Substance-free CNN pundits play etiquette police

Published July 29, 2004 4:20PM (EDT)

The cable news coverage of the Democratic convention this week has at times been so silly and dimwitted as to be painful to watch. That's been especially true when TV reporters and pundits have become so fascinated with process and the media's own role in the event that they can barely see the broad outlines of the journalism they're supposed to be practicing.

A perfect example was Wednesday night's primetime address by the Rev. Al Sharpton. During his often ad-libbed, revival-style 20-minute speech, Sharpton spoke passionately about immigration, voting rights, the burdensome cost of the war in Iraq, and America's being misled into that war. In other words, love him or hate him, Sharpton laid out a buffet table of issues to be discussed. So what angle did CNN's pundits immediately seize upon? The fact that Sharpton's address ran 14 minutes over his allotted time. How would that affect the night's planning, they fretted. Would vice presidential nominee's Sen. John Edwards' scheduled 10:20 acceptance speech be bumped off primetime on the East Coast as a consequence? they wondered.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer: "Al Sharpton was supposed to speak for six minutes."

CNN's Jeff Greenfield: "The more serious problem for the Democrats is ... somebody's going to have to do some very fancy footwork to make sure that Elizabeth and John Edwards get their primetime shot."

CNN's Judy Woodruff: "Al Sharpton just hijacked this convention, at least this part of it."

CNN wasn't alone. Over at MSNBC, soon-to-be "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams snagged Sharpton by the podium for an interview and pressed him on the exact same point; why was his speech longer than expected and was he concerned he had messed up the timing of Edwards' speech?

What, exactly, does that have to do with journalism, with analyzing information, with educating voters? It's embarrassing to watch.

Of course the irony is these are the same pundit types who bemoan the fact the modern-day conventions are so tightly choreographed and planned down to the minute, that they leave little room for actual debate or back-and-forth. So after a meaty speech by Sharpton, what do the pundits do? They obsess about the timing and fret that Democrats have been thrown off by a dozen minutes or so. (Not surprisingly, convention planners, who factored in that some speakers might run long, simply made the necessary adjustments to the schedule by shortening some of the musical interludes; Edwards walked to the podium at precisely 10:20.)

The only other substance-free aspect of Sharpton's speech that piqued the interest of pundits, busy playing the role of etiquette police, was that he had been too mean. It's a talking point the Republicans have been trying to hammer all week in Boston; Democrats are so angry.

Woodruff: "I'm not sure this is the message that the Kerry campaign wanted to go on this long."

Blitzer: "I'm not sure that this was necessarily the kind of speech the Kerry campaign wanted to see."

One other note about CNN's at-times head-scratching coverage last night. Following Edwards' acceptance speech, Blitzer, in what may have been a convention first, immediately turned to partisan representatives from the opposing party for a reaction; Bush campaign advisor Ralph Reed and former Bush Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke. We'll be watching closely during the Republican gathering in New York City to see if following Vice President Dick Cheney's speech, CNN immediately seeks out Kerry advisor Mark Mellman and former Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart for their analysis.

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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