No Holds Barred
Alternative News Outlets Smack Down Coverage Conventions
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2004; Page C01
BOSTON, July 26 -- Jon Stewart has had his share of presidential candidates on "The Daily Show," but John Kerry has resisted the late-night lure.
"Is this a strategy by John Kerry to present himself as serious -- or is he inherently unable to smile?" Stewart asks in mock-stentorian anchor tones.
The Comedy Central satirist, who chatted up Tom Brokaw for his show Monday, delights in making fun of the very media hordes -- or "whores," as he deliberately mispronounced it -- he has now joined at the Democratic convention. His job, he concedes, is to be "the dancing monkey." But he insists the real media -- as opposed to the fake news show that has made him wealthy by skewering the real media -- are so obsessed with entertainment that they've fouled the journalistic atmosphere.
How surreal is this? The professional funnyman is fuming about the sorry state of the news business, while a group of so-called serious reporters are trying to be funny, or at least coax Stewart into being his usual comedic self, while they absorb his tongue-lashing over breakfast.
With the Big Three networks each granting the Boston marathon a mere three hours over four nights, less traditional media outlets have rushed to fill the vacuum. Anyone with a microphone and telegenic hair, it seems, is here, including MTV, ESPN, BET and World Wrestling Entertainment. This is the big show, and even those normally consumed by smackdowns and hip-hop want a piece.
And the mainstream media want a piece of them. "Good Morning America" is courting "Daily Show" correspondent Stephen Colbert for guest appearances, while former "Daily" wild man Mo Rocca, a "Today" contributor, is manning the offbeat beat this week for CNN.
"The excitement is coursing all around me," Rocca told Larry King from a nearly empty convention floor. And after Bill Clinton's speech Monday night, Brokaw turned for expert analysis to . . . Jon Stewart.
Stewart downplays the importance of his Comedy Central platform -- "I follow a show about puppets making crank calls" -- even as political figures such as Howard Dean, John Edwards and Republican Chairman Ed Gillespie have appeared in search of those elusive, yawning-at-politics younger viewers.
"People do get information from the show," says Gillespie, who has also appeared on MTV and WWE's "Smackdown Your Vote." "It's important to demonstrate a sense of humor in politics." Besides, he says, "I'm a fan. It was kind of a kick for me."
MTV's newest correspondent here is Ana Marie Cox, better known as the foulmouthed blogger Wonkette. She appeared with Colbert on "Sunday Today" and boldly told NBC's Campbell Brown that young people get their news from "The Daily Show" and Web sites "because they think the real news is also fake."
Colbert stuck to his position that "no one gives you fake news any faker than we do."
It's come to this.
Cox is considering segments on delegate fashion -- such as the wearing of credentials as a carefully placed accessory -- and the e-mailing addiction of those who (like her) are always tapping at what they call their CrackBerry.
"Fluffy stuff is important because politics shouldn't be like eating your spinach," Cox says, sitting on a bench in the FleetCenter hall. "I'm dessert. But politics is a full meal."
Cox dismisses much programming aimed at the youth demographic as "either high-minded civility -- you should vote because it's important -- or you should vote because Madonna does."
Her wardrobe orders from MTV were "anything but a suit -- don't look like a grown-up." Accordingly, she is wearing a white T-shirt, jeans, black jacket and Converse sneakers.
"If terrorists attack, I'll be able to run out of the building," Cox says. "Surviving a terrorist attack is the new black."
Ocean Macadams, vice president of MTV News, says he told Cox to "walk around and find funny [stuff]" -- and no "sex jokes" on the air. "You can tell a lighter story in order to tell some greater truth," he says. "Our shows don't do Nick-and-Jessica numbers," referring to the viewership for the pop couple's reality series, "but they do really well."
Also chronicling the proceedings is "Cousin Jeff" Johnson, the co-host of Black Entertainment Television's "Rap City," who says he wants to make sure "that people entertained by BET are also empowered by BET. Our coverage is going to speak to young people that CNN is not speaking to, that MSNBC is not targeting."
These rap fans, he says, "are concerned about the war. They don't understand why some of their brothers and uncles and, in some cases, mothers are dying in Iraq."
A Baltimore youth pastor in his spare time, Johnson is not neutral on the race. "People of color should be offended by a president who won't speak to the organizations that represent them," he says of President Bush's decision to decline an invitation from the NAACP. But he's no Kerry cheerleader, either: "I have not heard yet from Kerry enough on how he intends to address issues that matter to people of color and poor people."
"Cold Pizza," ESPN's morning chat show, usually cares about FleetCenter only when the Boston Celtics and Bruins play there, but Executive Producer Brian Donlon finds the "marriage between politics and sports" irresistible. Candidates Edwards, Dick Gephardt and Wes Clark appeared on his show during the Democratic primaries.
"We've put together a bunch of stories you definitely won't see on the big networks," says Donlon. One of "Cold Pizza's" co-hosts, Kit Hoover, is here this week.
Monday's show covered Kerry throwing out the first pitch at Fenway Park ("in the dirt," an anchor griped) and interviewed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who admitted that most folks here would, if pressed, choose a Red Sox victory in the World Series over a Kerry win in November.
Before Edwards speaks on Wednesday, "Cold Pizza" will air interviews with his old basketball and football teammates and coaches from North Carolina. And before Kerry addresses the convention Thursday, "we'll have in the studio the guy who taught him kite-surfing, and his caddie will talk about what kind of golfer he is," Donlon says. Plus, in another must-see moment, the show will feature a musical number from Kerry's long-ago band, the Electras.
Such fare may be good fodder for ESPN and MTV, but Jon Stewart sees the cable news networks leading the dumbing-down parade. He says shows like "Crossfire" and "Hardball" and CNN debates between Donna Brazile and Bay Buchanan typify the medium's mindless partisan debates -- kind of like having Coke and Pepsi spokesmen debating beverage supremacy.
"Ann Coulter is rewarded because she just keeps saying the craziest [stuff]," he says.
What the other cable channels need, says Stewart, is a "Roger Ailes of truth," referring to the Fox News chairman who he says injects passion into the network (though Stewart sees it as conservative passion). Anchors and reporters should openly challenge politicians' spin-laden answers rather than being "sucked into the game."
Here is Stewart's rendition of a typical television debate about the convention's impact on Kerry and Edwards:
"What kind of bump are they going to get?"
"I think one point."
"I think five points."
"I say 10."
"Ten? You're insane!"
Wait a minute -- wasn't that just on the air somewhere?
© 2004 The Washington Post Company