Tuesday, March 07, 2006

A Helping Hand

A former CNN anchor updating his resume

THE AWFUL TRUTH. We can't help feeling bad for Aaron Brown, the brilliant former anchor of CNN's News Night with Aaron Brown. He was perfect for the job, which really couldn't have been adequately hosted by any small sharp-faced mammal whose name wasn't Aaron Brown. He did what was expected of him and yet he still got fired. No wonder he's still agonizing about what went wrong and why he lost his place in the sun. The good news is, he's figured out who's to blame: Fox News, Natalee Holloway, and all of us:

Former CNN anchor Aaron Brown has suggested that television viewers are responsible for the deterioration of broadcast news as much as the TV networks themselves.  "In the perfect democracy that I believe TV news is, it's not enough to say you want serious news, you have to watch it," he told an audience in Medford, OR this week. As reported by the Medford Mail Tribune, Brown, speaking to a First Amendment forum, noted that while CNN was spending a fortune covering the 2004 tsunami, Fox News was channeling its resources into the missing teenager Natalee Holloway. The contest, he noted, was won hands down by Fox. The result, he suggested, was not lost on his former employer, CNN. "The news in this country is a business," he said. "You might not like to think of it that way, but it is." He suggested that television, instead of being diverted by scores of late-breaking trivial stories, ought to focus on the 6-10 "really important stories" that occur each day.

It was because CNN spent so much money covering the tsunami that they could no longer afford to pay the greatest newsman in the country his salary, which would have been a lot higher in the first place in the ideal world in which news is not a business, but a kind of priesthood led by a handful of geniuses who have the brains to tell the rest of us what we should think about everything.

When he lays it on the line like that, it makes us feel guilty. We know we should have been soaking up Aaron Brown's wisdom instead of watching Greta slogging through the landfills of the Caribbean looking for headlines and missing blondes. But we were bad. We ignored Aaron, sometimes for years at a time. We'd like to make it up to him. Here's our best shot.

Somebody as drily acerbic and intellectual as Aaron Brown probably doesn't know how to blow his own horn enough. We suspect his resume needs a touch-up, a kind of "greatest hits" roundup of his deftest observations about the news. So we did some googling and came up with an array of material  he might like to incorporate into his curriculum vitae. First up is this brief summary from Wikipedia:

Aaron Brown (born November 10, 1948 in Hopkins, Minnesota to Jewish immigrants from Russia) is the former host of NewsNight with Aaron Brown on the television network CNN.

Aaron Brown is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota. He dropped out after his freshman year to work at a local radio station and never returned.

Brown has over twenty-six years of experience in journalism and was CNN's lead anchor during breaking news. He also hosted "CNN Presents," a documentary series, and was co-anchor during election coverage.

Prior to working at CNN Brown was the anchor for ABC's ABC World News Now, and also did anchoring duties at both KIRO-TV (CBS) and KING-TV (NBC) in Seattle.

That's all you really need in the way of hard facts. The rest of the content should be devoted to illuminating the incredible insight, integrity, and objectivity of his reporting. That's why we (and he) are so lucky that the Media Research Council has been collecting direct quotes by the great man for several years now -- available via their search function. Here are our nominations for topics and punchlines Aaron should set before potential employers in his job search.

About the victims of Hurricane Katrina

“I don’t know if it’s race or class, to be honest....You do get the feeling that poor people in the country get shafted.... Do you think black America’s sitting there thinking, ‘If these were middle class white people, there’d be cruise ships in New Orleans?’...Do you think the reason that they’re not there or the food is not there or the cruise ships aren’t there or all this stuff that you believe should be there, [and] isn’t there, is a matter of race and/or class?”
— Aaron Brown to Democratic Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones on CNN’s NewsNight, September 2, 2005

Yes, of course. Politicians in this country can't wait to not do anything for poor black people. It gets them such great press when Jesse shows up on the doorstep screaming "Racism!" Aaron's Murrow-like sagacity about such low political motives is probably one of the strongest levees we have against a terrible flood of right-wing racism.

Rove criticizes Democrats, Durbin compares U.S. troops to Stalin & Pol Pot

“The Washington Times: ‘Rove’s mockery of 9/11 liberals riles Democrats.’ Karl Rove making, I thought, some silly comments in a week of silly comments, with the dumb Dick Durbin comments for which he apologized. Mr. Rove will not apologize, I guarantee you.”
— CNN’s Aaron Brown going through the next day’s newspaper headlines on NewsNight, June 23. 2005

This one shows that Aaron has mastered journalistic math, which features equations like (2,000 casualties = 60,000 casualties) and (100 million murdered = 535 criticized). Also (100 million < 535) if the Democrat on the lefthand side of the equation mumbles a half-assed apology while the righthand side stands mute.

The WMD Mantra

“Long ago, the principal argument for the war, weapons of mass destruction, proved wrong — they didn’t exist. Everyone knows that now, even if we aren’t exactly sure how the intelligence service and the administration got it so wrong. One answer comes in the so-called ‘Downing Street memo’ written by a British intelligence official who says the WMD threat was deliberately exaggerated to sell the war. Neither the President nor the British Prime Minister would acknowledge that — how could they? — but the memo is out there, along with the two allies today, side by side by side.”
— Aaron Brown on CNN’s NewsNight, June 7, 2005

Here, Aaron produces a pretty little cornucopia of journalistic talents: convenient misremembering of the recent past, restatement of an oft-repeated but debatable supposition as a proven fact, and the presentation of a partisan charge as if there were no reason of any kind to dispute it. All wrapped in the most perfectly superior tone. God, what a talent.

On Mark Felt identifying himself as Deep Throat

“I want to spin that in an absolutely heroic way, that what actually he saw happening was the political side of Washington trying to take control of an institution with enormous power that needs to operate outside of whoever is in government at any given time....I don’t know, ‘hero,’ that’s not a word I throw around. But it just looking at the landscape at the time, what Washington was like, it does make a kind of moral sense to me.”
— Aaron Brown discussing Felt’s role as a Washington Post informant on CNN’s NewsNight, May 31.2005

It's always cool when journalists presume to possess moral sense. It's kind of like snipers and hitmen waxing eloquent about the surpassing virtue of good marksmanship. You're so impressed at the misdirection that you almost forget the underlying question. What would constitute a hero to a Washington journalist? Go, Aaron!

On the Plight of Poor, Poor John Kerry

“Okay, time to do morning papers....Stars and Stripes starts it off: ‘U.S. Troops Control Most of Fallujah,’ the headline. ‘U.S. Officials Believe Most Insurgents Have Fled the City.’ Look at this picture here, if you can. ‘Troops’ Bravery Honored in Iraq.’ These are all Purple Heart winners. Someday, one of them will run for President and someone will say they didn’t earn the Purple Heart. Welcome to America.”
— CNN’s Aaron Brown on the November 10 2004 NewsNight displaying a front-page photo of a line of U.S. troops in Iraq receiving their medals.

Maureen Dowd is the queen of shoehorning large-scale (and frequently tragic) stories  into cocktail party metaphors for the purpose of scoring catty points against her political foes. No one can hope to best her at this signature device, but every  mainstream journalist has to demonstrate basic competence in this skill. Aaron has.

Kerry vs. Bush military records

“One guy went to Vietnam and the other guy didn’t. The guy who went most likely could have avoided going, but didn’t. The guy who didn’t go made it clear he had no interest in fighting a war he says he supported. To the extent that any of this matters all these years later — and I’m not sure any of it does — that’s really it.”
— Aaron Brown on CNN’s NewsNight, September 8. 2004

The artful summation is what broadcast journalists really get paid for. You've got to know what to include (one side), what to leave out (the other side), and how to take credit for the elegant simplicity of your misrepresentations. Nobody can say Aaron doesn't excel at artful summations.

On the Kerry fundraiser at which Whoopi Goldberg compared GWB to her vulva

“I don’t know about this as a front page story, we could argue about whether it’s news or not: ‘Republicans question Kerry’s “heart and soul;” Cite vulgar remarks at concert attended by him.’ There was an event in New York yesterday. Got a little crazy. Anyway, I’m not sure it’s front page. But it’s their paper and they get to do what they want.”
– CNN anchor Aaron Brown previewing the next day’s Washington Times on the July 9 2004 NewsNight, which did not otherwise mention the Democratic fundraiser.

The news is what mainstream journalists say it is. Many simply ignore events they don't wish to anoint as news. A brilliant few actually go out of their way to ridicule events that look like news to their less talented competitors. Aaron is one of those brilliant few. All together now: Whoopi!

Countering the charge of right-wing bias in journalism

“Is it, do you think, I mean this is a criticism that we get a lot, particularly from the Left, that we in the media generally have not been aggressive enough in reporting on bad news and that we have been too willing to accept the administration’s message on good news?”
— CNN anchor Aaron Brown to former CBS and NBC correspondent Marvin Kalb, now a senior fellow with Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, on the May 11 2004 NewsNight.

Playing it straight down the middle is the Holy Grail of journalism. Wait. That's not right. Convincing your audience that you're playing it straight down the middle is the Holy Grail of journalism. Any way you can. In this quest, Aaron Brown is Sir Galahad.

On Bush campaign strategy

“The best defense is a good offense, they say, and the Bush campaign seems to be buying. On a week when the President and Vice President will go before the 9/11 commission, on a week when the Supreme Court will hear a case to open the records of the Vice President’s energy task force and, on a week that will end on May 1, the anniversary of the President’s speech declaring major combat over in Iraq, the Vice President took to the stump today to say John Kerry’s judgment on national security is questionable....It is a somewhat strange set of circumstances that 33-year-old questions are being asked of a candidate who volunteered to go to Vietnam and served with distinction, however briefly.”
– Aaron Brown on CNN’s NewsNight, April 26. 2004

The broadcast journalist lives in the arena of the spoken word, which opens up opportunities not quite as available to print journalists and pundits. One of these is the smooth non-sequitur, that combination of statements in a sequence that seems to make sense but does nothing of the kind. In the example above, Aaron pulls off the astounding feat of using the exact same illogic for his own purposes that he is falsely accusing the President of using for campaign purposes. Don't see it yet? Read it all the way through again. When Aaron declares it "strange" that "33-year-old questions are being asked," he is implying that Bush's stated doubts about Kerry's national security credentials are based on Kerry's Vietnam War record rather than his presidential campaign rhetoric and his votes in the Senate. The Bush campaign never said any such thing. So what is it that's really "strange" here? That it's Aaron who is defending Kerry's national security credentials, not with reference to his contemporary political record, but with an historical artifact he himself has just deemed an irrelevancy, that the senator "volunteered to go to Vietnam and served with distinction." It's beautifully done and proof positive that Aaron belongs in the front rank of broadcast journalists.

On Howard Dean

“The Dallas Morning News leads politics. ‘A New Dean or the Old One? Candidate’s Ultra-Liberal Label May Peel Back to Reveal Moderate Bent.’ In fact, I think Dr. Dean is more moderate than ultra-liberal, and so do a lot of other people. But I’ll probably get in trouble from conservatives for saying that.”
– CNN’s Aaron Brown previewing selected articles from the next day’s newspapers, January 22, 2004 NewsNight.

We've shown you that Aaron is schooled in numerous sophisticated journalistic techniques. But technique must go hand-in-hand with good old-fashioned political acumen. How might our recent history have turned out differently if Aaron hadn't been so perceptive about the essential moderateness of Howard Dean? It sends a chill down your spine, doesn't it?

On Global Warming

“Once upon a time, a scientist named Galileo said the Earth was round, and the political leaders of the time said, ‘No, no, Galileo it’s flat,’ and Galileo got life under house arrest for his little theory. Today, the vast majority of scientists will tell you the Earth is getting warmer and most would agree that industry is at least in part to blame. So far nobody’s gone to jail for saying that, which doesn’t mean the idea isn’t squarely at the center of a political dust up – and not an insignificant one at that because, if the charges leveled against the White House are true, an important environmental question is being twisted or ignored for the sake of politics.”
– CNN’s Aaron Brown on NewsNight, June 19.2003 Galileo was actually punished by the Catholic Church for saying the Earth revolves around the sun.

The casual observer might not think so, but journalists have to know a lot of stuff, even about science and things like that. It's where they get all those brilliant comparisons they make to explain the truth to dummies like you and me. Yeah, Aaron's not going to get an A+ for the Galileo part of his comparison, which didn't come out completely 100 percent right, but he has to know more about Global Warming than he does about Galileo, doesn't he? It's been on TV and in all the papers, and you know he reads the papers. Or the headlines anyway.

On Rush Limbaugh's drug addiction

“Rush Limbaugh has been more than a bit unkind to me more than once. He’s also been unkind to Al Franken, who in turn has been unkind to him. He’s taken shots at Michael Wolff, New York magazine’s media critic and Michael is hardly the retiring sort. So, here we all are, Al, Michael, and me, and the subject is Rush – made worse, no doubt, by the permanent smirk that seems to be attached to my face.”
– CNN’s Aaron Brown on the October 10 2003 NewsNight after Limbaugh announced he was seeking treatment for an addiction to prescription pain medicine.

Goodness and fairness are important too. It wasn't nice for Rush Limbaugh to do things like repeat some of the quotes we've been reviewing here, which means -- if you poseess the exquisite moral sense of an Aaron Brown -- that it's perfectly right and proper to smirk at the very public personal troubles of Rush Limbaugh. In fact, if your'e good enough and fair enough, it's practically mandatory to smirk, and make cruel jokes, and express every kind of delight in your erstwhile adversary's misfortune. After all, everyone's only human. Except Rush Limbaugh, of course.

On Schwarzenegger's repeal of the California automobile tax

“With a stroke of the pen he cost the state tens and tens of millions of dollars in that car tax money.”
– CNN’s Aaron Brown on the November 17 2003 NewsNight.

There are certain inviolable commandments about life. Even for journalists. One of these is that all the money generated by a capitalist system really belongs to the government, which means that personal income is the amount of money the government generously allows you to keep, and any cut in taxes is to be counted an intolerable cost to the government. What can we say? Aaron Brown is a devout journalist.

On the Ten Commandments controversy in Alabama

“A number of things have been is that this is, in some respects, a replay of what we saw in Alabama a generation and a half ago, when the Governor defied a federal court order on segregation, which he said was unlawful. Can you tell me why you view this as different, if in fact you view it as different, from what Governor Wallace did?”
– CNN’s Aaron Brown to to Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who would not remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from the state’s Supreme Court building, on NewsNight, Aug. 20.

We said certain commandments. These are not to be confused with the Ten Commandments, which are the last refuge of evil segregationists, as everyone knows. Well, journalists know it anyway. At least, Aaron Brown does. Thank God.

On the heinous murder of Uday and Qusay

“Why not wait ‘em out, starve ‘em out? Try and take ‘em alive as opposed to engaging in this gun battle? Once they had ‘em surrounded and cornered, they weren’t going anywhere.”
– CNN’s Aaron Brown to retired General David Grange on NewsNight, July 23.

Well, one of the Ten Commandments is probably okay. The one about not killing, especially if the ones we're talking about killing are sworn enemies of the United States of America who have raped and tortured and murdered thousands of people under cover of our network's deal to give them favorable press as long as we get to hang out at the palace with them. What ordinary American idiots don't know, of course, is that Uday and Qusay weren't such bad guys when you got to know them, and much more entertaining to dine with than that cowboy criminal in the White House. Uh, where were we? Right. Killing. It's very very bad. And probably just another political cover-up.

On the African uranium deal
Aaron Brown: “There is, as you know, a story that’s been circulating on the Web today that there was at some point a conversation between the President and a CIA consultant where the consultant directly told the President that this African uranium deal was bogus. Do you have any reporting that supports the idea that the President was directly told it was fake before he included it in the State of the Union speech?”
David Ensor: “I have no way to confirm that story, and it is somewhat suspect I would say, but we’ll have to check it.”
– Exchange on CNN’s NewsNight on July 9. The Internet news site which originated the story had acknowledged it was a hoax and published a complete retraction four hours before Brown repeated the charge on his newscast.

Speaking of cover-ups, a journalist always has to be on the alert (a la Dan Rather) for the story that is being suppressed just because it's false when everybody who is anybody knows it's really true, or sort of true, or should be true, because it would make such a damn good story. And that's journalism in a nutshell, which is where you can always find the mind of an Aaron Brown.

On the Wellstone Funeral

“I find myself at exactly the right place for a reporter tonight. I’m annoyed at both political parties, and you can’t be more fair and balanced than that. Last night’s event in Minneapolis – calling it a memorial insults the dead – was totally tasteless....Equally shameless has been the reaction received here. There may in fact be non-partisans upset with the event, they may in fact exist. They did not make themselves known in our in-box today. Instead, what we received was a series of identical letters....I don’t mean thematically identical; I mean literally identical. Word for word....So here is what last night proved: One side can be tasteless and the other side has the computer skills to cut and paste under the guise of genuine outrage. Which is worse? To me it’s a tie.”
– Anchor Aaron Brown’s “Page Two” commentary at the start of CNN’s NewsNight, October 30.2002

Yes, we remember the Wellstone funeral too. No matter how long we live, we will NEVER get over the ugliness of the fact that Republicans objected to it and had the unmitigated gall to communicate their objections to the mass media via boilerplate language. It was unspeakable then, it's unspeakable now, and it represents a permanent dishonoring of the memory of Paul Wellstone. And the Democrats shouldn't have done what they did either, like Aaron pointed out.

On (Saint) Jimmy Carter

“There is hardly a troubled place in the world he hasn’t visited, worked in, in a quest to bring peace and spread democratic values....Jimmy Carter told Larry King today he is slowing down some, cutting back. Age makes globe-trotting especially hard. But in many places, dusty and difficult places, James Earl Carter has brought hope and dispelled, as well as anyone alive these days, the vision of the ugly American.”
– Aaron Brown on CNN’s NewsNight, October 11.2002

Great men. It takes one to know one. And Aaron Brown is one for the ages.

This brings us full circle. We began by imagining journalism as a sort of priesthood instead of a grubby business under the thumb of the entertainment industry, and we've arived at the kind of larger-than-life role model that a man like Aaron Brown has always done his best to live up to. In the process, we've learned much. As the materials we've assembled demonstrate, Aaron Brown is simply too good for the news business as it is practiced by for-profit corporations. That's why we think he should mail his updated resume to the NPR/PBS combine, where they must be seeking a replacement for spiritual leaders like Bill Moyers (retired, awaiting canonization) and Daniel Schorr (awaiting retirement but possibly immortal). He'd be a good fit there. In our opinion. But what do we know? We're only human.

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