Watching the Cable News Networks With Troy Patterson

What you're watching.
Aug. 30 2012 4:08 PM

The Television Will Not Be Revolutionized

Channel-surfing the Republican National Convention.

Fox News anchor Bret Baier speaks in front of the camera at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
Fox News anchor Bret Baier speaks in front of the camera at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.

Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos for Slate.

Cable-news coverage of the Republican National Convention has been … well, can we just leave it at that? It has been. It has existed and will continue to, with networks playing to old strengths, tripping over new weaknesses, and indulging signature quirks, all while faithfully recording the silly hats worn in the audience.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

CNN effectively kicked off its coverage with the Sunday-night broadcast of Romney Revealed: Family, Faith, and the Road to Power, a 90-minute documentary fronted by Gloria Borger. If you approached the special hoping for a crisp personality profile, you were well rewarded, but if you were expecting Romney Revealed to reveal Romney, then you were a sucker. Striving to be anodyne, Borger, the network’s chief political analyst, strenuously avoided analysis.

What we learned about Romney’s tenure as the governor of Massachusetts is that, midway through his term, he decided that he needed to accomplish something significant and proposed a health care-reform plan. If you wanted to know anything about that plan, in terms of policy or politics, you were out of luck. Or look at it this way: The documentary touted its unprecedented access to Beth Myers, Gov. Romney’s chief of staff, and what we learned from her was that she and Romney talked very often.

Preparing a C-Span TV feed at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
Preparing a C-Span TV feed at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.

Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos for Slate.

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There was some definite human interest in Borger’s interview with Ann Romney, who “opened up” about her health problems. And then there was some vague inhumanity in the way that, after re-airing the documentary on Monday, CNN set its personalities chatting about the value of Ann’s illness as a political asset, as if multiple sclerosis were a telegenic running mate.

This set a certain tone on CNN, where panelists have been panelizing up in a skybox at the arena while, elsewhere in the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Wolf Blitzer has been urgently co-anchoring CNN’s coverage with Erin Burnett, who seems slightly drowsy. Who could blame her? Wolf interviewed the five Romney sons on Tuesday night. His takeaway: “I think they really love their mom and dad.” What a scoop it would have been had he determined otherwise! Erin, I learned that Tagg’s still pissed about being grounded for breaking curfew during Reagan’s second term.

Rachel Maddow has been anchoring MSNBC’s coverage from New York, in front of a green-screen image of the convention floor, turning to journalists on the ground for eyewitness report and to Chris Matthews, stationed outside the arena in sherberty neckties, for a peculiar cocktail of sharp commentary and blunt bluster. MSNBC has been the best place for a long view of proceedings, with Chris Hayes noting the running theme of nostalgia in the floor speeches, their misty evocation of an Arcadian past that we might yet roll back to, if we work hard and play by the rules.

On the other end of spectrum, there was Fox. On Wednesday, Fox News—which was giving more thorough coverage of the storm in New Orleans than its rivals—was presenting a convention-ized version of its regular schedule, with Bill O’Reilly bloviating at 8, Hannity leading the braying at 9, and a panel gathering at the end of the evening. Same old, same old; the real action was on Fox Business, where a jolly Neil Cavuto was interviewing guests at an outpost located immediately behind the Texas delegation, the cowboy hats of which added to the festive vibe. Cavuto bantered with Herman Cain, asking if he’d like to be commerce secretary. “We’ve never had one from the fast-food sector,” Cavuto remarked. Cain rejected the idea. Cavuto pressed him further. Cain re-rejected the idea, scarcely concerning himself with the if-called-to-serve-my-country routine. Oddly, Cavuto all but rubbed salt into the wounds of Rick Santorum, repeatedly asking what it felt like not to have won the nomination: “You gotta tell me, Senator: Do you feel a little weird?” Doesn’t he always?

Rick Santorum gets interviewed by Fox News at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
Rick Santorum gets interviewed by Fox News at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.

Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos for Slate.

Current TV has been promoting its coverage as “the collision of TV and social media.” Indeed, it seemed last night as if the broadcast had been nastily sideswiped by a Mac truck of Web 2.0 hucksterism. The faces at the podium and in the studio were lost in digital clutter, with half of the screen given over to a scroll of Twitter messages. For instance, when Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio took to the stage, we saw messages such as “@RepublicanGOP: Welcome to Sen. Rob Portman of OH.” This was generally unenlightening—anti-enlightening, really—but there were highlights, as when Tim Pawlenty took to the stage and various tweets likened his presence to prescription sedatives. Current bailed on the soporific Minnesotan quickly, returning to New York so that its anchors and analysts could share a few hearty groans.

Obviously, the only place to get a truly objective look at the proceeding was C-SPAN, which never blinks, inviting you to absorb all the details in their numbing tedium and riveting weirdness. C-SPAN is the unofficial home of the jarring juxtaposition, the channel where a speech by Mitch McConnell, dry and bankerly, gave way not to commentary or a commercial break but to the in-house entertainment: a hard-rocking vocal performance by someone boasting a Sammy Hagar corona of hair and a Rod Stewart fit of trousers. The singer ran to and fro, gyrating gently as the guitars crunched and delegates weavingly waved their Romney/Ryan placards before them, tapping their loafers in time with the beat.

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