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Cable news chatter is changing the electoral landscape

The 2010 election brought scores of tea party-backed candidates into Washington.

In May, after Maddow politely but doggedly pressed Senate candidate Rand Paul about his views on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Kentucky Republican vowed not to go back. Maddow's profile is such that some GOP candidates have attacked her in fundraising letters and used her as a target in their campaign advertising.

Some cable personalities have gone well beyond the role of mere interviewers in stoking political passions. CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli's rant against Obama financial policies last year helped spark the fledgling movement that came to be known as the tea party. Fox's Glenn Beck gave the movement a jump start with his so-called "9/12" rallies last fall, which were heavily covered by his network, and he drew a huge crowd in August to the Lincoln Memorial - with Palin's help - for a religious-themed event.

When the U.S. Agriculture Department fired staffer Shirley Sherrod based on a deceptively edited video suggesting she was a racist, a top official told her the administration had feared that Beck would jump on the story.

When liberal organizations held their own rally at the Mall this month, MSNBC's Schultz was one of the featured speakers. Even Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are getting into the act, staging a rally aimed at moderates on Oct. 30. Colbert drew both laughs and catcalls for testifying recently at a House immigration hearing.

Stewart told National Public Radio last week that, in his view at least, he and Beck are not so different: "He's a reaction to what he feels like is the news, and so are we. We actually share quite a bit in common in terms of, not point of view necessarily, but reason for being. We're both in some ways an op-ed. We consider ourselves editorial cartoonists in some respect."

'An amazing outlet'

Potential candidates have long used television and radio as a way of staying in the spotlight. In the 1990s, Pat Buchanan alternated between running for president and co-hosting CNN's "Crossfire." Huckabee's 2008 campaign manager, Chip Saltsman, said the Fox exposure is priceless if his former boss makes another run for the White House. "That's what a big percentage of our primary voters watch every day," he said in a recent interview. "It's an amazing outlet for a conservative guy to reach conservative voters."

Cable news audiences are relatively modest, with O'Reilly's top-rated Fox program drawing more than 3 million viewers at 8 p.m. But cable chatter has a way of driving other news coverage - in blogs, in op-ed columns, on Facebook pages and, ultimately, on network newscasts, creating an echo-chamber effect.

The current environment is reminiscent of an earlier era when many newspapers were partisan vehicles with names like Democrat and Republican. "This whole notion of objective journalism is a relatively new invention," said Syracuse's Thompson. "But what we're seeing on the national cable scene is something on a much grander scale."

Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."


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