Talk about timely! I couldn’t wait to dish with this week’s Lunch date now that we’re living in the age of “alternative facts.” I was joined today by “recovering journalist” Scott Conroy, co-creator and executive producer of the new digital series Embeds, now streaming on go90.com and available on the free go90 app.
The series was inspired by Scott and Peter Hamby’s lives as embed reporters for CBS and CNN on both Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns in 2008. “When I was covering Sarah Palin, I thought we’d seen the most insane [presidential] election we’ll ever have,” Scott told me. “Boy, was I wrong.”
Scott is also the co-author of the bestseller Sarah From Alaska. His next book, Vote First Or Die—a book that weaves his personal narrative as a reporter with interesting anecdotes about the New Hampshire presidential primary through the years will be published in April by PublicAffairs.
In light of the barrage of nonstop news of President Donald Trump’s continuous and escalating feud with the press, I was eager to get Scott’s insider take on things. “Sarah Palin is the Rosetta Stone for all of this,” he began. “I don’t think a lot of people know that Steve Bannon was her consigliere. He latched on to her.” Scott first met Bannon in 2011 when he was the mastermind behind her exploratory campaign for a possible presidential campaign run. When Palin decided not to make a run for the White House in 2012 Scott was “surprised” but, he said, “Bannon regrouped and found his guy — Trump.”
Bannon, said Scott, was smart enough to recognize the Tea Party rhetoric about crony capitalism and ‘draining the swamp’ that resonated with Palin supporters had struck a nerve among a certain segment of voters that weren’t going away. “People used to thinks of Republicans as the wealthy country club set, but Bannon basically crafted a new identity for a disaffected working class, a voting block that was big enough to carry Trump to the White House. Bannon realized this and executed his campaign strategy for Trump brilliantly. He’s an ideologue to a degree, but more than anything he’s an operator. He knows exactly what buttons to push to fire up the base.”
And one of those well-worn buttons is selling voters on the idea that the media is the enemy. “Palin did that with the ‘lame stream media,’ but Trump took it to a whole new level,” said Scott between bites of Cobb salad. Trump’s tendency to point out individual reporters like Katy Tur to the crowds attending his rallies was clear evidence that he has “no shame” in his dealings with the media. “I heard him tell supporters at a rally in Fort Worth he’d like to change the libel laws to make it easier to sue journalists. The crowd loved it.”
We both agreed that the bitter irony is that a largely acquiescent media and its 24/7 coverage played a huge role in Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency. “I think the coverage is getting better,” said Scott. “In the last few weeks it’s gotten more aggressive, but it’s too little, too late.” Yup.
In today’s reality-show nation, “There is a direct line from The Apprentice in 2004 to Jeff Zucker to Sarah Palin and Steve Bannon to Trump,” said Scott. With the presidential playbook of yesteryear out the window, it’s not just journalists and citizens that are trying to figure out what the “most unpredictable president in history” is going to do at any given time. “I can just imagine the Chinese ambassador preparing for his first sit-down with Trump being told, ‘The first thing to do is to praise The Apprentice,” said Scott.
With Trump threatening to ‘hand-pick’ which outlets he’ll talk to or let into the White House, the media needs to thrown down the gauntlet, warned Scott. “They need to get away from ‘access journalism’ because access journalism in the Trump era is a fool’s errand.”
During an appearance last week on The Daily Show, Scott told Trevor Noah that the media needs to break away from the “spoon fed” spin that comes out of the White House press room. “The political media needs to get outside the bubble. Instead of adding another body to White House press room, they should send young hungry reporters that have been embeds to a swing states outside the context of the election to report on the Trump presidency instead of having them in the White House listening to Sean Spicer spout off lies.”
Scott, who is married to NBC News correspondent Jo Ling Kent (they met on the campaign trail), has spent more than his fair share of time outside of Washington — and that’s what makes Embeds so intriguing. The half-hour scripted comedy, which was shot mainly in Iowa (except for one episode shot in Los Angeles), focuses on five recent college graduates working as embedded reporters for various national news organizations on the presidential campaign trail. Scott and Peter (now Head of News at Snapchat and host of the political show, Good Luck America) spent almost a decade covering presidential campaigns — of which makes for plentiful fodder for Embeds.
“Peter and I had an idea about writing a show about a presidential campaign but then we thought, instead of focusing on the campaign, we would write about us.” They wrote the Embeds pilot in 2012 and began shopping it around. “In spite of shows like Veep, it’s hard to do politics,” he told me. He gave the script to his book agent Alice Martell (“She’s the best!”) and she showed it to CAA’s Bruce Vinokour. Another “big shot” at CAA, Matt DelPiano, showed it to his client Megyn Kelly and, said Scott, “She wanted to get involved, too.”
Besides contributing a female reporter’s point of view (“That was very important to me,” said Scott) Kelly (who got an executive producer credit) made another important contribution to the show. James Caan, a “huge fan of Megyn’s” came on board and appears in the series’ fourth episode. “Per his request the credits for the episode actually say, ‘For the love of Megyn Kelly … James Caan.” Teeny bopper alert: Austin Swift — yes, brother of Taylor Swift — appears in the fourth and sixth episodes.
The series is executive produced by three-time Academy Award-nominated producer (who is also producing this year’s Oscar telecast) Michael De Luca (The Social Network, Moneyball, Captain Phillips) and Lucy Kitada. Other executive producers include Bryan Haas, who developed the idea with Scott and Peter and oversaw production; Kevin Mann, Brendan Bragg, and Jordana Mollick for Haven Entertainment; and Justin Killion and Cory Stern for Complex Networks’ Seriously.TV. Danny Jelinek directed all six episodes. Todd Waldman serves as showrunner and executive producer.
All of it came together in record time, said Scott, who was working at Vice on the launch of the network’s nightly news show on HBO when the series got picked up. “That was a Thursday and I quit my job the next day. Monday I was in the writer’s room. A month later we were in production and two months later we were in post-production. This could not have happened this fast anywhere else.” Now, Hollywood beckons. The Boston native, currently living in New York, told me he and Jo Ling are headed to Los Angeles “for a few months”
Complex Networks, formed from the joint acquisition of Complex by Verizon and Hearst, is the studio which funded the project. Last night they sponsored a press screening in Dumbo at the Made in New York Media Center by IFP with a panel discussion moderated by Katy Tur with the cast. Next week, Scott is doing an event at his alma mater Georgetown at the university’s Institution of Politics with some embedded reporters and Scott’s mentor Robert Draper. Whatever will they talk about?
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:
1. Hollywoodlife.com’s Bonnie Fuller and Penske Media’s vice chair Gerry Byrne hosting Megan Murphy, editor in chief, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Quentin Schaffer, EVP Corporate Communications, HBO, Jim Rich, former editor in chief, NY Daily News, Maia McCann of LittleThings.com, Page Six TV’s Kathleen Rajsp, Lauren Kern, executive editor, New York Magazine, Paul Wahlgren, CEO/ COO, Bio Mimetic Laboratories & Erasa Skincare, Stacey Bossard of Hirepurpose & Task & Purpose, Hilary Smith, SVP Corporate Communications, NBCUniversal and Nicole Kerr of FRANK PR.
2. Dan Abrams with Vicky Ward who told me she is keeping quite busy these days writing for Town & Country and Esquire.
3. Eva Mohr
4. Freddie Gershorn and Linda Janklow
5. Jim Abernathy
6. Andrew Stein
8. PR maven Norah Lawlor
9. Legendary lenswoman Pamela Hanson
11. Barry Frey
12. Meryl Gordon presiding over a very full table of pals
14. British Heritage Travel’s CEO Jack Kliger (We missed you last week) and Marshall Cohen
15. Producer Larry Spangler
16. Alicia Volk
17. Ferragamo’s Vincent Ottomanelli
18. LAK PR’s CEO Lisa Linden with her associate Hannah Arnold
20. Larry Hackett
21. Michael Christenson
22. Ira Akselrad
24. Joannie Danielides hosting a birthday luncheon for Donna Hanover (whose birthday is actually February 15th, but why wait to celebrate?) There were plenty of media mavens in attendance: Gayle King, Paula Zahn (long time no see!), The New York Daily News’ Linda Stasi, Cathy Black, producer Blair Breard, Sue Leibman, Ann Moore, owner of The Curator Gallery and Dr. Terry Fulmer.
25. Steve Forrest
26. David Baum
27. Scott Conroy, Complex’s SVP of communications Jennifer St. Clair and yours truly
And what was going on in the Garden Room? I spotted several red carpet photographers — Sonia Moskowitz and Robin Platzer among them — headed that way for an off-duty confab. The new ladies who lunch perhaps?
Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.