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A tight race for media celebs

“Politics,” the media philosopher Marshall McLuhan once said, “will eventually be replaced by imagery.”

Such a sentiment may have sounded radical in its time. But today McLuhan’s observation seems more like a matter-of-fact reckoning of the campaign of ’08, which has taken political image-making to new heights -- and sometimes shocking depths -- on television and the Internet.

It all adds up to an election cycle in which politics and imagery have completely fused. And furthering this discomfiting merger are the media personalities who, like the candidates, have seen their fortunes altered by the rich sweep of events, or sometimes simply by their own determined hogging of the spotlight.

So this column has picked a few of the recent media standouts, arranged in no particular order. We’ve tried to leave off obvious choices, such as Jon Stewart (whose ratings rose to record highs on last week’s Obama interview) or Oprah Winfrey. We’ve also added a “yea” or “nay” vote that handicaps prospects for each celeb to rise to even greater fame -- or notoriety -- during the coming months:

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Rachel Maddow

If this media cycle has a belle of the ball, it’s the Air America radio host who’s delivered big ratings gains for left-leaning MSNBC since she replaced Dan Abrams in September.

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Rare for a TV bloviator, Maddow has a brain (former Rhodes scholar), a sense of humor (she jokes about her butch style) and a relatively unassuming nature (her house has no TV!).

On-air, she cracks wise like Jon Stewart and isn’t afraid to scrap with hard-core politico types such as former Bush scribe David Frum.

However: Flash in the pan? Two months is really nothing in terms of TV longevity. We’ll see. Vote: Yea

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John King

Officially, it’s the Multi-Touch Collaboration Wall, a favorite techno-toy of Pentagon planners. But we know it as the Magic Map, and its prince is King.

When CNN’s white-haired political correspondent shows off his wonky knowledge of demographic patterns in obscure counties in Ohio or Missouri while waving his hands to manipulate the Map’s digital components, he looks like an older, dorkier version of Tom Cruise in “Minority Report.” Tuesday night, corralling all the voting returns, should be his crowning moment.

However: Almost beyond parody, but not quite, “Saturday Night Live’s” Fred Armisen made Michigan bounce in his King spoof.

Vote: Nay

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Charles Gibson

“The crowd is turning on me,” ABC’s anchor murmured as angry hecklers disrupted a Democratic debate in April. Gibson’s quote could be seen as an unhappy motto for the media at large in this polarizing age.

But the veteran newsman took more flak than most, from virtually all corners. Pro-Obama supporters ripped him for mismanaging a debate that they alleged descended into featherweight issues and attacks (“a televised train wreck,” according to Philadelphia Daily News writer Will Bunch).

And then the GOP’s amen corner lashed back after his September interview with Sarah Palin, where he lectured the vice presidential hopeful about the Bush doctrine and other topics.

However: The crowd may have turned on him, but viewers haven’t: “World News” remains locked in a tight ratings battle with NBC’s “Nightly News.”

Vote: Nay

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Elisabeth Hasselbeck

Fame’s a funny thing. One day you’re known mainly as an also-ran on “Survivor,” and before you know it you’re palling around with a vice presidential candidate. Perhaps this campaign’s strangest meta-narrative has been the transformation of Hasselbeck, the token conservative on ABC’s gabfest “The View,” into the right’s media apologist, a kind of Oprah for the Weekly Standard crowd. Weirder still: that “The View” has become a credible clearinghouse of political opinion and analysis.

However: Hasselbeck’s feuds with, um, basically all of her “View” co-hosts, including queen bee Barbara Walters, suggest her days on the program may be numbered.

Vote: Yea

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Katie Couric

The year did not begin promisingly for the CBS News anchor. Mired in third place in the ratings, her much-desired shot at redemption fizzled in April when a debate she was supposed to moderate between Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton fell through. But Couric soldiered on, ultimately bringing off the year’s interview coup, in which Palin parried the newscaster’s modest questions with rambling, sometimes-incoherent replies. CBS boss Leslie Moonves gave Couric a special shout-out in a conference call with analysts last week.

However: She’s still in third place. And the Palin interview gave conservatives -- who never much liked Couric to begin with -- more ammunition.

Vote: Yea

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Chuck Norris

Politicians can forgive anything for the sake of expediency, and evidently aging action stars can too. Last January, Norris, an outspoken supporter of Gov. Mike Huckabee’s quixotic White House bid, was thumping McCain as too old to be president -- a gutsy claim given that the onetime “Walker, Texas Ranger” star is, at 68, just four years younger than the GOP candidate.

McCain threatened to have his then-95-year-old mother wash out Norris’ mouth with soap. That was then. Now Norris is knocking Obama for his positions on guns and abortion and praising McCain and Palin as “two maverick pro-life advocates.”

However: To anyone who follows endorsements made by conservative celebrities, there’s a palpable sense that McCain is still not Norris’ first choice.

Vote: Nay

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David Letterman

At 61, the host of CBS’ “Late Show” has officially entered his late-career cranky-pants phase, and proven anew his national relevance. When McCain blew off a scheduled appearance in late September, Letterman went ballistic on-camera, impugning the candidate’s much-storied heroism and ridiculing Palin.

When McCain finally rescheduled to offer a mea culpa, he probably wished he hadn’t bothered: During the tense chat, Letterman’s unexpected dig at McCain’s friendship with Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy caught the Arizona senator visibly off-guard.

However: The McCain flap really didn’t do much for “Late Show’s” ratings.

Vote: Yea

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Tina Fey

You really need to ask why?

However: The Emmy, Alec Baldwin and Fey’s sensational Palin impressions added up to a boffo third-season premiere last week for “30 Rock.” But can the show keep it up?

Vote: Yea

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The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar.

Contact Scott Collins at scott.collins@ latimes.com


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