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Robinhood, GameStop Story was Hit and Miss in Media

The problem is no one was actually trying to find out the truth of what was going on. Cable news and talk radio became a joke.

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The past week saw another cultural war unfold across the country between small-time day traders on Robinhood and the almighty hedge funds over a company no one has spent much time talking about in at least 10 years: GameStop stock.

Last Thursday, after stock traders, mostly talking to each other via Reddit, decided to drive the GameStop stock up from under $100 to nearly $500, trading was halted by Robinhood, the app that many smaller, day traders use thanks to their “no fees” and fractional share trading capabilities.

Right away, the talking point became that Robinhood colluded with hedge funds, big banks and big tech to screw the little guy over, who had caused the hedge funds to lose billions because they had shorts on the GameStop stock that the Robinhood and Reddit users were driving to the moon.

Sure, it’s complicated, but it made for a helluva story and perfectively fit the narrative of the populist left and right. Ted Cruz was agreeing with AOC! Wow! Bipartisanship!

The problem is no one was actually trying to find out the truth of what was going on. Cable news and talk radio became a joke. While my finance degree from Villanova provides limited value to my day job hosting a talk show, once in a while it comes in handy, like in this case. And while I had initial concerns over what was going on with Robinhood and GameStop stock, I knew there were still more questions than answers.

But on cable news, one of the faces and voices of this entire movement became Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy. Portnoy is a brilliant entrepreneur who built up Barstool from an uber-local newspaper he would hand out himself on street corners in Boston to a digital media powerhouse that is known globally.

Portnoy has been day trading as a hobby since COVID hit. It replaced his knack for sports betting and he became a cult figure of sorts as a day trader. It’s fun content and certainly filled the void for a sports-based outlet when there were no sports in the spring of 2020. It was a brilliant business move. And as the stock market ride has continued through recent months, Portnoy has continued to strut his stuff as a trader. Heck, much like his pizza reviews, if it remains popular with the audience, keep hitting it.

But last week, we needed people who understood what exactly was going on with Robinhood.

That was never going to be Dave Portnoy. And putting him on to rant and rave may have been entertaining, but it wasn’t doing anything to educate the audience outside of confirm their believes from someone who wouldn’t know where to start on understanding SEC rules and regulations, margin calls, how trades get cleared between brokers and clearinghouses, and what exactly was going on behind the scenes with the story.

From a ratings perspective, I suppose it made sense, but from the perspective of informing the audience, trying to find the facts and the truth, and getting the information out there that was needed, media mostly failed.

They went for the cheap ratings ploy over trying to educate the audience. They fed the frenzy instead of sharing with the audience what it needed to hear.

It’s one of the biggest problems in media today, and I say that as a talk show host whose job it is to share my opinion. But it’s important to be able to understand where reporting ends and opinion starts, and that has fallen by the wayside in favor of feeding the latest social media mob. Dave Portnoy was giving his opinion on many shows, but he was treated as an expert on the issue, which he was not. One of the biggest mistakes we make in today’s media landscape, is assuming someone who is an expert in one field is one in another field. It can be true. But it’s not a guarantee. Far from it.

The other problem is that when the dust settled and it became clear that this was not some big conspiracy theory, the story had lost its steam. No one cared that what they believed last week wasn’t really true. Oh, and in typical 2021 fashion, the facts got a fraction of the attention that the hype, falsehoods and incorrect information ultimately received.

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What Chris Licht Got Right, and Wrong, During His CNN Tenure

Chris Licht faced an impossible mission of improving ratings without Donald Trump and with a staff he alienated.

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The departure of Chris Licht from CNN was abrupt but expected after a string of missteps. His criticism of his predecessor Jeff Zucker spilled into criticisms of the network’s coverage of Donald Trump and the Covid pandemic, which undercut his staff. Journalists who stood up to conspiracy theories and election falsehoods from the very top felt betrayed.

I’ve known Chris for 30 years, when he served as an associate producer at a KNBC/CNBC for a daily half-hour program centered on the O.J. Simpson trial. Later, we were colleagues at NBC and kept in touch while he was at CBS and I was at ABC. He is whip-smart, congenial, worked well with big talents like Joe Scarborough, Charlie Rose, and Gayle King, and, until now, had a stellar track record.

And in his latest and biggest post — despite being put in an impossible position — did some things right, which I will highlight in a moment.

But first that impossible position. His new bosses at Warner Bros. Discovery wanted a restructuring and high ratings. They insisted on less calling out of misinformation and more “both sidesism”. So Licht had to derail the CNN train and then try to lift it back on the ratings track. No small job. Especially in a news climate that is in decline.

All the cable networks — who depended upon Donald Trump’s unpredictable, often treasonous and dangerous style — have suffered ratings decline. Fox numbers are down and so is MSNBC. The viewing public no longer has to tune in every minute of the day to see what the President is going to do or say. Life has largely returned to normal for most people.

So CNN, which could once depend upon airing and then fact-checking Trump’s latest absurdity, had to find new content.

Licht’s decision to emphasize down-the-middle news gathering seemed like a solid response to life without a bombastic — some say irrational — President.

Just cover the news, at which CNN is great. It’s the first place to turn during a mass shooting, a war, or natural disaster. But those are inconsistent events and cannot be depended upon for steady ratings. That’s the environment Licht stepped into.

He reacted with some good moves. His midday CNN News Central program, 3 hours of straight news, positions itself well to cover breaking news. It’s followed by Jake Tapper and Wolf Blitzer, also emphasizing news coverage.

However, unfortunately, the list of mistakes is a lot longer. Starting with Don Lemon. His “whole thing” in primetime was to be provocative and with a strong progressive bent. Licht attempted to turn Lemon into what he is not, an easy-to-watch, not opinionated host in the morning. A broadcast that was supposed to keynote the Licht agenda blew up in months. Lemon had an opinion on everything and could not get along with his co-hosts, which in morning TV is critical. The all-important chemistry was not there.

His meeting with Republican politicians on Capitol Hill to invite them back to CNN sent a message that they would no longer be challenged for disinformation. And Licht balanced the commentary panels on CNN with GOP election deniers who shouted over questions they could not answer, in turn sticking to talking points. A move that did little to attract viewers from Fox, and instead drove away legacy CNN viewers accustomed to progressive analysis and Republicans who respected opposite opinions.

Next, his attempt to normalize Donald Trump with a CNN Town Hall, somehow expecting the old rules of decorum would work became a disaster. Trump has to be covered. 30% of the electorate supports him, as do nearly 50% of Republicans. But a live Trump supporter audience overwhelmed Kaitlan Collins who was drenched by a firehouse of lies and deception.

And finally, there was Licht’s decision to make his criticisms of staff and their former coverage public in The Atlantic. A profile that made his gym trainer appear to be his top adviser.

To sum up: Chris Licht faced an impossible mission of improving ratings without Donald Trump and with a staff he alienated.

It was an opportunity wasted and a good man self-defeated.

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6 Tips For Dealing With Publicists

I’ll give you my rules for the people slinging guest pitches.

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Especially for morning drive shows using the news wheel, ‘newsmaker’ guests are a part of the format. Beware of publicists that may be stealing bread from your station’s mouth. I’ll give you my rules for the people slinging guest pitches.

No Local Pitches From Publicists

We are often told to keep it local. I generally agree with that statement, but working with a local publicist is a bad idea. Publicists usually get paid for any appearance. If this is a local business, you are stealing money from your station’s bottom line. Why isn’t the guest purchasing advertising from the station? 

Depending on the market, the publicist may be making enough money that would be better used on a spot campaign on your station. I programmed a station with the news wheel with “newsmaker” guests every half hour. A local doctor was talking about the ‘innovative’ procedure his office provides. Post-show, I called in the morning show host and producer. I asked if they stole from the company. These guys said, “No!” 

Then I explained that the doctor was just given 12 minutes of free advertising. The publicist got paid and the station got nothing. I also explained that that the host could have made money with endorsement spots. Now, that was never going to happen. I suggested that the host speak with sales about this amazing doctor. Of course, the doctor never met with the account executive. Lesson learned.

You Are Enriching Them, So Make Them Work for Their Dough

You booked a guest from a publicist. Make them work for the money. Have them provide all the information that you need. A picture of the guest for social media. The interview is on your time, not theirs. 

I had a publicist ask if I could pre-record their amazing guest at 4 in the afternoon, I said no. I only do guests live except in extraordinary circumstances. Occasionally, I’ll do a hit with one of the weekend syndicated hosts on my station. He does a local show at the same time that I am on the air.  So, that is fine. I would pre-record Donald Trump and Joe Biden, but almost no one else. 

It’s Your Show. Ask the Guest Your Questions. 

If a publicist provides a list of suggested talking points, shred them. Do not do the interview for the guest or publicist, do it for your audience. Ask the questions that are focused on your listener. 

The guest is getting free air time and the publicist is getting paid. If the guest and booker don’t like that? Who cares. I don’t do my show for them. I also never tell any guest about the questions that I could be asking. If there is a news story that is related to the guest, I am asking about that first. Being topical is your job.

The Emails Often Look Like the Endcap at Walmart

Here is what I mean: Publicist offers someone very cool. You contact them.  The guest that the publicist offered is unavailable or ‘already’ booked at the time you need. So, the publicist highlights other potential guests that are not that appealing. 

Just like the endcap at Walmart, the email looks appealing. Unfortunately, it is only to get you to open the email. 

I received an email offering a really top guest that would be perfect for my show. I called the publicist and she told me that her guest was open at my time. Awesome. I thought that I had a good score. 

I booked 3 days ahead and the publicist let me know that the guest was unavailable the afternoon before the interview. Since the guest was never confirmed, I didn’t promote it. 

When to Cut Ties With a Publicist 

If the guest slinger only provides people who are only wanting to sell stuff on your show? Move along. Obviously, all guests need to plug their stuff. We all know this. 

About a decade ago, New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey was booked on The Dan Patrick Show. Part of the reason was he was going to plug Qualcomm. Well, Matt Harvey didn’t want to speak about anything but Qualcomm. It was a sales pitch and nothing else. 

Publicists should have their clients prepped so that they are booked to talk about their expertise and will get a chance to plug their book or service. 

How to Get Guests Off the Talking Points

In the ’90s, I produced The Barbara Carlson Show in Minneapolis. The great actor Karl Malden was booked to promote the Oscars. 

Let’s say that Karl was not in the mood to discuss anything but the Oscars. So, Barbara wasn’t going to let Karl get away with it. She buttered him up, telling Karl that he had a sexy nose.  Then Barbara asked Karl if he had snorted cocaine at those amazing Hollywood Parties. 

80-year-old Karl lost his cool. She got him off the talking points. It became an interesting interview. 

The publicist was really mad about this. It was really good radio. It’s always about good radio and not pleasing some guest that is a one-time hit. Please the audience. Make memorable radio.

We all use publicists.  Realize that you are their meal ticket.  I am always surprised that I don’t at least get a holiday card from the publicists that I use on a regular basis.  Don’t be naïve about these people.  Hey, we all must make a living.  They are a tool for you to use as you please. 

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Samantha Rivera Is What Every Live Reporter Should Strive For

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Moxie. It’s a great word and it is not used enough these days. Maybe it’s not applied enough because not enough people have it, or not enough people show it. Samantha Rivera has moxie.

That is no patronizing remark, it is an unquestionable fact if you ask me, so do not even go there.

Samantha Rivera is a sports reporter for CBS News Miami, but she hit the jackpot in Las Vegas during a live shot at game two of the Stanley Cup Final.

What did she do you ask?

She did her job, with a flourish, strength, and without even breaking eye contact with the camera.

It’s the age-old story; a jersey-wearing nitwit sees the camera, the mic flag, and decides to bust in on the live shot.

Samantha Rivera’s live shot. And as we all have seen by now; she was not having it.

I am no play-by-play champion, so I recommend watching for yourself if you haven’t already. In this instance, watching an act of capability and composure takes extraordinarily little time.

Look, I still like sports and I still understand the motivation some fans have when they’re at a game or at a bar or even on the street outside the arena.

And as one of the inaugural season ticket holders for the Florida Panthers, a former South Floridian, and a guy who shares a first and a last name with the Panthers GM (I came along first, I checked), it’s not like I wasn’t keeping tabs on the game anyway.

But back to the fans, let us remember something: fan is short for fanatic or fanaticism.

Sports fans are much like those with strong political leanings, although in my observations sports fans usually have a little bit more on the ball and they possess a greater knowledge of the facts involved.

But we need to remember something else as well: reporter is short for somebody with a job, a job that has to get done, often in a challenging environment.

When the journalist meets the village idiot, for all our sakes the journalist has to win.

And Samantha Rivera won. And it was a victory we all should appreciate. News and sports coverage remained that one degree smarter as a result of a professional doing her job and doing it well.

We were spared a black eye, a dose of ridicule, and a round of catcalls because Samantha Rivera stepped up to the plate and went to bat for herself and for all of us really, and she did it at hockey game.

A great moment has gone viral, everybody is covering it and CBS Miami has an exceptional story to tell. They even got to interview their own reporter, a reporter who was the story.

This is one of those times when a reporter making the news is a good thing.

No idiot is calling a colleague a reprehensible name and getting fired here.

A professional’s personal life is not sending their career over a cliff in this scenario.

This time the reporter is seen pushing back against wrongful interference and emerging victoriously.

No big fight, no injuries, no penalty box.

Of course, there is at least one mutant out there still looking for high-fives for the half-second of screen time his shoulder and a third of his face got.

A live shot is not a “free swim” for the moronic, that lesson was reinforced in of all places, Las Vegas.

Live coverage is fun because it’s challenging but what I think should be called to attention here is how well Samantha Rivera handled things and did the job all while keeping a “take no shit” attitude.

I believe it’s a good representative look for a reporter.

That’s the way it’s done, the way it needs to be done and all the praise this pro among pros is getting is just.

Samantha Rivera now has the only shot she will ever need for her reporter reel.

So, in this case, it was a good thing that what happened in Vegas did not stay in Vegas.

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