By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2004; 6:46 AM
BOSTON--I was going to talk about Fox News's coverage of Al Gore's speech, but the fair-and-balanced network blew off the former veep's speech in favor of Bill O'Reilly.
O'Reilly interrupted his segment to toss to the Gore address for about 40 seconds, then started to rebut Gore. When Jimmy Carter took the podium, Fox joined it late and got out way early. Instead, viewers were treated to an interview with Republican activist Bill Bennett. While Carter was talking, Sean Hannity told Bennett: "I call this the reinvention convention. One of the things the Democrats want to do is create a false perception of who they are."
How would Fox fans know, since they weren't able to hear Gore (the man who won the popular vote last time) or former president Carter? What happened to "we report, you decide"? While Carter continued, Hannity played the video of Teresa Heinz Kerry telling a reporter to "shove it."
This is the kind of thing that makes critics question whether Fox has a Republican agenda.
I've long argued that people should separate Fox's straight reporters from its opinionated talking heads. And yes, all the cable networks cut away from some mid-level speakers to give more airtime to their own anchors, analysts and guests. If Fox wants to keep its talk-show stars on the air, it's probably better for ratings. (Brit Hume did rerun four or five minutes of Gore after 10 p.m.).
But virtually pulling the plug on live coverage of Gore and Carter? How about letting them speak and then ripping them, or critiquing them, or whatever. The network is supposed to be covering the convention, not just using it as a backdrop.
Well, at least Hannity and Colmes put a Democrat on soon afterward. Jerry Springer.
On the other hand, Fox panelists did praise the effectiveness of Bill Clinton's speech, though Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke called it a bit "demagogic" toward the Republicans. Bill Kristol called it "a very centrist speech." And Fox viewers got to hear every word.
More on the coverage in my next post. But first, my look at some of the, shall we say, alternative media working the Boston beat:
Jon Stewart has had his share of presidential candidates on "The Daily Show," but John Kerry has resisted the late-night lure.
"Is this a strategy by John Kerry to present himself as serious -- or is he inherently unable to smile?" Stewart asks in mock-stentorian anchor tones.
The Comedy Central satirist, who chatted up Tom Brokaw here Monday, delights in making fun of the very media hordes -- or "whores," as he deliberately mispronounced it -- he has now joined at the Democratic convention. His job, he concedes, is to be "the dancing monkey." But he insists the real media -- as opposed to the fake news show that has made him wealthy by skewering the real media -- are so obsessed with entertainment that they've fouled the journalistic atmosphere.
How surreal is this? The professional funnyman is fuming about the sorry state of the news business, while a group of so-called serious reporters are trying to be funny, or at least coax Stewart into being his usual comedic self, while they absorb his tongue-lashing over breakfast.
With the Big Three networks each granting the Boston marathon a mere three hours over four nights, less traditional media outlets have rushed to fill the vacuum. Anyone with a microphone and telegenic hair, it seems, is here, including MTV, ESPN, BET and World Wrestling Entertainment. This is the big show, and even those normally consumed by smackdowns and hip-hop want a piece.
And the mainstream media want a piece of them. "Good Morning America" is courting "Daily Show" correspondent Stephen Colbert for guest appearances, while former "Daily" wild man Mo Rocca, a "Today" contributor, is manning the offbeat beat this week for CNN.
"The excitement is coursing all around me," Rocca told Larry King from a nearly empty convention floor.
Stewart downplays the importance of his Comedy Central platform -- "I follow a show about puppets making crank calls" -- even as political figures such as Howard Dean, John Edwards and Republican Chairman Ed Gillespie have appeared in search of those elusive, yawning-at-politics younger viewers.
"People do get information from the show," says Gillespie, who has also appeared on MTV and WWE's "Smackdown Your Vote." "It's important to demonstrate a sense of humor in politics." Besides, he says, "I'm a fan. It was kind of a kick for me."
MTV's newest correspondent here is Ana Marie Cox, better known as the foulmouthed blogger Wonkette. She appeared with Colbert on "Sunday Today" and boldly told NBC's Campbell Brown that young people get their news from "The Daily Show" and Web sites "because they think the real news is also fake."
Colbert stuck to his position that "no one gives you fake news any faker than we do."
It's come to this.
Cox is considering segments on delegate fashion -- such as the wearing of credentials as a carefully placed accessory -- and the e-mailing addiction of those who (like her) are always tapping at what they call their CrackBerry.
"Fluffy stuff is important because politics shouldn't be like eating your spinach," Cox says, sitting on a bench in the FleetCenter hall. "I'm dessert. But politics is a full meal."
Cox dismisses much programming aimed at the youth demographic as "either high-minded civility -- you should vote because it's important -- or you should vote because Madonna does."
Her wardrobe orders from MTV were "anything but a suit -- don't look like a grown-up." Accordingly, she is wearing a white T-shirt, jeans, black jacket and Converse sneakers.
"If terrorists attack, I'll be able to run out of the building," Cox says. "Surviving a terrorist attack is the new black."
Ocean Macadams, vice president of MTV News, says he told Cox to "walk around and find funny [stuff]" -- and no "sex jokes" on the air. "You can tell a lighter story in order to tell some greater truth," he says. "Our shows don't do Nick-and-Jessica numbers," referring to the viewership for the pop couple's reality series, "but they do really well."
Also chronicling the proceedings is "Cousin Jeff" Johnson, the co-host of Black Entertainment Television's "Rap City," who says he wants to make sure "that people entertained by BET are also empowered by BET. Our coverage is going to speak to young people that CNN is not speaking to, that MSNBC is not targeting."
These rap fans, he says, "are concerned about the war. They don't understand why some of their brothers and uncles and, in some cases, mothers are dying in Iraq."
A Baltimore youth pastor in his spare time, Johnson is not neutral on the race. "People of color should be offended by a president who won't speak to the organizations that represent them," he says of President Bush's decision to decline an invitation from the NAACP. But he's no Kerry cheerleader, either: "I have not heard yet from Kerry enough on how he intends to address issues that matter to people of color and poor people."
"Cold Pizza," ESPN's morning chat show, usually cares about FleetCenter only when the Boston Celtics and Bruins play there, but Executive Producer Brian Donlon finds the "marriage between politics and sports" irresistible. Candidates Edwards, Dick Gephardt and Wes Clark appeared on his show during the Democratic primaries.
"We've put together a bunch of stories you definitely won't see on the big networks," says Donlon. One of "Cold Pizza's" co-hosts, Kit Hoover, is here this week.
Monday's show covered Kerry throwing out the first pitch at Fenway Park ("in the dirt," an anchor griped) and interviewed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who admitted that most folks here would, if pressed, choose a Red Sox victory in the World Series over a Kerry win in November.
Before Edwards speaks on Wednesday, "Cold Pizza" will air interviews with his old basketball and football teammates and coaches from North Carolina. And before Kerry addresses the convention Thursday, "we'll have in the studio the guy who taught him kite-surfing, and his caddie will talk about what kind of golfer he is," Donlon says. Plus, in another must-see moment, the show will feature a musical number from Kerry's long-ago band, the Electras.
Such fare may be good fodder for ESPN and MTV, but Jon Stewart sees the cable news networks leading the dumbing-down parade. He says shows like "Crossfire" and "Hardball" and CNN debates between Donna Brazile and Bay Buchanan typify the medium's mindless partisan debates -- kind of like having Coke and Pepsi spokesmen debating beverage supremacy.
"Ann Coulter is rewarded because she just keeps saying the craziest [stuff]," he says.
What the other cable channels need, says Stewart, is a "Roger Ailes of truth," referring to the Fox News chairman who he says injects passion into the network (though Stewart sees it as conservative passion). Anchors and reporters should openly challenge politicians' spin-laden answers rather than being "sucked into the game."
Here is Stewart's rendition of a typical television debate about the convention's impact on Kerry and Edwards:
"What kind of bump are they going to get?"
"I think one point."
"I think five points."
"I say 10."
"Ten? You're insane!"
Wait a minute -- wasn't that just on the air somewhere?
Ba-da-bing. Now let's look at the first-night coverage
Dan Kennedy defends the Big Three networks:
"Will the dinosaurs of broadcast journalism please stop whining about the fact that the networks are showing only three hours of the Democratic convention this week? PBS's Jim Lehrer was aghast at Sunday's Shorenstein Center get-together, as Mark Jurkowitz reports in the Boston Globe.
"To which I say: the networks should cover news, and there is no news to be made this week. Conventions used to pick the candidates; now primary voters and caucus-goers do that. Why there needs to be obligatory coverage of anything other than the speeches of the presidential and vice-presidential speeches is beyond me.
"Lehrer called the DNC 'four of the eight most important days we can possibly have as a nation." Good Lord! Not even close. The debates - which you'd think Lehrer might have some recollection of, given that he's passively presided over a few of them - are infinitely more important.
"Today people have choices. An enormous amount of convention coverage is being carried by CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, C-SPAN, and, for those who don't get cable, Lehrer's own PBS. Essentially Lehrer is arguing that viewers should be forced to watch an infomercial. Gee, maybe the off switch could be remotely disabled this week as well."
Salon's Chris Suellentrop has hope for the convention:
"Even a casual viewer of Hardball knows that the first rule of an election that involves a sitting president is that it's a referendum on the incumbent. This election, however, has turned out to be the opposite. It's a referendum on the challenger. Kerry probably isn't responsible for this turn of events, but he's benefiting from it: The referendum on the incumbent is over. President Bush already lost it. This presidential campaign isn't about whether the current president deserves a second term. It's about whether the challenger is a worthy replacement.
"So, even though there are supposed to be only five persuadable voters left in America, I'm inclined to think that the next four nights will be worth watching. Can the Democrats re-enact the successful 2000 Republican convention, a parade of moderation and diversity that convinced the nation that George W. Bush was a decent fellow who could be trusted with the levers of power?
"Four years ago, partisan Republicans were so consumed by Clinton hatred that they would shriek ecstatically every time Bush said he would 'uphold the honor and dignity of the office.' They channeled their rage into pragmatism: After eight years of Clinton, GOP primary voters wanted to beat Al Gore so badly that they rallied around Bush months before the primaries began, based on nothing more than the fact that he seemed electable. They made a calculated bet that Bush was a guy who would sell well, and they were right."
USA Today had hired conservative flamethrower Ann Coulter as a Boston columnist, then wound up killing her first piece and cutting her loose. This is how it began:
"Here at the Spawn of Satan convention in Boston, conservatives are deploying a series of covert signals to identify one another, much like gay men do. My allies are the ones wearing crosses or American flags. The people sporting shirts emblazoned with the 'F-word' are my opponents. Also, as always, the pretty girls and cops are on my side, most of them barely able to conceal their eye-rolling.
"Democrats are constantly suing and slandering police as violent, fascist racists -- with the exception of Boston's police, who'll be lauded as national heroes right up until the Democrats pack up and leave town on Friday, whereupon they'll revert to their natural state of being fascist, racist pigs. . . .
"My pretty-girl allies stick out like a sore thumb amongst the corn-fed, no make-up, natural fiber, no-bra needing, sandal-wearing, hirsute, somewhat fragrant hippie chick pie wagons they call 'women' at the Democratic National Convention."
They had a problem with that?
Columbia Journalism Review strikes a skeptical note about the Boston bloggers:
Howard Dean "brought the house down when he told one blogger that she shouldn't take it as an insult that she wasn't considered a 'real journalist,' since real journalists simply weren't getting the job done -- a message that reverberates daily around the blogosphere. Bloggers, he and the others suggested, were on the forefront of a journalistic revolution.
"There's just one problem: They don't seem terribly sure what the hell to do. As a Campaign Desk colleague points out, having finally gotten a proverbial seat at the table, bloggers here are finding that their plates, if not empty, certainly aren't overflowing. There are a lot of reporters in Boston, and not, in the end, a lot of stories. Bloggers are having their big moment at last with the deck stacked slightly against them -- had they been invited to an event with a bit more substance, they might have had an easier time taking advantage of their access."
A footnote from the Blogging of the President site:
"On CNN Jeff Greenfield anchors a throw to David Sifty (in the bloggers' booth?) to find out what the blogosphere thought of Al Gore's speech. By the end of the week it will be well nigh impossible to know which is the head and which is the tail of the media beast."
People say conventions are unscripted, but I stumbled upon the following last night:
Howard Dean stood toe to toe with a Republican yesterday--and lost.
The worst of it was, the kid was nine.
While Al Gore was addressing the convention, the former Vermont governor was in a hallway, good-naturedly smacking a hand-held bell as he tried to answer questions about American history. But he was bested by a confident Noah McCullough of Texas.
It was all a bit for Jay Leno's "Tonight Show," airing later this week. But Dean was as competitive as ever.
Who was president when the U.S. acquired Hawaii? Bing! Dean picked William McKinley and won. Who said "a house divided against itself cannot stand?" Bing! Dean tied the score with his Lincoln answer.
But Noah rallied with the first secretary of state (Jefferson), and Dean stumbled on the first president to travel outside the country (Teddy Roosevelt, not James Madison).
"The little Republican beat you," said quizmaster Donny Reisner. The victor generously gave the vanquished a George W. Bush doll.