Episode 61, with guests Brian Stelter, Jamie Rubin and Jonathan Prince (and cameo by Liam Prince)

Brian Stelter, Jamie Rubin and Jonathan Prince are our guests this week.
Show produced by Katherine Caperton.
Original Air Date: June 23, 2012 on SiriusXM Satellite Radio “POTUS” Channel 124.
Polioptics airs regularly on POTUS on Saturdays at 6:00 am, 12 noon and 6:00 pm.
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Show also available for download on Apple iTunes by clicking here.

This week, as Ann Curry might say, a bit too breathlessly, at the top of the TODAY Show: Breaking News!

There are major changes in the air for what goes on the air for the longtime leader in morning television. Brian Stelter, media reporter for the New York Times, will tell us what it means.

And there are changes at Foggy Bottom (or at least ceremonies to commemorate them). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week swore in Mike Hammer as the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, one of the most demanding jobs in Washington. We’ll talk with Jamie Rubin, longtime State Department Spokesman during the Clinton Administration, to get at the heart of what it takes to talk for a nation.

And, as summer arrives, the heat swells, and campaign days reach their lengthiest, we’ll talk to a veteran of many, Jonathan Prince, about one candidate prominent in the last two elections who is happy now not to be in the spotlight: John Edwards (thanks to the recent verdicts in Greensboro, a free man). Prince, a longtime aide to Edwards, was on the witness list for the trial, but wasn’t called to testify. Now that the Justice Department has announced it won’t retry the former senator, Jonathan reflects on working for the man and what his mistrial means for politics and campaign finance.

* * *

This was a show with some repeat customers, and we’re grateful to have them visit again.

The upcoming issue of Lucky Peach with writing by Jonathan PrinceMy old friend Jonathan Prince was our first-ever guest on SiriusXM’s Polioptics, back on Episode 1, 60 episodes ago. On this visit, he brought along a special guest, his 5-year old son, Liam, to report on our just completed two-day cruise-to-nowhere (with me and my kids, Toby and Annabelle) aboard the Disney Magic which departed and returned to New York City on a very special Father’s Day Weekend.

After Jonathan and I dispensed with the Edwards Trial, which should rightly be consigned to the court transcript archives and commented upon again only infrequently, we moved on to more consequential matters, such as the effect of money on the 2012 campaign, the prospects for early hopefuls for the 2016 campaign, and a timeless issue of American Politics: food.

One of my favorite stories of the political road came traveling with President Clinton in a little-remembered stop in Tallahassee in 1995. He was there to address the Florida Legislature before proceeding on to Miami and Haiti (a personal highlight for me, flying to Port-au-Prince on Air Force One with Jimmy Buffett as my neighboring seat mate). But before leaving the Sunshine State’s capitol city, we brought the President over to an enormous tureen of simmering paella that covered a large swath of a city plaza. It was enough to feed 3,000, part of a local festival.

The President gave the steamy stew an enthusiastic stir, then served himself a heaping helping. The photo op covered the local front pages the next day. Few will remember details of what Bill Clinton told the Florida Legislature back in 1995, but I will always remember that he ate well.

In the upcoming “American Food Issue” of McSweeney’s Lucky Peach, the quarterly journal of food and writing, Jonathan has a perfect summer piece — “Photo Op Food” — detailing the long and colorful relationship between candidates stumping across America and the stuff they put in their mouths. In one particular episode, Prince lays bare one reason 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry had trouble connecting to the Average Joe.

Jonathan Prince

So John Kerry went to Philly, looking for Philly votes. And like lots of politicians looking for local votes outside their own locality, he made a pit stop for local food. In Philly, that means cheesesteaks. Kerry went to Pat’s, which was fine ne with everybody but the Geno’s partisans. And then he ordered a cheesesteak. With Swiss cheese.

I don’t know for sure, but it’s possible that nobody had ever ordered a Pat’s cheesesteak with Swiss cheese before. It’s like asking a rabbi to grill you a pork chop or a vegan to hand-chop you some steak tartare. As Craig LaBan wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time, “Swiss cheese, as any local knows,is not an option. The Massachusetts Democrat may as well have asked for cave-aged Appenzeller.” Don Russell of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote, “[W]e may have witnessed the unraveling of the Democratic frontrunner’s campaign for the White House right here in South Philadelphia, at Ninth and Wharton.”

For more on Prince’s reflections on Photo Op Food, check out the next issue of Lucky Peach wherever fine food magazines are sold.

* * *

Jamie Rubin

Speaking of Liam Prince and our recently-concluded Disney cruise, the last time I was on a cruise ship, before last weekend, was 10 years ago, with both Jonathan and another of our guests on this episode, Jamie Rubin, as fellow passengers.

There were more than 20 of us aboard a Royal Caribbean ship embarking from Miami for Prince’s bachelor party. Upon boarding, each of us handed in our credit card and received a bar-coded bracelet for on-board beverage purchases. Before we left Key Biscayne, we were already on the top deck, the music blaring, frozen drinks in hand. Jamie, who was instantly recognizable to fellow passengers enjoying their golden years, thanks to the usual CNN demographic and his many years behind the State Department podium, was the most popular man on the ship, the curly-haired object of their affection.

The role of the State Department spokesman has changed considerably since Jamie controlled the podium at Foggy Bottom, and in our conversation he was quick to admit that in the age of Twitter and the instant global transmission of information, the job is tougher than ever. But as Jamie brought us around the world with a quick review of where things currently stand at global trouble spots, a listener could quickly appreciate the breadth and detail of knowledge required by “the briefer” at any given moment.

* * *

I was in London earlier this week when the Twitters started buzzing that NBC Universal was in negotiations with TODAY co-anchor Ann Curry to arrange her graceful exit from the show prior to the opening of the 2012 Olympics. I instantly emailed Brian Stelter, with whom I’ve had a periodic electronic dialogue on the subject of Curry since she assumed her post succeeding Meredith Vieira just a little over one year ago.

Brian Stelter

Stelter was also one of our earliest guests on Polioptics, appearing in Episode 17 just as the documentary about his beat with the Times, PAGE ONE, from director Andrew Rossi, was premiering in theaters. I was familiar with the Stelter story back then. He was the kid who loved the news so much that he created TV Newser while still a student at Towson University and became, before he got his diploma, one of the most influential observers of the broadcast business. But as his Twitter followers have doubled in a year, to 130,000, he has served as the up-to-the-minute pulse of the news business. His remarkably candid Twitter and Instagram feeds have allowed me, and thousands of others, to feel like we’re in the Times newsroom at all hours.

Stelter’s Twitter followers are aware, for example, that he is now burning the morning oil to write a book, due to his publisher in September, called Top of The Morning, about the fight for ratings supremacy between TODAY, Good Morning America and CBS This Morning. Stelter is up way too early, with three TV sets installed in his apartment, analyzing the nuances, gestures and chemistry between the talent on the screen. After a spring in which TODAY lost its ratings lead for the first time in 16 years, the War for the Morning took a precipitous turn this week with the news about Curry. While, at this posting, there have been no official announcements from 30 Rock, the present arc of the story seems perfectly timed to fill the final pages of Stelter’s manuscript when he hands it in at the end of the summer.

The stakes are significant. According to Stelter’s reporting, the TODAY Show earns between $250 and $300 million per year for parent company Comcast. As Stelter says, 1/10 of a rating point in the key demographic translates into tens of millions of dollars of ad revenue. The charisma and chemistry of the cast sitting on the sofa on the set of the morning shows do a lot to drive those ratings.

But I have a sense there’s a lot more to it than that. As a Swarthmore freshman in the fall of 1983, I had an 8×10 black and white of Peter Jennings and another one of Joan Lunden taped to by wall (it’s true, ask my roommate Andy Herron). I was an ABC News junkie. I liked their broadcast; I liked their three World News Tonight anchors; and I liked their theme music and graphics. But within a few years, I was committed to Brokaw, Pauley, Gumbel, Brian Williams and, yes, Matt Lauer and Katie Couric. I became NBC brand-loyal. I still am, but in the mornings my loyalty shifts ever so slightly within the Comcast family to cable channel MSNBC.

My wife and I have a seven-year-old and a four-year-old and we live in an apartment in Greenwich Village. The sound of whatever is on the tube at 7:00 a.m. is fills our square footage. I’m sorry, but I can’t have their ears filled with the latest twist of testimony of the trial of Jerry Sandusky. I’d rather have them absorb 1/50th of what Steve Rattner, John Heilemann, Jeffrey Sachs, Richard Haass are saying about economics or politics or domestic or world affairs on Morning Joe than have to tell my kids why the nation’s leading morning news program is providing in-depth coverage of a predator destined to spend his last days behind bars in a cell. There’s a lot more going on in the world that’s more important than one creep pedophile and the tragic parade of victims telling their stories. We get it, now lock him away.

TODAY’s travails can’t be all heaped on the shoulders of Ann Curry. Yes, I think she’s uncomfortable in her role, overly dramatic and largely unwatchable. It’s nice to say she’s a premier foreign correspondent miscast as a perky morning host, but her amped-up sense of on-air drama extends to her reports from remote outposts in the field as well. Those who shoot and edit her pieces don’t do her any favors, either, with the extended lingering on her question-asking and brow-furrowing. Producers, take a cue from Sebastian Junger (Polioptics, Episode 47), and keep the lens trained on the news, not the correspondent.

Beyond Curry, the production of the show and its programming are stuck in a vortex from which it’s difficult to emerge. The TODAY Show looks and feels tired. I don’t think the set, logo or music have been updated in many years. Al Roker is the loopy uncle that he is cast to play, but I want more with my coffee. Defenders of the format suggest I’m a misguided member of the East Coast elite. They say that this Entertainment Tonight-ification of the morning shows is what the Midwest craves. That’s insulting to the Midwest. We all deserve better.

Stelter and his colleagues have reported that in some recent weeks the margin of ratings victory for GMA over TODAY has been as little as 35,000 viewers. And yet, the psychological effects of those wins for George Stephanopoulos (another Polioptics guest, on Episode 19) is enormous. A win is a win. Advertisers who buy space on GMA and TODAY take note at their up-fronts. I can’t believe there aren’t another 34,999 NBC News brand-loyal viewers like myself who haven’t switched to Morning Joe on MSNBC or Squawk Box on CNBC to get away from Jerry Sandusky, George Zimmerman and Lindsay Lohan. With the reporting, editing and production resources available to it, the TODAY show could be much more than it is right now.

Garrett Jackson with Mitt Romney on Rock Center

The producers could take a cue from the excellent staff that has been assembled to put together Rock Center with Brian Williams. Yes, the show’s ratings have dwelled in the cellar of weeknight prime time but, fundamentally, the product differs little from 60 Minutes and is more contemporary in its editing and production. It just doesn’t own Sunday night at 7:00 pm, with a highly-rated national sports lead-in and little intrusion from the quality fare that the cable channels are offering from 9:00  p.m.-on. Give it the needed months to find a following, and it will find its proper place in prime time.

This week, Rock Center gave us the story of Garrett Jackson, Body Man to Mitt Romney. Brian Williams loves Body Man stories. This was a particularly well-done piece. At around 4 minutes, it was well paced, well-edited and let Garret tell his engaging story in his own words. If the Romney camp showed us more personalities like Jackson, they might be doing better in the polls. Clinton Butt Boys like Andrew Friendly, Stephen Goodin (Polioptics, Episode 52), Kris Engskov, Doug Band, the Bush 43 Body Men, and Reggie Love and Marvin Nicholson for Obama, each in their era represented the best in a generation of young political aides. Rock Center is smart to show them. The segment on Garrett Jackson, which NBC News spent considerable resources and creativity to assemble, should have been re-broadast on TODAY.

Now that’s something I would have let my 7 year old and 4 year old watch.

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