Open Mic

May 2010

Guest Blog: A Long Time 'Idol' Watcher Says that Show is Broken and Needs to be Fixed

Chuck Ross Posted May 27, 2010 at 1:10 PM

This is a guest essay from one of the biggest fans of 'American Idol" that I know; Judy Pollack, the managing editor at our sibling publication, Advertising Age, where I used to work once upon a time. For as long as I can recall, Judy has had a passion for "Idol."  Judy is based in New York City.

Memo to American Idol Producers:

Even 3,000 miles away, I can hear the gnashing of teeth over “American Idol” losing the vast viewership that Coke, Ford and others so covet. There’s fretting that those still watching are older and that the Idol voter base has bifurcated into two rabid factions that are skewing the results – teens and so-called cougars.

Given that, why in the world would you trot out a bunch of oldies-radio refugees for the all-important finale? There’s something seriously wrong when Bret Michaels commands the freshest, most-exciting moment of the program. Alice Cooper, Hall and Oates and Chicago all sounded as if they were out on leave from the rest home (Cooper at least still looked the part, I’ll give him that). And it’s downright sad when Michael Lynche out-sings Michael McDonald.

Now, I’m of the age to have appreciated these acts in their prime – hell, I even saw “Saturday Night Fever” in a movie theater. But if the idea is to revive “Idol,” bringing back the Bee Gees is not the way.

There were moments – Janet Jackson, Alanis Morissette and Christina Aguilera did the show proud. During their performances I almost regretted pulling my living room shades for fear of being seen watching. But for the most part, the show made we wonder if this is some sort of conspiracy to bury Idol post-Simon.

And speaking of Simon, what was with that I’ve-been-on-this-show-nine-years-and-all-I-got-was-this T-shirt sendoff? With Cowell being the best part of Idol all these years a far better farewell could have been devised – I mean, you had a whole season to put it together. Seeing Paula again was great and parading the former winners out was very touching, but it seemed oddly unfulfilling. Much of the blog chatter, in fact, isn’t about what was in the tribute but who wasn’t -- David Cook and Adam Lambert.

What’s more, it seems like you aren’t even trying anymore. In past finales, there were some exciting matchups for the two last contestants. Pairing Glambert with Kiss was pure genius. And though I will bow to your decision this season to have Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze match their gravely tones with Joe Cocker, saddling Lee with Chicago – ‘cause he’s from the Windy City suburbs, get it? -- was just plain insanity.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that there isn’t a lot of surprise anymore in who will win. I don’t want to take away from Lee’s talent – because he has it in spades – but as the years roll on it’s predictably the cute guy left standing in the confetti shower. Not that I have anything against cute guys, but it seems to me there’s less incentive for talented women to give Idol a shot.

And you wonder why last night’s preliminary rating is coming in the lowest since season one. Producers, I plead with you as an Idol fan: Please find a way to fix this. I really don’t want to have to watch ‘X Factor.’

'24': A Grand Finale or a Missed Opportunity?

Chuck Ross Posted May 25, 2010 at 7:01 AM

The finale of “24” actually began in the waning moments of the episode that aired on May 3rd.

Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) had just forced double agent Dana Walsh (Katee Sackoff) to give him evidence of the Russians helping in the plot to kill President Omar Hassan (Anil Kapoor) of the Islamic Republic of Kamistan.

Pleading for her life, Walsh asked Bauer, who is holding his pistol on her, “Tell me what I can do.” Bauer, choking back emotion, replies, “Nothing,” and proceeds to blow her away at point blank range.

It was a transformative moment for Jack. The final straw.

Yes, Jack’s been hurt personally before, starting in season one, when his wife was killed. And then there was his romance with Audrey Raines that went sour.

Jack had thought he’d never be able to love again. But then came Renee Walker, and Jack thought he had finally finished being an agent and helping the country and could salvage what was left of his life with Renee.

But then she too was killed, by the same Russians that had helped engineer Hassan’s death. Clearly Jack snapped. He was going on a personal vendetta to avenge her death—under the guise of exposing the Russian plot that not even the president of the United States wanted exposed. And Jack’s first victim was Walsh.

That set up the episode of May 10, officially known as Day 8 from 12 pm to 1 pm, brilliantly written by Chip Johannessen and Patrick Harbinson.

Jack, having gone rogue, is hunted by both CTU and the Russians. Bauer enlists the help of Jim Ricker, a former intelligence officer who is supposed to be dead and is living off the grid. Ricker, in an inspired choice of casting, is played by Michael Madsen.

In a sequence worthy of Academy Award-winning editing, Jack and Ricker thwart CTU and the Russians all in plain sight in a department store. By the end of the sequence, the Russian who shot Jack’s lover, Renee Walker—Pavel Tokarev (Joel Bissonnette)—is in the custody of Ricker and Bauer.

Then comes the most startling, jaw-dropping scene of the season.

Jack starts to torture Tokarev to find out the names of other Russians involved in the events of the day, including the killing of Walker.

Now remember, this is a show whose scenes of torture were widely discussed and criticized three years ago. Most notably, it was written in an article in The New Yorker that U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, met with the producers of the show. According to the article by Jane Mayer, he told them “that ‘24,’ by suggesting that the U.S. government perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the country’s image internationally. Finnegan, who is a lawyer, has for a number of years taught a course on the laws of war to West Point seniors—cadets who would soon be commanders in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right. However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by ‘24,’ which was exceptionally popular with his students. As he told me, ‘The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about ‘24’?’ He continued, ‘The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.’ ”

Some argued that “24” was a TV show and not real life and the students needed to realize that. Nevertheless, the show did seem to cut down on its scenes of torture.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago, and clearly Jack is at a point in his life where, dramatically, to be true to who he is and his state of mind at the time, he has to torture Tokarev to get what he wants.

And man, this had to have been the most grueling torture sequence ever in a mainstream broadcast TV show. Pliers, a blowtorch and some liquid that causes wounds to become excruciatingly painful were used. Tokarev didn’t break.

Finally, Jack realizes that the information he seeks is contained on the SIM card in Tokarev’s cell phone. Furthermore, Jack figures out that Tokarev has swallowed the SIM card.

That’s when Jack takes a knife and eviscerates the still conscious Tokarev. Bauer then sticks his hand inside Tokarev’s entrails to find the SIM card, which he gets.

While this is happening, Madsen’s character stands by in another room, waiting. Of course if you’re like me, you cannot help but immediately think of Madsen’s role in “Reservoir Dogs,” where, as the character Mr. Blonde, he tortures a police officer in one of the most brutal scenes in movies.

The torture of Tokarev is the nadir of Bauer’s life. He’s crossed a line from which he can’t return. Dead man walking. And he knows it.

In the ensuing hour the plot thickened but mentally that's where Jack found himself as the 2-hour finale raced to its close on Monday, May 24th. 

But then Jack starts on the road to redemption, convinced through the words and deeds of Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who is the one person who has always most understood him and loved him unequivocally.

Thus ends one of the best dramas—and certainly the best thriller—in TV history. A show groundbreaking in form, with one of the most charismatic, iconic lead characters ever to appear on TV. [To see my tribute to all that “24” achieved as a TV show, click here].

Now, Jack must go into exile, hunted by both the Americans and the Russians. Chloe will always have his back, and now it looks like Cole (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) is on his side as well. Plus a few other characters.

Time to bring on the “24” movie, that will reportedly be set in Europe.

No doubt some will argue that the ending was a cop-out since it has to set-up the movie.

Given Bauer’s transgressions, they will argue, the true tragic end would have been Jack’s death.

Perhaps so, but that might be asking too much of a TV show that caught the Zeitgeist after 9/11 and has meant all along to be a terrific crowd pleaser and thus, at the end of the day, is not a Shakespearian drama, but a Hollywood melodrama. #

'Lost' Finale: For Dance 10, Looks 5; and Did It Damage Whatever Future Potential the Franchise Has

Aaron Barnhart Posted May 24, 2010 at 11:57 AM


So, I’ve already rated last night’s “Lost” finale a 10 emotionally and a 5 narratively ... and the 5 was perhaps being generous.

Now here's the billion-dollar question: Did last night's finale do permanent damage to the LOST brand, or was it (to invoke Jack Shepard's time-dimension-crossing case of stigmata and write a caption to the above screen grab) merely a flesh wound?

In an interview with THR's James Hibberd in January, "Lost" co-creator Carlton Cuse said the following:

"The Walt Disney Co. owns 'Lost.' It's a franchise that's conservatively worth billions of dollars. It's hard to imagine 'Lost' will rest on the shelves and nothing will ever be made with 'Lost.' Eventually somebody will make something under the moniker of 'Lost' -- whether we do it or not. We just made a commitment to this group of characters whose stories are coming to a conclusion this May."

Cuse talks a good game — and it's hard to imagine that some of that future value, if realized, won't find its way into his bank account.

The reality, however, is that almost no television show enjoys much of an afterlife, certainly not one that can be quantified in the 'billions of dollars.' Perhaps, perhaps, the "Star Trek" franchise has achieved that kind of value in 2010 dollars. But it's hard to think of anything else that comes close — "Sex and the City," "Battlestar Galactica," "The X-Files"...

Even if "Lost" had had a stellar landing, it would've been tough to keep the love going through replay of past episodes and creation of future storylines with presumably new characters.

Last night's episode left more questions unanswered than answered — and that wasn't a good thing. Scroll to the bottom of this story and look at the "Lost" questions my colleagues came up with prior to the finale. How many were addressed last night? How many, given the gauzy, "Six Feet Under"-style ending of the show, can ever be answered? And how many of us, given the roller coaster of the last six years, can trust anyone connected to this show to ever give us straight answers?#

The Network Upfront Presentations, Part 2

Chuck Ross Posted May 20, 2010 at 5:25 AM

In my blog yesterday I wrote that I thought the broadcast networks need to share their upfront presentations with their viewers. They can either just broadcast the presentations or publicize how to watch them being streamed on the internet, or as I had fun doing yesterday, invent an even more compelling way to present them.

Besides some comments left on the blog that it was a stupid idea, one commenter, Doug, said that it was not a good idea because the networks often move a show’s timeslot after it’s announced in May and before its fall premiere. Since a number of programs are moved around even after their premieres, I don’t think that’s a reason not to share with the viewing public the upfront presentations as a way to get people excited about shows that are upcoming.

In fact, when I was a kid one or two of the networks actually had on-air campaigns for viewers to send in requests to receive a booklet about all about the shows coming in the fall. I very excitedly did that, and couldn’t wait for the new season to begin.

Today I want to share evaluations of this week’s upfront presentations from several perspectives. I interviewed a TV critic, a media planner and a top media agency executive who spent much of his career as a buyer, to get their reactions to the presentations. Since the presentations by the CW and Univision are later today (Thursday, May 20th), they were not included. (ESPN was also not included because not everyone interviewed had seen the presentation Tuesday morning.)

To get honest evaluations I told those I interviewed that I would not identify them by name.

First up, the high-ranking media agency executive who has primarily been a buyer most of his career. One of his primary responsibilities this week is to shepherd a few top executives of some marketers who spend a lot of money advertising on TV from upfront to upfront.

That being his priority, he ranked the NBC presentation the best, and CBS’ the most lacking. Why? Because NBC’s presentation at the New York Hilton was the easiest to keep his group together, seating-wise, while his group had the most trouble staying together at CBS’s presentation at Carnegie Hall.

Another factor he feels strongly about is that the networks should spend very little time on returning shows, and should make sure one of their visual aids used at the beginning of the presentation is a scheduling chart of some sort so both he and his clients are crystal clear at the outset about what new shows were being scheduled where.

He also likes the energy of a live presentation and prefers that both he and his clients see the presentations in-person.

By contrast, consider the young media planner I spoke to. While she was very aware of her professional responsibilities of seeing what new shows were being offered and where they fit on the schedule, it was clear from how her face lit up when discussing certain shows and stars clearly targeted to appeal to her age group that that's what got her excited about the presentations.

She was also much enamored with the networking aspect of the upfront parties, and getting together with her friends and colleagues at other media agencies. She liked the Fox upfront the best, and some of the upcoming shows she saw at the Turner upfront for TBS and TNT.

The TV critic I spoke with was unequivocal. The best presentations were CBS, Turner and Fox. He didn’t really care for NBC, especially, he noted, the monotone speaking style of emcee Angela Bromstad. Nor did he care for ABC's presentation. Perhaps not coincidentally, judging from the clips, he said he was least impressed with the upcoming shows of NBC and ABC.

As a journalist whose background is primarily as a reporter and not a critic, I thought the most polished presentation was that by CBS. I appreciated the fast-pace of the ABC effort. My favorite moment was the cast of “Glee” singing at the Fox upfront. Alec Baldwin had me in stitches at NBC’s upfront. Conan O’Brien at Turner was another hightlight, and I loved Kyra Sedgwick’s classy remarks about her show on TNT. Unfortunately, some of the other banter by the stars of the TBS/TNT shows was excruciating to sit through.

Of course the primary purpose of the upfront presentations is to introduce the new shows and fall schedules. On the scheduling side, the most buzz from those I spoke to was CBS’ move of “The Big Bang Theory” to Thursday. And most of those people thought it will be a smart move.

Judging the new programs is clearly problematic until one sees the pilots. It’s tough to truly evaluate them just off a short clip.

That  being said, “Friends with Benefits,” slated for midseason on NBC, looked fun to me. Many readers of this blog know that my favorite show on TV, “24,” is going off the air, and in the clips I saw I really didn’t see a potential substitute. And I know many of my friends who are into “Lost,” will be scrutinizing the fall line-ups as well when they debut.#

A Wakeup Call for the Broadcast Networks About Your Upfront Presentations

Chuck Ross Posted May 19, 2010 at 5:43 AM

While many of us in this Twitterized, FiOSed, Facebooked, Comcastic world have noticed that we’re a decade or so into the 21st Century, it appears that the broadcast networks have not.

Hey, even old fogies realize that we’re living in the world of “The Jetsons,” not “The Flintstones.”

I’m talking about the upfront presentations this week.

Where’s the pizzazz? The zing? Even advertisers need the zest. And I thought this was supposed to be the dawning of the golden age of the consumer, when he and she is supposed to be able to get his or her media when and where he or she wants it. When it comes to the upfront presentations, where are the viewers--many of them fans, if not fanatics, of some or many TV shows?

Weren’t the broadcast networks paying attention one Thursday night a few weeks ago when a most non-traditional program on cable was the one of the highest-rated programs of the night?

I’m speaking of the NFL draft. Shown in primetime for the first time, it was a huge success for the two networks that cablecast it, ESPN and the NFL Network.

OK, so that’s sports fanatics. What’s that got to do with the broadcast network upfront presentations?

Well, Mr. and Ms. Broadcast Network Control Freak, why not reveal the new fall schedule in a somewhat similar manner? Like the Emmys, the show would rotate from network each season, or perhaps be shown on multiple networks. And, of course, it would be live, and streamed over the Internet as well. Highlights would be uploaded as they happened to YouTube, Hulu and myriad other sites.

Time for the show.

On stage is a giant scheduling grid, empty at first. Dawn Ostroff of the CW bounces on stage to reveal the first show, Monday at 8 p.m. It’s…“Melrose Place.” But wait, hadn't the trades said that show was canceled? Yes, Dawn says, but, in fact, we hadn’t canceled it. Fooled ya!

Next up is Angela Bromstad, who says, “Can I ask Jack McCoy, to come up here and join me?” Laughter. Sam Waterston bounces on stage and reveals NBC’s 8 p.m. offering for Monday: the original “Law & Order.” But wait, hadn't the trades said that was canceled? Yes, Angela says, but, in fact, we hadn’t canceled it. Fooled ya!

Now it’s Steve McPherson’s turn. No, wait, it’s really J.J. Abrams walking onstage. The general public doesn’t know what either guy looks like, but it’s a good inside joke for those of us in the industry. Abrams reveals that ABC’s 8 p.m. offerering on Monday is “Undercovers.” But when he shows the short clip, it’s an old episode of “Alias” with caricatures of Brad and Angelina awkwardly affixed to some of the actor's faces. But wait, hadn’t the trades said this new retread was gonna be on NBC? Yes, J.J. says. Fooled ya!

Kevin Reilly is next, revealing Fox’s 8 p.m. entry, and it’s a stunner. It’s a game show: “Even a 5th Grader Can Figure Out When to Take the Offer From the Man Upstairs and Not Keep Playing Round after Round after Round Because, For Cryin’ Out Loud, the Suitcase You Picked Does NOT Have the Million Dollars in It.”

Finally, Nina Tassler, takes the stage. She explains how CBS is all about comedy on Mondays so at 8 p.m. they are presenting the comedy crime procedural--from Jerry Bruckheimer--“Murder She Wrote,” with Betty White playing a ditzy version of the beloved character first played by the younger Angela Lansbury.

As the oohs and aahs of the studio audience fill the air, our host, Al Michaels, tells us to stay tuned for round two after a short commercial break, adding that we’ll also be seeing Jimmy Kimmel’s commentary about the proceedings, as well as analysis by TV network executive Jack Donaghy. And if you’re on Twitter, Michaels adds, you can follow Paula Abdul’s incomprehensible observations.#

Betty White's Golden Moments on 'SNL'

Hillary Atkin Posted May 10, 2010 at 12:39 PM

Betty White didn’t — and couldn’t — physically bound out on stage to take the reins of “Saturday Night Live,” but her highly-rated hosting gig Saturday will go down in history as one of the 35-year old show’s sweetest moments.

See what a little Facebooking can do for a gal? Hard to believe the 88-year-old comedienne had never hosted the venerable late night show, although truth be told, it turns she turned down the offer several times — until the onslaught of online pressure finally got to her.

A new groundswell has already started urging Lorne Michaels to book her as a host next season. If there is not a precedent for a host doing the program twice in one season, perhaps it should start now, because sadly, there is not infinite time. For Ms. White, with her instant iconic hosting status, there can numerically be no rivaling of the multiple emcee gigs of Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin.

Highs and lows have marked “SNL’s” recent history, from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler's takes on Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton — and the general bullseyes struck regularly during Campaign 2008 — to Gabourey Sidibe’s stumbling and bumbling through most of her sketches just a few weeks ago.

From the moment White took the stage and ragged on Facebook, which she'd never heard of before, for being a waste of time for losers, viewers knew they were in for some great comedic moments. What else did you expect from a consummate pro who's been in the business for six decades?

White alternately charmed, cajoled and cussed in sketches ranging from amusing to hysterical. Talk about physicality. Even though she didn't dance frenetically in sketches, there was barely a moment in the all-too-fast 90 minutes when she wasn’t killing on camera — in guises ranging from a batty cat lady being interviewed by census taker Tina Fey to the star detective of ”CSI: Sarasota.” Three delectable times she appeared as MacGruber's grandma, the one with the tendency to reveal embarrassing personal information just before things totally blow up.

With “SNL’s” Mother’s Day edition also featuring female alums like Rachel Dratch, Maya Rudolph, Ana Gasteyer and Molly Shannon, all of whose talents are missed — and a reuniting of Amy Poehler with Seth Meyers on “Weekend Update,” White had an elite supporting cast to back her up.

As Shannon and Gasteyer took their roles as the geeky hosts of a public radio cooking show, you just knew you would be on the edge of your seat — waiting for a reference to the infamous “Schwetti balls” so deliciously showcased on the segment by Alec Baldwin. But the “muffin” schtick was right up in there. As White said, it hadn’t had a cherry on it since 1939.

Jay-Z’s two lengthy medlies of Blueprint material added to the special-occasion quality of the show, and as he shouted out after his performance of “Forever Young” with the mysterious Mr. Hudson, “This is for the incredible Betty White.” And to quote Neil Young, Betty, long may you run.

Roger Ailes and Fox News: Traitors or Patriots?

Chuck Ross Posted May 10, 2010 at 7:31 AM

There may be a truce of sorts at any given moment, but there’s no doubt that there’s been a war going on between Fox News and the Obama White House.

I thought about this on May 1st, during the White House Correspondents Dinner, as I watched it on TV and listened to President Obama as he turned to some serious remarks about journalism and media after he had delivered his jokes.

Here’s what Obama said:

“Earlier today I gave a commencement address at Michigan, where I spoke to the graduates about what is required to keep our democracy thriving in the 21st century. One of the points I made is that for all the changes and challenges facing your industry, this country absolutely needs a healthy, vibrant media. Probably needs it more than ever now.

“Today’s technology has made it possible for us to get our news and information from a growing range of sources. [We] can pick and choose not only our preferred type of media, but also our preferred perspective.

“And while that exposes us to an unprecedented array of opinions, analysis and points of view, it also makes it that much more important that we’re all operating on a common baseline of facts. It makes it that much more important that journalists out there seek only the truth.

“And I don’t have to tell you that. Some of you are seasoned veterans who have been on the political beat for decades; others here tonight began their careers as bloggers not long ago. But I think it’s fair to say that every single reporter in this room believes deeply in the enterprise of journalism. Every one of you, even the most cynical among you—understands and cherishes the function of a free press and preservation of our system of government and our way of life. And I want you to know that for all the jokes and the occasional gripes, I cherish that work as well.”

However, it’s clear that Obama doesn’t believe that Fox News is “operating on a common baseline of facts,” nor does he believe that they are seeking “only the truth.”

First, using the line that many have attributed to William Faulkner, I would caution Obama that “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.”

But Obama isn’t alone in his criticism of Fox News. One of the journalists I most admire, Bill Moyers, not surprisingly, also is not a fan. During the Bush administration he said Fox News functioned as the “Republican Ministry of Truth.”

In a speech Moyers gave in 2007 titled “Journalism Matters”—collected in his book “Moyers on Democracy”—Moyers wrote, “Rupert Murdoch could make a singular contribution to journalism simply by uncoupling Fox News from the Republican fog machine and giving it the mandate to report reality instead of attacking those who do. For sure we’d get more real news—what Richard Reeves calls ‘the news you and I need to keep our freedoms.’ ”

That last is an interesting point, and in my mind a key one. It speaks to the relationship of the liberty of the press to politics in a democracy.

My guidepost here is Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” which in another 25 years will be 200 years old.

Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who came to America to see how our democracy worked, and how it related to the social, political and economic stratums of society.

One of areas Tocqueville examined was liberty of the press in the political realm of our country.

“When the right of every citizen to a share in the government of society is acknowledged, everyone must be presumed to be able to choose between the various opinions of his contemporaries to appreciate the different facts from which inferences may be drawn.”

Tocqueville then gives this example: “ ‘The first newspaper over which I cast my eyes, upon my arrival in America, contained the following article:

‘In all this affair, the language of Jackson [the President] has been that of a heartless despot, solely occupied with the preservation of his own authority. Ambition is his crime, and it will be his punishment, too: intrigue in his native element, and intrigue will confound his tricks, and deprive him of his power. He governs by means of corruption, and his immoral practices will redound to his shame and confusion. His conduct in the political arena has been that of a shameless and lawless gamester. He succeeded at the time, but the hour of retribution approaches, and he will be obliged to disgorge his winnings, to throw aside his false dice, and to end his days in some retirement, where he may curse his madness at his leisure; for repentance is a virtue with which his heart is likely to remain forever unacquainted.’ ”

I think the appropriate response today to a tirade of this nature is “Ouch!”

Interestingly, the very same Richard Reeves that Moyers cites above, back in 1979, made the same journey across America that Tocqueville did. Reeves wrote about his experiences in a 1982 book titled “American Journey: Traveling with Tocqueville in Search of ‘Democracy in America.’ ”

Since Reeves was (and is) a longtime journalist writing about politics, I was most curious to also revisit his observations about Tocqueville’s thoughts on liberty of the press and politics.

Reeves talks about Tocqueville’s passage about Andrew Jackson in that newspaper that I quote above. Reeves writes that newspapers, in the time Tocqueville visited America in 1831, were, “generally, biased and nasty, ignorant and stupid. But [they were] lusty; the voice of a young people. Tocqueville was a bit shocked: these people were conducting the public’s business in public.”

Reeve notes that Tocqueville also wrote, “The Press—the channel of public opinion. Who would not submit to its occasional abuse rather than forgo the blessings of its freedom?”

And, Tocqueville wrote, most famously, of freedom of the press, “I love it more from considering the evils it prevents than on account of the good it does.”

Reeves then remarks that Tocqueville went on to say that “The evils the press itself might generate were small and many, because the newspapers themselves were small and many.”

But, what Reeves observed in his Tocquevillean journey in 1979 was something Tocqueville had not anticipated: the consolidation of the newspaper industry. Specifically, Reeves wrote about Gannett. “With Gannett as the model two-thirds of the country’s 1,769 daily newspapers—compared with 2,500 dailies in 1900—were owned and operated by chains.”

Reeves interviewed Gannett president Allen Neuharth, and Neuharth, of course, explained Gannett in terms of the business it was. “We are not, however, democratic in business,” Neuharth said, “I would prefer to do a moderately responsible and professional editorial job—our newspapers, I think you’ll find, are better than they were under their old owners—but this is, first, a business to make money…”

Reeves then asked him, “If one of your editors was meeting all business projections, bottom-line profit and the rest, and following all your internal procedures, but was taking an editorial line you found objectionable, what would you do?”

“Fire him,” Neuharth said, “That’s not our kind of journalism.”

Reeves later quotes a former Gannett executive as saying, “Gannett newspapers are not interested in power or influence as you understand it. They do what readers tell them. If someone proposes two expressways, they’ll favor one and oppose one. It doesn’t make any sense, but it keeps up appearances.”

Few, watching Fox News, would say it is not interested in influence, at the very least. And many would say that what Fox News does, hammering away at the Obama Administration, is just like what that newspaper article Tocqueville found in 1831 was doing to Andrew Jackson, multiplied at least 10-fold, since the network is on 24-7 and likely has a much larger audience than that newspaper had.

Tocqueville was clear that journalists are manipulative; “The characteristics of the American journalist consist in an open and coarse appeal to the passions of his readers: he abandons principle to assail the characters of individuals, to track them into private life and disclose all their weaknesses and vices.”

And Tocqueville says this is “deplorable.” Furthermore, he says, “The personal opinions of the editors have no weight in the eyes of the public. What they seek in a newspaper is a knowledge of facts, and it is only in altering or distorting those facts that a journalist can contribute to the support of his own views.”

So these are the evils of the press. Any yet,Tocqueville is unbending in his defense of the press, and its importance in a democracy: “Nowadays an oppressed citizen has only one means of defense: he can appeal to the nation as a whole, and if it is deaf, to humanity at large. The press provides his only means of doing this. For this reason freedom of the press is infinitely more precious in a democracy than in any other nation.”

Reeves, writing about how the press had changed 30 years ago, worried not only about consolidation of the press, but how the mere speed of communications could endanger democracy. The republic, Reeves wrote, was designed to be deliberate, with a slow and cumbersome process of governing.

Thirty years later, when one combines the ascension of news outlets such as Fox News, the continued consolidation and downward spiral of the health of the traditional newspaper business, I’d imagine those are developments that neither Tocqueville nor Reeves would have foreseen.

Neither would they have foreseen the explosion of the Internet and ascension of bloggers and Twitter. We are indeed in the age of information at light speed.

But I don’t know that that has necessarily sped up the political process.

As for the danger of Fox News to our democracy, I just don’t see it. Where Tocqueville said our great strength was in the diversity of opinions in so many independent newspapers, we now have that same diversity of opinion over the Internet.

Obama’s election itself argues against the hegemony of Murdoch and Fox News and Limbaugh and the like.

Like Moyers, I believe journalism matters. And I am not as cynical as Tocqueville that most journalists abandon “principle to assail the characters of individuals, to track them into private life and disclose all their weaknesses and vices,” though some do.

Moyers asked in his speech, “Where, then, does journalism stand as the future of our media world is being determined by the likes of Murdoch and by business models that target us as consumers instead of citizens? Honest reporting is so essential to the food chain of democracy, we can’t just throw up our hand and say that newspapers and professional journalism have to accept a fate where they become more marginalized—or made irrelevant from changes in attitudes and behaviors about media, especially from young people….”

I, too, worry about journalism as a profession, and having the resources moving forward to do investigative journalism, especially vis-á-vis the government and business.

But I also believe, as the boss said, we need to show a little faith, that there’s magic in the night.

We, as a free society, have access to enough information that, ultimately, we’ll make the right decisions. Or, at the least, the decisions the majority feel are right at the time. And when we get them wrong, we’ll eventually change our minds and throw the bums out.

Obama knows this. Here’s an edited transcript from an interview the president did in April with CBS’ Harry Smith:

Smith: I've been spending time, out and about, listening to talk radio. The kindest of terms you're sometimes referred to out in America is a socialist, the worst of which I've heard is, a Nazi. Are you aware of the level of enmity that crosses the airwaves and that people have made part of their daily conversation about you?

Obama: Well, I think that, when you listen to Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck..

Smith: It's beyond that.

Obama: It's pretty apparent, and, it's troublesome. But, keep in mind that there have been periods in American history where this kind of vitriol comes out. It happens often when you've got an economy that is making people more anxious and people are feeling as if there's a lot of change that needs to take place.

But that's not the vast majority of Americans. I think the vast majority of Americans know that we're trying hard, that I want what's best for the country. They may disagree with me on certain policy issues. There are a huge number of people who agree with me strongly.

And I didn't buy all the hype right after inauguration, where everybody was only saying nice things about me. And I don't get too worried when things aren't going as well, because I know that over time these things turn.”

That said, I’m sure Obama's administration and Fox News will continue to relentlessly go after one another.

And the messier it is, the better. That’s the nature of democracy and the press.#