After months spent consuming endless cable TV news coverage of this endless presidential campaign, I've got a theory: The more attention they pay to a subject, the less viewers actually learn.
Trying to capitalize on the contentious, percolating viewer magnet that the campaign has become, each big cable news channel has its own evening show focused on the election: Fox's America's Election HQ, MSNBC's Race to the White House and CNN's Election Center. I recorded each show on April 9 and watched closely, eager to test my hypothesis.
The timing was good: Deep into the six-week break between primary elections, these shows offered a look at what cable might cover when actual news is in short supply.
Unfortunately, I found news programs chewing over morsels of information like grazing cows, taking a sliver of reported fact and massaging it with analysis and supposition until viewers had a tough time separating fact from assumption and opinion.
It's the high "signal-to-noise ratio" of cable news, the way punditry and strategy often overwhelm the meat of reportage. Not surprisingly, the show with the highest ratio this day was on Fox News.
America's Election HQ is a chummy, vibrating hour packed with flashy graphics, made-to-order partisan conflicts, Fox's trademark friendliness to conservatives and two gleaming, youthful hosts in Bill Hemmer and Megyn Kelly.
Hemmer led the show with "breaking news": Former Clinton aide Dick Morris heard from an unnamed source that Bill Clinton had encouraged Colombia's president in 2007 to convince Democrats to support a trade deal. According to Morris, 10 days later, Colombia hired the consulting firm led by Mark Penn, the recently resigned chief strategist of Hillary Clinton's campaign.
"Are you reporting that Bill Clinton got Mark Penn the gig?" Hemmer asked urgently.
"Yes," said Morris, before hesitating a bit. "I don't — I can't prove it. I wasn't there."
So what exactly was he reporting? That Clinton reminded Colombia's president last year that Democrats control Congress now? That's breaking political news?
What viewers didn't hear: Morris has made a career of trashing the Clintons since he resigned from their administration in 1996 amid allegations of a relationship with a prostitute. Not exactly a fair and balanced source, is he?
But Fox's signal-to-noise imbalance rose highest in a segment featuring Kelly, Democratic strategist Bob Beckel and former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed.
The topic? A campaign worker overheard assembling a crowd to stand behind Michelle Obama at a Pittsburgh rally, yelling for "more white people."
Campaign veterans know such displays are always highly staged, a point Beckel made quickly. If you're seeking working-class white votes, you get your candidate in front of TV cameras and a crowd of working-class white people.
But Kelly was indignant. "I don't like staging the news," noted the anchor, who had, in an earlier segment, cautioned John Edwards against the "sissy move" of endorsing Clinton or Obama after his state of North Carolina's May 6 primary. Classy.
Fox's high-velocity program was a clear contrast to MSNBC's Race to the White House, a vehicle for rising NBC News star David Gregory aimed at Hardball-weaned political junkies.
Rather than switch out interview subjects, Gregory largely stuck with the same lineup of pundits throughout his show, often displaying them all onscreen at once in a collection of boxes resembling a jumbled version of the hallowed Brady Bunch grid.
The roll call included analyst Chuck Todd, former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, Independent Women's Forum CEO Michelle Bernard and former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Jr. — all NBC News employees, as well.
My biggest criticism here involves the continued use of Buchanan, who has a long history of controversial statements involving anti-Semitism, racial prejudice, anti-immigrant sentiment, ties to white supremacists and more.
This is a man who has written a book implying that America's success lies in its identity as a white, Christian nation. Why MSNBC and NBC News continue allowing him to denounce people like Jeremiah Wright as bigots, with no mention of his own tangled history, remains a mystery to me.
As protests over China's role hosting the Olympics were threatening the travel of the Olympic torch through San Francisco, talk here was more about whether John McCain could stop making campaign gaffes (Bernard said yes) and whether the United States would attack Iran (Buchanan said yes).
It wasn't until I turned on CNN's
Election Center that I felt the noise subside a bit. On a day when there wasn't much real campaign news, Campbell Brown's CNN show focused on other events, dissecting the protests in San Francisco, a police raid on a polygamist compound in Texas and the likelihood that any president could implement a quick troop withdrawal from Iraq.
Brown mostly turned to CNN reporters covering the issues. Ace pundit Fareed Zakaria offered a succinct, informative take on China's conflict with Tibet and an explanation of why Clinton's demand that George Bush avoid the Olympics opening ceremonies would cause more trouble with the Chinese than any president could risk. (My fave Zakaria line: "I very much doubt, if she were president, she would follow her own advice.")
Also noteworthy: Baghdad correspondent Michael Ware interviewed former presidential candidate John Kerry, looking as if he'd just climbed out of a spider hole himself.
For this old-school news junkie, it was a welcome change from the campaign-centric vibe of MSNBC and Fox News' glitzy political combat. At a time when Americans are still struggling to make a historic electoral choice, we deserve election coverage from TV that cuts through distraction, rather than piling it on.
Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.