The Volleys Of TV's Political Analysts Political pundits live for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions. But when it comes to what political analysts are saying about the Democratic National Convention going on in Denver, viewers aren't always getting an independent assessment of events.
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The Volleys Of TV's Political Analysts

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The Volleys Of TV's Political Analysts

The Volleys Of TV's Political Analysts

The Volleys Of TV's Political Analysts

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Political pundits live for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions. But when it comes to what political analysts are saying about the Democratic National Convention going on in Denver, viewers aren't always getting an independent assessment of events.


If you're following the conventions you better get a scorecard. Many of the big political players and the people giving color commentary on news shows bear a striking resemblance to one another. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is covering the coverage for us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: If you don't listen closely to the talking heads on television, you won't notice when a question isn't being answered. Take this exchange from last night. The first voice belongs to CNN anchor Campbell Brown, the second CNN political analyst Hilary Rosen.

Ms. CAMPBELL BROWN (Anchor): Why isn't Barack Obama able, at least not yet, to connect with those working class women that Glory was just talking about?

Ms. HILARY ROSEN (Political Analyst): Well, you know, he hasn't spoken yet, so give him a chance. I think that there's a real focus on the economy and on jobs over the next couple of days...

FOLKENFLIK: Your honor, I object. CNN's political analyst didn't really address the question. And why didn't she? Well, maybe it's inconvenient to acknowledge Obama's troubles. Rosen's not just on the sidelines. She's a Democratic strategist and a donor this year, first to Hillary Clinton and more recently to Obama.

Lest you think CNN is one-sided, it also has Republican strategists on call, such as Leslie Sanchez, who last night saw divisions between Clinton's political hopes and those of Obama.

Ms. LESLIE SANCHEZ (Political Analyst): But it's almost as if she threw the gauntlet down and said women are really in charge of - I wrote it here. The needs of women - we need to fight for change as women.

FOLKENFLIK: Awfully convenient for a Republican to accentuate the negative. I don't mean to pick on CNN in particular. It's just following the golden rule of television coverage. If you want someone on call, you've got to put him or her on the payroll. Sometimes they know more than the average bear, but what independent assessment are we viewers getting here? Not that much. So over on Fox News you can find Clinton loyalist Lanny Davis and the so-called architect of President Bush's political career, Karl Rove, is now ubiquitous there. Not surprisingly, he found Michelle Obama's address to Democrats far too liberal.

Mr. KARL ROVE (Former White House Adviser): Finally, she utterly failed to help, I think, people understand what it would be like as a first couple. I didn't get a sense of connectedness of the two of them. Yet in a very sort of business-like relationship. I didn't get the sense of deep warmth there.

FOLKENFLIK: Speaking of relationships, speakers at the convention are trying, in the words of Fox News analyst Nina Easton, to tie President Bush's record around Republican John McCain's neck. So wouldn't Rove have some incentive to undercut the Democrats?

Fox News anchor Brit Hume challenged Rove a bit and then teased him about his past identity.

Mr. BRIT HUME (Anchor, Fox News): We know that thousands of Democratic delegates are looking forward to your arrival and they will cheer you on and welcome you as they have us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROVE: Exactly.

FOLKENFLIK: It all got a bit giddy and a bit weird last night. CNN's Jeanne Moos acknowledged some pundits joined Democratic delegates in dancing on the convention floor.

Ms. JEANNE MOOS (CNN): Political analysts Paul Begala and Donna Brazile were supplying their own moves to analyze.

(Soundbite of music)

FOLKENFLIK: Wait, are they analysts or Democratic bigwigs? Is that Donna Brazil party superdelegate or her pundit-izing doppelganger? And that's the thing. These aren't career-changers, like ABC's George Stephanopoulos, who quit the Clinton White House, or former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough, now with MSNBC. Most have kept the day jobs, usually consulting gigs. Being on TV often helps them drum up more business. But it doesn't help viewers waiting for actual answers to the questions they'd like to have asked.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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Tale Of The TiVo: MSNBC, Fox News Worlds Apart

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.