Saturday, November 21, 2009

Rick Sanchez and the OJ Effect

I've often said that the Washington Post bares the brunt of the blame for the sub-standard level of journalism we see today in the form of cable news networks. Were it not for the relentless and vengeful glory-seeking attack on President Nixon by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein - the douchebags that launched a thousand careers - perhaps the news would contain more reporting and less smug editorializing by the likes of Rick Sanchez and Solodad O'Brien. Sanchez's endless self-aggrandizing - like using twitter and Myspace to generate publicity for his frequent appearances on CNN - would almost be comic, were he not spinning in a constant state of self-rightousness. You would think that someone who not only hit and killed a pedestrian while driving intoxicated, but also fled the scene of the accident, would have some semblance of humility. You would be wrong.

In an industry that loves to shout "HYPOCRISY" at any conservative politician who so much as jaywalks, it was almost surreal to watch Sanchez endlessly replay footage of the day he chased down a Georgia State Legislator who refused to overturn a 2006 prohibition that would have reduced the prison sentence of Genarlow Wilson. The legislator - who worried that changes to the law could possibly allow convicted sex offenders back on the streets - was relentlessly badgered by a sanctimonious Sanchez, whose usual tunnel vision blinded him from appreciating the difficult situation the man was in. Maybe someone should have played the tape from the mid-eighties that forced Sanchez to resign from his job as a Miami TV anchor when he was unexpectedly caught accepting favours from a corrupt political operative during a police sting.

I'm picking on Rick because he is perhaps the best example of how low the bar has dropped since the age of "Gotcha!" journalism erupted. In the post-Watergate cable news world, he proves that as long you are in constant attack mode, your own credibility - or past criminal conduct for that matter - is of trifling importance. Stranger still is that Sanchez lacks even the respect of his own peers. After a recent "tweet" claiming he could easily get a job at Fox News as a Latino "sellout", the industry erupted in a cacophony of laughter, and prompted a Fox News' spokesman to wryly reply "Everyone knows that Rick is a joke, he shows that he's a hack everyday. And he doesn't have to worry about working at FOX because we only hire talent who have the ability to generate ratings."

Perhaps Ace Smith and James Bowman were right to lament about how our society has abandoned the quaint notion of shame.

But what about the OJ Effect? I'm not talking about the popular urban usage of the term, which implies money buys justice. I'm talking about the birth of modern media-created spectacles that turn virtually unknown and unexceptional people into overnight celebrities. What brought this to mind was Jeffrey Toobin's rather odd "brief" that appeared in the New Yorker magazine critiquing the Stupak amendment. Not only did the article skirt the boundries of outright plagiarism, it was plagiarized from a 1989 Supreme Court briefing, whose contents were later proven to be entirely fraudulent. It appears that Toobin has been a "legal analyst" for so long he's forgotten he's an actual lawyer.

Shortly after former Heisman trophy winner OJ Simpson was arrested for the double murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, murder became not just news, but entertainment, and CNN needed a ready slew of "legal experts" to keep up appearances. Suddenly an adjunct faculty member from Georgetown Law of no particular distinction named Greta Van Susteren became a household name; OJ's freeloading house guest, Kato Kaelin, is now a regular fixture in a variety of TV and radio shows, resulting from nothing more than hearing a bump in the alley below his window; A Los Angeles prosecuting attorney named Roger Cossack is now enjoying a cushy job as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University School of Law, as well a good paying gig at ESPN. As for Toobin, he has the distinction of being the "First TV Legal Analyst" at ABC - all a direct result of being plucked from virtual obscurity to provide commentary during the OJ trial (as a matter of fairness, I must admit I've always had a grudging fondness for Cossack).

There seem to be more self-professed analysts making the daily rounds of cable news stations than there are actual journalists. One hour of watching CNN produced commentary by a "Gaming Analyst", a "Fashion Analyst", and even a "self esteem expert", whatever the hell that is. There was a time when the only kind of analyst who had any business being anywhere near an anchor desk was a "Financial Analyst" or a "Political Analyst", and even the latter have been wearing out their welcome as of late.

Could anyone have envisioned a world, even years after Ted Turner cut the ribbon on CNN in 1980, where people would tune in every night to watch disgraced former prosecuter Nancy Grace speculating on the contents of bottles seen in grainy pictures of the inside Anna Nicole Smith's fridge?

The "news as entertainment" shtick is an old hobbyhorse of writers who fancy themselves a cut above the pack for making such a painfully obvious observation. What I'm really driving at is why a news anchor like Rick Sanchez sometimes doubles as a financial commentator on CNN's "Your Money". Why does Jeff Toobin sit in every election night as a political commentator, when he can't even avoid being duped by a dubious Supreme Court briefing? Everyday we watch the village idiots act like interchangable polymath titans playing a bizarre game of musical chairs.

As I write this, Rick Sanchez is reminding us that using words is much better than settling disagreements with bats and clubs (I had no idea), after quite deliberately refering to a band of thugs who are on rampage in Mumbai as "conservatives" because they are "anti-Muslim". He's making sure to repeat the dishonest conservative angle, and has it blazed across the screen, just in case someone's not listening. Really Rick, how do you know they aren't liberals? Did you interview any of the looters to find out if they thought free markets, limited goverment, personal responsibility, and fiscal restraint was the answer to India's third world conditions?

My wife, a graduate of a grueling 2 year massage therapy course, said that when we hear that an elderly person fell and broke their hip, it didn't really happen that way - their hip broke first, causing the fall. Her comment reminded me of a buffoonish Rick Sanchez, clumsily trotting about in a post-Watergate post-OJ news world. Sanchez's daily rantings and Toobin's half-baked legal ramblings aren't what caused the media to break, it was broken long before they got there.



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