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The Velma moment

It was a midday event carried on one basic cable channel, so most Americans didn't see it live.

But it contained a moment that seemed to capture the shortcomings of the Obama presidency.

Velma Hart called out the president.

And it landed with a smack because Hart is a black woman who supports Obama--but is bitterly disappointed in his performance.

Had the president seized that moment at the CNBC town hall--comforting Hart, passionately defending his efforts to help the middle class--he could have turned the tide in his favor. He could have owned the moment.

But he didn't. He gave a perfectly acceptable but somewhat detached recitation of programmatic changes he has made.

The result: it was Velma's moment.

That's why Hart, chief financial officer for the group AMVETS, is pictured on the front page of Tuesday's New York Post, her words enshrined in a cartoon bubble (under the headline "BEANED!!") That's why her words were played on the "CBS Evening News" and "NBC Nightly News." That's why she was on "Hardball" last night.

She was "exhausted" at defending Obama. She voted for a man "who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class...And I'm waiting, sir, I'm waiting." She and her husband thought they were "well beyond the hot dogs and beans era of our lives." And then, the final blow, to which she demanded an honest answer: "Is this my new reality?"

Obama never answered that last part. He might have vowed not to let that happen, to declare that he is fighting to make sure that Hart and others like her hold onto their hard-won gains.

Instead, he said: "So the life you describe -- one of responsibility, looking after your family, contributing back to your community -- that's what we want to reward." And: "We're moving in the right direction."

This was a black woman, someone who believed in Barack Obama, which gave her brief time in the spotlight added resonance.

"Quite frankly," Hart later told CNN, "I thought my question would set the platform for a response that would almost be, oh I don't know, whimsical, magical, very powerful."

Big moments matter in politics. When Reagan told Gorbachev "Tear down this wall," it captured his persona as an anticommunist warrior. When Bill Clinton assured the nation that "I did not have sexual relations," it became the sound bite that haunted his presidency. When George W. Bush grabbed the bullhorn in the rubble of the World Trade Center, he channeled the nation's anger and resolve (just as he overreached by landing on the "Mission Accomplished" ship in a flight suit).

Maybe Velma Hart's question will quickly become a footnote. But for Obama, it was a missed opportunity.

Huffington Post snags N.Y. Times star

In the latest sign that Web sites can compete on an equal footing with media giants, a top reporter for the New York Times is defecting to the Huffington Post.

Peter Goodman, until recently the paper's national economic correspondent and now a writer for the Sunday business section, has just signed the deal. And his reasoning helps explain why he would leave the high-profile platform of the Times.

"For me it's a chance to write with a point of view," Goodman says in an interview. "It's sort of the age of the columnist. With the dysfunctional political system, old conventional notions of fairness make it hard to tell readers directly what's going on. This is a chance for me to explore solutions in my economic reporting."

Goodman's hiring is a coup for Arianna Huffington, who earlier this week hired Howard Fineman from Newsweek, which The Washington Post Co. is in the process of selling to businessman Sidney Harman. The Web site's editorial staff is now nearing 100.

Huffington says Goodman will become business and technology editor and will be hiring several reporters to expand the coverage. He will also "be writing lengthy, deep-dive pieces" on such subjects as redesigning capitalism and job creation.

"This is an example of how the Huffington Post, because of our traffic and our ability to help shape the national conversation, has demonstrated we can have an impact," she says. "Traditional journalists can come to us and not give up any of that impact. Often they can increase it."

Goodman's wife, Deanna Fei, was already blogging for Huffington, and Goodman met her when both were on a Columbia University panel. When the couple was in Los Angeles, Goodman e-mailed Huffington, wound up having a drink at her mansion and going out for dinner, and found himself being courted.

Goodman is the author of the recent book "Past Due: The End of Easy Money and the Renewal of the American Economy."

Asked if he has reservations about joining a left-leaning Web site, Goodman says that "I certainly buy into Arianna's vision that we have to be very directed at exploring solutions" and that he wants to be an advocate for the creation of well-paying jobs.


Goodman has come a long way since the 1990s, when I was an editor at The Post and was using him as a stringer in San Francisco.

Jon Stewart, Mall rat

I've been listening to Jon Stewart rail against the media for a decade now -- in interviews, at the conventions, in my television studio. But the act never gets old.

The journalism racket just keeps producing fresh fodder for him.

I learned early on that it was not just shtick. When the "Daily Show" dude appeared on my CNN program, we chatted afterward about how exasperated he was with the media. When I was a guest years later on his Comedy Central show, he got so wound up that he kept on jousting with me well past my allotted six minutes -- after quietly assuring me, "Don't worry, we'll cut this part out."

But as the comic descends on the Mall -- along with his wingman Stephen Colbert -- is he abandoning the safety of Post-Ironic Mountain and recasting himself as ... a serious dude?

Keep in mind that Stewart loves to jab at political extremes. And who is enabling the extremes these days more than the increasingly polarized media?

He singles out the 24-hour networks (which will undoubtedly cover the rally). At the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, Stewart told reporters that cable news is a "brutish, slow-witted beast" that creates a "false sense of urgency." Uh, hard to argue with that.

Could the rally, ah, affect the midterms? "Why would there be panic about the first fun or galvanizing event that Barack Obama's liberal base had to look forward to since their limited edition Shepard Fairey prints came in the mail?" asks Slate's Dave Weigel. "It's simple. Democrats look at the electoral map and see that they're doomed. Their hope rests on the resilience of liberal activists and union members, who will be spending the final 72 hours of the campaign pulling voters to the polls. And all of a sudden here come Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, turning a joke into a mega-rally and plucking liberals right out of their get-out-the-vote operations during their most crucial weekend."
But Weigel concludes it will probably help.

What's striking is how many journalists -- Brian Williams, for example -- admire Stewart, even as he uses their profession as a punching bag. That's because they know most of his punches are on target. If Stewart were swinging wildly and missing, media types would object. (Conservative journalists such as Tucker Carlson, who was on the receiving end of the ridicule during Stewart's famous appearance on "Crossfire," obviously beg to differ.)

Stewart says his ultimate goal is to make people laugh. But he doesn't hide behind the just-a-comedian cop-out. His satire is designed to score salient points. That's why his criticism counts.

As for the rally, David Carr quotes writer and producer Michael Hirschhorn as saying: "Stewart and Colbert are awkwardly transitioning from media figures to political figures with an understanding that there may not be that much difference anymore."

In a revealing interview with New York magazine, Stewart says he first decided to whack the media when he took his fledgling program to the 2000 conventions:

"We were at that point merry pranksters -- guys on a bus going, That guy looks like Richard Gephardt!" he says."The more we got to meet people [in the media], it was -- 'Oh! You're [blanking] retarded! You don't care!' The pettiness of it, the strange lack of passion for any kind of moral or editorial authority, always struck me as weird. We felt like, we're serious people doing an unserious thing, and they're unserious people doing a very serious thing." [...]

Yet as appalled as Stewart was by the politicians, his greater scorn was increasingly aimed at the acquiescent and co-opted news media. "I assume there are bad actors in society," Stewart says. "It's inherent in politicians to be disingenuous. [...]

"The thing that shocked me the most when I first met reporters was the people who would step aside and say, 'Boy, I wish I could say what you're saying.' You have a show! You are a network anchor! Whaddya mean you can't say it?" Stewart says. "It's one reason I admire Fox. They're great broadcasters. Everything is pointed, purposeful. You follow story lines, you fall in love with characters: 'Oh, that's the woman who's very afraid of Black Panthers! I can't wait to see what happens next. Oh, look, it's the ex-alcoholic man who believes that Woodrow Wilson continues to wreak havoc on this country! This is exciting!' Even the Fox morning show, the way they're able to present propaganda as though it's merely innocent thoughts occurring to them. ... Whereas MSNBC will trace the word and say, 'If you don't understand that, you're an idiot!' The mistake they make is that somehow facts are more important than feelings."

And here's the bottom line: "We're not provocateurs, we're not activists; we are reacting for our own catharsis," Stewart says. "There is a line into demagoguery, and we try very hard to express ourselves but not move into, 'So follow me! And I will lead you to the land of answers, my people!' You can fall in love with your own idea of common sense. Maybe the nice thing about being a comedian is never having a full belief in yourself to know the answer. So you can say all this stuff, but underneath, you're going, 'But of course, I'm [blanking] idiotic.' It's why we don't lead a lot of marches."

So will the Oct. 30 rally come off as nothing more than comic relief? I doubt it. Stewart knows how to walk that tightrope. Though this time there's no safety net.

By Howard Kurtz  | September 22, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
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