Say what you want about Tim Russert (Lewis Lapham's hit piece in Harper's excluded), but his infectious enthusiasm for the political process translated to great TV around convention time. And the lack of Russert, or anyone quite like him, was vexing during last week's Democratic Convention.
We found ourselves reflexively turning to NBC or MSNBC to catch a little of that insight and enthusiasm, only to remember, sadly, that the exuberant voice has been stilled.
If only the voices over at MSNBC could have stilled themselves even a bit more. Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann, both sometimes amusing and sometimes provocative, were mostly just inane last week, sounding more like they were hauled in from some FM's station's Morning Zoo. But viewers have become used to that. What was surprising to everyone was when the MSNBC anchors turned on each other, with clips of Joe Scarborough and Keith Olbermann among the YouTube favorites last week. Not exactly what a “news division” wants as its most-watched work during one of the most important political times of the year.
As a whole, the cable news nets often gave testament to the fact that there can be a downside to the more extensive coverage of conventions we have always advocated. Over at CNN, there was a bit too much “look at me!” for our taste, too, going on and on about how it was on the convention floor and others weren't. The upshot of its brag was that the networks in their remote sky boxes couldn't hope to catch the real flavor of the convention, while lucky CNN was cheek-by-jowl with delegates wearing hats shaped like states or bearing miniature toilets.
With the media's wall of experts, most of whom have some connection to politicians past and present, it was difficult for viewers to feel assured that they were getting real analysis rather than just slick spin, yet with enough ambiguity that it seemed more confusing than enlightening.
And at CNN, they liked to hear themselves talk—a lot. Going wall-to-wall is fine, except when reporters and anchors interpose themselves between the wall and viewers. In most cases they talked over and around some important speeches while awaiting the “big speech.” Over on C-SPAN, we discovered, there were many other speakers who had something to say.
Yet these confabs are too long. The political parties could do all they need to in two days, not four. Three would give enough padding so that all constituencies are heard from, even if they aren't necessarily heard. The broadcast networks weren't so wrong to give the conventions one hour a night, though that seems about an hour too short.
Here's what should happen. The Democratic and Republican parties should exercise the discipline often lacking at these conventions, cut them back to three days, max, and program their best two hours in primetime, from 9 to 11. That would mean the best speeches and the role call vote. Then, the networks should bite the bullet and cover those two hours a night. And after that, they could let their high-priced pundits go listen to their own brilliance at the closest saloon.