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Convention coverage: Walter Cronkite is probably crying somewhere

August 29, 2008 |  2:49 pm

Tracker_mat_olb_jwo2r9nc_25 It's supposed to be the other way around.

During a presidential campaign, the politicians are the ones who should be making the sweeping statements about the superiority of one political tradition over the other while the news analysts comment as objectively as possible, pointing out contradictions, changes in position and historical tendencies but keeping their own personal leanings out of it.

Instead we had a Democratic candidate who spoke of finding common ground between such opposing forces as those who support abortion rights and those who don't, while the political analysts offered commentary that was unapologetically self-referential and occasionally argumentatively partisan.

At MSNBC, Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews could barely speak they were so overcome with emotion after Sen. Barack Obama's speech; when they did it was strictly in tear-shaken superlatives. Meanwhile, over at Fox News, Brit Hume reluctantly acknowledged that the speech seemed to have played well with the delegates before turning it over to a panel of commentators who could barely sit still in their eagerness to tear it down. Fortune magazine's Nina Easton spat, practically incoherent in her derision of what she saw as the same-old, same-old, while Fred Barnes shrugged and admitted he liked the fireworks.

At CNN, Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper seemed at times unable to contain the joy they felt at being themselves; the two acted more as high priests to the historic moment than journalists. Though it was at times difficult to tell what was going on, so distracting was the endless loop of "fun facts" that ran across the bottom of the screen, along with a day-to-day countdown. (Memo to CNN: The Democratic Convention is not like the hostage crisis, and we really can count to four.)
Somewhere Walter Cronkite quietly wept.

As the Democrats moved through a convention that was both undeniably historic and as rhetorically dramatic as these things can be, the various news stations seemed intent on keeping viewers less concerned with the future of the presidency than the future of American news coverage. While the Clinton/Obama split they kept trying to sell never materialized, the anchors at the cable news networks gave us plenty of infighting to watch.

At MSNBC, Olbermann, who has risen to stardom with his take-no-prisoners liberal approach, regularly dissed his colleagues, trying to bully Tom Brokaw into ratcheting up his positive but measured take on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's speech, and shutting down Matthews' observation that some female Clinton supporters felt ripped off. He also practically came to verbal blows with Joe Scarborough when he suggested that Sen. John McCain's poll numbers had improved. Scarborough then had his own temper tantrum, chewing out David Shuster when Shuster suggested that Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, had a party affiliation.

The on-air squabbles lit up the Internet for a few days and delighted Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, who on Thursday reported them with glee. But when he asked the two "media experts" he had brought on the show if Fox had shown similar problems, he quickly had to interrupt both when it was clear the answers would be in the affirmative. How else to explain the relentlessly negative analysis of virtually every speech by Fox News commentators -- Brit Hume's attempt to get Chris Matthews to put a more negative spin on his reporting of the Hillary Clinton speech and Karl Rove's bare-bones admiration of the Bill Clinton speech?

"But don't you think?" became the mantra of the anchors, which in most journalism classes is the very definition of a leading question. What these anchors and commentators seem to have forgotten in their haste to get down and dirty is that objectivity is not just some arbitrary honor code adopted by the profession in the olden days. Objectivity provides the fire power, the leverage that the news media once had.

If Cronkite had endlessly made his own political feelings known, his ultimate condemnation of the Vietnam War would not have carried the weight it ultimately did. As every parent knows, rage daily and the kids tune you out; remain calm and authoritative and your occasional anger, or tears, or calls to arms are much more effective.

Viewers may find some comfort in being able to flip around until they find the news commentator who is saying precisely what they are feeling, but news coverage and political analysis are not supposed to be  televised security blankets. Analysis is supposed to widen the conversation, make it richer and more provocative, not repetitive, predictable and, increasingly, just plain embarrassing.

-- Mary McNamara

(Photo courtesy Virginia Sherwood/MSNBC -- Keith Olbermann, right, and Chris Matthews, MSNBC's coverage of this year's party caucuses and primaries.)