Networks down

TV coverage of Boston, day one, slanted skeptically against the Democrats -- except for Fox, which couldn't bear to show most of the event.

Published July 28, 2004 3:38AM (EDT)

From the moment on "Today" Monday morning when NBC's Katie Couric asked Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., whether she had initially been left off the prime time speaking schedule for the Democratic convention because the Kerry/Edwards campaign feared she would "overshadow" the current ticket, TV news outlets had an agreed-upon narrative for the first day of the Democratic convention.

This "will Clinton overshadow?" angle (a repeat of a popular trope from the 2000 convention), along with the news clip showing Sen. John Kerry's wife Teresa Heinz Kerry telling a reporter to "shove it," set the groundwork for a day of coverage that often bristled with low-grade press animosity towards Kerry.

Naturally, convention coverage is going to be stacked with partisan rhetoric, as the pundits fill air time with talk and more talk. And it's only natural for Kerry's critics to be given a chance to air their side during the Democrats' party in Boston. But it was strange, during Monday's first, news-free day of convention coverage, how often television anchors and reporters effortlessly adapted the Republican talking points about the Kerry campaign and supposed divisions within the Democratic Party. While not openly contemptuous of Kerry, the way so much of the press was of vice president Al Gore in 2000, TV's talking heads had a habit on Monday of spinning things in a slightly negative light.

The other clear TV oddity on day one was how the Fox News Channel, from 8 to 10:30 p.m. refused to air anything live from the Democratic convention podium, including speeches, tributes and patriotic songs. Only when the Clintons spoke did Fox turn its camera to the event.

Here's how the day unfolded:

10:40 a.m.: CNN's Daryn Kagan, pressing Kerry spokesman Tad Devine on Heinz Kerry's comments, asks, "Is that the kind of behavior we want to see from a future first lady?" Kagan then jokes about Kerry's ceremonial first pitch at a recent Boston Red Sox game (a pitch that bounced a few inches in front of home plate), and about the boos Kerry received from some hometown Red Sox fans.

10:45: An MSNBC anchor asks whether John Kerry is "aloof."

11:00: MSNBC reports on the "fear Clinton might overshadow the candidate ... who can come off as stiff and aloof."

11:35: "Isn't this a contrived, scripted John Kerry infomercial?" a Fox anchor asks GOP strategist Ralph Reed. "Wouldn't you love to hear Howard Dean and Ted Kennedy rampaging their hatred towards George Bush? You'd probably like to hear Whoopi Goldberg" up on the platform as well.

11:55: Noting the Democrats' focus on national security, Fox wonders, "Is this John Kerry doing his imitation of a Republican?"

Noon: MSNBC, hyping the Heinz Kerry story, flashes an onscreen "On the Defensive" graphic as the anchor asks, "Could [she] hurt her husband's campaign?"

12:10 p.m.: Previewing the former vice president's speech, CNN's Wolf Blitzer insists, "it's going to be difficult for [Gore] to go positive." He's "obviously" still "bitter."

12:15: MSNBC wonders, "Why was John Kerry booed at Boston Red Sox game last night?"

12:31: Looking for some real news, MSNBC's Tom Llamas phones in live to report Kerry's running mate Sen. John Edwards canceled a Greensboro, N.C. appearance because he has a cold; "it's a cold, it's a minor one."

12:41: An FNC anchor poses the question, "How will the Clintons manage to not steal the spotlight" at the convention? And, "Doesn't John Kerry's record as a Northeast liberal present a major obstacle?"

12:45: MSNBC asks a Boston Globe columnist, "Are Bostonians cringing at the convention at this point?"

12:52: Fox's Tony Snow is asked, "Is it really true [Kerry] is duplicitous?" Snow's response is yes, "He tells people what they want to hear."

2:10: CNN's Miles O'Brien notes that Bill Clinton "can be terrible at speeches. I mean, he could be talking until morning if they didn't have a little red light blinking there on the podium."

2:45: FNC's Patti Ann Browne reports that, "the buzz is that the Clintons are secretly hoping that Kerry will lose so the Clintons can win in 2008." She adds, "People are bringing it up, a possibility that Hillary will upstage the others."

3:01: FNC anchor Shephard Smith asks, "Will this convention be a boost to the White House?"

3:16: "For [Kerry] to come to Boston, a very liberal city, and cast himself as a moderate is a contradiction in terms," says Fox News reporters Carl Cameron. "It's hard to argue that Kerry-Edwards is not a liberal ticket."

3:30: CNN Judy Woodruff, interviewing former president Jimmy Carter, and discussing Sen. Ted Kennedy's failed run in 1980, wonders, "Why should anyone expect a Massachusetts liberal to do well" in 2004?

4:02: CNN's Kelly Wallace, previewing Gore's speech, reports, "Many Democrats are a bit confused and concerned about some speeches the former vice president has delivered over the past few months."

7:20: NBC's Tim Russert assures viewers that "Democrats don't like to hear" Kerry's "nuanced position" on the war and free trade. NBC anchor Tom Brokaw wonders if there's "a sense of entitlement" in Kerry's demeanor. Asked if Teresa Heinz Kerry was "manageable," Russert answered, "We're going to find out if the country is going to buy into her." Brokaw then says that, regardless of whether you are a Democrat or Republican, all Americans can agree that in the immediate wake of 9/11, Bush "was all that everyone wanted him to be."

8:10: Fox is the only major TV news outlet not to carry the Gore's speech, switching instead to "The O'Reilly Factor," as Gore's voice is heard booming in the background. (Minutes earlier, Fox was alone in failing to air the gospel-flavored "Star Spangled Banner.")

8:20: MSNBC's "Hardball," historically a bastion of conservatives and wayward Democrats during key campaign nights, invites a roundtable of panelists who are actually made up of ... people who will vote Democratic in November: former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, Ron Reagan, Jr., and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

8:55: O'Reilly announces Michael Moore has agreed to finally enter the No-Spin Zone during Tuesday night's "O'Reilly Factor."

8:57: MSNBC's Matthews wonders, "If the Clintons come back with all their baggage [tonight], is that a good sell for the Democrats tonight?"

9:03: Fox is the only major news outlet not to carry former president Jimmy Carter's speech. Instead, it airs "Hannity & Colmes."

10:04: Fox is the only television news outlet -- and by this time, that includes ABC, NBC, and CBS --not to carry the convention's brief tribute to 9/11, which includes a stirring rendition of "Amazing Grace."

10:22: ABC News' Peter Jennings -- ignoring Carter and Gore and an entire night of speeches extolling the virtues of John Kerry -- reports that Monday has been "a night dedicated to the Clintons."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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