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The Mysterious Tango Between a News Spinner and Those He Spins

They must think we’re all gullible, or at least just a bit lazy. Take the recent spin from the Petraeus camp delivered by Ret. Col. Steve Boylan, a friend and former spokesman who appeared Monday on NBC’s Today Show and ABC’s Good Morning America to share personal information Petraeus told him in extended conversations over the weekend, most notably that the affair with Paula Broadwell began two months after he became CIA director in (around November 2011) and ended four months ago (July 2012.)

Twelve hours later Boylan was on CNN telling Anderson Cooper the same talking points. No one challenged Boylan or even asked if the general would be willing to testify about the timeline under oath.

When did they go “All In?” The wrong answer could lead to a court-martial.

For all the embarrassing details that have surfaced so far, earlier reports at least marked his appointment as CIA chief as the end of his extramarital affair, showing somewhat a more sober frame of mind. So why would he send Steve Boylan out with a story to specifically refute that point?

I suspect it’s all about Article 134 which covers the crime of committing adultery under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ)  The penalty? Court martial, dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pension, even confinement.

At the risk of sounding preachy, the latest 4-star scandals should serve as a warning to journalists who have covered military and national security beats, along with their editors, anchors and producers. (George Stephanopoulos did ask if the affair began in while working on the book in Afghanistan; Boylan denied it.)

Petraeus seems to have been controlling his press image for decades as telegraphed years ago in his Princeton dissertation unearthed by journalist Michael Hastings.

“Perception” is key, Petraeus wrote in 1987.  “What policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters — more than what actually occurred.”

Hastings is best known for his bold reporting that ended the career of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the predecessor of General Petraeus. He has written best-selling books and now digs into “The Sins of General Petraeus,” for BuzzFeed.com.

Hastings calls Petraeus “world class bullish** artist,” and details many of the ways he sees Petraeus has manipulated the media. As the scandal unfolds, a pattern does emerge.

We Now Know Petraeus Kept his Friends Close and his Biographers Closer

Before Paula Broadwell, biographer Linda Robinson wrote a glowing biography of General Petraeus and widely publicized it. He then hired her to work for him at U.S. Central Command.

Before Paula Broadwell, Petraeus spent time charming his first female biographer, Linda Robinson a highly regarded former national security and military reporter with U.S. News & World Report. Just as he broke the ice with Paula Broadwell, the general got to know Robinson on runs in Afghanistan and in 125-degree heat. Both journalists were ultimately welcomed in to his inner circle,  deemed fit for duty to tell his personal story.

In 2008, Linda Robinson wrote her take on David Petraeus and his war record: Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq. After the book came out he rewarded her with a post alongside him at U.S. Central Command.

There is no suggestion that Linda Robinson and David Petraeus had an affair;  the similarities between her and Broadwell raise more questions about the development of a media cult around him.

Linda Robinson, 58, is currently an adjunct senior fellow on foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and is a Nieman fellow at Harvard University. She has also been a senior editor at the respected Foreign Affairs magazine and her work has appeared in the New York Times, theWashington Post and a string of policy journals. She has helped spread the gospel of General Petraeus.

In a series of interviews she also heaped praise on the man himself, including one in 2008 with NPR in which she expressed her affection for him, not dissimilar to the words of his second biographer, Paula Broadwell.

So, we now ask: through what prisms have we been viewing the general?  Has he mastered relationships with selected reporters to portray him as a man of military brilliance, honor and integrity.

“How did Petraeus get away with all this for so long?” Michael Hastings asks.

“His first affair – and one that matters so much more than the fact that he was sleeping with a female or two – was with the media.”

Hastings Calls Out A Shocking Media Conflict of Interest

The media, either for access or straight up cash (laundered through an organization Petraeus started called Center For A New American Security or CNAS), gave favorable reports or used quotes from unnamed sources which painted favorable pictures for one such strategy or another.

(CNAS) put the journalists who were covering those same plans and policies on its payroll. For instance, New York Times Pentagon correspondent Thom Shanker took money and a position from CNAS and still covered the Pentagon; Robert Kaplan, David Cloud from The Los Angeles Times, and others produced a small library’s worth of hagiographies while sharing office space at CNAS with retired generals whom they’d regularly quote in their stories.

Since the Petraeus/Broadwell affair scandal broke, all gloves are off; new investigations are underway into a possible abuse of power by Petraeus, unchecked until now –taking a girlfriend on a private military jet for his round-the-world “goodbye tour,” reportedly traveling with rock-star-worthy entourages that includes a CIA assistant assigned to provide fresh water and pineapple on his morning runs? It’s a tough balancing act, but it’s now the time for beat reporters to dig deeper, take off the kid gloves that have protected their access at the expense of what the rest of us need to know.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Matt? Savannah? GMA? NBC Execs? You won’t believe who did what in this summer network mystery special!

When high crimes are committed against network news careers  you can be sure of one thing: finger prints are never left behind.  Given the challenge, this kind of unsolved mystery needs a top television sleuth, someone willing to follow the trail while the blood is still fresh and revisionist publicists have yet to spin the story into infinity.

Preferably, the best choice to solve the high-profile case of the sudden disappearance of Ann Curry should have experience in the crime beat of morning news. So, for the greater good (of the blogosphere at least) I must volunteer myself, a long-time morning show executive and, just like NBC’s Detective Olivia Benson, a crime fighter whose skills have been sharpened by once having suffered a personal assault as well.

THE TALE OF THE TAPE
Curry Cringe w/Matt v. Teddy Bear Hug w/Al

And so we begin, first examining the suspects who were last seen with the victim, sitting on that couch as she tearfully said goodbye to her beloved audience.   Natalie? No, she’s not All About EveAl? No, he doesn’t even qualify as a red herring although he  likes to eat them. Matt? Now we might want to put Matt in a line up at least and not because he’s just re-signed a ridiculous new contract, one we can fairly assume was designed to make all his dreams come true.  No, we just need to look at the victim’s body language and Matt’s not off the hook quite yet. Read the rest of this entry »

Michelle Obama: "I really like this job." Gayle King thought bubble: "So do I."

If an interview with the First Lady is, indeed, a litmus test for the strength of a new morning show anchor, Gayle King has lit up the internet. Based on the first two inaugural days of the new CBS The Morning, void of any real news, who knew the woman previously known as the BFF of O would nail the first real news-making interview of the week.

Wow.

To start, there was something smart and intimate about conducting the interview in the First Lady’s office, away from the West Wing and the grandure of the White House public rooms.

Michelle Obama’s office , which I don’t remember seeing on television before, felt a bit more cramped than expected, sending a subliminal message of the humility she was trying to express as she and King addressed some of the more sensational content of the new Jody Kantor book about the Obamas.

It wasn’t just the interview questions that made this interview particularly engaging. King’s unique poise, warmth and, yes, star power ensured this viewer was glued to the set for part two. Read the rest of this entry »

LIFE IS GOOD AGAIN

The U.S. Treasury did not default.  Gabby Giffords returned to Capitol Hill and rallied her House colleagues on the importance of unity. And it looks like our grandchildren will be paying off our nation’s debt. Good news breaking all around  (at least for many of us who have been supporting adult children and have no problem learning they may one day have to do the same.)

Will checkbook journalism go the way of Joe Camel?

Ever an optimist, I am a great believer in our flawed institutions and the flawed people who run them.  After all, during my lifetime I’ve seen the most radical reforms. Among my favorites:  big Tobacco brought to its knees, forced to pay $368 billion in health-related damages and retire Joe Camel. That was right up there with the break up of the Bell Telephone monopoly and the fall of communism.  

In the realm of  anything is possible,  it now appears Ben Sherwood is saving ABC News — if not its ratings, at least its integrity.  Swimming fiercely against the current, the new ABC News boss has announced the end of the scandalous practice of writing large checks for competitive news interviews under the guise of “licensing fees” for photos or video. See? If you wait (or live) long enough, the things you care about the most will turn out okay. Read the rest of this entry »

THE ORACLE OF MORNING TV?

After so many years of reading the tea leaves of morning television —  who’s in, who’s out, who’s moving the Nielsen needle, which anchor is bored, who will get fired — I thought it was time to try something more effective.  After all, with so many real changes announced at one, and so many more rumors, I just needed to know what our lives will look like at 7:00 a.m. each morning, once all the pieces and players are in place.

Viera to be sadly missed by colleagues and viewers alike.

First, I will be sad to see Meredith Viera go this June.  She’s a great reporter, wildly popular anchor and, in the best (and rarest) compliment in the television business, she will be as sadly missed by her colleagues as by her loyal viewers.

But before we banish Meredith to Millionaire forever, I share with you my odd sense that she will be back at our breakfast tables before long.  Perhaps the summer of ’13.  More on that in a moment.

I know it sounds crazy, but here’s why I say we may see Meredith again.  I’m certainly not clairvoyant, although I have occasionally served a prophecy of doom.  But as I started to explain, I decided to stop reading the tea leaves, and instead drink them with the rest of the tea.  The first night, I had a fitful, interrupted sleep.  But the second night, as I drifted off, the most interesting visions came to me in a dream which I will now recount.

[Cue the wavy lines]

It is  7:19 a.m. September 19th, 2011, the start of  the network’s new fall season.  On NBC’s Today Show, Matt Lauer and Ann Curry just finished a controversial news report on the discovery of a happiness gene, when sweet Al Roker pops up behind them and announces: “Controversy over.  The genome project just called and they confirmed I’ve got it.”  Business as usual there.

Over at CBS, anchors Harry Smith and Erica Hill sit on the newly designed set for the relaunch of CBS’ 120 Morning News Minutes. Read the rest of this entry »

THE PENDULUM HAS STARTED TO SWING, BUT WILL IT SWING ENOUGH?

Greg Mortenson: he needs to come out of hiding

It’s official, I’m now obsessed with Greg Mortenson and desperately want to know everything about who he is, what makes him tick and most important of all, why he hasn’t defended himself after the scorching 60Minutes expose´ Sunday night on his memoir, “Three Cups of Tea.” The report accused him of fabricating his heroic storie, then squandering millions raised for his charity.

Perhaps my reaction was delayed a day or two after learning the biggest fallout right after the story was that The Early Show had failed to follow up on the CBS exclusive on Monday morning. As a former senior executive producer of that show, I couldn’t help think, “who would I have booked, where does the story go from here?”

I know what star I would have reached for: Greg Mortenson. I would have offered him something Steve Kroft could not: a live, uninterrupted, unedited interview forum in which to defend himself. It is something he still needs to do. Read the rest of this entry »

PRINTING LAST WEEK’S NIELSEN RATINGS FOR THIS WEEK?  REALLY! YOU’VE SUNK TO A NEW CREDIBILITY LOW

For many months since launching daily Xpress, I haven’t  been able to resist pointing out the many inaccuracies of the weekly ratings reported by TVNewser, the once respectable “must read” during the tenure of the great Brian Stelter who was blogging while still in college and was quickly hired by The  New York Times after graduation.

I miss those days with Brian who was sadly replaced by reporters with fuzzy math, conflicts of interest and reckless disregard for the truth, much of which I’ve detailed in previous posts.

But now, get this error.  Today TVNewser has posted the ratings for the evening news shows for the week of April 11th, beginning their story:

“It was par for the course for the network evening newscasts the week of April 11.”

I guess so.  TVNewser has posted last week’s ratings by mistake! How embarrassing is that! Read the rest of this entry »

AS THE RUMORS SWIRL THAT MATT WILL FOLLOW MEREDITH OUT THE DOOR, A BILLION-DOLLAR FRANCHISE HEARS A GASP

Mano y mano: The only muscle Matt Lauer flexes with Tom Cruise is from the nose up.

A Today Show without Matt Lauer? Could this really be true? Could it still thrive?

Those are some of the questions recently posed to me by David Bauder of Associated Press. Where do I even begin?

As someone who’s studied Matt Lauer for many years, not just as a viewer but as a competitor, first as executive producer of ABC’s Good Morning America then senior executive producer of CBS’ Early Show, I can genuinely say with authority: there is simply no one like Matt Lauer in all of network news. There never has been, and now given the experience he adds to his broad range of skill sets, there probably never will be again.

So, NBC, what ever Matt wants, Matt should get. He’s certainly earned it.

HOW MATT LAUER BECAME “THE FONZ” OF MORNING TV AND WHY HIS BOSSES GET CREDIT FOR SPOTTING HIM

Most network news executives I have known would never have hired Matt Lauer in the first place. It’s clearly been their loss. You see, once upon a time, he was a young feature reporter for Robin Leach’s “Fame, Fortune and Romance,” a short-lived daytime series that rode the coat tails of the bigger show that brought you champagne wishes and caviar dreams. He then moved to New York and co-hosted a local talk show called 9 Broadway Plaza.

This, plus a few credits short of a degree from Ohio University, was not exactly the winning resume for a network news division, but somewhere within the NBC corporate hierarchy someone saw that Lauer was smart, fun to be around, comfortable in his own skin and likable. Not classically handsome, he was still sexy, appealing, someone who definitely sat at the cool kid’s table of life. Read the rest of this entry »

“BALLISTIC BOSS” AND “TANTRUM-PRONE” NO MORE

Icorrect: this girls new BFF

For three years I have lived with the collateral damage of a deliberate and continuing cyber smear campaign from a handful of detractors who have hidden behind the time-honored protection given anonymous news sources. They are more school yard bullies than protected sources in the traditions of  great journalism.  But even with school yard bullies, you at least know who they are.

Two old stories in particular (2007 and 2008) were actually manipulated  for years to reappear on the first page of my Google Search. Both articles, highly sexist,  were based on false or twisted information provided by those with apparent malice who choose to  portray me as a workplace wackjob.

At the time the articles first appeared, I made a decision to take the high ground and ignore the bad press.  I now know that decision was wrong; not defending myself against the many lies let them  live on, unchallenged,  in cyberspace, a new world that has a real and measurable impact.

The “anonymouses” were actually “winning.”   But today, in the words of one ESPN anchor, “Not so fast, my friend.”

Today, the New York Times  has an article in the Week In Review section called “Celebrities Set the Record Straight” about  a new website called ICorrect.com where , for a membership fee of $1,000, one can correct a false story and then see your correction posted side by side with the original accusation.  The NYT story today features Stephen Fry, Bianca Jagger, Michael Caine, Tommy Hillfiger, Kevin Spacey and me!

If $1,000 seems like a lot of money, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $65,000 I was quoted by one company  to chase down all the lies that had been ricocheting around the internet. That was just to start; there was no promise to tackle unforeseen problems, such as what turned out to be a cyber “stalker(s)” who, regardless of any accomplishments, will manipulate the headlines with the words “Ballistic Boss” and “Tantrum-Prone” back to the top of my search page.

The most vicious stories were published at the end of my 17-year tenure at ABC News, then at the end of a much shorter one at CBS News where, after 23 weeks as senior executive producer of The Early Show, the bad press was at a fever pitch and I was asked to leave.

March 3, 2008 was my last day at CBS News and, ironically,  also the day I was about to assign the story of Paul Tilley, a 40-year-old creative chief of an ad agency, DDB Chicago. A week and a half earlier Tilly, a husband and father of two, jumped to a violent death from an upper floor of the Fairmont Hotel,  the building next door to his offices.  The talented Mr. Tilley had been the target of vicious, anonymous blogs on two ad industry websites.

At the time, I named this new phenomenon blood blogging, a far more accurate phrase than Sarah Palin’s more recent blood libel, and certainly less incendiary.  To me, blood blogging seems more of a sport than anything else, one designed by those not particularly witty, talented or inspired, but rather  those who are seemingly disgruntled, disenfranchised and not willing to put their own ideas front and center for anyone to notice, let alone judge.

Under the cloak of anonymity, they tear others down, wound with words and when all else fails, make stuff up.

The blood blogging of me began even before I even accepted the CBS job, when it was published that  my secret contract negotiations to become senior executive producer of The Early Show were halted because Katie Couric was mad at me.  Not true, but the lightning round of phone calls from reporters revealed one certainty: someone was working a sabotage story pretty aggressively.  I was hoping this was just a little gossipy speed bump, but not so.  Following my introduction to The Early Show staff, I gave my first talk about the difficult but exciting days ahead as we faced the challenge of moving out of third place.   Soon after that, my old pals at ABC called and repeated back my words, almost verbatim, and even told me their favorite parts of the Q&A session.   When I officially began work at CBS  the next week, I changed the pass code to the telephone conference bridge.

The steady stream of malicious gossip began pretty early. I “melted down,” went “ballistic,” “became enraged” and “threw temper tantrums” in meetings I did not attend, in hallways I didn’t walk in and on phone calls I never placed or received.   In the early days, almost like clockwork each Friday afternoon at about ten to six, my boss and  I would be handed a demeaning anonymous item to confirm or deny for Page Six of the New York Post.  Despite the clear and specific denials from the president of the news division, Page Six eventually ran one big story anyway, telling our publicist, “but our source is so good.”  Perhaps the source had an ulterior motive.

As one website picked up each false and malicious story from the other,  personal threats began, some addressing what should happen to terrible bosses like me.  There was simply no recourse, until now.   Read the rest of this entry »

HAVE WE LEARNED NOTHING FROM HOW WE HANDLED THE BIG STORIES OF THE PAST?

A former colleague of mine, someone I consider a real treasure in journalism, posted on my facebook page her reaction to my continuing dialog about Chris Brown’s behavior: “why does anyone care about these people?”  Here’s my fast answer:

Nicole Brown Simpson and Rihanna: battered faces of domestic violence

How O.J. Simpson Tried to Bat Us Back on His Story

In June 1994, the great Roone Arledge, then president of ABC News, put me in charge of O.J. Simpson coverage for all his primetime magazine shows.  At the time, there were four hour-long shows each week: Day One, Turning Point, PrimeTime Live and 20/20.

I had missed the first few days of the Simpson story.  Ironically, I was in Washington, D.C. with Sam Donaldson, working on what, until then, was the biggest story of the year:  an exclusive interview with Paula Corbin Jones who had filed a sexual harassment suit against the President. (Funnily enough, I had to debate an ABC News vice president on “why we should give airtime to this woman and her lawsuit,”  which might be argued today was the first step which led to the President’s impeachment.)

The Paula Jones  interview aired not as the lead but in second position on the show Thursday night, behind the O.J. Simpson updates.  I quickly returned  to Los Angeles early the next morning, on Friday,  the day Simpson was supposed to turn himself in to police but instead led them on that fateful “low-speed white Bronco chase” that turned the story upside down and created a national viewing event that would continue for another year and a half.

Earlier in the week from Washington, D.C., I had quietly asked a freelancer/friend to get me the Simpson divorce papers from the courthouse.  The story was moving so fast, the PrimeTime Live producers on the scene had no time at all to even look at the file.  But late Friday night, as I read page after page, I saw it was all there — the admission of O.J. Simpson’s prior violence against his wife and the details of the domestic violence program he was supposed to complete.

Saturday morning I called my old friend Roy Firestone, the former ESPN sports anchor who I was certain must have interviewed Simpson.  It turned out, Roy had actually interviewed him years before about the wife beating charges.  The tapes were somewhere in storage and he was more than happy to dig them out for me, but he warned me that back then, in more innocent times, he had not pressed O.J. Simpson very hard to account for his behavior.

Later that nght, we aired a one-hour Turning Point, a broadcast that would drive O.J. Simpson into a fury. From behind bars, he insisted that his only lawyer at the time, Bob Shapiro, call me and Barbara Walters on his behalf to demand apologies, retractions and more.  We got it all wrong, Simpson had declared, even though we hadn’t strayed from the exact language in the divorce documents and his own words on tape.

We now know that Nicole Brown kept a diary which noted O.J. Simpson’s first abuse of her in 1977.  She kept the photo of her battered face in a safety deposit box.  She called 911 after Simpson broke the door jam of her condominium while kicking down the door.  Mark Fuhrman answered another 911 call after Simpson shattered the windshield of her Mercedes Benz with a baseball bat. And we also know that on June 12, 1994, O.J. Simpson’s violence escalated to a double murder when he slashed Nicole’s throat from behind, as if slaughtering a farm animal, and stabbed to death a bystander:  her friend, Ron Goldman.

DOES NICOLE’S BATTERED FACE NOT LOOK JUST LIKE RIHANNA’S?

Nicole Simpson’s battered face was once so beautiful, it haunts.  So does Rihanna’s.

The bruises on their foreheads look so similar.   I wonder, is that where blood coagulates when you’re beaten on the top, or side of your head? Read the rest of this entry »