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Cable news chatter is changing the electoral landscape

By Howard Kurtz and Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 11, 2010; 1:16 AM

When Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell appeared on Sean Hannity's Fox News program, he read her some advice from another Fox commentator, Sarah Palin.

Palin, urging the Delaware Republican to "speak through Fox News," had said on Twitter that she should be spending her time with voters back home "versus appeasing national media seeking your destruction."

"She is absolutely right," said O'Donnell, although she has held almost no public events since that television appearance last month.

In the same period, her Democratic opponent, Chris Coons, appeared on MSNBC, where host Chris Matthews asked him about the inexperienced O'Donnell: "Does it bother you personally that someone like her, with that background, should run for public office?" Coons said no, but the leading question hung in the air.

The increasing polarization of cable news is transforming, and in some ways shrinking, the electoral landscape. What has emerged is a form of narrowcasting, allowing candidates a welcoming platform that helps them avoid hostile press questioning and, in some cases, minimize the slog and the slip-ups of retail campaigning.

"There's no question it's contributing to the splintering of the political system and the means by which people get information about that system," said Robert Thompson, who runs the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "If there's no standard base line of fact and reporting, where can the conversation go?"

Each party's message is amplified by former officeholders and strategists who sign exclusive agreements with the cable networks as soon as they leave the public payroll. And their celebrity - magnified by their constant screen presence - gives them more influence than most members of Congress.

On any given night, a parade of Democratic lawmakers and candidates appears on MSNBC, while Republicans flock to Fox - including some, such as O'Donnell, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Sharron Angle, who grant few interviews elsewhere. CNN has a more balanced guest lineup and no openly partisan shows, but its prime-time ratings have declined substantially.

Angle, who is challenging Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid in Nevada, has said that the benefit of appearing on a "friendly press outlet" is that she can ask viewers for money: "When I said it on Sean Hannity's television show, we made $40,000 before we even got out of the studio in New York."

'Hit their base'

The reality, said MSNBC President Phil Griffin, is that "politicians want to hit their base." But "we're different than Fox," he added. "We ask for people to come on from both parties all the time. We can't control who comes on. A lot of people choose not to, and they choose to go to Fox. . . .

"We have so many different voices. We're not trying to push Democratic talking points, as some people accuse us of."

The White House has clearly chosen sides. President Obama recently called Fox News "destructive," renewing an attack that his administration launched against the network last year, while White House spokesman Bill Burton singled out MSNBC hosts Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow for helping to "keep our government honest." That praise followed a swipe that press secretary Robert Gibbs took at the "professional left," widely seen as aimed at liberal commentators and bloggers.

The fragmented environment has forced political strategists to make adjustments. "It requires the president to work harder to get his message out," said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's communications director, including seeking out unconventional venues where his sheer presence will generate buzz.

That explains why Obama showed up on "The View," was the first sitting president to appear with Jay Leno and David Letterman, and has scheduled town halls with MTV, CMT and BET. In a push for his health-care measure, he was the first president to blanket all five Sunday talk shows - which feature more sober formats than prime-time cable.

Ari Fleischer, former spokesman for President George W. Bush, said that the cable shows are influential with partisan audiences but that "if you're only talking to like-minded people, it's a bad reflection on that candidate." When Obama submitted to a lengthy grilling by Fox's Bill O'Reilly during the 2008 campaign, Fleischer said, "he knew it sent a signal to non-O'Reilly viewers that Barack Obama has confidence in his ideas."

David Winston, a pollster who advises the House Republican leadership, said the opinion-driven cable shows are so established that "people know what to expect" and "sort of filter what they are looking at."

Four in 10 Republicans say they regularly watch Fox News, compared with 21 percent of Democrats, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Democrats make up 53 percent ofMSNBC's audience, and Republicans just 6 percent.

Fox News, which has nearly triple the audience of MSNBC, has provided a megaphone for three possible 2012 GOP presidential candidates on its payroll: Palin, Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich. Two of its most prominent commentators, Karl Rove and Dick Morris, are actively raising money for Republican candidates.

"I'm helping raise $50 million, $3 million of which we've already spent on behalf of Sharron Angle in Nevada," Rove, a Bush White House official, recently told viewers. Hannity has also raised money for GOP candidates. Fox executives declined to be interviewed.

Three MSNBC hosts and contributors - Matthews, Ed Schultz and former congressman Harold E. Ford Jr. - considered running for the Senate as Democrats during this cycle. Howard Dean, the former Democratic Party chairman and presidential candidate, is a CNBC contributor.

CNN also employs commentators who are engaged in the partisan wars. James Carville and Paul Begala help raise money for the Democratic Party, while Alex Castellanos returned $12,000 last year paid to his firm by the Republican National Committee. The payment, which he called a mistake, violated the network's rules.

"Every time I go on, I'm identified as a Democrat," Begala said. "I'm not paid to be neutral, but I'm paid to be truthful. As long as that's fully disclosed, the audience is not going to be shocked that a Democratic strategist is trying to help Democrats."

Some hosts are more willing than others to engage the other side. Last week, Republican National Chairman Michael Steele - a former Fox contributor - appeared on Lawrence O'Donnell's new MSNBC program, while two prominent Democrats, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell and Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, were on "The O'Reilly Factor."

Maddow boasted on Thursday that "a real live Republican candidate for office is going to be a guest on this show." But she got into a lengthy and awkward argument with Art Robinson, a House candidate in Oregon, who kept accusing her of trying to "throw mud at me" even as she read words he had written in the past.

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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