On Monday evening, I decided to consume the world of politics through the dueling prisms of MSNBC and Fox News — the increasingly liberal yin and the primarily conservative yang of cable news. Or the Punch and Judy, anyway.
But after a deciding coin toss caused me to turn to MSNBC first, heaven help me, I felt a thrill going up my leg.
Oh, wait. That's just Chris Matthews.
The guy sometimes delivers keen insight and other times self-contradictory gibberish, as he and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann co-host coverage and peevishly co-exist. He's a sight and a sound to behold.
Early in the evening, on the air live at MSNBC's outdoor set in front of Denver's Union Station, Matthews was thrown by all the chanting pro-Hillary Clinton protesters from PUMA, which stands more or less for Party Unity My Tuckus. Well, as I said, more or less.
The Noisiest Get Coverage
Matthews asked his panel of usual suspects whether these unyielding Clinton protesters would pose a problem for Obama's theme of unity, and he didn't hear quite the answer he wanted. Newsweek columnist Howard Fineman said they could — but only if some of the 15,000 journalists in town decided to interview them. NBC News political director Chuck Todd discounted it, too.
"You can write this story, but that doesn't mean that it's a story," Todd said. "I kind of think we are hyping it. I wonder if we'll look back in three days and say, 'Why did we waste all our time with that?' ... I think it's a much smaller group than we make them out to be."
Matthews, bemused, said, "It's a free country, but the noisiest people get the coverage."
And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, the haiku wisdom of Chris Matthews — in one fell swoop, characterizing the nation's political culture and explaining his own presence on its airwaves.
Back to the experiment comparing coverage on Fox News to coverage on MSNBC.
I decided to focus most closely on the 8 p.m. hour Eastern Time — the highest-rated hour for each, well before the bigger broadcast networks would be on the air. Though Fox News' O'Reilly Factor leads considerably in audience size, MSNBC and Olbermann's Countdown have made up a lot of ground.
At Fox News, The Hillary 'Steamroller'
But for this hour of convention coverage, it's worth noting that the two networks decided to shape their programs quite differently. Fox News stayed with The O'Reilly Factor, while MSNBC scrapped Countdown's familiar structure, instead placing Olbermann and Matthews in anchoring roles. MSNBC carried all 12 minutes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's speech live from the convention hall; Fox News aired not one word live.
O'Reilly led with his own analysis. He, too, smelled bad blood between the top Democratic candidates. He then said, "Barack Obama must convince voters he's not a far-left ideologue" and that he needed to distance himself from "Net-root loons" — in whose camp he placed Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean.
O'Reilly chewed over the pick of Joe Biden for vice president, first with Dick Morris, the former Bill Clinton pollster and now Hillary Clinton antagonist, and followed by John Podesta, Bill Clinton's former White House chief of staff.
O'Reilly: Come on, why didn't (Hillary Clinton) get it? You know them. 'Cause they don't like each other.
Podesta: Well, they got to — they learned to trust each other on the campaign.
O'Reilly: I don't think they trust each other.
Pollster Frank Luntz showed why an Obama ad trying to prove Republican John McCain was out of touch on economic issues didn't work with independent voters in a focus group, while a McCain attack against Obama hit its mark. And then O'Reilly turned to Fox News producer Griff Jenkins, who mischievously waded into a crowd of anarchist protesters. Some of them surrounded and confronted Jenkins and a Fox cameraman. O'Reilly had a great time showing footage of the confrontation.
O'Reilly noted these folks were no fans of Obama. And Jenkins responded:
"Many of them called him a warmonger. And I thought, 'Wait a minute — anyone told them they were at the DNC?' Barack Obama is one of the most liberal senators out there ... He's for getting us out of Iraq. You know, I don't know who you go to — Hugo Chavez, not available."
O'Reilly played dueling ads –- one for Obama, and one for McCain — and then he returned to Hillary Clinton and the vice presidential pick. He managed to suggest to Fox News (and NPR News) analyst Juan Williams that Clinton should feel as though she were shown disrespect — and that she wouldn't be picked by a guy in any contest.
"You're on the Dating Game, OK. You're sitting there, and there's Hillary and there's anyone else — C'mon, Juan! The woman's a steamroller," he said.
Meanwhile, Back At MSNBC ...
Over on MSNBC, it was a different universe. Both Olbermann and Matthews have been sharp critics of President Bush, McCain and Hillary Clinton. But they were not in the full-throated ideological mode found on their own individual shows. Instead, the effect was to soften the sense of rancor reportedly occurring behind the scenes.
NBC's David Gregory reported on senior figures hoping to smooth the waters between the Clintons and Obama. Liberal analyst and soon-to-be MSNBC host Rachel Maddow rebutted a new ad for McCain, which cites a former Clinton supporter who later said she could make the switch because the Republican didn't want to overturn abortion rights: "That's just wrong" — meaning factually, not in judgment. (McCain has said he would seek to overturn Roe v. Wade.)
Todd explained why House Speaker Pelosi had little empathy for Clinton, going back to Bill Clinton's presidency. But then, the network carried Pelosi's full remarks.
Matthews said voters would likely support Obama or McCain because of how they feel about the war or the economy:
"Most sane people choose their political party based on issues: Things they feel, things they think, interests they have. And it may be leaders they like. But they don't just start with the party tag. ... It isn't because they are in love with this person, it's that they are in love with a certain notion of America."
NBC's Ann Curry interviewed Pelosi and former President Jimmy Carter, while former anchor Tom Brokaw interviewed Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
One hour doesn't catalog total coverage. Fox News did carry the speeches of other Democrats later in the night, such as Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, Sen. Edward Kennedy and, most notably, Michelle Obama. And MSNBC did interview some conservative pundits as well, such as Pat Buchanan and Michelle Bernard, and McCain spokeswoman Nicolle Wallace.
But the differences were pretty noticeable.
Those seeing The O'Reilly Factor on the first night of the convention would likely associate these ideas with the Democrats: far-left ideologue, anarchist protesters, ineffective ad campaign, distrustful party leaders and Hillary Clinton, disrespected steamroller.
Viewers would walk away with these ideas from MSNBC's 8 p.m. hour: The party is gingerly coming together, Democratic voters would be mistaken to support McCain, Obama holds positions favored by most Americans.
John Edwards was right about one thing: There are two Americas, and they watch different cable news channels.