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Let’s just dance the news away

Times Staff Writer

Sometime between the Israeli-Hezbollah cease-fire and the arrest of a suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey slaying last week, a story of grave national import broke on the newswires.

Yes, MSNBC host Tucker Carlson will waltz -- or perhaps tango, lambada or funky-chicken -- across our screens as a contestant on the upcoming season of ABC’s reality competition “Dancing With the Stars.”

Upon hearing the news, many viewers probably wondered the same thing: Is Tucker Carlson one of the stars, or will he just get to dance with one?

The formerly bow-tied pundit who hosts “Tucker With Tucker Carlson” has seldom danced cheek to cheek with big ratings, now or during prior stints at CNN and PBS. His MSNBC show covering politics and media was recently shunted from prime time to the less-glamorous bailiwicks of 4 and 6 p.m., averaging a paltry 219,000 viewers in the later slot, according to Nielsen Media Research. In fact, Carlson might be most famous for a testy exchange with Jon Stewart in 2004 on the now-defunct “Crossfire.”

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But then again, on “Dancing” his star power might prove blinding. His rivals will include the merry emcee of syndicated sleaze, Jerry Springer, plus pinup Shanna Moakler of MTV’s reality show “Meet the Barkers” and Mario Lopez from the ‘80s sitcom touchstone “Saved by the Bell.” (Evidently “Bell’s” Screech was unavailable).

The “Dancing” gig could boost his audience by nearly 100 times. But Carlson insists he’s not gettin’ down as a PR stunt for “Tucker.”

“That played no role in my decision, actually,” Carlson said by phone Friday from Maine, where he’s vacationing and, as he admitted, not rehearsing dance steps as he should be. “If I really wanted to improve ratings for my show, I’d do true crime stories every day.”

He explained that he simply views “Dancing” as an interesting life experience. “I am a person of good cheer, and I’m not a coward. I’d like to do so many things. I’d like to do bonefishing on Christmas Island. All the things that add up to a rich life.”

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No one wants to deny a rich life to a person of good cheer, but it’s worth asking whether TV journalists are going a little too far in their endless cha-cha with Hollywood. This fall, Tucker busts a move on ABC. What’s next, Katie Couric taking a shower with Flavor Flav on VH1?

Of course, many critics have been wailing for years over the crumbling borders separating news from entertainment. But TV personalities, for their part, have been leaping back and forth between the camps practically since the medium was invented. After all, Mike Wallace, the “60 Minutes” bulldog who just interrogated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, presided over “The Big Surprise” and other game shows in the 1950s before helping invent “gotcha” journalism.

Younger newsfolk have performed similar tricks. Before he became the blue-eyed soul of CNN, Anderson Cooper slummed around on “The Mole” at ABC. And Julie Chen of CBS News’ “Early Show” oversees the eviction-night proceedings on the reality show “Big Brother.”

But now, with the cable news networks struggling to fill each hour, the boundaries between news and entertainment are growing fuzzier by the minute. In this environment, few media watchdogs would bother barking if Carlson tossed away his chinos on Fuse’s striptease show “Pants-Off Dance-Off.”

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Take Headline News (formerly CNN Headline News), which features news updates all day but has built its prime time around former prosecutor Nancy Grace, the Madame DeFarge of legal TV, and Glenn Beck, a high-energy, wisecracking radio talk host who focuses on pop culture. Despite the network’s name, executives say they don’t want viewers getting the wrong idea.

“We emphasize that the hosts of these shows are not journalists,” said Ken Jautz, executive vice president of CNN Worldwide, who runs Headline News.

It’s exactly that bizarre practice of nonjournalism killing countless hours at supposed news networks that continues to keep Stewart gainfully employed as the medium’s comic scourge. During his 2004 “Crossfire” appearance, Stewart ridiculed Carlson and co-host Paul Begala as “partisan hacks” and said the Punch-and-Judy-like debate show was “hurting America” (“I guess I come down more firmly in the Jon Stewart camp,” CNN chief Jon Klein said in axing “Crossfire” a few months later).

Stewart’s “Daily Show” on Comedy Central picked more low-hanging fruit last week, lampooning cable anchors engaged in mindless, drive-by salutes to the 25th anniversary of MTV.

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“The producers of ‘The Daily Show’ are licking their chops at the prospect of a cable newsman suiting up for ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ ” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a nonprofit research organization affiliated with the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C.

Carlson professes not to care. “Does it make me insecure that my journalistic bona fides will be called into question?” he asked. “No, not at all.” He added: “Going on ‘Dancing With the Stars’ is hardly the most humiliating thing I’ve ever done.”

Well, Carlson may be speaking too soon on that score.

Dance criticism is beyond the scope of this department -- far, far beyond -- so Channel Island sought the help of Los Angeles Times dance critic Lewis Segal. On his May 11 show, Carlson showed off a few moves in the MSNBC studio. The clip is still posted on his blog and has become popular on YouTube and other video-sharing websites. Segal looked and weighed in.

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“This guy has his body locked into zones that might as well belong to different people,” Segal e-mailed. “And just thrashing around ain’t the bomb. To do the smooth ballroom moves that win points on ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ he needs to spend every day until the show airs swimming or jumping rope or something else that integrates the whole body. Otherwise, not ready for prime time.”

Oh, dear. This is not promising at all. Carlson might want to consider cutting his vacation short and putting in some hard work at the ballet studio before he cuts a rug in front of millions.

And if dancing doesn’t work out -- well, there’s always bonefishing.


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