MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for our shape-up this week are freelance writer Jimi Izrael, media critic Eric Deggans, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar and syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette.

I may jump in here or there, but for now, take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Freelance Writer): Thanks, Michel. Hey yo, fellas. Welcome to the shop. How we doing?

Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (Media Critic): Hey, hey, hey.

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Civil Rights Attorney): Good, man. Great.

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Syndicated Columnist): What's up?

Mr. IZRAEL: Deggie's(ph) in the spa. What's up, man? It's always a pleasure to have you up in here, man.

Mr. DEGGANS: I know, man. I should get by more often. I love hanging out with y'all. You do cut me a little sharp sometimes, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NAVARRETTE: In this Barbershop, it's all straight razors, (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, you know what? Fifty days later, what's the verdict on President Barack Obama? He still owes me money, but he puts through his stimulus package, and he got a stem research thing jumping, and that's all cool. But you know what? Strangely, he has not turned water into wine, and people are perplexed. Ruben.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Speaking of perplexed, I think that the honeymoon is over, at least outside the mainstream press it is.

Unidentified Man #1: Well…

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Certainly over on Wall Street, where the Dow has dropped, what, 20 percent since Barack Obama was inaugurated? There's just not a lot of that you can blame on George Bush. Arsalan, listen to me, son.

Unidentified Man #2: Uh-oh, uh-oh.

MARTIN: It's on.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: It's a preemptive strike.

Mr. IZRAEL: Hold on, hold on, hold on. Go ahead. Go ahead, Ruben.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Here's the problem. Let me go to a - not exactly a Obama hater, that would be Obama supporter Warren Buffett, okay? Warren Buffett, Obama supporter, who said that the problem with Obama's economic plan, even though he supports many of the agendas, he thinks Obama's trying to do too much at once with health care one day, with, you know, education reform the next day and then don't lose sight of the economy.

Wall Street's reacting to that. The response from the Obama administration has been to attack people on CNBC who had come forward, like Jim Cramer and others, who dare speak that the market is not happy, and I think it's a really bad play.

Mr. IZRAEL: A-train. If you turn back two pages of the American history book and see the eight years of deficit hawk spending that President Bush did…

Mr. NAVARRETTE: (unintelligible)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah, which is - it's a historical fact, Ruben.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Listen, listen, listen. If somebody came up to me and said, you know what? I want you to fix a depression in 50 days, I'd be like, you know, I'm going to need a little more time than that.

We have to understand that this presidency began at the beginning of an economic freefall, Ruben, and that freefall began somewhere, and so you know, just by launching a preemptive strike, saying oh, you know, don't blame this on Bush, you know, any student of history would know that no intellectually honest conversation can be had about the first 50 days of a presidency than looking at the legacy of the last eight years of the former presidency that caused the current economic crisis that we're in today.

MARTIN: I'm so curious, though, about why - well, first of all, has Warren Buffett ever been elected to anything? I'm unaware of that, but secondly…

Mr. IZRAEL: He was credible a few weeks ago, when he was an Obama supporter.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know. I haven't spoken on that. I haven't spoken on that, so you're not speaking to me. But the first part about that that I find puzzling is that the underlying sentiment is clearly that the recession is escalating. Nothing has changed. It's just it's escalating. I mean, first there was a flight of capital. The flight of capital led to a slowdown in the housing sector, in addition to all the weakness that was there already.

That led to a slowdown in retail, clearly unemployment, which is tied to the first two conditions, so the point that I'm curious about is how you can lay this - I mean, clearly it is Obama's task to fix. I'm curious how you can…

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I have an answer.

MARTIN: …how you can call this a referendum on his leadership to this point.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Because the buck stops here. At least it should. It wasn't Bush's fault that Obama messed up the PE ratio, and instead of price to earnings, he called it profit to earnings. I mean, Wall Street was not happy that day. They want to know that the chief executive is up to speed on economic issues, and that his treasury secretary knows how to inspire confidence. And so far, no dice on that.

MARTIN: And the former president had an MBA from Harvard. Was that reflective in his performance?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah, but, I mean, again if Bush is your baseline, everything is a good day, you know, but that's not helping us.

Mr. IZRAEL: Let's let Deggie in here.

Mr. DEGGANS: If I could just break in. When the election happened in November, economists all over the country said that things were going to get worse before they got better. We knew that the stock market and the economy were not going to be doing well at this point months ago. So to blame Obama for that, I think, is a little disingenuous.

And I'll also say that some of the measures that Obama has put in place to try and deal with this recession have not either taken effect yet or just taken effect. I mean, when Warren Buffet said what he said, I think some of the things in Obama's stimulus package had been in effect for days.

So I don't understand how you can make some sort of pronouncement about what Obama's doing when he is barely getting started.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, quite quickly, why don't we do like a round robin and grade his performance so far, the first 50 days. Ruben?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, Jimi, I must say, as a grade, I'm gonna give him a B minus because I think that he is incredibly intelligent and energetic and ambitious, and I do think that the problem seems to be the way he's reacting to criticism and all these things. Like it or not, 50 days or not 50 days, after 9/11, we were judging George Bush by the hour, because of the nature of the crisis. Nobody got away with saying it's only been a week since 9/11.

Mr. DEGGANS: Ruben, Ruben.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Every single moment in this crisis is magnified, so I think it is fair to grade him.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Ruben, going back…

Mr. NAVARRETTE: B minus.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Listen, Ruben, going back to your double standards of the, you know, for everyone thing, we gave George Bush a carte blanche is what we did after 9/11. If we questioned his authority, if a liberal radio talk host went on and said that I want President Bush to fail, he would have been thrown in Guantanamo Bay.

You know, we have to bring this intellectual honesty back into the debate. Republicans love, you know, having double standards for other people, but then they call other people out when they feel that those double standards are being used against them.

Mr. IZRAEL: A-train, do we got a grade for Obama, man? First 50 days.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: B plus.

Mr. IZRAEL: Deggie?

Mr. DEGGANS: I, you know, I'm not going to grade him, because I think - I don't think it makes any sense to try and grade his performance so far. I mean, he's made some very smart decisions and he's had some setbacks, and I think that there's gonna be a little bit more time before we know what he's actually done well.

MARTIN: I do want to just flag one thing for people who may have missed the speech that the president gave earlier to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, where he directly answered this question about whether he's trying to do too much. The speech mainly got attention because it laid out the president's education proposals, but he went right back at critics who said that I'm trying to do too much.

He pointed out that the times demand it. And he cited specific historic examples to point out that predecessors of his, in facing great challenges, also managed to do a number of things at once. So I think this is an interesting argument to follow, and clearly Ruben and Warren Buffet- his guru - have laid out one argument, and the president's laid out another, and we'll see who's right. I think it's an interesting question.

Mr. IZRAEL: All right, keep it in motion. You know what, RNC chair Michael Steele, he's in hot water again. The comments he made in GQ Magazine about homosexuals and abortion, now, you know, he's being compared to Woody Allen's enigmatic, schizophrenic Zelig for those movie fans out there, man, 'cause he is everywhere. Yo, we got some tape right here, right?

MARTIN: Yeah, Michael Steele's been very much present these days, so there was a lot to choose from. So what we thought we'd pick is that he appeared recently on D.L. Hughley's show a couple - well, week or two ago on CNN, talking about Rush Limbaugh. And that seems to be kind of what started the cycle of complaint about his performance, at least from the Republican side. And here's what he said.

(Soundbite of TV show, "D.L. Hughley Breaks the News")

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican National Committee): Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh, his whole thing is entertainment. Yes, it's incendiary, yes, it's ugly. He influences the party.

Mr. D.L. Hughley (Host, "D.L. Hughley Breaks the News") And I tell you what, you are the first Republican I've talked to - and I've talked to a lot - that said he's not the leader of his party. They will never, I've never heard anybody say that on any show.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Wow, first and last. Of course, turns out he was a leader. He made him apologize right after that.

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah, first and last, exactly.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what, a lot of people are saying that his resignation is imminent. A-train?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I just think that he's bad on television. You know, I do.

Mr. IZRAEL: You think it's as simple as that.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, he's making some rookie mistakes and, you know, unfortunately, in the circles of the RNC, you know, they have very little tolerance for that. And I think it's slightly redonkulous to talk about his ouster right now. I just think that, you know, he's making some rookie mistakes.

MARTIN: Which are what? Mainly, what is his main rookie mistake in your view? I mean, have gave his - I got the sense that he was actually giving his real opinion, which may not have been politically useful given his position, but…

Mr. IFTIKHAR: His rookie mistake is showing his political two faces, if you will - you know, showing one to the D.L. Hughley television audience, and then running to the Godfather and begging for his forgiveness the next day.

Unidentified Man #4: Yeah, I've heard that a time or two.

Mr. DEGGANS: This is Eric.

Mr. IZRAEL: Go ahead, man.

Mr. DEGGANS: I'm amazed at how laid back the A-train is about this, man. I -when I look at Michael Steele, I see somebody who has had to, there's these undercurrents of prejudice, whatever - I mean, this is a party that has kind of built itself on stereotyping people of color.

And I think Rush Limbaugh is one of the best race baiters on radio, and it seems to me that it's easy to tell that he can hardly stand that there's a black man leading the RNC. And Michael Steele has had to deal with all these weird sort of criticisms of his leadership that I think stem in part from that.

I mean, Howard Dean was not an amazing leader, either.

(Soundbite of scream)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEGGANS: But you didn't see people challenging him to this extent this early in his tenure at the DNC. I think there's something deeper going on here, and it's something that a lot of black Republicans have had to face.

MARTIN: Can I just say one thing? Because I want Ruben, because Ruben is more of a Rush fan than most here.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I'm a Rush (unintelligible), yeah.

MARTIN: But I would, here's what I would argue. I think that the Howard Dean comparison is apt in the sense that, you know, they both have strategic insights which they are perhaps not very good at articulating. I mean, if you look at the way Obama ran his campaign, he drew a lot from the roadmap that Howard Dean drew up, in energizing of the grassroots and tapping into an enthusiasm of people who had not previously been engaged in politics.

The mistake Howard Dean made is he didn't know what to do with it. As a candidate, Barack Obama did. So I think there is a comparison with Howard Dean that is apt.

I think that what a lot of Republicans are saying, the issue with Michael Steele is he shoots from the lip. He doesn't think before he speaks, and it isn't, it's not that - his race, it's that he is insufficiently conservative to lead this party. I think that would be the (unintelligible).

Mr. NAVARRETTE: This is Ruben. The flipside of that, and getting back to what Arsalan said is okay, you shoot from the lip, you whatever, you make mistakes. But then don't go and retreat back into the high ground. If you want to fight the fight, then get in there, but don't retreat so quickly and change your mind and apologize for things that you firmly believed in if, in fact, you believed in them.

MARTIN: Let me just jump in for a minute to say if you're just joining us, you are listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Jimi Izrael, Eric Deggans, Ruben Navarratte and Arsalan Iftikhar in the Barbershop. Back to you, Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks Michel. Yo, Black news comedy got a pink slip this week. News came down the pipe that both David Alan Grier and D.L. Hughley need boxes in their office because their shows, the "Chocolate News" and "Breaking the News," respectively, have not been renewed. Now the reports are that D.L. Hughley wants to be closer to his family, and unemployment will do that.

Unemployment will get you closer to your people, but no word on why Grier had his joint pulled. You know what? My thing with - I wrote about this for "The Root," and it may be on "The Root" today, theroot.com, is that…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: I thought the premise was flawed. I mean, black guy riffing on the news, that's the entire premise of both of these shows. David Alan Grier is very talented. He went to Yale, and he's a trained theater dude. But he couldn't make his joint work, and I was not really quite sure that D.L. Hughley had what it took to carry an intellectual conversation about current events.

I'm sorry. And it isn't because he's inarticulate. It's because he's ineloquent. He can't make a quick point. I mean, I've heard him on...

MARTIN: Really, not like anyone else we know?

Mr. DEGGANS: When Jimi says that, you know.

Mr. IZRAEL: No listen to this, I mean, when you're like a Keith Olbermann, when you're a Jon Stewart, you gotta be quick on the uptake. You got to shoot right in there. And D.L. Hughley just doesn't have it like that. So I'm that dude, and that's what I think. Yo, A-train, what happened man, what happened?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: You know, when I think about these two guys, I'm reminded of Joe Torry's introduction during Def Comedy Jam. Are y'all ready for the next comedian? Yeah, is he funny. And these guys weren't funny.

Mr. IZRAEL: I don't think that's fair.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I think that - no, I mean, honestly I love D.L. on "Original Kings of Comedy." I think he's a great stand-up act. I just don't think he was ready for CNN. David Alan Grier's show I thought was funny. It was Comedy Central. I think that that may have been less motivated by, I guess, the newsiness of it, but I think that no one's surprised that they haven't lasted very long.

MARTIN: Can I ask Eric a question? I don't understand the premise of D.L. Hughley's being on CNN to begin with.

Mr. DEGGANS: Yeah.

MARTIN: I don't get the logic of that.

Mr. DEGGANS: Basically, Fox News and CNN, they both dabbled in having some sort of comedy show that's aimed towards younger people, trying to do their own version of "The Daily Show" in some weird way. Fox's went down in obscurity last year, and this one with D.L. Hughley on CNN didn't work quite so well either.

D.L. Hughley's problem, I think, was that the show itself wasn't very good and it aired at a time when cable news is least watched, particularly by people who are popular with D.L., young people and people of color. I think David's problem was that he had a show that wasn't quite clicking, and he was on the network of "The Daily Show" and "Colbert Report." I mean, the level was incredibly high on that channel.

And I got to tell you, when I heard that David was going to be on "Dancing With the Stars," I knew his Comedy Central show was not (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NAVARRETTE: This is Ruben. We're talking about an important thing, about whether these big establishment media companies like CNN or Fox News or whatever can make that radical turn in one direction or another for the sake of marketing. Everybody wants more market share, and, you know, if the New York Times decides tomorrow to, you know, mimic Mad magazine, you're gonna - it's gonna make a hard turn.

And it may not pull it off. And I think the question, really, it made no sense for D.L. Hughley to be on CNN except for CNN, because they are so wanting in that younger demographic, because again, they want to emulate "The Daily Show." But props to Jon Stewart. What he does is not easy, and he makes it look easy, but it ain't easy. And it ain't easy to replicate. So the least important ingredient in this was race.

MARTIN: I agree with you that it's not so much about race as it is about the fit, but it does distress me. You have a show headlined by someone on a news network and there are no African-Americans headlining shows with their names on them.

Mr. NAVARRATTE: There are plenty of African-Americans on camera at CNN as hosts, as reporters, as commentators.

Mr. DEGGANS: That's a dodge, that's a dodge. They put people of color on shows where the show is not about the person who's (unintelligible).

Mr. IZRAEL: Shout out to Roland Martin.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah, CNN is planning a weekend programming show headlining Roland Martin.

Mr. DEGGANS: If you look at primetime on all of the major cable outlets, which is their showcase time, you don't see people of color headlining shows. That's where the high profile is, that's where the big salaries are. That's where the people who shape the entire vision of the network live, and people of color have not had access to those shows.

Mr. IZRAEL: All right, well, you know what? Dave and D.L. lost theirs, but I've still got mine. So, you know what? I think that's a wrap. Let's keep it in motion. I got to thank everybody for coming out to the shop and doing their thing. Now I have to kick it over to the lady of the house, Michel Martin.

MARTIN: Thank you, Jimi. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist who writes for the root.com and Tv1 online. He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Ruben Navarratte writes for the San Diego Union Tribune and CNN.com. He joined us from San Diego. Eric Deggans is a TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. He joined us from St. Petersburg. And Arsalan Iftikhar is the founder of the Muslimguide.com and a civil rights attorney. He joined us from our bureau in Washington. Gentlemen, thank you so much.

Mr. DEGGANS: Peace.

Mr. NAVARRATTE: Thank you.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Thank you.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yup. Yup.

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