The Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning critic blogs at TVWeek.com with wit, humor and strong opinion.


Tom Shales

September 2006 Archives

The Main Event: Clinton vs. Wallace

September 26, 2006 6:06 PM

When people can’t argue content, they always attack style. We can assume Bill Clinton made valid points during his now-famous verbal tussle with Chris Wallace on Fox News because of the hysteria with which some people attacked Clinton afterward. He struck a nerve, it appears; instead of disagreeing with what he said, critical observers are attacking the way he said it, where he said it, when he said it, how he said it, and who he said it to.

Chris Wallace handled himself well enough during the discussion but why, afterward, did he have to whine and complain as if the former president had been mean to him? Especially since Wallace violated the ground rules for the session by asking only a couple perfunctory global warming questions (Clinton’s current cause celebre) and then pouncing on terrorism and making Clinton as much a target as an interviewee.

Both the political right and left in this country seem overstocked with crybabies, but many on the right seem quicker to whimper and simper. A few years ago, a sad old TV correspondent wrote a blistering book assailing the media for being too liberal—that tired charge. The book was vicious and malicious. But if anyone attacked it, its author went nuts with indignation, yelping like a dog whose paw someone stepped on—crying “foul” when anyone did to him what he’d done to many people in his book.

It’s like the Islamic extremists who, if you call them prone to violence, threaten to kill you for insulting them—an inconsistency examined by the brilliant Charles Krauthammer in a recent column.

Face-to-face with Clinton, Wallace obviously wanted to show off and “get tough,” but then quickly turned into a baby when Clinton had left and Wallace was asked for comment. His father Mike Wallace, one of the greatest of all network news personalities, never dished out what he couldn’t take. He never behaved like a sissy-pants when someone he’d roughed up got mad.

Nobody really owes anybody an apology for the Clinton-Wallace session because it was good TV. And it wasn’t just fireworks but a meaningful if abbreviated dialogue. Clinton has every right to defend himself vigorously, as does anybody who’s being interviewed and feels they’ve been wronged or taken advantage of. Clinton was energized and galvanizing; he spoke with force and finesse. Ronald Reagan was The Great Communicator but, except for his penchant for being long-winded, Clinton was at least The Very Good One. He was wise to be on the defensive when venturing into Fox territory and smart to come armed with articulate and persuasive responses.

There was an exhilarating kind of tension to the encounter, perhaps because in the backs of our minds we wondered if Clinton might feel so taunted by Wallace that he’d lose control and pop him one. As it was, he leaned forward and got into Wallace’s space, if not his face, and turned a testy little tiff on a cable news network into the most riveting television of the week.

Newsflash: NBC's is Better Than CBS's

September 21, 2006 11:39 PM

Wearing apparel, fancy sets and gimmicky format changes aside, NBC is doing a better nightly newscast than CBS (Sorry, Charlie – Charlie Gibson of ABC News – for now I can only watch two network newscasts a night).

Tonight (Thursday, Sept. 21), for instance, NBC’s produced pieces were better on virtually every story that appeared on both networks. Katie wasted time with a disappointingly deferential interview with billionaire Richard Branson, who made a big donation to fight global warming – a soft news story – while NBC reporters were looking deeper into such big stories of the day as the drop in drug prices announced by Wal-Mart.

NBC at least pointed out that Wal-Mart has been heavily criticized for the health plans available to its own employees, a relevant fact in this story. On two or three other major items of the day, the NBC reports had more substance than the corresponding CBS stuff.

And NBC anchor Brian Williams had better feature material too, including a media-wise piece on “Dr. Z (Dieter Zetsche),” the Chrysler CEO whom the company’s ad agency has been trying to pass off as a cute commercial spokesman a la the late Dave Thomas of Wendy’s. The campaign has been a huge flop, mainly because the Teutonic “character” of Dr. Z is creepy. Ad whiz Jerry della Femina said in a sound bite: “This guy looks like he’s going to hurt me.”

Excuse me for trying to sound like a smarty, but I said roughly that to myself the very first time I saw one of the commercials. Dr Z looked mean, and he snarled at a group of children. Also, I thought he was selling Mercedes Benzes, not Chryslers, with that German accent and hokey mustache. So Dr Z goes back to the boardroom. And I go back to watching network news, hoping to compare ABC’s with CBS’s in the near future. So far, Williams and NBC are clearly superior; the CBS evening news is nightly, weakly.

D.C. To-Do: Quinn Party For HBO's Goldwater Doc

September 14, 2006 5:37 PM

Talk about your quintessential Washington affairs: Hostess Maximus Sally Quinn tossing a backyard dinner party at the Quinn-Ben Bradlee Georgetown mansion in honor of "Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater," a new HBO documentary on the late Barry Goldwater, Republican Arizona senator and one-time presidential candidate, that gets its premiere on the cable network Monday night (Sept. 18) at 9.

A tent was set up in the narrow but very deep yard—just beyond the tennis courts which are just beyond the pool—and guests included Sen. John Warner, columnist and commentator George F. Will, former MPAA Chief Jack Valenti, ex-CBS anchor Bob Schieffer, a smattering of HBO executives (including Sheila Nevins, in charge of nonfiction programming), MSNBC's never-shy Chris Matthews and too many more to list.

Some were in tears during the more emotional parts of the doc, and Quinn told an HBO vice president how impressed she was that everybody stayed for the entire film—no early sneaking out as usually happens when a movie is shown after a dinner in this hungry and impatient town.

Quinn and Goldwater were close friends; she and Bradlee are both interviewed in the film, as are many of those who attended the party. CC Goldwater, the senator's granddaughter and executive producer of the film, paced nervously through the crowd before the screening began but was reportedly much encouraged by the audience reaction. They loved the film and, if they didn't love Barry Goldwater when the film started, they did by the time it ended.

Katie Bar the Features

September 6, 2006 11:00 AM

There weren't that many of those "what-WERE-they thinking?" moments on Katie Couric's debut as anchor of "The CBS Evening News," and maybe the heavily-hyped hoopla really does deserve a certain respect merely as a gesture -- though having the first solo woman anchor of an evening network newscast this late in the game hardly takes your breath away as a piece of feminist progress.

And Katie with her knee-jerk perkiness makes kind of an odd feminist hero. It isn't being sexist, by the way, to notice what she's wearing. Look at all the grief Dan Rather endured when he put on a sweater, or got a too-close, Marine-style haircut. Appearance counts -- on television if anywhere. And you did have to wonder what they were thinking to let Katie step out for her debut in a white blazer that tucked at the tummy-button as if she were suddenly pregnant, perhaps with some kind of immaculate conception.

The conceptions behind the show were not immaculate. They were moldy, some of them. "Free Speech," one segment, harks back to the earliest, earliest days of TV, when, like today, they had more channels than they could fill (even if there were only three-to-five in a given town) and thus, perhaps more in desperation than inspiration, opened their cameras and mikes to the proverbial person on the street.

In Chicago, it was artfully done on a show called "First Freedom" that aired on the local ABC affiliate (forgive me if I have the wrong network, but I am 99.9 per cent sure, and we're talkin' three or four decades ago -- as I was reviewing TV even at the age of five). On the new "Evening News," the first "average Joe" to step before the camera was an egomaniac who must have hired a press agent or two by now: Morgan Spurlock, whose name sounds like the mad doctor in an old monster movie ("The Deadly Dr. Spurlock," "The Island of Dr. Spurlock"). Anyway, he's a shrieking bore who spouted tired old cliches from the Spiro Agnew era. And a promised "average Joe" for Thursday night's telecast is that overexposed Blimpus Americanus, Rush "pass-the-pills" Limbaugh. Come on. That's stale thinking and unimaginative casting.

And both those things plagued other segments of the show. Katie needs more support, and maybe needs to assert herself more. As it stands, "The CBS Evening News" has been turned into the first half-hour of the "Today" show -- though, mercifully, with mirror-loving Matt Lauer absent. If this is a revolution in network news, it's going to have to get a heckuva lot more revolutionary. But to restate the obvious (at least I hope it's obvious): Katie, we still love you. We just want you to have the surroundings and the show you deserve, you little supertalent you. Oh, and it would be nice, on the next edition of "The CBS Evening News," to include some actual news amongst the special features, special segments, and other elements that weren't, by any stretch, special.

In Katie we still trust. She's a hard-workin' gal, and she knows her oats, and I'm sure there are more cliches that apply, but those will do for now.

With love to Katie from Tom Shales.

Techno-Theological Lesson for Today

September 5, 2006 4:59 PM

Age of modern miracles, huh? Yeah right. I would estimate based on my past 20 years of usage that one out of 10 amazing gadgets actually does, satisfactorily, what it's alleged to do—without returning it to the factory, pleading for help at the store or kicking the living excrement out of it.

I write this having just had the last word over a so-called "all-in-one" printer and fax machine made by a company whose first initial is "h" and last initial is "p" and I shan't disclose what letters if any go in between. The piece of junk hasn't worked since the day it came into the house, and after one final negotiating session today, Katie Day (Sept. 5, of course), I hurled it to the floor and smashed its guts to bits, an exhilarating instant of conquest over not just one monster-machine but, symbolically, over all the monster-machines that have taken over the world.

What really sets me boiling is when the machine tells you a bold-faced or even mild-faced lie, and repeats it over and over until it becomes a matter of either tearing your hair out or assailing the beastly contrivance—i.e., one of us is going down. "Paper too narrow" for printing or faxing, the Model 2200 kept saying. Too narrow? Narrow??? It was standard 8 1/2 by 11-inch copy and fax paper. There was no way to "widen" it. In fact there was only one practical alternative: destroy the machine, then go out and buy a new one.

That's what "they" depend on, the evil forces that foist this stuff on us all, and it's the greatest job of foisting since the industrial revolution was one day old.
My DVD recorder from a major four-letter named brand? A nearly useless, trouble-prone clunker. The fabulous video game I bought my godson? Unreliable at best, and only able to accommodate one player instead of the advertised two. The pod things all my godchildren wear like charms around their necks? Charmless and only occasionally functioning. Downloaded songs, no matter how legal, are often distorted and fuzzy.

My home PC is ready for the scrap heap after maybe four years of service one could hardly call "faithful." It just stops working, on a whim, and taunts me with lies and red herrings. Its days are numbered, I assure you.

As for cell phones, don't even get me started.

There is but one wonder that still seems wonderful, that has a fairly tolerable failure rate and rarely disappoints me: My HDTV, a rear-projection LCD whopper. Such gorgeous pictures that I get lost in them. The other night I found myself watching a documentary about excavating Outer Mongolia. No bull! It sure wasn't edgy, but it sure was beautiful.

One problem: over-the-air HD signals are extremely sensitive to climatological fluctuations. In other words, when it rains, the picture's all pores. Or high-definition snow or faithfully rendered darkness. But otherwise Dave looks better, Jay looks better, my local news on Gannett-owned WUSA looks better, and by golly, maybe life looks a little better—when some piece of gadgetry actually does what it is supposed to do.

Gee, I wonder how KATIE will look? She may not be HD, but she'll at least be digital. Oooh boy, better get busy cleaning my glasses. Oh but wait—something's beeping. One of my gadgets. Just beeping as if lonely, or wanting attention. It'll get attention, all right, all right.

All right!