Will Ted Kennedy Upstage The Most Heartbreaking Moment In The Health Care Debate?

jeffrey-feldman iiIn what may turn out to be the cruelest irony of the year, the death of Senator Edward Kennedy may have papered over a CNN video clip poised to change the dynamic of the national healthcare debate: footage of a desperate woman crying “We need help!” because she lost health insurance after her husband suffered a brain injury.

Introduced by CNN’s Rick Sanchez on August 25 — just a few hours before Kennedy’s death from brain cancer was announced — the video shows a middle-aged woman at a town hall meeting explaining to Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) how her husband’s insurance was canceled while in a nursing home. “Senator Coburn,” the woman cries out in anguish, “We need help!” She then tries to explain over her own tears how her husband cannot even eat or drink properly as a result of not having coverage to pay for care.

Coburn’s reaction to the pleas for help is what makes the clip so arresting.

At first, Coburn assures her that his office will get her some assistance, but then he hedges. Rather than approaching the woman to comfort her, Coburn tells the town hall attendees to remember that neighbors must help other neighbors, and concludes,”The idea that the government is the solution to our problems is an inaccurate — a very inaccurate statement.” In reply to the desperate plea for help from a constituent, Coburn serves up a cold spoonful of Republican ideology.

The clip is the most emotionally raw and devastating media moment of the entire healthcare debate so far. Here is an ordinary American, unguarded, showing the world what it feels like to be deprived of private health insurance at the very time when she needs it most. In an instant, every cry of “tyranny” and “socialism” in previous town hall footage seems insignificant, as does every circumlocution about “quality” and “affordability” by President Obama. The story captured in the CNN clip is so fundamental, so understandable, so penetrating that it will likely tip the balance of the news coverage in favor of reform from this point forward.

Were it not for the story of Kennedy’s death sweeping the headlines, millions of Americans by now would have seen the Oklahoma woman pleading to Coburn and heard the Senator’s cold response. Those tears would have change hearts and minds in the healthcare debate.

Sanchez, to his credit, set up the short clip precisely to show the contrast between the cry for help from an American and the ideological deflection of a Senator. It is a stunning moment of political engagement.

In the long struggle to cover the healthcare debate, cable news has been caught by its own choice to consider even the most outlandish claims offered at the town halls. But up to this point, the networks have not shown what many believe is the most critical side of the healthcare reform story: the fear tens of millions of Americans experience when they are stripped of or denied health insurance at the most desperate moments of their lives. Now CNN has shown this exact dynamic.

While the death of Edward Kennedy, along time advocate for national healthcare reform, wraps the debate in a new symbolism, the CNN clip of the Oklahoma town hall hits at the emotional core of the call for reform.

The moral argument underpinning the healthcare debate should, as a result of the CNN clip, shift from one of “government threatening individual liberty” to one of “Americans in need of help to get the care they need.” But with so much media attention now focused on the implications Kennedy’s death holds for the healthcare debate, the lone pleas for “help!” from a woman in Oklahoma may wither and fade.

A cruel irony indeed.

Amidst all the talk of paying tribute to Senator Kennedy, perhaps now is the time for CNN to bring this powerful clip back into the headlines.

Dan Abrams Remembers Dominick Dunne

smile-dd-selectA-048It was no easy feat becoming Dominick Dunne. Think about it. He was the most celebrated chronicler of downtrodden socialites. He feasted on their famine with little sympathy or admiration for their formerly exalted positions. Yet somehow they invited him back. Not only was he invited back to the most exclusive and social-est of socialite events, but his attendance celebrated. If Dominick Dunne’s cackle could be heard in the room, it was, by definition an A-list event.

So how did he do it? How in the often surreptitious world of vapid excess did he break their tacit rules of secrecy and still return to a hero’s welcome every night? How did the man once blackballed from the Hollywood insider scene he so adored manage to avoid reliving that fate as he dissected the innards of the latest society scandal? Some might say, as he aged, his unimposing appearance helped. Small, rotund and bespectacled, walking with what might be described as a waddle, Dominick never looked or felt remotely intimidating. But that explanation hardly does him justice. He was not a jovial “little man.” Dominick Dunne had a dark side and dark past. In the end, he utilized the same tools that made him a great reporter to transform himself into an equally welcome, acclaimed, and ever so eloquent social traitor.

He listened, he followed up, he cared. Truly. He knew what people wanted to hear and said it, often along with a guffaw. Dominick working a party often felt like an animated film — bright colors, loud noises, and action packed adventure. But more important he extracted confidence by regaling groups with self-deprecating stories of his own life as well as amusing but relatively innocuous gossip about others. His disarming manner combined with the media muscle of his Vanity Fair column led most to forgive what might be seen in some cases as social perfidy. Maybe forgive is too strong, because he also had something so many of them coveted, the key to a world of fame and, when necessary, the key out.

On the one hand, the uber-social, and often equally wealthy were generally appreciative of, if not downright eager to be mentioned by the equally social (but not quite as wealthy) Dominick Dunne, but they almost never wanted to be the subject of his latest piece. After all, that likely meant that he or she was accused of something dark, scandalous and almost certainly criminal.

I met Dominick when I was a cub reporter for Court TV on the OJ Simpson case. He was, at that time, just beginning to enjoy his notoriety as a celebrity journalist covering and critiquing the celebrity world. During the nine months of that trial all the reporters developed the sort of friendships you generally only develop in college living together day in and day out. Day after day we took our assigned seats in the courtroom and then met in the hall during breaks as we stalked the attorneys. As a 28-year-old reporter for a small cable channel, I turned to him as a mentor. I was hungry and eager to break stories. He admired that tenacity and devotion. But he wasn’t looking to be the purveyor of sage advice. He wanted information from me too.

What started as a symbiotic professional relationship became a cherished friendship. He introduced me to his fantasy world. It felt like he knew everyone in Hollywood. Anytime we went out to dinner to discuss the latest in the case, we would spend a third of the evening greeting well wishers, often faces anyone would recognize. “Oh and you must know Dan Abrams of Court TV,” he would say, which, of course, they didn’t. But it wasn’t just social. He was working too. Many would provide him with a nugget of information or gossip at which point he would scramble to scribble it down in one of his leather notebooks. They trusted him and so did I. His work was his life because his life was also his work. The things he seemed to love most were socializing with the elite and then writing about them.

He was forty years my senior and I would say that even then he was less like a father figure and more like my great, cool, interesting friend. I introduced him to girlfriends, went out for nights on the town and shared some of my most jealously protected secrets. While I did not see him as much in the last few years I always knew he was there when I needed him and vice versa.

I will miss my pal Dominick Dunne. I am sure his funeral will be just the sort of event he would have loved. Based on who will be there, I am sure he wishes he could have been there to cover it.

Meet The Prensa: Rossana Rosado, Publisher of El Diario

rosana rosado“It was not a campaign of El Diario to get her to the Supreme Court,” she says firmly. “Clearly, no amount of campaigning can get you that job. She filled all the criteria.”

Rossana Rosado, publisher and CEO of one of the fastest growing newspapers in the country chooses her words carefully but not without passion. She is of course, talking about Sonia Sotomayor, whom her newspaper chose as one of its Remarkable Women for 2009 in May, right around the time her name was being mentioned as one of the most likely Supreme Court nominees. New York legislators Charles Schumer and Nydia Velázquez — the two politicians who championed Sotomayor’s candidacy — were at the banquet for the awards. Sotomayor was the main speaker at the event. El Diario published op-eds and editorials, rallied politicians and community leaders behind the Bronx-raised judge.

Yet Rosado won’t call it a campaign.

“What we did was to support the candidacy of a Latina who was super-qualified for that job,” she says. “The fact that she happened to be a Latina and happened to be a New Yorker was simply aligned with our mission.”

Rossado’s own mission, her ascendance to a powerful role in the Hispanic community of New York, was full of turns. Starting as a desk assistant for WCBS-AM in the early eighties while she was still a student at Pace, she soon realized she needed to take a different route to “rise through the newsroom.” That led her to become City Hall reporter with El Diario, producer with channel 11, and Vice President for Public Affairs at the Health and Hospitals Corporation of New York City. In 1995 she returned to the newspaper as Editor-in-Chief, becoming publisher four years later.

“It has been some incredible 25 years in New York media,” she says with a sigh of relief. Then she looks through the windows of her Brooklyn office, which offer an impressive sight of New York City — all river, bridges, projects and buildings that fill the horizon.

But what if it, instead of Sotomayor, the Supreme Court candidate had been a white Republican man?

“Well, it would have not been as aligned with our mission,” she says, letting out a laugh for the first time, before recovering her public New Yorker persona.

“I would like to think that we would have been supportive of any New York candidate for the Supreme Court.”

*    *    *

In a conversation with Mediaite’s “Meet The Prensa,” Rosado addressed the balance between advocacy for her readership and journalistic objectivity, the profile of her readership, and why Impremedia does not need a national Hispanic newspaper.

Watch here:

Rosado on local media: “As we have more and more choices in media, we as citizens still go to the most local media we have…I think that El Diario is one of those products that is severely local. It just resonates with people.”
Rosado on why there isn’t a national Hispanic newspaper: “Does there need to be? The Impremedia strategy is to put together existing papers that already have their [long-ingrained] roots in the community…to create a new brand is much more difficult… Do we need a USA Today model in Spanish? I don’t think so, no.”
Rosado on who reads El Diario:
“I think in the past people have assumed that if someone is reading El Diario they don’t speak English. And clearly that’s not true.”
Rosado on the myth of journalistic objectivity: “There has long been a myth about journalistic objectivity. And in fact most journalists are not objective — and in fact most news organizations today are not objective…I think one of the reasons why the New York Post is so popular is that people know exactly what they’re getting and they’re very clear about where they’re coming from and what their editorial line is. And I think some other papers are ambivalent about who they are and what they stand for. We’ve always been very clear that we have a sense of mission toward our readership…I think what you strive for in journalism is balance and fairness, in other words, do you have both sides of the story? And I think that’s different from objectivity.”

Limbaugh Thinks Obama is After His Penis

rushboAs Steve Krakauer reported on Monday, rapper Jay-Z has commenced beefs with both Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and radio host Rush Limbaugh, telling them to “fall back” and “get off (his) balls,” respectively. O’Reilly launched his own short, not-so-sweet reply last night, but it was El Rushbo who took the cake for weirdness-of-rejoinder. Apparently reticent to engage Hova, Limbaugh instead set his sights on President Obama, accusing the Commander-in-Chief of being some sort of Dick Reaper. Here’s Limbaugh’s response:

You heard correctly. Here’s the transcript of the relevant passage:

I would remind the rapper Jay-Z, Mr. Z, it is President Obama who wants mandated circumcision. We had that yesterday. That means if we need to save our penises from anybody, it’s Obama.

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, the President does have bigger things to worry about.

From whence does Limbaugh conjure this fantasy that has him beating off Obama’s Circumcision Squad with a stick? Is there some kind of proposal afoot to slice up Rush Limbaugh’s tackle?

Apparently, he pulled the idea out of Fox News’ ass, where it then exploded across the trembling right-wing blogosphere. They take a CDC report recommending circumcision as a way to prevent the spread of HIV, and tack on a phrase, “Universal Circumcision,” that appears nowhere in that report, or anywhere else. From there, it’s off to the races for painfully dumb and/or painfully dishonest conservative blogs.

As for Rush, his panic is understandable. The government, under George W. Bush, has already gone after Little Rush once, in a way, detaining him for posessing Viagra without a prescription. Still, the odds of something like that happening again are pretty stiff.

In Lean Times, Fat Is In

According to prim and brazen New York Times Stlye columnist Guy Trebay, this summer’s look is pretty much the same as last summer’s, except for one addition: This summer, the people have spoken and pot bellies are in. “Too pronounced to be blamed on the slouchy cut of a T-shirt, too modest in size to be termed a proper beer gut,” Trebay has named this summer’s crop of trendy bellies ‘Ralph Kramdens.’ (I’m still holding my breath for an “On The Street,” by the way.)

Lizzi Miller

Lizzi Miller

Trebay is not alone, however. Glamour’s September issue won the applause and acclaim of its readers (and even the women’s blog Jezebel) for a stunningly unabashed but not self-congratulatory photograph of model Lizzi Miller, who flaunts a supple roll of fat and a positively beaming smile. “It’s a sign of the time that women are looking for more authenticity, a little bit less artifice in every part of their lives,” said Glamour EIC Cindi Leive to Matt Lauer on Today this week. “Will it change our approach? I think it will.” There you have it: Look for more ‘plus-sized’ models in your copy of Glamour soon.

And then there’s Cintra Wilson, one of Trebay’s colleagues in the NYT Style section. Wilson penned a “Critical Shopper” column earlier this summer that offended readers across the country — overweight readers in particular (if you missed that bit of above-the-fold news, catch up here). That was nearly two weeks ago, but the Times, among others, is still chattering about it (read: getting traffic from it).

Clark Hoyt, the Times‘ public editor, said in his column this weekend that Wilson wrote her mockingly disdainful piece about the arrival of a J.C. Penney’s in downtown Manhattan with “virtual sneer seeming to drip from her keyboard.” Hoyt also relayed the thoughts from his colleagues: Fashion editor Anita Leclerc classified Wilson’s writing style as “stream of consciousness … full of barbs.” Executive editor Bill Keller said the column “would make a fine exhibit for someone making the case that The Times has an arrogant streak.” In his mind it should have never been published. Hoyt even reported that Wilson said her work was “provincial” and that it was “dumb on [her] part not to see this coming.”

Ralph Kramden.

Ralph Kramden.

If Glamour learned the lesson that readers will respond positively in spades when they see realistically shaped people validated in print, then the Times has learned quite the same lesson but in the opposite way: Average readers will loudly disapprove when they find the stores that average income, average-sized people shop at lambasted in their newspaper. Along with toned bellies, pretension is very out (Anna Wintour went on David Letterman, for God’s sake).

But what has happened to the fantasy of print? The glamour of Glamour? The elitism and perfection of Vogue? The brave provocation of the Times?

Lewis Grossberger chimed in yesterday on his True/Slant blog to put a an end to the Gray Lady’s pity party, calling Keller a “Louis XVI wannabe” and Clark’s column a “hit job on the witty and readable Wilson.” Why such harsh words? Because, he says, Wilson’s only sin is writing well and being funny — and “Damn few people can do funny!” Instead Wilson has been made to apologize for her craft and a column that Wilson’s fans probably enjoyed.

But Grossberger is excessively harsh on the Times. His writing feels vindictive — when has the Times ever been about flash and pop?

Let me now make this diatribe even more apocalyptic: You, Clark Hoyt and the cluck-clucking, brain-dead editors (starting with the Times’ Louis XVI wannabe, Bill Keller) who agreed with your Babbitt-like op-ed-page hit job on the witty and readable Wilson, are one of the reasons why the Times is having that little problem we all keep hearing about…you know, the sliding-into-oblivion thing?

Because it’s boring. Always has been but now, because there’s actual competition, people notice. And here you are, Clark, proclaiming, “Let’s make it still more boring!”

This might just be the absolute worst time in the history of newspapers to come out for boring.

That’s a stretch, and the nuance of Grossberger’s point is lost in his anger. The Times is not becoming more boring, it’s just going about the business of trying to save face and keep readers happy (ever-important in this climate, right?). Hoyt’s column, after all, was more symbolic than anything else. I don’t see Wilson losing her job or trying to flatten her ‘barbs’ any time soon, otherwise she wouldn’t be the writer she was hired to be. Grossberger hits that nail on the head.

This summer’s newfound media sensitivity to overweight readers probably, like everything else these days, has something to do with the economy. Simple-minded though it may be, attitudes about weight have to shift in lean times. I’m reminded of an article from 2001 about beauty queens in Niger who eat animal feed to plump up for their pageants. But that’s a bit much — America’s fantasy body image isn’t going away any time soon, though we certainly eat less healthy food when money is tight.

The economy — insofar as it has forced magazines and other mainstream print outlets to march down a rocky road, splattered with the red ink of hemorrhaging ad pages — has definitely played a role in pushing the fat question. Rather: the question of how we should talk about and handle fatness in the media. Magazines somehow have to remain a luxury good that fewer people will pay more for (or something like that), while not seeming so detached and frivolous that nobody can stand to pick one up.

Meanwhile, the Internet is constantly reminding everybody in the media business that being opinionated and even offensive is a great way to make cash, get buzz and attract eyeballs online; even if a select slice of readers walk away with a bad taste in their mouths, click numbers are still up and ads are still more valuable. This commerce is trickier for established newspapers like the Times, hence the apology. Even so, think about how many clicks Wilson’s column generated (including the traffic generated by Hoyt’s column) and then consider how many readers the Times lost because of the incident. How many people really cancelled their subscription or are boycotting NYTimes.com because of a trivial Style column?

For now everyone has had their cake. Overweight readers have made their voices heard (or at least acknowledged) by editors at a popular and widely read Condé Nast title and the New York Times. But will this just be a recession-era summer love affair with the fat? Will more plus-sized women really make it into the pages of Glamour? Will the Times really be more mindful of offensive ‘barbs’ that might catch the sides of fat readers? And will all the Ralph Kramdens of the world wilt once stock indexes boom again?

Frankly, we have hope the answer to all of those questions is no. Otherwise the things we read will only become more vanilla. And as any fat kid could tell you, vanilla tastes best with the toppings piled on high. Nuts are our favorite.

Terror Alert ‘Bombshell’ More Smoke and Mirrors than Smoking Gun

threat_levelFormer Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s new book has been causing quite a stir this week, with media outlets hyping the “bombshell” revelation that the book proves that the Bush administration manipulated the color-coded “Terror Alert” system for political gain. However, American Spectator’s Caleb Howe has read Ridge’s book, and he calls this frenzy a con job.

Here’s an example of the kind of reporting that’s being done on Ridge’s book:

The kernel from which this story springs is a passage in Ridge’s book in which he describes a meeting with Don Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, and others. They try to convince Ridge to raise the alert level based on new, nebulous threats by al Qaida. Ridge evinces suspicion of Rumsfeld’s and Ashcroft’s motives, and says of the meeting:

“I wondered, ‘Is this about security or politics?’”

That would put Ridge on par with millions of other Americans, but it isn’t “proof” of anything. Spectator points out that current media accounts leave out an important, earlier quote from the book.

Earlier in the book, addressing the allegations that political pressure had been applied to raise threat levels, Ridge has this to say:

“Let me make it very clear. I was never directed to do so no matter how many analysts, pundits or critics say so.”

As Rumsfeld might say, “Did the administration manipulate terror alerts? You bet. Does Ridge’s book prove that? You tell me.”

OK, fake Donald Rumsfeld, I will. No, it doesn’t prove it. Spectator has a full statement from the office of the real Donald Rumsfeld, with excerpts from the threats that were discussed.

Ridge’s doubt was significant enough that he writes that it confirmed his decision to resign. Again, this is persuasive, as is the weak sauce trash talk that Rummy and Ashcroft used to try and sway Ridge, but it isn’t proof.

Far more persuasive is a review of the timing of terror alerts, which Keith Olbermann ran down in a 2005 Countdown segment. Ridge, himself, notes the corrollary between terror alerts and Bush’s approval ratings. Again, this is smoke, not fire.

With many political stories, you’re just not going to have a smoking gun, but that doesn’t mean you should go ahead and carve one out of soap.

Frank Rich and Rachel Maddow Are Worried About Obama and the Gun-Toting Crazies

Frank Rich guns“I think we have a problem,” said Frank Rich to Rachel Maddow on her show Wednesday night. He was talking about people bringing guns to health care rallies. Yesterday’s distraction about whether or not MSNBC deliberately edited footage of a black man with a gun so they could then talk all about dangerous white anger was just that: a distraction. A red herring, stirring up outrage over a questionable side issue when the main point is:  people are bringing guns to events where President Barack Obama is speaking. And man, is that scary.

Gawker’s John Cook has been writing about this a fair bit, and made this point on Monday:

It’s become a political meme: AR-15s are the new campaign buttons. First it was William Kostric, the New Hampshire Ron Paul voter who waited for Obama to arrive at a New Hampshire event carrying a sign with Timothy McVeigh’s favorite quote about killing tyrants. Today, the Arizona Republic reports, an African-American who would prefer not to give his name was walking around outside the Phoenix Convention Center, where Obama is giving a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, armed for an insurrection.

That quote about killing tyrants? Kostric’s sign said “It Is Time to Water the Tree of Liberty”; it referenced this quote from Thomas Jefferson: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” However much this guy swore up and down to Chris Matthews that he was just hanging around on a church lawn to, you know, spectate, let’s maybe take that with a grain of salt. Even without knowing that one of his heroes was a white supremacist, there’s the sign. And the gun.

Maddow reported on Wednesday night that the gun-toting protesters who showed up in Arizona were actually called to action by a right-wing radio host, Ernest Hancock, who told CNN’s Rick Sanchez that it was a publicity stunt. O-kay. Scenario: What is they had all shown up with intent to do something other than publicize? The implications are a little worrisome. Except by “a little” I mean “extremely.”

Rich and Maddow have a frank and honest discussion about it, and not only is it worth noting, it’s worth noting that it belongs to a growing body of work centered around being very, very nervous.

Let’s Just Say It: We’re Scared Someone’s Going to Try to Kill Barack Obama
Calling Off the Assault Rifles at Obama Rallies [The Atlantic]
Gunning For Trouble [LATimes]
Guns at Obama Rallies: Where’s the Outrage?