Mugger: Anchor Steam

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Surveying the deluge of atrocious media coverage of this year’s presidential contest, it’s difficult to winnow down the most egregious offenders. Despite her political views, I’ve always found former Rep. Gerry Ferraro’s candid remarks—at least since she was whipsawed as Walter Mondale’s 1984 running mate—to be remarkably refreshing. When Ferraro resigned last week from Hillary Clinton’s finance committee, ludicrously blasted by the Obama campaign for racism, it was characteristic that she refused to apologize, insisting, “I am sorry there are people who think I am racist.” Well put.

Far more slimy than anything the 72-year-old New York Democrat said was a tossed-off paragraph at the end of Times reporter Joyce Purnick’s March 13 piece about the trumped-up controversy. “Candor has always been a Ferraro trademark,” Purnick wrote, “but on this matter she has been especially outspoken, some friends of hers have said, wondering if her sense of mortality, was at work.” Ferraro’s been treated for an incurable blood disease since 1998, but she told Purnick that had nothing to do with her pointed opinion that Barack Obama wouldn’t be on the cusp of the Democratic nomination if he were a white senator serving his first term. You can argue that point, I suppose, but it’s not exactly a far-fetched idea. What irks me is that Purnick, without naming any of Ferraro’s “friends,” implies that she’s at death’s door and suddenly feels free to speak her mind.

That’s fairly creepy—as was Lawrence K. Altman, M.D. writing recently in the Times about John McCain’s well-documented melanoma, leading this reader to wonder why the piece didn’t appear before the Arizona senator wrapped up the GOP nomination. And it reminds you of how inconceivable it would’ve been several months ago for Purnick (or any other reporter) to suggest that Elizabeth Edwards’ precarious health liberated her to make provocative statements on behalf of her husband John.

Meanwhile, newspaper reporters have apparently discovered this year that the networks have ceded political coverage to cable stations, even after bemoaning for years the abbreviated scheduling devoted to the quadrennial national conventions by ABC, NBC and CBS. Americans interested in the results of hard-fought, nasty primaries—mostly for entertainment value, I suspect, rather than an exercise in democratic responsibility—are forced to pick their poison.

I can think of no sillier exhibition of an anchor/commentator filling time than MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, on the night of the March 4 primaries, repeatedly declaring that John McCain’s triumph was “Churchillian.” Winston Churchill’s rise and fall and rise and fall in British politics is of legitimate historical import; the fact that McCain resurrected his ’08 campaign is a fascinating and unexpected twist in this presidential cycle. But comparisons to FDR’s wartime ally are a stretch. It was especially odd coming from Olbermann, whose “Countdown” program is a day in, day out rant against President Bush in particular and Republicans in general. I prefer McCain to Obama and Hillary Clinton but, conerning his electoral fortunes, a more apt analogy would be to Richard Nixon, for the comeback angle specifically.

Olbermann’s mate on the primaries beat at MSNBC, Chris Matthews, has lost a lot his own credibility, not only for making an apology to Hillary Clinton earlier this year, but also because he can’t resist sucking up to whatever guest he can corral to the station’s studio. A decade ago Matthews’ exuberance could be excused because his purely political persona was somewhat novel. But now that cable is inundated with hosts and numbers-crunchers and elected officials, he just seems a little like Bozo the Clown.

Over at CNN, which Times television reporter Alessandra Stanley seems to believe is still the cable gold standard, it’s painful to watch the excellent political correspondent John King pointing to state maps and explaining with a wand the significance of when the results from disparate counties are tallied. He resembles nothing more than a boondocks weatherman on a local news show at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning who is required to kill 10 minutes predicting how a cold front from Montana might affect the next week’s forecast for, say, Pittsburgh or Atlanta. And while it’s a relief that Sam Donaldson has been relegated to irregular CNN appearances, just listening to Wolf Blitzer for 10 seconds is enough to summon the remote.

I like Fox News’ anchor Brit Hume a lot—and that station’s regular roundtable of mostly conservatives is neither better nor worse than CNN or MSNBC—but the apparently popular Shepard Smith, who looks like a mannequin, is out of his depth when tackling the presidential race, while Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity have long lost any shred of sanity.

Despite the lowlights of cable news coverage—and Pat Buchanan’s tired “get rid of all the illegal immigrants” diatribes is only slightly better than his CNN compatriot Lou Dobbs, if only because the former has an infectious laugh—they can’t match the sniffy television critiques of mainstream media reporters. Yes, the Times’ David Carr immediately comes to mind, partly because I gave up on The Washington Post’s Tom Shales a lifetime ago.
Carr is not at all a dim fellow, but he must realize, at least when he tosses and turns at night, that his condescending dispatches appear off kilter when his newspaper isn’t the robust and respected institution it was even two decades ago.

Six days after Clinton convinced enough voters in Texas and Rhode Island that she, too, was a working-class woman who could be trusted with the nuclear football, Carr examined the switch from network to cable for all matters political. He began: “Last Tuesday, millions of viewers were riveted by the wrestling match in Ohio and gunfight in Texas between [Clinton and Obama], not to mention the unlikely coronation of the conservative bugbear John McCain as the Republican nominee.” It got worse as Carr waded in the quicksand: “Don’t worry, I’m not here to point a crooked finger at the inequities of the present and reminisce about the glories of the past, those nights when Uncle Walter gave us a civics lesson before tucking us in to bed.”

“Uncle Walter”? “Wrestling match in Ohio”? “Gunfight in Texas”? It could be that Times editors are so giddy about Carr’s blog on Hollywood (or maybe they’re so dispirited they don’t give a shit what’s printed anymore) that they allow such lousy slapstick to slip by, but I’m fairly certain most diligent college newspaper editors would delete those phrases instantaneously.

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