Panel Nerds: Byron Pitts Just Scratches The Surface

nerdzWho: Byron Pitts (“60 Minutes”)

What: The New York Press Club’s book event for “Step Out on Nothing

Where: McGraw Hill Building

When: November 10, 2009

Thumbs: Down

Byron Pitts said that producing a segment for a news show takes him exactly as long as the time available. Whether he has ten minutes or two hours, he meets every deadline. The same apparently holds true for his panels. They last exactly as long as the time allotted. The problem here was that Pitts only had enough material to fill a short segment and he was forced to go on much longer.

The true shame is that we actually liked Pitts. He told his story well, detailed in his new book, Step Out on Nothing, about how his personal struggles with a stutter and illiteracy held him back well into his teens. Motivation from his mother and a passion for broadcasting propelled Pitts forward in his studies and into his early working years (he revealed that his mother used to call his supervisors at work to check up on him). He’s a self-made man from Baltimore, the first in his family to graduate from college. Everything about his story is touching and inspiring.

Yet, Pitts too often fell back on telling childhood and workplace stories instead of sharing observations and insights about the media industry. He listed some of his most chilling moments – seeing Timothy McVeigh executed, covering 9/11 at the scene of the attacks, witnessing dying U.S. soldiers overseas – but never explained how he felt to be at those scenes.

Pitts, ByronInstead, Pitts talked at length about the two themes that have gotten him where he is today: his optimism and how he finds strength through struggles. He cited Tyler Perry, Pete Carroll and Rupert Murdoch as people who shared this world view with him, and touched on Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” to prove that dedication leads to benefits. While there are lessons to be learned from hearing about millionaires and a billionaire, we still would have liked to have gotten more of Pitts’ impressions.

Pitts frequently cited his book when answering questions, mentioning that there’s more contained inside. It was unclear to us whether his book was a memoir, autobiography or inspirational text. It was clear that Pitts is extremely proud that he’s risen out of the depths of poverty. We just wish we’d heard more about the years between his first job and his current one. “Optimism” only tells the surface of that story.

What They Said
“Growing up the way I did, I know what it’s like to be powerless.”
– Byron Pitts prefers to interview the overlooked ahead of the overexposed

“There are the things that make us Americans. A free press is vital to our democracy. As long as there is America there will be a place for journalists.”
– Byron Pitts isn’t worried about downsizing and the uncertain future of media

“People don’t watch in part because news rooms don’t reflect the world we live in.”
– Byron Pitts encourages networks to hire more diverse anchors and correspondents

“The people who are the most successful in my business are themselves because people recognize what is real.”
– Byron Pitts took Ben Stiller’s “Starsky and Hutch” Advice to heart

What We Thought

  • This was the first media event we’ve ever been to that began early. We arrived minutes before the called time, but walked in after the event had begun. We found this regrettable because usually the introductions set the tone for the rest of the night, and, even if it was only a few minutes, we felt we were way behind the rest.
  • Pitts said that he ruled out being a print journalist because it was a solo game and he preferred to be a part of a team. We liked Pitts’ commitment to camaraderie which comes, Pitts says, at the expense of intimacy with the subjects he covers.

Some audience behavior seems to repeat itself panel after panel. We’ll be updating a running list of “PANEL RULES!” that will help ensure that you are not the dweeb of the Panel Nerds.

Panel Nerds don’t like…Sour Apples
There were an incredible number of journalism students and struggling journalists at this event. So much so that pretty much every question thrown at Pitts was geared around the failures of the journalism world and the pitfalls and setbacks that individuals had encountered. Although those remain pivotal issues at an unstable time, we couldn’t help but long for a time before doomsday set in. After enduring four questions about layoffs and rotten bosses, we were ready for something lighter and brighter. What we got was a question about China’s restrictions on its press. We guess it could always be worse.

Panel Nerds Etan Bednarsh and Danny Groner are New York-based writers and avid panel-goers. Want them at your panel? Email them here:
Read an excerpt from “Step Out on Nothing” here.

Brit Hume ‘Corrects’ Bill O’Reilly on ‘Kind of Popular’ Public Option

oreilly_humeWhat the Fox? On last night’s Countdown, Keith Olbermann noted the shocking development that Brit Hume corrected Bill O’Reilly’s contention that “the folks” don’t want a public health insurance option, noting that polling suggests it’s “kind of popular.”

Hume’s correction needs correcting. The public option isn’t “kind of popular,” it’s overwhelmingly popular (even with “folks” like Bill O’Reilly).

Here’s the exchange between Hume and O’Reilly:

Hume correctly notes that it depends on how the question is asked:

O’REILLY: They call it, you know, the public sector. What is the -

HUME: Public option, you mean?

O’REILLY: Public option, whatever. The folks don’t want it. … But it looks to me like they have maybe 55 votes to pass it. And that means they could be filibustered and never come up for a vote.

HUME: That’s what it looks like right now. The public option, actually some polls show that the public option standing by itself is not at all unpopular, but it is kind of popular. But that depends on how the poll question is raised. … We don’t need to go into all that right now.

Well, I think we do need to go into that right now. In the most recent (of many) polls to show 70+ percent approval for the public option, they asked the question 2 ways. Half of the respondents were asked this way:

In any health care proposal, how important do you feel it is to give people a choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government and a private plan for their health insurance––extremely important, quite important, not that important, or not at all important?

72% of those people favored the public option. The other half of respondents were asked this:

Would you favor or oppose creating a public health care plan administered by the federal government that would compete directly with private health insurance companies?

The result there was 48% favored, 42% opposed, and 10% not sure. The public option still wins here, but why the huge difference? The second question does highlight the fact that the public plan would compete with private insurance companies, but I don’t see a third of people changing their minds to protect insurance companies.

No, the main difference is that they omit the word “choice” from the second question. This plays into the conservative canard that somehow a public plan will drive insurance companies out of business, a contention that the CBO says is false. Conversely, letting people know that the public option provides them with a choice is not exactly push-polling.

When phrased correctly, support for the public option has consistently been in the mid-to-high 70’s, and as high as 79%. That’s not “kinda popular,” that’s near unanimous. More people support the public option than believe in Jesus.

Hume isn’t alone in downplaying the public option’s popularity. We have reported, on more than one occasion, consistent attempts by the media to celebrate the death of the public option, despite evidence to the contrary. Mainstream media personalities have consistently framed support for the public option as a “liberal base” issue. The standard trick all along has been to talk about the public option, but then cite polls that deal with the reform effort as a whole, or to quote the much lower outlier polls with the questionable phrasing. As Jason Linkins points out, the public option has been so popular for so long, the media can no longer ignore it.

Hume does crystallize the fate of the public option nicely, though. On the one hand, you’ve got most of the American people supporting the public option. On the other, Joe Lieberman and Olympia Snowe.

IAVA: Vets, You Are Not Alone

Screen shot 2009-11-11 at 1.42.35 PMToday is Veteran’s Day — one day out of the year to remember and celebrate and thank the men and women in uniform who serve this country. Paul Rieckhoff, who heads up Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) thinks that’s not enough. “You have a moral obligation to support those who served,” he said at last night’s IAVA gala honoring veterans. “Make every single day Veteran’s Day.”

For a vet, guess what — every single day is Veteran’s Day. And those days can be damned hard, a very different kind of hard from the trials of active duty. It’s the kind of hard that comes from trying to fit back into a world that hasn’t been there and doesn’t see things like you do, the kind of hard that comes from PTSD flashbacks, the kind of hard that comes from struggling to get find a job because your military skills somehow aren’t relevant, the kind of hard that comes from walking around with half your face transformed by burn scars. The kind of hard that comes from not walking around at all because you lost your legs.

There are all different kinds of “hard” that can come along with being a veteran in this country, but last night’s IAVA event showed clearly that there’s a lot of wonderful things too, like fellowship and pride and honor and duty and service, and also the family that you love but have to leave and is there for you when you come back. Yeah. This event was pretty damned moving, from Rieckhoff’s exhortations not to forget about those guys (and gals!) in uniform to J.R. Martinez, victim of a land mine explosion overseas who sustained over 30 operations to recover but still carries those burn scars with him — right into the hospital rooms and now auditoriums where he gives motivational speeches, and on All My Children where he is the first vet to actually play one on TV. When he thanked his mother, choking up, there was not a dry eye in the house.

IAVA also unveiled their latest PSA last night, about how soldiers may feel alone when they come back from war — but they’re not. Friends and comrades are all around them. It’s a gorgeous and powerful piece of work. The tagline is “IAVA – we’ve got your back.” On this day and every day: So, too, should we all.

Here’s there PSA from last year, equally compelling:

The Awl Ironically Plays The Twitter Race Card, Goes Bust

rjqprofilepicFor those of you not ‘in the know,’ The Awl is a Gawker Alumni Blog/Pirate Ship run by former Gawkerers Choire Sicha and Alex Balk.  For the most part, I like the site, and read it every day. In particular, I think that contributors Natasha Vargas-Cooper and Abe Sauer should get medals for the thoughtful, long-form work that they frequently turn out.

But I was offended — unironically, actually offended — by an Awl post this morning titled “What Were Black People Talking About On Twitter Last Night?

At the risk of getting randomly harshed on by Tumblr: it was kind of racist.

Here is the post in 5 bullet points:

  • Choire Sicha, like “some of you other white people,” is obsessed with “Late Night Black People Twitter.”
  • On older social networks, white people did not know what was going on outside of their “stupid little bubble[s],” but now, thanks to Twitter, they are privy to the conversations of others, including the conversations of black people.
  • A confusing, seemingly random conflict and reversal:

    A friend and I were talking the other day about why, in particular, Black People Twitter happens at night. In fact, it’s the other way around: White People Twitter for the most part happens during the American daytime. Black People Twitter happens all the time.


  • Nick Douglas has an unnamed friend — a “poor dumb friend” — who had the overtly offensive (ironic?) straw man theory that “[black] people don’t have real Twitter friends. So they all respond to trending topics.” But not in a bad way! That was just different from what he was used to. Nick shot him down with something that sounded like Bullet Point #2.
  • Conclusion: “So really the question is: why does Twitter get so white and boring during the day? Don’t white people do anything at work?”

Here’s the ‘illustration:’


I don’t know Choire personally, though I enjoy his movie criticism. I don’t think that he is a racist — or, really, that it’s fair to brand most people as “racists” in the noun form of the word.

But for all of its casual chumminess, his post was lazy and, well, casually racist. But not that kind of racist. The standard Sociology Class lexicon would use words like “fetishize” and “tokenize” to describe what Sicha is up to; at the very least, the Awl post reeks with fascination about the otherness of these black Twitterers.

The coy “race is a social construct” tag was belied by the great pains to which he went to show that see, he is down with black people. Late Night Black People Twitter is “awesome!” Last night’s #uainthittinthatright was a “very funny” example of a “hilarious chat meme!” Nick Douglas’s “poor dumb friend” is “so obviously wrong” with his bad racist theory! Daytime Twitter is “white and boring!”

To the extent that Sicha drops science in his post, it’s the statistic that 26% of African-Americans online use Twitter while only 19% of Caucasians online do. It might have served him better to bone up on danah boyd, the social media researcher whose work has explored the class and race segregation that plague online communities. Most recently, boyd (she likes lowercase letters) has been focused on the “white flight” from MySpace to Facebook; what’s most pernicious about it, she told The Observer, is the way in which white Facebook users don’t explicitly acknowledge the class and racial divides, but vaguely see the more nonwhite MySpace as trashy and uncultured.

Twitter may break down the barriers to hearing other people’s conversations, but the Awl post inadvertently shows that mutual understanding may be a long way off. If the post had to be boiled down to a single sentence, it would be Bullet Point #2 all over again: “On older social networks, white people did not know what was going on outside of their “stupid little bubble[s],” but now, thanks to Twitter, they are privy to the conversations of others, including the conversations of black people.”

That may be true, and it’s worth pointing out (and, as boyd has shown, it’s a fascinating field of study). But it’s a little rude to be so totally slack-jawed when confronted with people who you think aren’t like you.

The Awl is typically a place I go to find thoughtful and nuanced observations and insights. This was neither.

New Yorker Cartoon Asks: Why Aren’t There More Women on Panels?

Danny GronerSeveral months back, I attended an all-female panel assembled to discuss why women don’t typically participate on media panels. I noted in my review that “the goal was to demonstrate to future conference planners and columnists that women offer a unique voice and belong on the panelist circuit.” As these issues take great deals of time to resolve, it’s difficult to believe that any real progress has been many in the two months since this initiative was made. What is clear now, though, is that the world is starting to notice the missing women.

This week’s New Yorker contains a cartoon depicting a panel of male professors debating the subject of “why are there no women on this panel?” Evidently, one of the magazine’s cartoonists spotted the same trend. Here it is:

Screen shot 2009-11-11 at 2.01.34 AM

Yes, there’s something inherently ironic about a group of men talking about why women are left out. This cartoon is not just a satirical commentary about an sad, existing and arguably sexist pattern. It highlights the troubling reality that we sometimes go through the motions of floating ideas of reform before ultimately falling short of any definitive plans for improvement.

Improvement not just in the organizational make-up of the panel to provide diversity and different perspectives, but also improvement to make panels better as a result of this diversity. Which is what makes the cartoon itself so astounding for a separate reason. For this panel of four older, bespectacled white men, there appears to be a packed house on hand. My experience attending panels tells me that there’s no way that this event would draw such a large and brave (front-row seats are always the last to fill) crowd. It’s possible then to take a different read on the image.

The characters’ clothes, expressions and overall look  remind me of a Nixonian cabinet meeting. It resembles a boys’ club gathering put together under pretenses of social equality. This type of single-sex preference flew in the 1970s before social advances fully set in. In today’s fairer world, it isn’t acceptable for men to act on the other gender’s behalf anymore. I think that’s really what drives home the truth in this cartoon’s commentary – there was a time in recent memory where these kinds of gatherings would occur without protest. Since then, though, men have evolved and come to their senses in recognizing that there could be a place for women at the table alongside them.

Such is the predicament that faces panel organizers today. Efforts for social equality have opened the doors for the next step: gender neutrality. Good-natured, accomodating and sensible people are willing to hear suggestions for ways to get more women more active in public lectures, sessions, seminars, expos and panels. The frustrating thing is that in spite of changes that would permit increased female participation, the struggle remains. It’s morphed from one about convincing men to allow women inside to being one where both genders are convincing women to go ahead and take the seats being offered to them. It’s an improvement, no doubt, but a more peculiar and painful predicament lingers. These things take time. The New Yorker’s done its part to show how far the conversation has come, even if it’s done behind closed doors.


Panel Nerds: Women of the Media World Unite and Take Over [Mediaite]
GELF “Overlooked Women In Media” Panel, September ‘09 (VIDEO) [Mediaite]
Watchdog of the Underrated Woman [GELF]

What’s Up With Keith Olbermann’s Three Finger Salute to Carrie Prejean?

3_finger_saluteLast night on Countdown, Keith Olbermann did another in a long series of segments castigating former Miss California Carrie Prejean, but he added a little something extra at the end.

He signs off the segment, in which he discusses the sex tape that features Prejean “by herself,” with a two, then three, fingered “Girl Scout” salute. Where to begin?

Here’s the segment. Keith’s salute is at the very end, and doesn’t appear in MSNBC’s version of the clip:

The gesture is either a fairly obvious attempt at shock humor, or an accidental one. Given MSNBC’s history of thinly-veiled entendre, and the context here, I’d say it’s the former. It’s ironic that he uses a Girl Scout salute as the fig leaf since, unlike the Boy Scouts of America, the Girl scouts don’t discriminate against gay people.

The joke is likely to delight many of Prejean’s detractors, embittered toward her over her support of California’s Proposition 8. Just as surely, it will offend many others who observe the double standard that Prejean points out in the segment. I find it emblematic of the wrongheadedness of the anti-Prejean narrative.

The Carrie Prejean story began with an honest answer to a divisive question at a beauty pageant. Asked if she believed that same-sex marriage should be legal in all 50 states, she stated her personal belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman, but also said that she was happy to live in a country where people can choose “same-sex marriage or opposite marriage.” As Jake Tapper pointed out, this position hews closely to that of President Obama.

She was immediately and viciously attacked by Perez Hilton, the judge who asked the question, using vile misogynist slurs. The rest of the media piled on by mocking her use of the term “opposite marriage,” elevating her to the status of media martyr. It was only then that she became useful to the National Organization for Marriage, and decided to support the dissolution of thousands of legal marriages.

The response to this was to make fun of her breasts, compare her to a Nazi and a dog, leak R-rated pictures of her, and now, delight in the revelation of this sex tape. The point of this is supposed to be to expose her as a hypocrite, which eludes me somewhat. She’s a model, so how do breast implants and sexy pictures make her a hypocrite? The fact that she sent a sex video to her boyfriend doesn’t make her a hypocrite, it makes her an awesome girlfriend. No, the real point was to embarrass and humiliate her. The effect was not to silence, but to amplify her.

What makes Carrie Prejean a hypocrite is her insistence that she wants to protect marriages by supporting laws that destroy them. If the left had focused more on that, and less on destroying her personally, Carrie Prejean would be a dim memory now. Instead, they get to be wrong right alongside her.

Robert Gibbs Shows How to Answer a Loaded Question

gibbsConservative World Net Daily reporter and href=””>talk show host Lester Kinsolving asked Robert Gibbs this hilariously loaded question at yesterday’s White House briefing:

What was the President’s reaction to the more than 2,000-page health care bill which so few congressmen read being passed by only five votes and costing more than a trillion dollars, on which 39 Democrats voted no?

Gibbs’ answer displayed the wit that some critics say results in too-frequent laughter in the briefing room, and cut right to the heart of the matter.

Lester is something of a character, to put it mildly, but he has had a long, strange career. He was first to report on Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in 1972, long before that cult’s tragic end. He ran into trouble in 1977 when it was reported that he received stock payments from the South African government while advocating against the anti-apartheid movement. The incident resulted in sanctions against Kinsolving, some of which he successfully appealed. Les doesn’t deny accepting payments, but maintains that his opposition to the anti-apartheid movement was rooted in their failure to seek sanctions against Idi Amin.

He’s also a staunch opponent of gay rights, a fact that I learned a few weeks ago as I was leaving the White House with another reporter, The Advocate’s Kerry Eleveld. Les was leaving at the same time, and he asked us if we thought that marriage rights ought to be extended to polygamists and inter-species couples.

It’s ironic, then, that Les was a pioneer in AIDS awareness. Although it might not have been his intention, he exposed the Reagan administration’s ignorance of the disease early on with this 1982 exchange with Press Secretary Larry Speakes:

Les Kinsolving: Larry, does the president have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?

Larry Speakes: What’s AIDS?

Kinsolving: Over a third of [the victims] have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (laughter) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the president is aware of it?
Speakes: I don’t have it. Do you? (laughter)

Kinsolving: No, I don’t.

Speakes: You didn’t answer my question.

Kinsolving: Well, I just wondered, does the president—

Speakes: How do you know? (laughter)

Kinsolving: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?

Speakes: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.

Kinsolving: Does the president, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?

Speakes: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any—

Kinsolving: Nobody knows?

Speakes: There has been no personal experience here, Lester.

Kinsolving: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping—

Speakes: I checked thoroughly with [Reagan’s personal physician] Dr. Ruge this morning, and he’s had no—(laughter)—no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.

Lester’s style of hollering questions (whether he’s called on or not) while pointing that shotgun mic like a dagger might be cause for amusement in some, but the impact of his career in journalism i laughing matter.