Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric during the run-up to the Democratic National Convention at the Pepsi Center on Sunday in Denver.
CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric during the run-up to the Democratic National Convention at the Pepsi Center on Sunday in Denver. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
CNN technicians roll a large screen television to their outdoor studio, called the "CNN Grill," outside the Pepsi Center on Sunday, during preparations for the Democratic National Convention.
CNN technicians roll a large screen television to their outdoor studio, called the "CNN Grill," outside the Pepsi Center on Sunday, during preparations for the Democratic National Convention. Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
Some 15,000 journalists are converging on the two big political conventions to deliver barn-burning investigative exclusives, bracing analyses of policy positions and fearless dissections of the rhetoric of our most prominent politicians.
Kidding, kidding. We kid because we care.
Actually, they're participating in a quadrennial journalistic ritual that allows them to party, gossip and pontificate far away from their staid Washington bureaus on their bosses' expense accounts. They'll whip up endless speculation and microscopic scooplets based on spin, talking points and breathlessly exchanged banter. Many of these journalists will be working incredibly hard. Some of them may even produce news worth knowing. But will what you read, see and hear last more than a few days past the convention? I dunno. I tend to doubt it.
So we here at Media Circus will spend the next two weeks of the conventions heckling from the cheap seats, keeping an eye out equally for the spectacular displays of journalistic prowess and the mindless hackery that politics often inspires. And we'd like to start you off with a few questions to tuck in the back of your collective minds.
1. Will NBC News manage to thread the needle?
NBC News, the home of Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, Chuck Todd, Andrea Mitchell and company, is finding its reputation and record as a fair-minded news organization challenged as it seeks to capitalize on the growing ratings success of its increasingly left-leaning cable channel, MSNBC.
Forget the daytime programming, where MSNBC's audiences are modest. In primetime, they start to kick up. There's Chris Matthews, the former aide to Democrats Jimmy Carter and Tip O'Neill; the even more liberal Keith Olbermann, whose show runs twice each evening; and now Rachel Maddow, who's also a host on the decidedly liberal radio network Air America. Her show will replace legal analyst Dan Abrams at 9 p.m. ET. The ratings are improving, and the revenues are following suit. Conservative Tucker Carlson's show was dropped earlier this year, though he remains with the network; former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough was switched to the morning, where he's done quite well.
MSNBC came under fire from Hillary Clinton's campaign during the Democratic primaries for favoring Barack Obama. Now, it's Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain's turn to take shots at the cable network, and even at NBC stalwarts, such as Mitchell.
For the record, network executives say their anchors and correspondents weren't unfair, but were the target of cheap partisan ploys. And they say their viewers "get it" — the "it" being the difference between the sober-minded programming of NBC — the Nightly News, Meet the Press (presumably not including the light-as-a-corn flake Today Show) — and the free-wheeling and opinionated shows on MSNBC every night. But do their heavily liberal viewers "get it?" Or, frustrated by President Bush and the more conservative punditry found on Fox News, do they not care?
2. What role will bloggers and online journalists really play in convention coverage?
The conventions are going to be swarmed by various forces in the online world, from MySpace to Google, to the Huffington Post. You can find pundits such as the usually reliable Richard Siklos of Fortune magazine arguing that this is the Internet's moment.
You can also find online visionaries such as Jeff Jarvis saying most of the mainstream media should stay home — and so should the bloggers — and the best coverage should simply be aggregated by Web critics. If everyone stays home, who would be around to do the actual reporting that would be aggregated would seem an open question.
I'd like to suggest that it's time we judge outlets by what they actually do rather than the means by which they arrive. Do they make you smarter? Challenge your assumptions? Reveal things you didn't know? Help you evaluate candidates and parties more shrewdly?
Take The Politico. It provides well-reported dispatches by and for Washington insiders and political junkies. Extreme Mortman provides the musings of a funny conservative. The TPMMuckraker is liberal, but it does real reporting.
The Huffington Post is also unquestionably liberal. But is it a forum where liberals hash out what they believe, like Daily Kos? Or is it capable of journalism and analysis that sometimes goes against the interest of the candidates it largely supports?
We've seen some evidence of both. It's done reporting that made John Edwards and Barack Obama uncomfortable. But there are also signs it wants to quash dissenting voices on the site. Can they go against their own interests? The answer will determine whether Arianna Huffignton's creation will be viewed as a partisan or a journalistic force. And the same questions should be applied to conservative sites as well.
3. Where do the pundits' loyalties lie?
CBS News proudly announced the other day that it had hired former presidential counselor Dan Bartlett as a commentator for the conventions and beyond. Bartlett, by now a familiar face to those who follow politics, was a loyal political aide to Gov. and then President George W. Bush. His time at the White House expired just last year — and his old boss is being blamed by Barack Obama and Joe Biden for every ill afflicting the nation shy of the designated hitter rule in baseball.
Is Bartlett really expected to be a clear-eyed observer with an independent take? Or is he being paid to offer his gut reaction from years in the Republican trenches — making him little more than a paid source who is always on call to parrot talking points?
Bartlett is being paired with another of its hires — Democratic campaign strategist Joe Trippi. Trippi ran the failed presidential bids of Howard Dean in 2004 and John Edwards this year. Pretty much the same questions apply to him.
I thought of all this Saturday as I watched Fox News after Obama named Biden his running mate. Fox News turned to "the Architect" of President Bush's political fortunes: Fox News analyst Karl Rove. I tuned in just after Rove listed the flaws of Joe Biden as a Democratic candidate for vice president, and was being pressed by host Chris Wallace to offer some positive attributes. Rove said, well, Biden makes a good attack dog. But what would you expect Rove to say? Where do Rove's loyalties lie?
In hiring Bartlett and Trippi, CBS News is merely following the rules of the game of its television competitors. But it's worth asking how independent each pundit is willing to be from the political patrons who made her or his career.
We here at Media Circus hope to keep an eye on these and other currents rippling below the surface during the next two weeks of the conventions. We're interested, as we say, in the highs and lows, in those journalists belaboring the obvious and those deftly tracking what's happening away from the limelight.