Clinton beats Bush -- again

Published September 3, 2004 7:29PM (EDT)

Republicans choreographed their New York City convention -- and its media coverage -- with extraordinary skill. But their post-convention campaign strategy ran into a news-cycle buzz saw Friday with breaking news that former president Bill Clinton had checked himself into a hospital and must undergo quadruple bypass heart surgery. The Bush camp, anxious to build on whatever momentum they created inside Madison Square Garden, was already battling Hurricane Frances and the bloody hostage nightmare in Russia for the days headlines. News of Clintons pending operation, though, obliterated any chance of Bush gaining much airtime, and his campaign will certainly be knocked down to the fourth story on the nightly newscasts this evening.

Highlighting that fact was Bushs mid-afternoon campaign stop in Wisconsin. As Bush bound onstage, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC all interrupted their breathless Clinton coverage (lots of doctors explaining bypass surgery; lots of reporters saying how fit Clinton has looked in recent years) in order to air the presidents remarks. But instead of picking up the GOP convention themes, Bush first offered prayers to the Clinton family, Russian families ensnared in the hostage crisis, and Florida families bracing for the hurricane. All three news channels then promptly pulled the plug on Bush and went back into their Clinton and Frances coverage. (Dead and injured Russian hostages, among them scores of children, trailed a distant third.) Indeed, you could almost see the disappointment in the eyes of Bush-Cheney spokesman Terry Holt, a previously scheduled guest on CNN, when he was asked to discuss Clintons health, instead of the campaign.

As for cable TVs Clinton coverage, CNN deserves credit for being the first to break the story with its original reporting. After that, it was pure cable heaven; in other words, talk, talk, talk. Most of it was moderately helpful, borderline insightful. Although two exceptions came when Rep. Vito Fossella, R-N.Y., joked on Fox that maybe it was the Republicans' successful convention that caused Clinton to have chest pains, and when historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and MSNBC anchors speculated about how the story, just one hour old, might have a Reagan funeral-effect on the news. As Mark Twain remarked, reports of his death are greatly exaggerated.

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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