February 20, 2015
The news that any media-watcher could have predicted is finally being confirmed, after months of rumours.
The Ronan Farrow show has been cancelled, a year after many people thought it should never have been created in the first place. Also out is the Joy Reid show, The Reid Report. There is now talk that Chris Hayes, host of the peculiarly titled All In, might also lose his spot. There are or will no doubt be rumblings about Rachel Maddow and Melissa Harris-Perry next.
The Daily Beast reports that MNSBC President Phil Griffin wants to staunch the bleeding in ratings “by accentuating straight news over left-leaning opinion.” An insider source says, “Going left was a brilliant strategy while it lasted and made hundreds of millions of dollars for Comcast, but now it doesn’t work anymore...The goal is to move away from left-wing TV.”
MSNBC’s shows, including those headed by Maddow and Harris-Perry, have never been “left” or “left-wing” or “left-leaning,” and they never will be. The network’s execs might be yearning for the days when Keith Olbermann once brought in ratings and money by excoriating George Bush but, really, how much does it take to prove you’re on the left of George Bush? Devoid of easy targets and faced with slippery neoliberals like Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and, yes, even Jeb Bush, who is furiously reinventing himself via the pages of the New York Times as some kind of undiscovered liberal, it’s going to get harder to find an easy target.
At the heart of the Farrow hiring was and is the biggest lie both media and consumers like to hold up: that what matters most is not substance or talent, but the ability to attract attention. In Farrow’s case, Griffin unashamedly went about letting the world know that he had, in essence, hired him on the basis of his popular tweets. Once on camera, Farrow proved to be — and there is no kind way to put this — a complete dud. Behind his tweets, Farrow seemed a savvy and smart citizen of the world, helped by a reputation for being some kind of a boy genius and his fame as the progeny of two very famous parents (it now turns out that he may actually be the biological son of Frank Sinatra). Once on camera, he fumbled and bumbled his way through. Someone once wrote about Farrow that he seems like the precocious kid at the party, the one who can talk comfortably to all the adults but has no clue how to interact with people his own age.
But as any (painful and cringe-inducing) clip of his show indicates, Farrow can’t really hold his own on camera, with anyone, appearing more like an eager but slightly confused novice than someone whose first three days on his show earned him the now completely dubious award, the Cronkite Award for Excellence in Exploration and Journalism.
There’s a lesson here, one that the likes of Griffin will continue to ignore. The lesson is not that younger hosts should not be hired, but that talent has very little to do with the ability to create controversies and a fake following.
An analogy: I’m often asked by people what it takes to be a writer. A lot of times, not always but often, it becomes clear to me that what they mean by “writer” is, someone who attracts attention and whose work goes viral.
As an unaffiliated rat bastard without a permanent gig (I want to be clear that my status as a freelancer is one that I cherish, so this is not a plaintive call for a regular post somewhere), I’m always excited when a piece of mine strikes a chord somewhere and is posted around. I regularly repeat my posts on social media, shamelessly and with the gusto required to keep my head and name above the fray. And then I continue with my writing, moving on to the next piece. The point here is that I decided a while back that being a writer is a lifetime pursuit for me. Sometimes a piece makes it through and garners a lot of attention, while another sits quietly awhile and accrues views over several months, sometimes years. I keep writing and, I’ll go so far as to state with no false modesty, my readers find and continue to support me.
This is antithetical to what is widely assumed to be the measure of media success. People like Griffin, and the majority of media commentators, like to think that the mere form of a platform — such as social media — dictates whether or not it is suitably edgy or likely to draw viewers, and that quick bursts of attention will determine staying power. That’s the logic that placed a completely talentless Farrow at the center of a giant media circus. But Griffin and his team vastly underestimated the intelligence of the purported audience of “young people” (a category that everyone likes to think they know but no one really understands, and which is a far more complex political and social entity than Griffin et al could ever fathom), starting with the mistake of conflating his relatively large number of followers with a youth demographic.
There was much professed surprise that Farrow’s Twitter followers didn’t follow him to television and create enough media buzz to generate millions of viewers. But Twitter “followers,” in the case of micro-celebrities like Farrow, are not really a quantifiable mass of people invested in someone’s work. In the case of Farrow, whose fame rests almost entirely on that of his parents and their scandals, it’s likely that the vast majority of his followers were simply making sure they had ringside scenes at the spectacle of his family feud.
Unlike some of my comrades on the left, I don’t actually think it’s evil to want more readers or viewers or followers (hey, subscribe to my website!), but unlike so many of my fellow media analysts, I also don’t think that media excitement translates easily into actual people wanting to spend time watching or reading your work: long-term loyalty is not the same thing as the first volcanic eruptions of fame.
Farrow is, in a way, a very particular case in that he had no talent to speak of and that’s not necessarily the case with Chris Hayes, who is actually very, very smart but seems lost on a show with peculiar camera angles and a too-obvious desperation to seem “hip.” Maddow is an annoying liberal, and Harris-Perry is a turncoat who adopts whatever position seems likely to most endear her to the audience of the week. They are not likely to regain their freshness in the wake of the upcoming presidential election, one where the easily drawn lines between Democrats and Republicans will not be so easily discerned. But they can at least figure out which camera to look at and how to speak coherently to it.
Still, in the end, Farrow will fall on his feet. Perhaps another sibling will be prodded into some other kind of revelation before being chewed up and forgotten by the press, giving him and his ghoulishly hyper-maternal mother more ammunition for well-paid speaking gigs and media appearances. There have long been rumours about him being gay, and I suspect that Farrow, who knows how to exploit media outlets far better than how to actually be on them, will come out but only at an opportune moment, and the ever-gullible and vapid gay press, always obsessed with celebrities and swag, will grant him some kind of platform.
Or, more likely, given his many political connections, which I discuss in this piece, he’ll be our next Samantha Powers and the US will spiral further towards world domination. There will be blood, and there will be millions of more adoptees for the taking.
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