameters of the nation’s income.

  2. I didn’t see her interview with Hensarling, but I did watch the whole interview she did with Romney and I admired her professionalism. When Romney said he wasn’t concerned about poor people O’Brien followed up to give him a chance to get out of the hole he fell into. I wrote about this at http://goo.gl/U4Qyf.

    • Fair contrast Bob..you’re right; in that instance she was right on the money.

      Virtually all morning news/talk hosts drive me crazy. The Fox News trio makes me physically ill. The CBS group with Charlie Rose is the most professional.

  3. The point here is Soledad O’Brien herself… She is NO Walter Cronkite, is basically a news reader, and is an unabashed supporter of Obama. Jeb Hensarling should have asked her nicely if SHE had spent more than 16 minutes studying the proposed budget instead of reading off some “cheat sheet” to make him look bad. If I had been Hensarling, I would have walked off the set, telling her that when she can (1) ask intelligent questions; and/or (2) just TRY to be a reporter not a flack for Obama, he would back. You-Tube would have loved.

    As Jack said, he should have asked her what exactly IS in the budget, what SHE would cut to try and keep us out of trillions more in debt, and who taught her that the job of an interviewer is NOT to embarrass the guest by asking meaningless and nasty questions multiple times, and by using body language to express her own opinions… neither these is her job. “Journalism” is a joke: it’s all politics now and people watch only those they agree with. Her attitude of superiority is pure egotism, fed by her producers. I’d put right down there with great-looking IQ80s that now feed us the “news” — on all the channels.

    Intelligent dialogue indeed.

  4. The problem with the “cost cutting” approach is that it doesn’t work very well. Everyone wants to keep their pet project and reduce it some (at most). This isn’t how it works. Reduce your pay by 35%. If you are the government, you will try to pay 35% less for housing, 35% less for utilities, 35% less for food… It doesn’t work that way. You can’t just pay 65% of your mortgage. You can try getting a smaller house, but that takes time, and you might end up losing money in the deal. You start with nothing and look at your priorities. OK, we have to pay the mortgage. Because we have this house, these are our utilities. At the end, you find that there just isn’t room for lots of stuff. No eating out, no cable, no internet access, sell the car and get a cheaper one, no baseball, no YMCA membership, no money to go back to school, and maybe no cell phone. It isn’t that the YMCA is bad, it just isn’t a necessity.
    I would hate to see the services of the National Parks cut back. I would hate to see senior citizens have to cut back on things in their well-earned retirements. I would hate to see some really good programs for low income children get axed, and I would hate to see funding for some educational programs cut. However, none of them are necessities. They are worthy luxuries. I would rather see them cut than see our necessities of military protection, police protection, fire protection, clean water, utilities, roads, and fundamental education go away because of a debt crisis. The government isn’t there to make-up a bureaucracy just to keep the unemployment rate down. We need to start from zero, add the absolute necessities, then see how many luxuries we can afford.
    I did like the Yahoo! link to the budget as explained for a typical family. If the current budget proposed by the President were the budget of the average American family, the proposed spending would be $38,000, the family would earn $29,000 that year, they would have over $150,000 in credit card debt, and they would propose increasing that debt by $9000. That is a responsible budget? If this was your child or friend you would scream at them for being so irresponsible. Maybe if we can just force the banks to eat the debt like they are doing in China…

    • You’re approach to budgeting is spot on. Not only that, but if you cut something that was widely accepted as “a must have” like National Parks, how many people would come to their aid with fundraisers and donations? A lot. If people care so much about these things, they’ll pony up, not through taxes, but through other giving.

      Perhaps the Fundraising Economy will grow, new jobs will be created and more dollars will be spent on events. Hotels and event spaces would have more bookings, generating more dollars and more taxes.

      The Federal Government needs to be Federal. A man studying turtle behaviors on the coast somewhere isn’t a Federal issue.

  5. The thing that strikes me about that segment is that 24-hour news networks are inherently stupid.

    The Congressman’s remarks were boilerplate partisanship, but what else could they have been? The news happened sixteen minutes before the interview. He couldn’t possibly have had anything to say other than boilerplate after just sixteen minutes.

    O’Brien was correct that it’s silly to be discussing this before anyone could have read it, but if she can perceive that, then why is she part of a broadcast which not only enables but demands such stupid discussion? CNN should have just reported a brief sum-up of the budget, and saved doing analysis or response pieces until it had been out for at least a few hours. Or maybe a few days.

    This sort of thing is why I never watch TV news, on any network. Print news just seems to have a better signal to noise ratio.

    I think you’re very wrong about deficit spending — that’s a long-term problem, and one that should be addressed deliberately and with small steps. Our short-term unemployment problem is much more urgent and should be given priority — which means that stimulus should be more important than deficit-cutting in this budget.

    • That’s a great point about the set up. you’re right–it was planned to be dumb.But why was O’Brien ALSO giving partisan boilerplate?

      On the budget—in a rational system where we could trust Congress and Presidents to be responsible, you’d be right. But deferred deficit fixes mean no fixes at all. Even the most reflexively Administration supporting commentators—like Dana Milbank— have declared this budget as cynical and irresponsible—a campaign document. How can that be defended? At this time especially, the budget submission is crucial.

      • But why was O’Brien ALSO giving partisan boilerplate?

        I didn’t comment on that aspect of it because I don’t watch TV news, so I don’t know anything about Soledad O’Brien. If she pretends to be “neutral” and “objective” but only ever skeptically questions Republicans, then that’s objectionable. On the other hand, if she’s open about her political views, then I don’t object to her view being obvious with her views in interviews. Either way, attempting to analyze a bill fifteen minutes after its release is stupid.

        But deferred deficit fixes mean no fixes at all.

        This is obviously not true; historically, the deficit hasn’t always and invariably gone up. It’s gone up some years, down other years. There is no factual reason to believe that if the deficit goes up this year, then it is doomed to always go up.

        I don’t intend to defend Obama’s budget. I don’t think it’s perfect, I just think it’s better than what Rep Hensarling would propose.

        That said, I don’t see any reason to think it’s “crucial,” although it does have a little political significance. No one – NO ONE — believes that the eventual budget that Congress passes is going to be what Obama released. If we waste the word “crucial” for political gestures with no chance of becoming law, what can we call things that actually are crucial?

        (By the way, THAT’S something that I would like to have seen CNN reporting 15 minutes after the budget was released: That the budget has no chance of becoming law, and is significant mainly as an indication of White House priorities. That’s objectively true, and would be useful information for viewers to know.)

        While I don’t want to defend Obama’s budget, I will say I’m not anti-politics. The President is a politician, after all, and that’s not an inherently evil thing. The president’s budget, when the partisan make-up of the Congress guarantees it can’t pass, cannot be anything but a political gesture. But political gestures serve a purpose, because without that information voters can’t make an informed choice.

        What’s nice in this case is — unlike inane commercials, campaign speeches and appearances on talk shows — the budget format forces the White House to release specific policy proposals and numbers. Frankly, I wish more politicians were forced to do stuff like this more often.

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