Archive for January 12th, 2010

Linda McMahon and the Anatomy of a Network TV News Dud

Early Saturday morning in California I was awakened by a phone call from an ABC News producer. Which is fine — what I worry about is when they stop calling.

The producer told me they were putting together a Linda McMahon story on the fly. The rush, he said, was caused by the withdrawal earlier in the week of the incumbent senator, Chris Dodd.

(Those of you who saw the report on Saturday’s World News know that the effect of Dodd’s decision not to run again had nothing to do with the piece. I just checked LexisNexis Academic, but ABC News transcripts are not included on that service, so I can’t confirm my memory that Dodd was not even mentioned.)

The producer noted that this would not be an investigative story (and he was certainly proven right about that!). But he added that he wanted, to the extent possible, to get a hard element into  it, and toward that end I briefed him on the “cocktail of death.”

Then, like everyone else, I watched World News — and I was appalled. I read the producer’s online text and I was further appalled; it showed that they did confront McMahon in some fashion with the serious topic on which I had tried to educate him. However, they did it so haphazardly that I got the impression they were mostly trying to claim credit for committing journalism online after having done no such thing over the air.

This is typical of network news, of course. I’m not familiar with correspondent Kate Snow’s body of work, but if this story is indicative, she’s just a morning show host who fronts a World News segment here and there for purposes of cross-promotion. Snow’s immature Twitter feed about McMahon’s arm-wrestling challenge to her further exposed Snow as a “mark,” to use the term of James Caldwell of Pro Wrestling Torch, who picked up on my criticism.

Look, not every story about Barack Obama or Albert Einstein, let alone Linda McMahon, aims for a Pulitzer or a Peabody. I’m not here to be the scold of the journalism community; I’m here to advocate for more profound coverage of a U.S. Senate race. When Daniela Altimari (the same Hartford Courant reporter who just blogged about my controversy with ABC News) wrote a Sunday profile of McMahon a few weeks ago, she also talked to me about my perspective, and she also made it clear that her finished piece would not be oriented exactly as I might have wished. That’s the process. In the event, I thought Altimari did a pretty good job with her McMahon story, and I said so on this blog. I hope Altimari — and for that matter Snow, and anyone else on this beat — chooses to come back to me for more. For there is, obviously, a lot more, and it’s a long campaign.

Unfortunately, Snow and ABC did not do a good job last Saturday. They put out a puff piece, and they filled their precious time with every lame lady-wrestling-promoter-in-politics cliche they could dredge up.

For the sake of our democracy, let’s all hope they do better next time. But in their rush to have it both ways — raising the wrestling occupational health and safety issue without really raising it, and then disingenuously claiming that “brevity” prevented them from including it in the online transcript — they don’t fill me with confidence that their agenda involves doing better next time.

Irv Muchnick

ABC News Denies Airbrushing Linda McMahon Transcript — Fine, Then Publish the Whole Thing

ABC News has responded, but not very persuasively, to my criticism of its Saturday World News report on the Senate candidacy of Linda McMahon.

An ABC spokesman denied to Daniela Altimari of the Hartford Courant that there was calculation behind the decision not to include in a website Q-and-A the subject of the death pandemic in pro wrestling under McMahon’s stewardship as CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment.

According to the network, the published Q-and-A was “edited for brevity.”

Altimari covers this controversy in a Capitol Watch blog post at the newspaper’s website, headlined “McMahon interview scrubbed? Not so, says ABC News.”

The Courant blog cites both my coverage and that of James Caldwell of Pro Wrestling Torch, and first a word about that. I think my friend James did run a little too hard with my original post about this (“Puff-Piece Trilogy: ABC News’ Softball Linda McMahon Interview With Kate Snow,”

I was not claiming that ABC had two transcripts per se. In fact, I thought a death-in-wrestling question was nowhere in the McMahon-Snow interview, but was inserted at the last minute into an Internet-only text article written by a producer. I’ll explain all this in the next post.

But in any event, there’s an easy way for ABC News to clear all this up: publish the whole damn transcript. That’s what the web is for; it’s a universe of infinite editorial space. Removing a question and answer about the occupational health and safety standards of a publicly traded company co-founded and run by a Senate candidate has nothing to do with brevity, and everything to do with substituting cross-promotion of a network personality for serious news judgment.

So how about it, David Westin, president of ABC News? Will you run the entire interview so the voters of Connecticut can see how Linda handled Snow’s full repertoire of pitches, hardball and softball alike? Drop me an email at, Dave. I check it regularly.

Irv Muchnick

How Linda McMahon Will Try to Answer – But Fumble – ‘The Question’

One of the most eagerly anticipated moments of the Connecticut politico season comes on Sunday, when Linda McMahon will be interviewed about her U.S. Senate candidacy on Dennis House’s Face the State on Hartford’s WFSB, Channel 3. I understand the interview will be recorded on Thursday evening.

Unlike ABC News cream puff Kate Snow, House is attuned to the pertinent issues. One of the big ones is what I’ve been calling “The Question”: McMahon’s electoral accountability for the culture of death in the pro wrestling industry, from which McMahon reaped the millions of dollars that have allowed her to buy enough name recognition to become a viable candidate.

The co-host of weekend Good Morning America, playing a journalist on World News, can giggle all she wants about how she accepted Linda’s challenge to arm-wrestle. But somewhere in their guts, the people of the Nutmeg State know that a cluster of avoidable deaths of employees in a show business in a non-war zone is not a laughing matter. And that McMahon’s bid for high elective office has upped the ante, injecting this question straight into the water supply of political conversation.

Kate Snow evidently didn’t even get around to asking McMahon about her experience running a death mill hidden in plain sight. Attempting to cover Snow’s shallow tracks, an ABC News producer did slip into an Internet-only background piece a vague passage about “all these health issues,” and Linda clumsily turned it aside.

But now she faces Dennis House and the Connecticut voters in real time, without a net. No doubt Linda’s handlers, the best money can buy, are prepping her as furiously as her husband Vince is pumping up wrestler Bret Hart in anticipation of their WrestleMania “street fight.” Still, at the end of the day, Linda will fumble her answer to The Question if it is properly posed and pressed. This is not because she is stupid. This is because, as I’ve been saying on this blog, it is a question with no good answer.

McMahon’s canned answer breaks down into two parts. To the ABC producer she stumbled and mumbled into a third:  “As our company has grown and as we have matured and are able to do more and more things, we’re much more in tune, much more sensitive, to taking care of these men and women.”

All three pieces are b.s. to the nth power.

The first piece of the answer, the oldest one, is that “only” five performers have died while under contract to World Wrestling Entertainment. (Generously, the company includes on its list Chris Benoit, who in June 2007 murdered his wife and their son and killed himself – though Linda and her henchmen are also quick to point out both that he was a “monster” and that people from all walks of life have been known to “go postal” from time to time.)

That piece was well exposed by the December death of wrestler Eddie “Umaga” Fatu. In June 2009 Fatu had been fired for violating the WWE Wellness Policy and refusing to go to drug rehab. In the company’s statement of condolence, it went out of its way to document this fact. What WWE didn’t add was that Fatu dropped dead of a drug-induced heart attack on the virtual eve of his return to WWE. But he doesn’t count, you see.

There are scores of less dramatic but parallel examples of dead wrestlers who either were in WWE at one time, where they developed or worsened bad habits inspired by the McMahon family’s talent rewards system, or lived the same lifestyle while working for the competitors or feeder circuits of the multibillion-dollar industry WWE dominates, and for which it sets the tone for standards.

The second piece of Linda’s response to The Question is, “We have a Wellness Policy.” Yes, and Richard Nixon had a peace plan for Vietnam.

Under the Wellness Policy, the aforementioned Chris Benoit passed his drug tests with flying colors. Well, actually, he didn’t pass them, as WWE’s administrator would later admit, but they weren’t “conclusion positives” because Benoit had a therapeutic-use exemption. In other words, because his endocrine system had been maimed by decades of steroid abuse, keeping him from generating a normal supply of male hormones, he was allowed  to continue abusing steroids.

At the time of the murder-suicide, WWE’s lawyer, Jerry McDevitt, assured the media that Benoit had no drugs from Internet pharmacies. In fact, the first stash the police found was a Chinese growth hormone not licensed for sale in the U.S. Like a disproportionate number of other current and past WWE wrestlers, Benoit was on the customer list of the busted Internet gray-market dealer Signature Pharmacy.

In Benoit’s post-mortem toxicology report, he showed an astounding testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio of 59 times normal: enough junk to muscle up a moose. But McDevitt and Linda McMahon’s other henchmen proclaimed that Benoit had no “illegal steroids” inside him – only testosterone. In other words, no street heroin – only doctor-prescribed morphine. (That doctor, Phil Astin, one of a number whose promiscuous prescription pads feed the habits of wrestlers and celebrities, is now doing ten years in federal prison.)

I know, I know … that’s all in the past. And as Mark McGwire used to say, we don’t want to talk about the past. The present is a Wellness Program under the supervision of WWE medical director Dr. Joseph Maroon. Unfortunately, as my blog has reported, Dr. Maroon won’t even speak up to correct WWE’s bald-faced lie to ESPN about the company’s contacts with a West Virginia brain institute that studied the damage Benoit suffered from repeated and untreated concussions. (Maroon himself visited the institute, met with the doctors, and was shown the Benoit studies in 2008.)

As for the future? That’s Face the State, Sunday on Channel 3. WFSB has been slow about putting these segments up online, and I don’t live in Connecticut. Any chance someone out there can YouTube it? That would do a lot more for the commonweal than those dumb clips of Linda McMahon giving wrestling announcer Jim Ross a kick in the cajones.

Irv Muchnick

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January 2010