What a Thursday!

Saturday, July 7, 2012
[NOTE: This post was supposed to be completed earlier in the week but I contracted a 'summer cold' that has put me off to pretty much anything doing with writing since Monday. I've made the appropriate changes to reflect the delay.] 

Starting with Ann Curry's goodbye early in the morning and going late into the late afternoon hours with the House contempt vote, June 28th was a remarkable media day

If you are a financial (or advanced political) wonk, you might know what the investing term 'quadruple witching day' means and how it relates to specific occurrences every fiscal quarter when contracts for stock options, stock index options, stock index futures, and single stock futures expire on exchanges all around the world.  If I can borrow this enchanting phrase and loosely apply it to the media,  four remarkable and/or historic events occupied a good segment of American television news outlets' available air time on June 28th and I was able to directly witness three of them (one happened when I was at work but I could not break away to our organization's cafeteria to view on its bank of television monitors).  Two were directly related to the news media while the other two relied on those elements to transmit images and information from the nation's capital to all corners of the country (as well as to the wider world).

Al Roker, Matt Lauer and Natalie Morales join Ann Curry on the couch to provide support during her 'transition' speech

In my first installment of reviewing morning news programs, I had mentioned that Today co-anchor Ann Curry was in discussions to replace her on the show only one year after being elevated to the permanent chair next to Matt Lauer after years of substitute hosting for Katie Couric and Meredith Vieira.  Since I posted that, a settlement was reached and it was widely suspected that June 28th would be Curry's last day in that role. In an extremely emotional farewell segment to the show's audience, she explained what her new role would be with the show (Anchor at Large and National and International Correspondent for NBC News) and that she did all of the dangerous things during her 15-year stint with Today because she "wanted to give you the world" and apologized "for not being able to carry the ball over the finish line."  Lauer, weather anchor Al Roker and news desk anchor Natalie Morales each gave flowing tributes to Curry and her roles in several high-profile international incidents (repatriation of three American hikers from Iran, 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami) and work with the Hiring Our Heroes program to support US troops returning from deployments to Afghanistan. 

As the remaining personnel reminded her, this was not a "goodbye" but simply a transition to a non-daily role with Today.  The network will pay her dearly for this ratings-fueled anchor 'coup' with NBC reportedly is paying Curry a $10 million buyout of the remaining $20 million she was guaranteed when she signed a three-year contract back in 2011.  On Friday, it was announced that Savannah Guthrie, one of the hosts of the 9AM hour of the show, will become the new co-anchor and officially debut on July 9th.  Guthrie, a journalist as well as a lawyer, joined NBC as a legal analyst and a correspondent in September 2007 and was co-host of The Daily Rundown with Chuck Todd until she moved to Today in June of last year.

New Today co-anchor Savannah Guthrie posing with Chuck Todd when they co-hosted MSNBC's The Daily Rundown from January 2010 until June 2011

This was not one of the best orchestrated departures for a loyal and dependable member of a long-time ratings leader show.  I said in my review piece that Curry did not seem to be the ideal fit for some of the things required of a co-anchor and NBC News president Steve Capus echoed them in an interview with the New York Daily News this weekend.  He hinted at a lack of passion for some of the non-news related segments and told the print reporter that "it’s tough to convey a sincere interest in something if you don’t possess it."  Although a demotion would hurt anyone's ego, I believe that Curry's stepping down is a win-win for her as well as the show.  She will be allowed to do the one thing that she truly loves to do--journalism--and the show will continue to be able to rely upon her drive and tenacity to keep their viewers informed at the level they had grown accustomed to over the past 20 years through her reporting.

The Daily Rundown folks were extremely fixated on the pending Supreme Court decision

After this 5-minute acknowledgement of the rumors that swirled around Today for a week, I switched over to MSNBC to watch Guthrie's former show, The Daily Rundown, to get myself ready for the next major television event that was tentatively scheduled to start at 10AM.  After weeks of speculation (and some false alarms as to when the Supreme Court would actually render their decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, also known as 'Obamacare'), this very show would serve as the lead-in to the network's coverage of the verdict.  Todd's focus was so centered on that body that the daily trivia question was about a basketball court inside their building (dubbed "the highest court in the land").  While there was no 'countdown clock' on the screen, he seemed to bring up the remaining time until the top of the hour after every break.  At the top of the hour, he handed off to Chris Jansing, host of MSNBC's Jansing & Company, to anchor their coverage.

Media members run from the Supreme Court building with copies of the ruling on the Affordable Care Act on June 28th (AP photo by David Goldman)

While watching the television coverage, I was also reviewing Twitter, Facebook and SCOTUSblog to get a more broad-based perspective on what was about to transpire.  The court actually threw many off their assumed timeline when they announced their decision in the United States v. Alvarez case, which overturned the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, at the top of the hour instead of leading off with their ruling on Obama's signature accomplishment of his presidency.  This 'hiccup' may have startled some cable news court watchers and, quite possibly, led to what might be the most embarrassing moments in several of their news careers.  At approximately 10:07AM, word started to trickle out through my monitored sources that their decision in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebilius, the formal name of the ACA challenge, had been released.  SCOTUSblog was telling its followers to give them a little time to parse the document that they had just received and Jansing was telling the MSNBC viewers that they were experiencing a little confusion with what Pete Williams, an NBC News correspondent and their Supreme Court expert--and a lawyer, was interpreting in that same text.

The not-as-immediate, but totally accurate, announcement from MSNBC

This hesitancy, quite understandable considering the magnitude and ramifications of this decision on a wide variety of issues--to include the current presidential campaign, was not shared by some in the media who quickly, but very incorrectly, announced that the individual mandate requirement had been struck down as unconstitutional.  Both CNN's Kate Bolduan and Fox News' Shannon Bream, along with Wolf Blitzer and Bill Hemmer in their respective studios, were thrown by Chief Justice Roberts' opinion which did state that the mandate was unconstitutional under the document's 'commerce clause'; however, he also said that a majority of the court considered this requirement to be a 'tax' instead, which does fall under the constitutional powers allotted to Congress and, and by that single fact, allowed the ACA to survive by a narrow 5-4 margin.  While Fox News quickly changed their on-screen graphics after discovering their error (which occurred after looking at the more accurate reporting on SCOTUSblog), CNN was still showing this erroneous information for a full seven minutes after their initial blunder.  Fox News initially explained away their actions by claiming that "we gave our viewers the news as it happened" and then tried to distance themselves from their rival's similar blunder by saying "by contrast, one other cable network was unable to get their Supreme Court reporter to the camera, and said as much."  CNN countered that criticism by saying that they apologized for their mistakes but Fox News never offered the same mea culpa to their viewers.  Forgotten in this finger pointing is the fact that Bloomberg called it first correctly at the same time that CNN and Fox News did not, with the Associated Press and Reuters following close behind.

CNN and Fox News (and others), in their attempts to break the news first, got it wrong

These initial errors had a cascading effect throughout the rest of the media at that early moment.  Several media outlets (NPR, The Daily Caller), based upon whichever one of the cable news outlet they watched, also got the decision wrong when they 'tweeted' to their followers.  Locally, the Dayton Daily News initially announced on Facebook that the mandate had been ruled unconstitutional but had to delete its original post and substitute it with a correct one that acknowledged "confusion with original reports."  Even local politicians were caught up in this journalistic embarrassment.  A video posted on YouTube shows a jubilant Jean Schmidt, a Republican US representative from the Cincinnati area, expressing her unscripted satisfaction over the SCOTUS decision while standing just across the street from the Supreme Court building.  Her office issued a statement later in the afternoon on her reaction to the ruling but there was no mention of her spontaneous (but erroneous) outburst.

Ohio congresswoman Jean Schmidt reaction to the initial--but erroneous--news of the Supreme Court's ruling on the Affordable Care Act

Once secure in how the decision actually went down, I then turned the television over to Fox News to see how they would spin this unanticipated defeat.  Prior to Thursday's announcement, the popular consensus had the mandate--and quite possibly the entire act--being rejected by a 5-4 vote on purely ideological lines with Justice Kennedy being the deciding vote based solely upon questions raised during the oral arguments portion of their review back in March.  It must have been a major shock for that anti-Obama outlet to see how the verdict actually played out (the erroneous call being a major 'tell') and learning that Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, was the tie-breaker by siding with the court's liberal faction.  Discussions between the in-studio panel (Hemmer, Megyn Kelly, Andrew Napolitano, Bret Baier, and Juan Williams) sounded more like a GOP war planning session than a legitimate news organization providing retrospective on the historic ruling and were focused almost exclusively on the political angles instead of the fact that 30 million Americans are a step closer to obtaining healthcare coverage.

Fox News attempts to make lemonade out of the 'lemons' handed to them by the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act

After a few minutes of this banter, the discussion pivoted to the third major media item of the day.  In a move speculated in response to the unfolding News of the World inquiries in the United Kingdom, Rupert Murdoch announced that News Corporation, the parent company of Fox News, would be breaking up into two companies--one focused on entertainment and the other on print media (newspapers and publishing).  In the live interview segment with Fox Business Channel's Neil Cavuto, Murdoch explained the unique timing of the announcement and even waded into the Supreme Court decision, suggesting that "they'll all be doing high-fives at the moment at the White House" (but quickly following up that the fate of that unpopular act will now depend upon the upcoming elections).

News Corporation chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch being interviewed by Fox Business Channel host Neil Cavuto shortly after the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act was announced

This split has a significant impact upon Murdoch's 'crown jewel' American daily, The Wall Street Journal, specifically and their broader newspaper holdings in general.  In the recent downturn seen in the overall print media, losses at papers like the WSJ were more easily absorbed at companies that also had highly profitable media and entertainment assets.  If this fiscal relationship were to be severed and the print media element must now stand on its own and sustain itself, there could be a consolidation of functions and services already experienced by other US media conglomerates (i.e., those seen at Cox Enterprises, the parent company of the Dayton Daily News, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other papers across the country) and the potential loss of hundreds of jobs. A New York Times piece on the split succinctly captured this change:

With the announcement that News Corporation will be split in two, employees at the company’s many print papers are facing a new reality: they are now in the newspaper business

The final major media event of the day was not a surprise to anyone who has followed the continuous saga of US politics over the past year or so.  In an historic move, the US House of Representatives voted to hold US Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for allegedly withholding evidence from that body's Committee on Oversight and Government Reform concerning a botched 'gun walking' operation conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives between 2006 and 2001.   When Darrell Issa (R-CA-49) became the chairman of that committee after the 2010 midterm elections, he and others on Capitol Hill began investigating this operation, dubbed Fast and Furious, in light of the death of a US Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, in December 2010 by weapons that were traced back to that sting (buyers in Arizona reportedly 'walked' guns across the US-Mexico border to give them to Mexican drug cartels).  While Holder stated that all pertinent records concerning Fast and Furious were turned over, Issa and his committee insisted that their subpoena applied to all internal Justice Department documents on their investigation as well as any communications to any other departments within the Executive branch.  With President Obama invoking executive privilege over those items--the first time during his tenure, the impasse was set.  On June 20th, the committee voted along party lines (Republicans outnumber Republicans by a 23-17 margin) and the measure was forwarded for action by the full House.

Democratic members of the US House of Representatives conducting a press conference outside the Capitol in protest of the contempt vote they walked out on against US Attorney General Eric Holder on June 28th (Getty Images photo by Alex Wong)

Early on that Thursday afternoon, the preliminary theatrics of partisan floor speeches by members of both parties foreshadowed the vote that almost everyone knew would render approval of both a criminal and civil contempt charge.  Since the National Rifle Association had already announced that it would be 'scoring' this vote for endorsement purposes, the only unknown element to the day's proceedings would be just how many Democrats would vote with the Republican majority (17 voted for the criminal charge and 21 for the civil).  The tallies on both charges were overwhelmingly in favor (255-67 for criminal and 258-95 for civil) since most of the minority members walked out of the chamber in protest, led by those belonging to the Congressional Black Caucus who saw this action as purely partisan against the nation's first African-American attorney general.  This vote was significant because it represented the first time in US history that a sitting Cabinet member had been held in contempt by the House of Representatives.  To further 'muddy' this situation, the Justice Department on the following day told the Speaker of the House that it will shield Holder from prosecution on those charges, further ratcheting up the political vitriol in an already acrimonious atmosphere permeating the nation's capital in the run-up to the November general elections--and perhaps even beyond.

The world of sports also contributed to the overall media overload with the NBA draft (left) and the UEFA semifinal match between Germany and Italy (photos courtesy of Getty Images)

As I said at the beginning of my post, I did not see the final vote nor did I see the evening newscasts, where I assume that broadcast producers might have had too much information and too few minutes to tell them.  Two other television stories from the sporting world also broke late on the 28th, with both the 2012 NBA Draft and the thrilling semifinal soccer match between Germany and Italy competing for the European Football Association championship grabbing headlines on sports channels and in newspapers around the country and the globe the following day.  I guess that if I included these two to my original four, then it would make the 28th a 'sextuple' witching day for those truly hardcore media followers out there--a bit of an overload but one that was sincerely relished while it lasted.

The unannounced release of WDTN news anchor Michelle Kingsfield was a local add-on to all of the media commotion on that very busy day

One last item from the local Dayton area that might have escaped attention with all of the other distractions on that not-long-ago Thursday was WDTN's release of news anchor Michelle Kingsfield after five years with the station.  She anchored their 5, 5:30 and 11PM newscasts (as well as co-anchored the 10PM 'early edition' on their CW affiliate, WBDT) since coming over from rival WKEF/WRGT in 2007 and no reason was given by the LIN Media Corporation to explain why she was let go.  Back in 2004, Kingsfield's personal life also made news when she announced that she was suffering from stage four non-Hodgkins lymphoma while pregnant with her second son.  Her courageous story was carried in the Dayton Daily News and O, the Oprah Magazine and she appeared twice on Good Morning America to talk about her experiences through that difficult period.  With the upcoming transition to high-definition newscasts, there are some who are speculating that this move might be related to the camera's dramatic impact upon her on-air appearance and/or her age (41).  As I said in my recent posting on HBO's The Newsroom, American television audiences apparently are very fickle when it comes to looking at a real-life 40-something woman on television and, unfortunately, this could be the unfortunate rationale in this case  (Holly Samuels, a blonde female in her late 20s, has been elevated from weekend anchor duty to fill Kingfield's position). True or not, when I hear about my chronological contemporaries being pushed aside for younger people, it creates yet another reason for me to never go into the television news business--besides, I have the face (and the physique) for blogging!

21 July 2012 -- UPDATE:  Michelle Kingsfield's permanent replacement is not Holly Samuels as I stated in the posting above.  Katie Ussen, formerly of Billings, Montana NBC affiliate KULR, joined the WDTN team as co-anchor earlier this week. 


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