In acting, the "4th wall" is the division between performer and audience. Seldom do actors break character to acknowledge or discuss things with the audience. It's generally not done, and when it is the effect is either comedic or disturbing.
Now we have MSNBC, putatively a news network, doing the news equivalent of breaking down the 4th Wall. Under president Rick Kaplan, MSNBC has embarked on what is apparently a deliberate strategy of breaking down the separation between people who cover the news and the news itself. It's not unlike the way gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson used to get ensnared in stories he covered, but without the drugs or legal problems or convention-bending results. The results, not surprisingly, are both comedic and disturbing
Take, for example, Joe Scarborough, host of Scarborough Country. Scarborough is on five nights a week, an hour a night, providing right-leaning news and analysis to MSNBC's audience. Topic A on Scarborough Country is, of course, the presidential election. So what does Scarborough do? He takes a week off from his broadcasting duties to travel to crucial swing-state Florida, where he campaigns for President Bush. He does this, apparently, without a lot of thought. Here's how Scarborough describes his wrenching ethical decision:
After initially refusing because I decided at the beginning of the campaign season to refrain from all political activities, I reconsidered for a number of reasons. I'm glad I did.
He's glad he did because it gave him a chance to watch President Bush close-up, and to gleen insights from that proximity. What he did, according to Scarborough, benifited his viewers, because he remembers now how great a person President Bush is. His viewers will no doubt sense his new enthusiasm this week, when Scarborough returns to Scarborough Country to report on the race for the White House.
There was a time when actively campaigning for a candidate you were covering was a no-brainer firing offense. I mean, duh. How can you campaign for someone and then even feign objectivity in coverage? You can't. But in Scarborough Country and Kaplan's World, none of that matters. In fact, if you believe what Kaplan told the New York Times, Scarborough's appalling breach of Newsroom Ethics 101 is something to brag about. Consider this, Kaplan's response to Scarborough's conflict of interest:
I'm glad he did it. It was good for the profile of the show to remind people he has an inside view of politics.
I really try to keep my voice down at moments like this, but have you ever seen a more perfect explanation of what it means to be a media whore than that? We're sucking up to the President because it's good for the profile of the show?
It would be easy to dismiss Kaplan as just another right-wing hack if it weren't for this: He's actually a left-wing hack. He's a former Nightline producer and worked for President Clinton during the 1992 campaign. He played a key role in CNN's broadcast of stories about America's use of chemical weapons in Vietnam, the so-called "Operation Tailwind" that doesn't seem to have actually happened.
Kaplan replaced Erik Sorenson as MSNBC president a couple of years ago. Sorenson started MSNBC's move to the right, bringing in Scarborough and even recent Illinois resident Alan Keyes as show hosts in hopes of balancing-out what was then a pronounced leftward tilt. Sorenson was on a roll but departed, as they say, "under a cloud" after one of his brilliant strokes of programming genius backfired. He gave TV time to vicious and bigoted radio host Michael Savage, whose star was without question on the rise at MSNBC until he told a gay caller who disagreed with him to "get AIDS and die" during his MSNBC show.
To be fair, every time Kaplan tries to run MSNBC as if it were really a news network he gets the shit beat out of him by conservatives. They wave Nightline and Clinton and Tailwind at him while they scream at the tops of their lungs about left-wing bias. It would be no wonder if the man occaisionally broke down and let the righties run wild. But as tempting as it might be to assume that allowing Scarborough to campaign for President Bush was just a case of self-preservtion, I'm guessing it's really something else. I'm guessing it's really a reflection of what Kaplan thinks news should be. He's breaking the 4th Wall between coverage and covered, which is profoundly more disturbing than mere ethical deafness.
The evidence for this is, I admit, thin, and consists entirely of Scarborough's foray into this year's campaign and one other incident: Ron Reagan's dual role at the Democratic Convention. Reagan, you remember, had a kind of coming-out party at the convention. First of all, he was a featured speaker, addressing the convention on stem cell research, a subject the convention would have skipped entirely had it not offered one of the great "fuck you" moments in the history of political conventions: The anti-Republican speech was given by the son of the recently-deceased former President and conservative saint Ronald Reagan.
When Ron Reagan wasn't giving the speech that undercut the Bush Admnistration's claim to President Reagan's legacy, he was co-hosting convention coverage for MSNBC.
Again, in a normal newsroom suggesting that a critical player in the story be allowed to play a critical role in coverage of the story would receive an automatic "no," coupled with a short-tempered "bring me an idea that stupid again and you're fired." But in Kaplan's world it was a perfect idea, breaking down the 4th Wall between journalist and subject matter and giving MSNBC claim to insider status the other nets couldn't match.
There's something about Kaplan's theory of journalism that is almost Gonzo, at least in the sense that he sees value in allowing his people to become part of the story they're assigned to cover. But what is accomplished by Kaplan's ethical laxity is not the kind of dada, performance-art insight Hunter Thompson tried, and usually failed, to accomplish. Joe Scarborough wasn't at the Bush rally flicking boogers on high-rollers; he was there to support, not subvert, the event.
In fact, what Kaplan accomplishes is exactly the opposite of what Thompson was after. Here's Thompson, dripping venom, from the Author's Note to 1973's Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail:
The most consistent and ultimately damaging failure of political journalism in America has its roots in the clubby/cocktail personal relationships that inevitably develop between politicians and journalists -- in Washington or anywhere else they meet on a day-to-day basis.
Far from scorning that clubbiness, Kaplan nurtures it. He does it, no doubt, because he thinks it will give MSNBC competitive advantage. It might, as a publicity stunt; certainly having Scarborough laughing and applauding behind President Bush at a political rally raises the MSNBC host's profile, and -- extra added bonus points! -- gives Kaplan the ability to fend off conservative attacks for a few days longer. But if the goal is more insightful and informed coverage, Kaplan's strategy will probably fail.
The insider-ness Kaplan seeks to build, if history is an measure, almost guarantees that MSNBC's coverage will be less informative and less insightful than that of competitors working from the outside. Does Kaplan really believe Scarborough came back with usable information? Maybe. But if he does, he's mistaken, and he need look no further than the run-up to the Iraq War to know why.
Before the war, all the big journalism insiders worked hard to cultivate personal relationships with people high in Bush Administration, the so-called "senior administration officials" that powered their stories. The journalists put enormous stock in what those officials told them. Who, after all, would know more than the Big Guys?
The A-List journalists reported almost without question what they were told: Weapons of mass destruction were real, were about to be used, and were a clear and present danger to the United States. (I know: The President never used the words "clear and present danger." Others did.) They reported Al Qaeda's deep connections with Saddam and traced the trail of breadcrumbs that lead from Iraq to the World Trade Center.
And they were wrong. As it turned out, the Big Guys were adept spinners more than they were sources of accurate news.
The only significant news organization that didn't swallow what the big guys were saying over drinks at the Army-Navy Club was Knight-Ridder. That's because no one invited Knight-Ridder to the Army-Navy Club for drinks. Washington reporters Warren Strobel and Jonathon Landay were not of sufficient stature that Condi Rice or Donald Rumsfeld blessed them with the on-background wisdom that absolves elite reporters of having to do actual work. Here's a story about Knight-Ridder's coverage that makes the point:
Strobel says their conclusions came from a lot of extra digging and source-building they were forced to do without the red-carpet access to high-level officials that some of the nation's top media outlets enjoy.
"Knight-Ridder is not, in some people's eyes, seen as playing in the same ball field as the New York Times and some major networks," Strobel says. "People at the Times were mainly talking to senior administration officials, who were mostly pushing the administration line. We were mostly talking to the lower-level people or dissidents, who didn't necessarily repeat the party line."
This is, interestingly enough, exactly the experience Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had when they started digging into Watergate. They were two kid reporters without any White House sources, and they were almost chased off the story by editors who had been assured by high-level Nixon Administration officials that there was nothing behind what President Nixon dismissed as a "third-rate burglary."
So here we are, a few decades later, watching Rick Kaplan gamble whatever credibility MSNBC still has on an "insider" strategy that will almost surely fail when it comes to providing the public with actual information. In the process, he'll give Scarborough something like 50 hours of national time to shill for President Bush under the guise of news analysis. During at least a few of those hours, Scarborough and his guests will thank Kaplan for the unprecedented latitude they enjoy by whining and bitching about the media's leftward bias.
When all is said and done, both journalism and American political discourse will have been cheapened. Americans will trust their great institutions -- both political and informational -- less. And Kaplan, like everyone else in the news business, will be toast.
Everyone involved in this should be ashamed of themselves. They're probably not, but they should be.