The week in cable babble

by Jonathan Storm

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

28 March 2008


Political coverage is speculative, partisan, often uninformed and uninformative.

The Pennsylvania of political pundits on TV seems to exist almost entirely of 55-year-old white male steelworkers who live in Scranton - and a few pretty scenes of Philadelphia.

And while locals are reveling in the unusual significance of a crucial late-season Democratic presidential primary a month away, many TV talking heads have already tallied the results and moved on to North Carolina and Indiana.

A survey of coverage by everyone from Tim Russert to Sean Hannity last week, the kickoff of campaigning in Pennsylvania, turned up mind-numbingly predictable opinions, incessant redundancy, and an astonishingly narrow perspective. A diligent viewer could gain small understandings, but the results did not justify the intense effort.

Bill O’Reilly thinks progressive Democrats are “loons.” Keith Olbermann thinks Bill O’Reilly is a loon. Larry King lobs softballs that at least give his interviewees a chance to talk, and a-rambling off they go. Do people really watch this stuff regularly?

Yes, but not very many. The total audience of all the cable news blabbers is less than that for any one of the three big-network evening news programs, which all posted reporters in Philadelphia, standing outside picturesque Independence Hall or on the Art Museum steps, to preview or assess the big political news last week: Barack Obama’s Tuesday speech about race in America and his relationship with controversial Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright.

Two TV journalists stood apart from the pack. Fox News’ Major Garrett, covering Obama’s campaign, provided key insights, while refusing to be drawn into the speculation game that makes up what seems like 85 percent of cable news political coverage. NBC’s boyish political director Chuck Todd appeared all over his brand’s outlets, offering perceptions that, unlike those of so many of his counterparts, illuminated the situation rather than the pundit.

When anchor Martha MacCallum asked Garrett if Obama had succeeded in defusing a difficult campaign situation in his battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton, he responded, “That’s a question I can’t answer.”

Other newsmen, from Fox’s Brit Hume to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, had no such compunction about offering opinionated speculation. It undermines their reporting credibility and underlines two of the major deficiencies of cable news: the 24-hour demand for something, anything, to fill the airwaves, and the relatively small budgets these organizations provide for such an impossible undertaking.

You don’t see Katie Couric, Charles Gibson or Brian Williams pontificating. Instead, the broadcast networks use people like Todd. He discussed Obama’s political savvy on MSNBC’s “Countdown,” John McCain’s foreign policy on “Hardball With Chris Matthews,” also on MSNBC, and on “Meet the Press” Sunday, Todd declared that nomination D-Day is May 6, when North Carolina and Indiana hold their primaries. The reason: He and many observers already see the vote on April 22, election day in Pennsylvania, as a fait accompli.

“Hillary by double digits,” declared Fox news analyst Rick Santorum on “The O’Reilly Factor.”

“Pennsylvania’s a walk,” responded the host.

It’s weird that TV news shows, not just cable, get such obvious partisans as former Sen. Santorum or Princeton associate professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an unabashed Obama backer who appeared on CNN, to tell us what’s going on. Do their skewed viewpoints actually add any information to the proceedings?

News coverage, such as it is, gives way, in many cases, in the evening to flat-out partisan hectoring, an entertainment form that Obama criticized in his speech:

“Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.”

Joined by liberals, they weren’t about to give up their paychecks because of some speech.

Screeching Sean Hannity demonstrated just how tough the business is. There was no fun at all in his show featuring African-American ministers. “If the church would have gave an award to Louis Farrakhan,” he sputtered ungrammatically in an interview with the Rev. William Lawson, the 79-year-old pastor emeritus of Houston’s Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, who looked into the camera with a peaceful incredulity.

Fox News nemesis Olbermann, of MSNBC, almost foamed at the mouth with the news that contract workers in the State Department had looked at Obama’s passport records. He called it “breathtaking” and “a huge story,” an apparent dirty election trick by the Bush administration. Another cable news drawback: Its instant reports are frequently wrong or incomplete. It turned out the workers also pulled Clinton’s and McCain’s records, and the story fizzled.

Where Olbermann needs attacks on his archrival O’Reilly to get a few laughs, O’Reilly, the master at Fox News, is a goofy act unto himself, unfettered by facts or opinions more informed than his.

He trashed the “leftist media,” which is everything but Fox in his lexicon, for seeking to kill the Obama-Wright story. He evidently forgot that it was ABC News that broke it in the first place.

When his “body-language specialist,” Tonya Reiman, gave a relatively benign assessment of Wright’s gestures, O’Reilly responded, “I’m not an expert,” and then gave his own critical take.

“So far, Jesse Jackson has been silent” on Obama’s speech, O’Reilly said, before cutting to one of his producers shoving a mike in an understandably recalcitrant Jackson’s face. Actually, Jackson had spoken at length, on Fox News, a day earlier, calling the speech “bone chilling ... for America, the great learning moment.”

Mika Brzezinski, Joe Scarborough’s sidekick on “Morning Joe,” an MSNBC “Regis and Kelly” for news fans, is a woman who proved her journalistic mettle last year by shredding a Paris Hilton story rather than reading it.

Her take on Obama’s speech: He’s putting “more faith in the American people than they might be willing to cough up at this point.”

But do the people ever even get to hear what’s going on? Obama did speak at length on “Nightline,” which garnered some sweet ratings. (Is anybody paying attention?) Gwen Ifill did a lengthy interview on PBS’s “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.” And CNN’s King gave him an hour, too.

But immediately after the speech, most TV news outlets turned away from the difficult issues it raised - black and white resentments, expectations, communication roadblocks - to more simplistic speculation about its campaign impact.

Scarborough and others obsessed on the reaction of the old-time bloc of white male Reagan Democrats, as the nighttime talk shows showered us with their usual shrill sound bites and shouting.

It might be fine to put faith in the American people. It’s American TV that might not be able to cough up the goods.

//Mixed media