ShellyBlog Shelly Brisbin's life consists of several long tails. She writes about them here.

May 19, 2008

The Pitfalls of Pundit Boxing

Filed under: Politics and Public Affairs — Shelly Brisbin @ 10:59 AM

The YouTube clip featuring MSNBC shouter Chris Matthews taking down hapless conservative talk show host Kevin James has been everywhere, most notably promoted by MSNBC itself. As an Obama supporter, and hater of content-free punditry, you’d think I’d get a kick out of that, wouldn’t you?

Actually, no.

The clip represents everything I dislike about political “analysis” done by talking head pundits of whatever stripe.

In the clip, Matthews, trying out for the role of teacher-pundit, asks the clearly over-excited, over-matched James to explain exactly what Neville Chamberlain did in 1938 to appease Adolf Hitler. James can’t answer, but continues to blather senselessly, digging himself deeper and deeper.

What’s the problem? Start with the structure of televised political conversation. A moderator, often projecting himself into the discussion, asks questions of talk show hosts, party hacks, ex-oficeholders who are assigned to act as spokesmodels for “the left” or “the right”. Their very appearances on these shows are based on their prefab associations, not on their personal expertise, or even their own true opinions. The conversation is structured to elicit left versus right arguments.

Fortunately, there is a ready supply of ambitious local talk show hosts looking for a big break, or perhaps enhanced book sales. For the cable shows, these people are perfect, because they understand the speed and pithiness demanded of TV dialog, and are often unburdened by the need to do research, or provide nuanced analysis. They are walking, talking sound-bites.

In the absence of bigger names, or perhaps to mix it up a bit, cable shows book people like James on to run through the right’s talking points. Last week, it was a defense of Bush’s appeasement comments in Israel. “On the left” as they say, was Air America honcho Mark Green, who occupied his little box onscreen, but had very little to do, once Matthews went all pitt bull on James. Standard operating procedure on Hardball would normally be for Matthews to ask leading questions of the two guests, let them argue a little, and maybe throw his lot in with one of them, just for fun. Little information is transmitted to the audience, and guests aren’t often challenged on their facts, but everyone leaves entertained, secure in their preconceived notions of whether conservatives or liberals are right.

But this time, Matthews pounced on a clearly clueless guest; not for his “ideas”, but for his lack of in-depth knowledge. He did so for two reasons: because he could, and because he apparently feels the sting of recent criticism. James is no great thinker, and his delivery is one loud, shrill note. He ain’t very good as a cable show guest, and he isn’t famous enough to throw a successful tantrum if Matthews picks on him. And then there’s Matthews own recent bad PR; his seeming disdain for Hillary Clinton/tongue kissing of Barack Obama, a demonstrable tendency toward creepy sexism, and a recent New York Times Magazine profile that makes him look far from Murrow-like in his conduct or motivations. Picking on Kevin James, in short, is a win-win for Matthews on the left, because as we ridicule the talk show host’s performance, we elevate Matthews to straight-talking hero status.

I’m not losing any sleep over Matthews using Kevin James as a punching bag, only the state of political discourse it symbolizes. What I do find troubling is the extent to which MSNBC itself has exploited the clip. You can find it featured on the networks Web site, of course, but it was Matthews being feted on Countdown (guest-hosted by my favorite pandit, Rachel Maddow, unfortunately) that really got under my skin. Maddow dutifully introduced a replay of the clip, then talked to Matthews in-studio about it. Come on now! How much self-congratulation are we expected to stomach? OK, Matthews had a good night, and the lesson to be learned from this should be to hold more guests accountable, or to choose better guests in the first place. Perhaps MSNBC could even produce a show where pundit-boxing is not the main event. I nominate Rachel Madow to hos it.

FriendFeed and Me

Filed under: New Media and Tech,Random Personal Nonsense — Shelly Brisbin @ 7:02 AM

God help me, I signed up for FriendFeed, just to see what it’s all about. Mostly, I’m upset that the username Shelly was already taken. It’s mine, I tell you, mine!

May 14, 2008

Twitter Beats the Media? Hah!

Filed under: New Media and Tech — Shelly Brisbin @ 1:22 PM

This post is mostly a pointer to an excellent piece I just saw on ReadWriteWeb, called “Did Twitter Really ‘Outshine’ the Mainstream Media?”. I continue to love this site and its thoughtful commentary. The long and the short of it? Twitter can tell you about the earthquake first, or even help survivors communicate with the outside world and get help. But it can’t tell you the details, the scope of the disaster, or the long-term impact. I’m getting really tired of triumphalists claiming that tools like Twitter are effective replacements for the real, on-the-spot news coverage that requires more than 140 characters a go. And it’s more about self-agrandisement than anything else’ the belief that the people with the cell phones and the Twitter accounts are, by definition, the best chroniclers of important events. Rarely do I read Twitter love poems that effectively make the case that the poet learned more about an event from Twitter’s microbursts than could have been, or was gleaned from longer-form text, audio, or video.

Um yeah. Take it away, ReadWriteWeb

May 1, 2008

Free for iPhone Users Only

Filed under: New Media and Tech — Shelly Brisbin @ 10:59 AM

I essentially admitted to a bit of iPhone envy yesterday. But this isn’t about that.

Seems that AT*&T has opened up free wi-fi access for iPhone users at its hot spots (read, Starbucks). I find that disturbing. It seems to set up a class system of Internet access, based on the device you carry. I have no objection to AAT&T or Starbucks or anyone charging for wi-fi access. It is a service for which many people are willing to pay, and no one has an implicit right to free Internet. But opening the free wi-fi dour only wide enough for chosen devices to enter is a bad precedent to set in a culture that seems to be creating economic class dividing lines at every opportunity.

I should say that I have no dog in this fight: I rarely go to Starbucks, and I fulfill all of my remote wi-fi needs at local coffee shops, restaurants and bars that provide the stuff for free. At least in my major metro area, free is an option for people who are willing to look for it. But I’m not comfortable with airlines that provide express lines for “preferred members”, or coffee shops that look to see which Internet access device you have. Sell to all, or make it free to all.

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