washingtonpost.com
Sandra Bullock trumps health care

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010; 12:02 PM

News can be a popularity contest.

And maybe those of us on the "serious" side of the business shouldn't be snooty about the voting that takes place every day.

I was looking at the aggregation site Newser.com on Thursday, and after clicking on the word "popular," this is what I got:

Math genius turns down $1M prize. (No. 1). 24% of GOPers believe Obama's the Antichrist (2). George Bush uses Bill Clinton as towel (3). Tim Tebow's prayer request bombs (4). Kate Gosselin awful on dance floor -- and off (5). Nine successes who were rejected by college (6). Bullock breaks down at family dinner (7).

Ah, Sandra Bullock. Is there anyone in America who hasn't been following that story? She wins an Oscar and finds out that her moronic husband, Jesse James, has been cheating on her with a tattoo-covered woman who peddled her tale to In Touch magazine.

Newser linked to a gossip story, quoting unnamed sources, that may or not be true: "As Sandra Bullock meets with top-end divorce lawyers, the Oscar winner recently broke down at a family dinner over emails from the kids of cheating hubby Jesse James. 'Sandy broke down at one point but she came right back,' a source told X17 Online."

On Gawker, Bullock was the hottest post of the morning, drawing 11,670 hits in six hours:

"Jesse James' ex-wife says her biological daughter Sunny -- who is Sandra's adopted daughter -- 'loves Sandy and vice versa. She's welcome to be a part of every aspect of Sunny's life.' Which is funny because Janine was very recently fighting to keep custody of her daughter."

Now, this is hardly the most important story of our time. Hollywood actresses seem to be in failing marriages all the time. But during my CNN program last week, after talking about health care, I found esteemed journalists chatting about Sandra during the break. It's just a helluva human interest story.

The New York Times hasn't published a word. The Washington Post has limited itself to one paragraph in the Reliable Source column. The network newscasts haven't touched it. Are they, in some sense, ignoring what people care about? Why is Tiger a story but not Sandra?

Newser founder Michael Wolff, a Vanity Fair columnist, wrestles with this question on his site:

"What if it isn't gossip we're interested in? What if we really aren't small- and mean-minded? What if we aren't scandalmongerers but rather, as we sort through other people's dirty laundry, erm, truth seekers?

"It continues to be a big issue at Newser, our gossip quotient. Some of us (principally Newser's older men), have a continued aversion to gossip-ish content -- mainly, the hundreds of infidelities and marital break-ups that we have duly followed. We've even added a button on the upper right of the homepage allowing users to filter out the gossip, which practically no one has ever used. Indeed, the more we older men get cranky about all the gossip, the more our users seem to gobble it up. . . .

"Private lives may be the big subject of our time, a vastly more complicated and relevant subject than public life. Most people really could care less about what's behind the political spin machine, but they're incredibly curious about what's behind our personal spin machines. . . .

"As broad as it is, tabloid journalism really may be emotionally truer than most other kinds of journalism. In an incredibly phony and managed world, celebrity infidelities and break-ups are as close as we come to something real."

Something real within the unreal world of the rich and famous, which journalists never really penetrate. Just look at Tiger's coverage before the Thanksgiving crash.

Gawker says that when In Touch magazine broke the Bullock story, "at first, even gossip-industry insiders didn't believe it was true. 'The first day, those first couple hours, I wasn't going to touch it because it wasn't a People magazine exclusive or any of the standbys,' said Courtney Hazlett, who writes the Scoop column for MSNBC and has worked for People and OK!. . . .

"Both James' and Bullock's reps initially denied the report; it wasn't until Bullock pulled out of The Blind Side London premiere that the story started to be taken seriously.

"Though official numbers have yet to come in, sources tell us that the cover was likely In Touch's biggest seller ever, at around 1.4 million copies -- in contrast to the magazine's average newsstand sales of 800,000. But what of the allegations that the magazine paid McGee $30,000 for her story? 'I actually can't comment on that,' said In Touch executive editor Michelle Lee."

Translation: It's true.

And in case you needed to know, TMZ says there's a third Jesse James mistress: "Brigitte Daguerre -- a Los Angeles photographer -- claims Jesse hired her in 2008 to do styling work for a West Coast Choppers photo shoot. She says the two emailed and texted each other for a year, but claims they only had sex four times before she cut it off. Daguerre has 195 text messages between her and Jesse (the cell phone numbers sync up). . . . many of them extremely graphic."

Health-care autopsies

The House and Senate approved the "fixes" bill hammered out in the health-care deal -- yes, the dreaded reconciliation was used -- but the media focus has shifted to the issue of threats and vandalism.

"In the days surrounding passage of healthcare overhaul legislation," says the L.A. Times, "Republican lawmakers have been left to strike a fine balance between harnessing voter outrage and fueling it."

At Powerline, John Hinderaker says this about the threats:

"The current threats (assuming they are real, as I assume some of them are) are being played up in the press because the Democrats want to dampen the anger that has erupted over their adoption of a government medicine program through a series of legislative maneuvers that are in some respects unprecedented. It is important for the Democrats and their press minions to understand that there are many millions of Americans who regard Obamacare not just as misguided public policy, but as an illegitimate usurpation of power. I am one of the many millions who are outraged at the Left's attempt to destroy the private health care system that has served my family so well, and who regard Obamacare as illegitimate."

How can a majority vote in both houses of Congress be illegitimate? Awful or misguided, maybe, but illegitimate?

But while Hinderaker accepts the threats (there are police reports, shattered windows, vile voice mails), Sean Hannity is still doubting that protesters at the Capitol last weekend hurled epithets at members of Congress.

"I have not seen the video tape that confirms this yet. If anyone has it, send it to me. I want to see it, of racial slurs, anti-gay slurs being made at the Tea Party Movement. Do we have any evidence that corroborates this at all?"

So he's suggesting that John Lewis and Barney Frank are lying?

Republican activist Patrick Ruffini faults his side:

"When it comes to health care policy, conservatives have been seriously outgunned. . . .

"On health care, I have no idea what our basic guiding principle is. Seriously, I don't. . . .

"We just haven't had as many people thinking about health care, and we didn't actively move legislation on it when we were in power.

"Perhaps you might say that's beside the point of the awfulness of this plan, and that our full efforts must go towards repeal. Be that as it may, Republican inattention to health care and the failure to develop a compelling free market narrative on the issue led to the place we are now. By pounding home the notion that the uninsured were the central problem with the health care system, and pointing to the fact that their numbers were growing each and every year, liberals built a sense of urgency that conservatives didn't have and were able to demand action -- even if that action was political suicide."

Frum Fired

My report on the American Enterprise Institute ousting David Frum after he likened passage of the health care bill to the GOP's Waterloo is here. Meanwhile, former Wall Street Journal editorial writer Tunku Varadarajan says Frum is a "polite-company conservative," or one "who yearns for the goodwill of the liberal elite in the media and in the Beltway--who wishes, always, to have their ear, to be at their dinner parties, to be comforted by a sense that liberal interlocutors believe that they are not like other conservatives, with their intolerance and boorishness, their shrillness and their talk radio."

The Hillary factor

Blast from the past: "Hillary Rodham Clinton attempted to persuade on-the-fence Democrats to vote for the healthcare reform bill that narrowly passed the House on Sunday.

"Lawmakers told The Hill that Clinton, who failed to convince the Democratic-controlled Congress to pass healthcare reform in 1994, was active in whipping votes for the White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)."

A Word about polls

In the Weekly Standard, Jonathan Last makes an interesting point:

"When the president took office in January 2009, Gallup measured his overall job approval at 67 percent, with 86 percent of blacks approving. Since then, blacks have shown an increasingly favorable opinion of him. In June, for instance, as Gallup showed Obama's approval slipping with most groups, it shot up to 95 percent among blacks. In recent weeks, it has stabilized in the low 90s. (Gallup has never clocked this number below 86 percent.) By Gallup's measure, Obama has lost ground with every other cohort since taking office, including self-identified liberals, self-identified Democrats, and even self-identified liberal Democrats. Blacks are the only group in which he has gained ground."

Last argues that African Americans are concentrated in a minority of districts: "If relatively few congressional districts look like America, then in most congressional districts Obama's job approval is likely to be lower -- anywhere from 2 to 7 points lower -- than the national average."

Of course, local elections turn on more than the president's popularity.

Tale of two f-bombs

In the week of Joe Biden's expletive heard round the world, the Media Research Center's NewsBusters hearkens back to the last vice presidential obscenity: "The media, particularly The Washington Post, MSNBC and CNN, took Cheney's indiscretion seriously. But Biden's indiscretion -- which was actually captured on national TV -- wasn't seen as so serious." The Post even printed the F-word in Dick Cheney's case.

Sure. Maybe because Biden was engaging in an overexuberant moment of triumph, while Cheney was telling a U.S. senator to go expletive himself?

Ensign's lament

Sen. John Ensign of Nevada tells Politico that he doesn't like his news coverage:

" 'Seeking of the truth should be not only part of the Justice Department and part of our judicial system, but also should be . . . a goal of reporters today,' Ensign said. 'Unfortunately, too much of our press is. . . . (1) biased or (2) just about 'gotcha.'

"Asked if he thought the press was targeting him unfairly, Ensign said, 'I'll let you make your own call.' "

Uh, senator? You had an affair with your ex-aide's wife, and there's now an investigation into whether you improperly helped the cuckolded husband set up a lobbying business. You've granted no interviews on the subject. Maybe the coverage would be less "gotcha" if you'd answer reporters' questions?

No senor

Dan Senor, the Bush aide turned Fox News commentator, won't be running for the Senate in New York after floating his name. He joins a growing club -- Mort Zuckerman, Harold Ford and others -- who have reaped the publicity benefits of being a potential candidate without having to take the plunge. Maybe we should stop tracking these trial balloons until someone gets serious.

Belt-tightening hits home

"The Washington Post Co. cut its CEO's pay by 49 percent last year as the newspaper publisher trimmed its staff and reined in other costs amid a severe advertising slump.

"Donald Graham's compensation package totaled $412,740 last year, down from $811,960 in 2008, according to a filing Wednesday with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The drop reflected Graham's refusal to accept a bonus in 2009."

Ouch

"The New York Times Co. has apologized and agreed to pay Singapore's prime minister and his two predecessors some 160,000 Singapore dollars ($114,000) for a story that listed the city-state's leaders as an Asian political dynasty."

The piece ran in 1994.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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