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Jonathan Alter on the British elections, the belwether of Pennsylvania, and cable news rhetoric

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

HH: Joined now by Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, Jonathan, of course, the author of the wonderful book, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days And The Triumph Of Hope. His brand new book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One, comes out on May 18th. Jonathan, I was just talking with Tim Burns, Republican candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania. That special election is May 18th, the same day that The Promise comes out. What’s the significance of that election for Year Two for President Obama?

JA: Well, you know what? I’m not sure that many of these straws in the wind are quite as important as people think. A lot of them are affected by local conditions. I mean, I think the Pennsylvania race that I’m much more interested in is what happens in the Senate campaign, and do you have Pat Toomey, the conservative who’s going to be the Republican nominee, will he beat either Joe Sestak or Arlen Specter on the Democratic side. And if a strong conservative wins in Pennsylvania in 2010, that’s a real harbinger for where the country’s going.

HH: So you’re not going to put much stock in either the special in Pennsylvania, or the special in Hawaii, Jonathan?

JA: Not really. You know, I mean, yeah, they’re of minor importance, but you know that all politics is local to some extent, and especially when it’s within a CD. So I don’t care a tremendous amount about that as an indication one way or another. Neither of those districts are true cross-sections of the United States, whereas the entire state of Pennsylvania, that’s a real swing state. That really tells you something if that goes Republican this fall.

HH: Now I want to get to cable television with you, but first I’ve got to ask you, because not many people actually care much, I think you do about the United Kingdom and the election over there.

JA: Yeah, very much.

HH: What do you read into the surge by Nick Clegg? And are the UK’ers about to go Obama here, falling for the smooth-talking, telegenic lefty? Because Nick Clegg’s just a lefty.

JA: You know, they could. They could. I think that what the rise of Nick Clegg suggests is that people across the pond are sick of politics as usual, too. And Gordon Brown is really tired, you know, and he’s just, first of all, it’s coming out that he’s kind of a bully, not a very nice guy behind the scenes, he doesn’t have a very good record. People are sick of Labour, and the Conservative Party with Cameron, you know, began to make a case for coming back into power, but they, really, there’s some lessons there for the Republicans in this country. You do have to have a fairly well-articulated program to convince people to trust you with power again.

HH: Amen.

JA: And I’m not sure that they do.

HH: They don’t. There’s no there there. They’re not conservatives.

JA: I think you’re right, and they need more intellectual candlepower. And that intellectual candlepower exists on the right in Britain. They just haven’t fastened it to their politics.

HH: I couldn’t agree with you more. And I don’t know why Liam Fox isn’t front and center over there, but we have the same analysis. I think we could end up with a hung parliament for the first, I think it’s more than a hundred years, isn’t it, Jonathan?

JA: That would be a great story.

HH: Yeah, I know, not so good for the UK. All right, let’s get to cable land, and I don’t want to ambush you here. I was on with Donny Deutsch yesterday, and Donny Deutsch is fired today by MSNBC, because we got into it about Ed Schultz, and he criticized Keith Olbermann, and I criticized Keith Olbermann, and he didn’t defend Keith Olbermann. Now you’re over there a lot, Jonathan. What is going on at that network?

JA: Well first of all, you know, full disclosure, I’m under contract to them, right?

HH: Right, right.

JA: And I don’t think it’s classy to diss one’s employer and, you know, you don’t get any points for honesty or anything like that. It’s just not a classy move, so I’m not going to diss my part-time employer at MSNBC. You know, look, we have tried to sell ourselves as the place for politics, is the slogan, and there are going to be internal politics as well as external politics at any of these big news organizations and cable networks. But generally speaking, notwithstanding this flap, notwithstanding the David Schuster business, you know, generally speaking, we’ve been doing better in the last couple of years. I’ve had contracts going back to the first year MSNBC was on the air in 1996, and we struggled for a long time, more than ten years, before we finally discovered what Fox had learned in the 90s, which is attitude is what sells. Straight news doesn’t sell on cable TV, which is why CNN is having so many problems. So if you get a lot of attitude, you’re going to have, your successful anchors are going to be people like Keith Olbermann, who really project attitude. And people who are looking for something down the middle are looking in the wrong place. That’s why I think it’s so foolish for Fox to call themselves fair and balanced. That’s not what people want when they go to cable news. They want unfair and unbalanced.

HH: I do think they want, though, I do think they want talented spokespeople from the other side, and intelligence. Now I don’t expect you to diss Olbermann. I think he’s a lightweight. I think Ed Schultz is a joke. But you aren’t, Howard Fineman isn’t. I mean, they’ve got some smart people, and Matthews isn’t. But why don’t they have…

JA: Hugh, for the record, I disagree with that, but in terms of lightweight…I mean, you can say whatever you want about his show, but Keith and Ed are both intelligent guys.

HH: Okay.

JA: And you can hate everything they say, but they’re smart guys.

HH: No, it’s not that. There’s just no evidence of that in the way they present themselves – vulgar and opinionated and vituperative. But I want to ask you about whether or not you think you can actually have a conversation with the right that is extended, detailed and respectful on MSNBC, because I never see it the way I see it with the left on Fox.

JA: Well, I mean, I think that you see it sometimes with Pat Buchanan, and you know, there are examples of it where the right is represented. On Morning Joe, very often, you see it. And so I don’t agree. I think that there are examples. Could there be more? Sure. We could have some of those exchanges. One of the things I like about your show is that it’s helpful and informative for the audience to have people on the left and people on the right talk in a civil way about the important issues. And the problem is it doesn’t always make for great cable TV as CNN is finding out. It works better when you have the politics of validation, when people tune into Fox to validate what they already believe, or tune into MSNBC to validate what they already believe.

HH: True. Jonathan, we’re out of time. Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, thank you.

End of interview.

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