Why Matt Lauer’s firing feels different

Matt Lauer.jpg

Originally published in Politico Magazine

Even if you weren’t a faithful viewer of NBC’s “Today”—even if you were inclined to feel a little cynical about the whole morning TV enterprise—the news of Matt Lauer’s termination hit like an earthquake. It’s not just that another prominent media name wound up on the list of men behaving badly. It was this guy, who had come to symbolize morning TV for the past 20 years. This guy, reminding us that the friendly, dad-like figure onscreen at dawn was problematic, possibly sinister, impossibly flawed.

Lauer was fired on Tuesday over an allegation of sexual misconduct at NBC. Afterward, Variety published an account of several more accusations against Lauer, including that he gifted a sex toy to a colleague, and dropped his pants in front of another. It was a shock. Rumors had swirled around Lauer for years. His personal life was not spotless. But he’d endured as one of TV’s best-known, best-paid anchors, in part because his public persona was so intertwined with the gauzy mood of “Today.” NBC’s on-again, off-again ratings giant remains the apotheosis of the morning show, setting the tone for the genre across the TV dial long before Lauer occupied a seat on the couch. It was hard to imagine that the morning show’s host might be any less pleasant than his cheerful surroundings.

Read the rest here.

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Why won’t TV show people who aren’t rich?

The Middle

Originally published in Politico Magazine

This year marks the final season of what might be the most underappreciated sitcom on TV, ABC’s “The Middle.” It’s a single-camera show about an Indiana family—the title refers to its characters’ Middle-American, middle-class existence—and unlike the edgy comedies and tear-jerker dramas that dominate awards time, its humor is unapologetically middlebrow. But “The Middle” is charming, appealing and funny, in no small part because it has another distinction: It’s one of a precious few shows on TV today that focuses, consistently and honestly, on economic anxiety.

If there were ever a time to double down on stories of the American middle-class struggle, this is it. We’re in the midst of a new Gilded Age, with soaring inequality and stagnant wages—the phenomena that helped make Donald Trump president. We’re also enjoying a golden age of TV, with more networks and platforms creating more scripted shows than ever. Plenty of smart, acclaimed series have tackled complex social themes with sophistication and sensitivity—think “The Wire” for the urban drug war; “Mad Men” for gender; “Atlanta,” “Black-ish” and “Insecure” for race; “Master of None” for the Muslim-American experience. Even “Game of Thrones” teaches real-world lessons about politics and power. At its best, television holds up a mirror to society and helps us better understand who we are. So the dearth of shows that focus on financial insecurity feels especially glaring.

Read the rest here.

The political power of outsider women

 

JackieKatz

Originally published in the Boston Globe Magazine

A YEAR AGO, Jackie Katz wouldn’t have called herself a political person. She voted. She followed the news. But the Wellesley High School history teacher, 34, says she “was one of those people who was disillusioned about politics. Because this system feels broken and corrupt.”

Then came November 8, 2016 — and Katz, flush with frustration at the results, found herself on an unlikely new trajectory. In January, she attended the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., then answered the call to action to meet in “huddles” with like-minded people, keeping the movement alive. And over the course of those meetings and venting sessions, she came to realize that the skills she had honed as a teacher, from speaking in public to encouraging civil debate, could make her a viable politician.

Now Katz is running as a Democrat for the Norfolk, Bristol, and Middlesex state Senate seat held by Republican Richard Ross, making the rounds of picnics and meetings when not working full time — all while pregnant with her first child. Politics still feels broken, she says, but “what this election triggered in me was ‘Well, you have to do something to change it.’ ”

The 2016 presidential race will go down in history for many things, and one of them is unfulfilled promise for women in politics. But in no small part because of Donald Trump’s surprising victory, 2017 and 2018 are shaping up as years to watch. A survey this year by American University, Loyola Marymount University, and Politico found that a quarter of Democratic women who are now considering running for office were directly motivated by Trump.

How many of those women will actually appear on a ballot, the report notes, is unclear. But frustration with Trump winds through the personal stories of many newcomer candidates in Massachusetts, seeking offices in bodies that range from the Boston City Council to the Legislature (which is 26 percent female, while women make up 51.5 percent of the state population) to Congress.

 

Hollywood’s gun fetish

SO I just watched the trailer for “Gangster Squad,” and it goes something like this: Gun, gun, shot of phallic-looking building, Ryan Gosling, gun, firefight, is that Nick Nolte?, firefight, guns getting handed out like candy, someone getting hit with a gun barrel, guy pointing gun in other guy’s face, gun, gun, firefight, explosion, raid involving guns, casings falling cinematically to the floor.

It’s two and a half minutes long, so I left out a lot of guns.

Less than a month after the Newtown tragedy, this is what Hollywood is peddling, without shame: A firearms-glorifying culture that competes, inside our brains, with the impulse to stop the spread of actual firearms. A few weeks ago, the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns posted a video featuring outraged-looking movie stars, urging the public to rally for gun control. Someone soon reposted it on YouTube, spliced with images of those actors shooting guns onscreen.

The blanket charge of hypocrisy wasn’t entirely fair. Some of those scenes were actually trying to spoof gun culture. Sometimes violence is used in the service of art. And studios wouldn’t make these movies if the public didn’t want them, right?

Well, maybe, maybe not.

(Read the rest of my Boston Globe column here.)

The end of retail politics?

SALEM, N.H. — IF BUDDY Roemer was ever starry-eyed about his candidacy for president, he isn’t anymore. He knows how to read polls, and also calendars. So he had an air of resignation last week as he prepared to meet a friendly but skeptical crowd, a half-dozen locals in a tiny room.

“I would have had a different strategy if I had known eight months ago what I know today,’’ Roemer said. Namely, the power of the televised debate.

Roemer, the former Louisiana governor, is following a grossly underfunded New Hampshire primary playbook from the past: He’s been crossing the state, pitching his story to reporters, talking to anyone who will listen. But because he’s barely made a dent in the polls, he has never made it into a national debate. Or, as Roemer might put it, because he’s never participated in a debate, he’s barely made a dent in the polls. The TV networks, he says, “are selecting the Republican nominee.’’

Read the rest of the column from the Boston Globe here.

Listen to a discussion on New Hampshire Public Radio here.

Thanks, Newt? Changing the immigration conversation

FROM TIME to time, TV debates manage to suss out the truth from the talking points. When Rick Perry can’t remember the federal agency he wants to cut, it shows how little he’s committed to the idea. When Herman Cain refers to Wolf Blitzer as “Blitz,’’ it shows how blithe he is about everything. (So does the fact that Cain can’t offer a specific answer to any question that doesn’t include taxes. Game over, dude. You had a good run.)

So what will become of Newt Gingrich’s supposedly shocking moment in the CNN debate last week? Asked about illegal immigration, Gingrich suggested a path to amnesty for law-abiding families: legalization, on a case-by-case basis, for people with community roots, as evidenced by their extended family ties or their membership in a local church. And while church membership, per se, is an impractical and problematic test, Gingrich’s overarching point was clear: Illegal immigrants are people, not statistics.

Read the rest of the column from the Boston Globe here.

Perry, “oops,” and late-night TV

RICK PERRY’S presidential campaign may or may not be toast, but his prospects for hosting “Saturday Night Live’’ have risen considerably – and in politics, that’s not such a terrible thing. The night after his brain freeze on the CNBC debate, Perry was doing the Top 10 list on “The Late Show With David Letterman.’’ (Number 6: “You try concentrating with Mitt Romney smiling at you. That is one handsome dude.’’)

In a sense, that “oops’’ moment was the best thing to happen to Perry’s campaign in a while. A string of lame debate performances had him typecast as slow. Those snappy comebacks showed him in new light. Letterman will surely invite him back. And before last weekend, was there anyone complimenting Perry on his delivery?

Chalk up another reason why campaigns are wedded to late-night comedy shows. The benefits for candidates are well-known: a larger and broader audience than they get from political shows, a chance to show the public their human side. But the not-so-dirty secret of late-night TV is that it’s often good for voters, too.

Read the full column from the Boston Globe here.

Knowledge is power

IT’S HARD, in this age of oversharing, to imagine a time when “Our Bodies, Ourselves’’ was a revelation. Today, women share details about their bodily secretions on “trying to conceive’’ message boards, “vagina’’ is a common word on network TV, and everyone knows how IVF can produce eight babies at a time. But in 1969, at a women’s liberation conference at Emmanuel College, a group of Boston-area women shared personal stories and reached a then-radical conclusion: Their doctors weren’t telling them enough.

Plenty of women still need frank, dependable guidance on women’s health – here, and around the globe. The world population got plenty of attention last week when the 7-billionth person was allegedly born, possibly in the  Philippines, though Vladimir Putin is claiming it was Russia. And amid the jostling for recognition, and the fearful talk of food and resources, one fact became clear: a huge factor in population growth is lack of information for women.

Read the full column from the Boston Globe here.

Stoking the panic on obesity

DR. DAVID Ludwig knew he was peddling a provocative idea: that children who are so obese that their lives are in danger

He just thought the debate would take on a reasonable tone.

What he’d co-written, after all, was a short, sober piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association, aimed at doctors and riddled with caveats.

“I expected a spirited scholarly debate,’’ Ludwig told me last week in his Longwood office, where he directs the Obesity Prevention Center at Children’s Hospital. “I did not expect this to be the commentary heard ’round the world.’’

Ah, but this is the modern media world, desperate for clicks and powered by rants. And Ludwig’s mildly worded piece hit a bundle of public nerves. Fear of government intervention. Stress about parenting skills. Concern that fat people are stigmatized, that pressure on parents has grown too great.

Read the rest of the column from the Boston Globe here.

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