November 17, 2016

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Scott Pelley of CBS News raised a toast to Bill Plante at a packed Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C. last night after a video snapshot of a remarkable 52-year career.

He makes Anthony Bourdain look like a homebody. He’s been everywhere: Saigon, Moscow, Selma, Berlin, Phnom Penh, maybe hundreds of other places. Wars, murders, you name the genre, he was there, as a young buck, as a wizened veteran.

At 78, he’s covered five consecutive presidencies and worked with nearly a dozen different co-White House correspondents for CBS. Lesley Stahl joked that “he’s outlasted about 300 CBS News presidents…and Larry Tisch,” the late long-ago CBS Inc. CEO-billionaire whose tenure is not venerated.

And Pelley said aptly, “He’s integrity wrapped in talent wrapped in grace.” There were instant “Here, here’s!” when glasses were held high.

It was a multi-generational celebration of a resilient, indefatigable journalist who’s endured in a competitive TV hothouse with grit and collegiality while navigating revolutionary changes that displaced or slowed many of his generation. Throw in some personal and health ups and downs, too, and you’ve also got a tale of individual fortitude.

For economic reasons alone, there will be fewer journalists whose career paths span the length and geographical breadth of his. Youth and fiscal imperatives will be served in a fragmented marketplace where the credible and clickbait clash among consumers who might not differentiate between Breitbart and Bloomberg.

It was why, several hours earlier as we chatted, he mentioned just thumbing through a biography of CBS legend Edward R. Murrow, “An American Original.”

Plante wanted to check something that he’s repeated for years. Sure, enough, yup, it was there, on page 228 of Joseph Persico’s work.

“Murrow entered Buchenwald with Patton’s Third Army in April, 1945,” Plante recalled for me. “But he didn’t report on what he had seen for three days, because, he said, he needed time to ‘acquire detachment.’ I shudder to think what his reaction would be to today’s instant everything.”

A Chicago kid, Plante himself segued from the tail end of the Murrow era to the digital age and the collapse of broadcast’s once impregnable business model. So, if they’d returned from the grave, what might he tell Murrow, Eric Severeid, Walter Cronkite, Charles Collingwood, or others from a brilliant CBS past, about what they’ve missed?

“With the whole business, it’s the speed. It’s obviously gone from something we considered manageable, at two news cycles a day, to a never-ending news cycle and, with that, accuracy more and more difficult. Sometimes it’s as simple as no time to check.”

The old hands might be aghast at the internet “since they already worried about a lack of time for (quality) news in the late 1950s. The past half century hasn’t changed that much.”

The instantaneous communications means, too, no more waiting days, even weeks to get something published, be it print or video. You’re not taking time processing film, which “makes the editing process more difficult. Temptation to speed can override the necessity of thorough checking.”

Plante does not long for yesteryear or mythologize the past. He believes it’s better to have more information widely shared than less. He sees great work being done at his shop and elsewhere, including covering tales that much of the press forgets, like the war in Iraq.

Those CBS giants probably “could adapt. They were smart, educated guys who, given today’s circumstances, would react predictably to the scarcity of in-depth content. They would do their best to change the situation but be up against the same situation as others are up against, namely not a lot of time to ‘acquire detachment.'”

For sure. But if the creative vitality in that room last night can meld with Plante’s talent, integrity and grace, the onetime “Tiffany Network” will be in decent shape as Plante opens up lots of good Bourdeaux and toasts a helluva run.

Facebook data stumble

“Facebook Inc. said it has uncovered several more flawed measurements related to how consumers interact with content, raising more questions about the metrics marketers lean on to decide whether to buy ads on the social media network.” (The Wall Street Journal)

The power of fake news

“In the final three months of the U.S. presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others, a BuzzFeed News analysis has found.” (Buzzfeed)

“During these critical months of the campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions and comments on Facebook.”

Add this yesterday: “The President-elect’s supporters are threatening to boycott Pepsi (PEP) over fabricated statements circulating on social media. Twitter users, many citing debunked news articles, claim PepsiCo (PEP) CEO Indra Nooyi told Trump fans to ‘take their business elsewhere.'” It never happened. (CNN Money)

NRA unceasing

Rachel Maddow was right last night, wondering what will ever make the NRA happy. They endorsed Donald Trump and he won. They backed lots of Republican candidates and the GOP now controls Congress. You’d thinking they’d be breaking out the champagne. No.

Gloom and doom pervades its leader’s latest video outreach, “The Time Is Now.” Wayne LaPierre rails against “more than 300 Obama appointed anti-gun judges,” warns of the “very real challenges members face” and urges the same resolve and sense of “urgency” the loyalists have always displayed. One assumes total sincerity.

It can’t possibly by a means of guarding against complacency when they’ve essentially just won the political Powerball.

Trump and the press “pool”

It’s a bit early to be getting dyspeptic, but 15 journalism groups are nervous that a new Trump administration will not pay sufficient heed to long-standing practices of having a so-called pool track his every move. He’s not let them on his plane in the past week and went out to dinner with no warning.

“We call on you to commit to a protective press pool from now until the final day of your presidency. We respectfully ask you to instill a spirit of openness and transparency in your administration in many ways but first and foremost via the press pool.” (Poynter)

There are more important issues of access than whether you can stand a block away when the president has a private dinner. On many of those matters, Obama has continued a White House trend of manipulation and obfuscation, including a mediocre record on Freedom of Information Act requests.

Vin Scully’s Medal of Freedom

The White House press secretary has much on his plate every day, including wrestling with reporters over stories and defending the boss at every step. And there’s melancholy now, given the election results.

But Press Secretary Josh Earnest did have a neat opportunity, especially as a baseball fan, to call legendary announcer Vin Scully to tell him he’ll receive the Medal of Freedom. (USA Today)

When the call with a clearly surprised and grateful Scully was over, Earnest put down the phone and said, “How cool is that?”

The morning babble

On CNN’s “New Day,” it was all about the inescapably engrossing “Trump in Transition,” notably tightened rules on lobbyists in the administration and their ability to return to that world after serving in government. There was quick use of campaign video where the Trump mantra of “draining the swamp” was spouted.

MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” was heavy on the transition, too, focusing on questions about the suitability (personality) of Michael Flynn, seemingly in line for a top national security job. And there was gabbing about Rudy Guiliani, with Mika Brzezinski wondering why he doesn’t shut up for a bit about the jobs he does or doesn’t want.

“Fox & Friends” beat up on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for “taking shots at people with money” amid his meeting with Trump yesterday and security around Trump Tower that’s frustrated some, including shoppers at high-end retail establishments.

Oh, if you wanted relief from the echo chamber of transition talk, there was the liberation (not really) of CNBC’s “Squawk Box” setting up Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen congressional testimony this morning. It made its cable news counterparts look like a joint Kanye WestBeyonce concert — unless you crave for breakfast chatter about equities and Cisco Systems earnings.

Give credit where it’s due

Politico reported this: “The Houston-based law firm Giuliani joined as a named partner in 2005 lobbied in Texas for Citgo, the U.S. subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company then controlled by President Hugo Chavez, The New York Times reported in 2007.” (Politico)

Now go to that New York Times story and you find this: “The Giuliani campaign declined to answer questions yesterday about the client but issued a brief statement after a report about the relationship was posted by Bloomberg News that said the firm was paid about $5,000 a month for the work in 2005 and 2006.” The Huffington Post had also linked to the Bloomberg story even before The New York Times opus. So The Times and HuffPost gave credit where it was due. Not Politico. The original scoop was via then-Bloombergian Jonathan Salant.

The view from Berlin

David Maraniss, the great journalist-historian, was being interviewed in the Washington studios of Deutsche Welle by Brent Goff, an English-speaking anchor who’s in Berlin. On another TV, Megyn Kelly was hawking her own book on colleague Shepherd Smith’s show.

Goff asked two questions you wouldn’t get on American TV: Was Obama, who had just arrived in Berlin, passing the baton of leader of the free democratic world to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, not Trump? And was Obama in retrospect elected too early or by the wrong country? Would he have been more suited to run one in Europe?

“Interesting construction” on the first one, said Maraniss, who wondered if Merkel does inherit the mantle given the questions surrounding a Trump presidency.

On the latter, he said no, that Obama thought longterm and would likely see the Trump win as a major setback, yes, but also an historical blip with a raft of societal change he likes underway and inevitable.

Good for Tapper

“Disclosing a speaking event” is the refreshing announcement by CNN’s Jake Tapper. (Tumblr) “I rarely do private speaking events, but when I do I disclose them to the public. On Friday I will be speaking at an event hosted by the Sayfie Review in Florida.”

He discloses he’ll donate his fee to two charities: Horton’s Kids, which he describes as a community-based organization that serves 500 children, grades K through 12, living in an isolated neighborhood called Wellington Park in Washington. The other recipient is Homes For Our Troops, “a privately funded nonprofit organization that builds mortgage-free, specially adapted homes nationwide for severely injured Veterans Post-9/11, to enable them to rebuild their lives.”

Good for him. He’s in a Washington media elite where huge sums of money can be had on the speaking tour. The hypocrisy is rampant, with situational ethics rationalizing the taking huge sums of money, even speaking to groups on whose issues you’re supposed to report upon fairly.

And god forbid you broach the topic of similar disclosures by other journalists. Ask The New York Times about full public disclosure of the outside speaking fees of star columnists. The line there is that they report to the publisher, not the editor, and are paid for opinions — including deriding politicians for not fully disclosing their incomes.

It’s a distinction without a difference. After correctly beating up on Trump for a multitude of evasions, the paper could follow Tapper and disclose the gigs of their most influential journalists. And maybe we could see if there’s any connection to anything they write.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
James Warren

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