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Daily Howler: Why is progressive cable so light? We sometimes think the answer may lie in the world of Bill Wolff
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IS ACTUALLY FUNNY! Why is progressive cable so light? We sometimes think the answer may lie in the world of Bill Wolff: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MAY 19, 2009

A pair of potent puzzles: We thought Robert Samuelson raised an obvious question in Monday’s column. We’re not sure what the answer to his question might be, but we thought his question made sense. He started by noting the amount of debt envisioned under Obama’s budget plan:

SAMUELSON (5/18/09): From 2010 to 2019, Obama projects annual deficits totaling $7.1 trillion; that's atop the $1.8 trillion deficit for 2009. By 2019, the ratio of publicly held federal debt to gross domestic product (GDP, or the economy) would reach 70 percent, up from 41 percent in 2008. That would be the highest since 1950 (80 percent). The Congressional Budget Office, using less optimistic economic forecasts, raises these estimates. The 2010-19 deficits would total $9.3 trillion; the debt-to-GDP ratio in 2019 would be 82 percent.

Those are very unusual numbers. But Samuelson noted the lack of interest these numbers have inspired:

SAMUELSON: Except from crabby Republicans, these astonishing numbers have received little attention—a tribute to Obama's Zen-like capacity to discourage serious criticism. Everyone's fixated on the present economic crisis, which explains and justifies big deficits (lost revenue, anti-recession spending) for a few years. Hardly anyone notes that huge deficits continue indefinitely.

We’ll be honest—we’ve found that puzzling too. In recent decades, much smaller deficit/debt numbers have been carefully watch-dogged by the press. (In 1999 and 2000, journalists pretended to watch-dog the way each dollar of the projected surplus would get spent by Bush or Gore.) Now, much larger debt numbers get ignored. We don’t know what those numbers might mean—but we’d like to see economists asked. What does Krugman think, for instance? How about Stiglitz? Dean Baker? Bruce Bartlett? We’d love to see them asked.

Given the poverty of our political language, Samuelson’s critique will perhaps be described as coming “from the right.” But then too, there’s that semi-related critique “from the left,” the critique which has been glancingly voiced by Naomi Klein and Eliot Spitzer on the Maddow Show. Is a gigantic “heist” unfolding—the largest heist in monetary history? That’s what Klein told Maddow, and Spitzer seemed to voice similar concerns last week. But in truth, this concern is largely getting passed by, just like Samuelson’s concern. Klein made a remarkable statement to Maddow. Have you seen any follow-up?

Would Spitzer agree with what Klein said? Maddow didn’t ask.

We’d like to see economists asked about these situations. We’re not economists here ourselves, but we’re curious how these twin concerns might affect the future economic health of regular people. (If a heist is unfolding—if dangerous debt piles up—we feel fairly sure that the losses won’t be taken from the hide of the upper class. Will airline pilots look back fondly on the day when they earned 16 grand?) Of course, that health plan ain’t getting discussed a lot either. Our discourse bumps forward from day to day, routinely driven by the powerful Cult of the Offhand Comment. Who said something odd today? For how many days, or weeks, or months, can we pretend to discuss it?

We were struck by Samuelson’s column; non-discussion of those numbers seems to depart from all recent practice. But then, we were mightily struck by Klein/Spitzer too. We weren’t much struck by the things Rick Perry said last month, and we don’t much care about Michael Steele’s endlessly pointless pronouncements. Steele can provide some good fun, it’s true. But while we laugh, cavort and play, is an actual heist going on? As we gaze on the blather that does get discussed, we marvel at what goes unnoticed.

By the way: Why does so much piffle seem to get discussed on our newly progressive cable? The answer may lie in the world of Bill Wolff! Yes, Wolff has a good sense of humor; we want to start by giving him that. But our journey to that unexplored land starts, at long last, just below.

Special report: The answer may lie in the world of Bill Wolff!

PART 1—IS ACTUALLY FUNNY: In fairness, Bill Wolff is actually funny—at least to a certain extent. We know that because of something he began to do in 2006, after he became vice president for prime-time programming at MSNBC, an important position Bill Wolff holds right to this very day.

Vice president for prime-time programming? That means that Wolff is in charge of—“is the brains behind”—this news channel’s prime-time programs. Since you may not have known such a thing about Wolff, a bit of background may be in order.

Wolff arrived at MSNBC in April 2005, hired away from—well, let’s leave such details for later. He’d been asked to perform a considerable task; he would be executive producer of the news channel’s new Tucker Carlson vehicle, The Situation with Tucker Carlson. After Wolff arrived on the scene, a press release described the new program’s impending charms. The show would feature “fast-paced, no-holds-barred conversation about the day's developments in news, politics, world issues and pop culture—sometimes one on one and sometimes in a group.”

The burden of achieving this task now fell on the shoulders of Wolff.

The new show debuted on June 13, 2005. Right away, Carlson explained the visual clutter viewers saw on their TV machines—and he announced his program’s inaugural topic. “I’m Tucker Carlson,” he modestly said. As if we didn’t know that:

CARLSON (6/13/05): Welcome to The Situation. I’m Tucker Carlson.

Not only is this the first edition of our show. It’s also a special edition. The stack of stories you see on the left-hand side of your screen will always be filled with the day’s most important and interesting news.

At the top tonight, as you may have guessed, they are all related to the day’s dominant story. That is, of course, the acquittal of Michael Jackson.

As Carlson said, “of course!” More on that “stack of stories on the left-hand side of your screen” in a later installment. But with salient topics like this inaugural topic driving his program’s fast-paced conversations, Wolff would surely be in line for a quickie promotion. And sure enough! In September 2005, MSNBC kicked Phil Griffin upstairs to NBC, claiming he would be in charge of reinventing the Today show. And Griffin’s old job was handed to Wolff. After only four months at the channel, Wolff now found himself in charge of MSNBC’s prime-time programs.

Bill Wolff was now in the driver’s seat. And it’s the oldest story in all of show business! Before long, Wolff was booking a certain humorist to close Carlson’s nightly program—a humorist by the name of Bill Wolff.

How did Wolff get picked for this spot? Willie Geist, the program’s official humorist, was occasionally “on vacation”—cable-speak for jury duty. Vice President Wolff looked in the mirror—and believed he saw Geist’s replacement. In truth, there is no replacing a talent like Geist, though Wolff would learn this fact quite slowly. In his last appearance before Wolff’s debut, Geist set an impossibly high standard for his replacement, authoring a side-splitting “open” which went exactly like this:

CARLSON (10/6/06): Welcome back. He’s on vacation next week, so here’s your last chance to see him for a while. Willie Geist joins us!

GEIST: Me too, I’ll miss everybody!

Tucker, I have an important message for you. This applies to you specifically. It’s a reminder most of us probably did not need, but a German pharmaceutical company issued a warning yesterday reminding us that hemorrhoid cream is not intended to be used on your face. Got that? Models often use Preparation H to get rid of puffy eyes, and beauty magazines have offered the tip to the general public. That German company warns getting the cream in your eyes is very dangerous. That warning, once again: Avoid spreading hemorrhoid cream on your face whenever possible.

Tucker, that kind of throws a wrench in your morning routine, doesn’t it? To go right from the mud mask to the Beore no strips now.

CARLSON: You know what Willie, if we can help other people, it’s worth it! That’s how I feel.

GEIST: Talk about news you can use! That’s it if I’ve ever seen it!

The fun was just starting in Geist’s segment. But that was the level of humor Wolff somehow thought he himself could replace. (Full disclosure: Like the person who tried to transcribe this segment, we don’t know what “Beore no strips” are either. That doesn’t mean they don’t work.)

At any rate, Geist was “on vacation” by the start of the week. On October 10, 2006, Wolff made his debut with Carlson. His own inaugural topic? Barbra Streisand, who had told some hecklers at a concert that they could just “shut the f*ck up.” “Have a little bit of a sense of humor about yourself, Babs,” Wolff advised the pompous star. You could almost see Carlson thinking this: Thank God there’s no audience here!

Were Wolff’s ripostes amusing this evening? That is a matter of judgment. We will say this—we always thought Wolff had a funny persona in his stints on this show. And that was a help, because we never found a lot of “gravity” in his observations—despite the fact they were being offered on a major “news” show.

By March 2007, Wolff was appearing with Carlson a good deal, giving Geist more and more time to “rest.” But he didn’t seem to feel the need to stick to the weightier topics. On March 8, for instance, Carlson introduced Wolff with the typical double entendres about the things Geist tended to do in his ever-expanding spare time. Under Wolff, double entendres of this type would become de rigueur at this channel. And nonpareil, some have said:

CARLSON (3/8/07): Welcome back. It’s at this part of the show where we typically welcome Willie Geist. But Willie has jury duty today, which means somewhere in New York City, the fate of the accused rests in Willie’s hands. Think about that, America!

So instead, we’re moving up to the vice president of MSNBC, Bill Wolff.

Bill Wolff knew the mind of the demo. He didn’t want them thinking about what might be “resting in Willie’s hands.” If the demo started to think about that, they might be lost for the rest of evening! Moving swiftly, then, he selected his topic. A famous beauty had recently died. Why not start with that?

WOLFF: I know you’re a huge Anna Nicole Smith-nic, been following every part of the trial and the hearings, and of course the funeral. Well, you’re going to have to wait another week or two longer to learn the results of her autopsy. The Florida medical examiner, a guy who loves the camera himself, he performed the postmortem. He says he knows what killed Miss Smith, but the police investigating her death have asked him to hold off on the announcement. It was supposed to come early next week. It’s going to be a little while now.

My amateur forensic pathology from afar, purely by watching television, has ruled out old age, drowning, and a motorcycle accident. Again, I am not a forensic pathologist. I reserve the right to be wrong, but if it’s one of those three, I will retire from this hobby of mine.

CARLSON: See, I already trust you more than the judge in the Anna Nicole case!

Tossing off jokes as a shortstop spits seeds, Wolff “reserved the right to be wrong,” a common approach on this network.

Maybe you had to be there! But the topic selection in Wolff’s humor segments tended to be a bit “light.” Because we think this channel’s “progressive” programs have arguably grown a bit light under Wolff, we do feel a small obligation to bring you samples of his observations. And sure enough! Wolff was soon running tape of a parading queen, something the gentlemen still like to do on his channel’s most dumbed-down program:

CARLSON (3/23/07): We`ve been here 55 minutes and I will confess, we have not covered all the news today. And so for that, we go now to a man who misses no news, ever, the vice president of MSNBC, Bill Wolff!

WOLFF: Tucker, under six metric tons of pancake makeup, I’m blushing. Tonight, sir, we will witness the peaceful transition of power that makes this republic the shining beacon of hope it has been for more than 200 years. Yes, the reigning Miss USA, Tara Conner, will hand over her tiara to a new representative of this country. No military coups, no juntas, no guillotines. Not here. Just a tearful passing of the sash.

Miss Conner, of course, was found to have been partying hard, illegally and publicly and dabbling in adventurous sexual experimentation during her reign, in other words, living in New York City, before entering rehab in December.

Well, she’s out. She’s clean. She’s happy. And today may mark the last semi-legitimate excuse we have to run this arresting video clip that has become so very famous, Tucker. We have much to be thankful for on this day, and part of what we have to be thankful for here in the cable news business is Tara Conner. Because not only did she give us this video, Tucker, but you will recall that the highly-rated spat between Rosie O’Donnell and Donald Trump began over this very video.

CARLSON: Oh, so there is a new hook...

Huzzah! Wolff had found “a new hook” for running that swim-suit footage.

We’d originally planned to start this series with a tribute to Wolff’s sense of humor. Truthfully, he did have a pretty good persona when he filled in for Geist, who seemed to “vacation” more and more as Wolff gobbled up power. Wolff seems like an amusing guy—someone it would be easy to like. But that would be in real life: On the web, it’s easy to be hard. And Wolff is in charge of prime-time news programs on a “progressive” news channel—a channel to which he came with no news experience at all.

He came to this channel with no news background! As we watch Countdown’s downward spiral, that fact does pop into our heads.

Why has Countdown turned into Clowndown? Why is a progressive host like Rachel Maddow insulting average people (“tea-baggers”), while endlessly kissing the keister of Colin Powell’s number-one man? Why does so much of this channel’s work now feature the type of staged overstatement previously seen on pseudo-con cable? We often ask ourselves questions like these as we watch these progressive news programs. And uh-oh! Much as we liked his amusing persona, we sometimes think the answer to questions like these may lie in the world of Bill Wolff.

Coming: Who the heck is Bill Wolff?