Convention Oratory, Increasingly Shoved Aside
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2004; Page C01
BOSTON -- When Al Gore spoke to the Democratic convention here last Monday, Fox News Channel didn't carry it live.
Host Bill O'Reilly allowed viewers to hear the former vice president for about 40 seconds before saying: "Oh man, I wish I was out there. I would have said hey, a deficit, we've got a war on terror, we're attacked. What are you talking about?"
Whatever happened to "we report, you decide"? Shouldn't Fox viewers get to hear Gore before O'Reilly and his guests start sounding off?
O'Reilly, responding to this reporter's criticism of the move on WashingtonPost.com, told viewers: "The newspaper pinheads claim that because we aren't covering the speeches we aren't fair. That, of course: a bunch of baloney. . . . How desperate some in the print media are to smear Fox News. In the words of Teresa Heinz Kerry, the newspaper critics can shove it."
But sometimes even pinheads have a point, as some Fox staffers, both publicly and privately, acknowledge.
"I don't know if that was the right call or not," says Brit Hume, Fox's Washington managing editor, who replayed a few minutes of the Gore speech two hours after O'Reilly passed it up. "At that point we were in a program that is principally about one man's analysis. It wasn't part of our live coverage. If it had been my hour, I'd have done it. Bill O'Reilly chose not to do it. It's his program."
On Tuesday, O'Reilly interrupted an interview with Jerry Brown to listen to about four minutes of Ted Kennedy's 25-minute address. On Wednesday, he took Al Sharpton for two minutes of a 20-minute speech, interjecting: "That's our pal Sharpton, doing what Al does. He's whipping them up."
"He's never held a job," Fox analyst Dick Morris said.
In an interview with this pinhead, the host of the "O'Reilly Factor" says his job is to analyze the news. "I read Gore's speech [in advance] and there wasn't one thing in there that was new or groundbreaking," he says.
Most of the speeches are "propaganda," O'Reilly says. "The 'Factor' is not an infomercial. The decision was made to stick with the format, unless it's a dramatic situation."
But aren't conventions basically about speeches? Why come to Boston just to use the FleetCenter as a colorful backdrop?
"Am I, as a news analyst, to do what the parties want? That's ridiculous," says O'Reilly, who plans to cover the Republican convention the same way. "I have to make a decision on informing the audience that comes to the 'Factor' as best I can."
All the networks, of course, make editorial decisions to blow off what they view as lesser speeches in favor of their own anchors, correspondents and guests. And, of course, the talking heads like to talk.
Toward the end of Sharpton's speech, MSNBC broke away, with host Chris Matthews complaining that the reverend had gone on too long. "This is a partisan act here," he said. "We're taking him off the air." CNN has missed speeches by sticking with "Larry King Live." On Thursday, as MSNBC carried Sen. Joe Biden and Wesley Clark, CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Judy Woodruff and Jeff Greenfield were chatting, followed by an interview with Kerry campaign chief Mary Beth Cahill, while O'Reilly was interviewing Newt Gingrich and then Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
But Fox News Channel has been most wedded to its highly rated prime-time lineup. On Monday, it blew off Jimmy Carter, carrying just a few minutes of his speech, after which host Sean Hannity told conservative activist William Bennett: "I call this the reinvention convention. One of the things the Democrats want to do is create a false perception of who they are." Hannity later played the video of Heinz Kerry telling a reporter to "shove it."
Some Fox executives see this approach as counterprogramming, since the speeches are widely available elsewhere. They also believe that Kennedy and Gore, who have refused to appear on Fox in recent years, should hardly expect free airtime for their speeches. Gore has sharply criticized Fox as a conservative network.
Critics will have a hard time blaming Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes for this approach. The former Republican strategist had little involvement in the convention coverage here and plans to be on vacation when the Republicans convene this month in New York.
Hume, for one, thinks the networks should take a pass on the first three nights of these increasingly scripted and choreographed conventions.
"You could make a very good case for not being here until Thursday -- even for the cable channels," he says. "If we were inventing this from scratch and there was no history here, no tradition, no custom, we wouldn't design it this way. You wouldn't anchor from here, you just wouldn't. Nobody has quite had the stones to say let's call a halt here."
The 2008 convention planners should take note.
Footnote: Cable and PBS were the big winners in Boston. With ratings slipping for the broadcast networks as they scaled back their coverage, cable news more than doubled its viewership from 2000. CNN averaged 2.3 million viewers in prime time, up from 1.7 million four years ago. Fox finished second with 2.1 million (up from 400,000), followed by MSNBC with 1.3 million (up from 607,000). Meanwhile, Jim Lehrer's coverage averaged 2.9 million viewers for PBS, 23 percent higher than four years ago.
Kerry, for his part, proved a big draw, attracting more than 24 million viewers for his acceptance speech, compared with 21.6 million for Gore at the last convention.
When John Kerry announced John Edwards as his running mate, Time sent veteran White House photographer Diana Walker to take a series of behind-the-scenes pictures for the magazine.
Last Tuesday, Walker appeared in a Democratic film shown at the convention, singing the praises of Teresa Heinz Kerry. She spent the week in Boston and did interviews about Heinz Kerry that were set up by the senator's campaign.
Walker says that after a long career with Time she is now a freelance photographer, though she may do more campaign work for the magazine.
"I'm happy, proud and delighted to have the opportunity to talk about Teresa," whom she has known since the 1970s. "I'm free to talk about my close friend who happens to be the wife of the Democratic nominee." Walker says she is "very comfortable" that there is no conflict with her role as a photojournalist.
Other editors and photographers, however, say that competing shutterbugs are getting few backstage opportunities from the Kerry campaign. "It just seems unfair," says Pete Souza, a photographer with the Chicago Tribune, and magazine rivals "are very perturbed that the only real behind-the-scenes access is being given to a friend of Teresa Heinz Kerry."
"I don't have any control over what contributors do," says Time Managing Editor Jim Kelly. "If she was a full-time staff photographer, that would be a different matter." Kelly, noting that he picks the pictures, says when he sends Walker on a Kerry assignment, "she puts on her professional press hat."
Moved to New Address
Howell Raines made frequent appearances in The Washington Post's news columns when he was being ousted as the New York Times's top editor last year over the Jayson Blair fiasco. So what was his name doing on an op-ed piece in The Post last week, calling Republicans "the champion panderers in American politics"?
Despite Raines's quarter-century at The Post's archrival, "I reached out to him," says Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt. "My thinking was, he's a great writer and has a very interesting outlook on politics and a lot of experience covering politics. I said I'd be interested when he was inspired, and then he sent this piece."
Besides, jokes Hiatt, who is hoping for more contributions, "he lost his job as executive editor. I think he probably needs the $200."
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company