USA Today figured it would be no problem for Bush-bashing filmmaker Michael Moore to "unobtrusively observe the convention," as its deputy managing editor put it.
Right. Why would it be a problem to hire a man reviled by the Republican Party as a guest columnist, send him into the lion's den of Madison Square Garden, where he would be trailed by packs of reporters and attacked from the podium by John McCain? Nobody would think that was a cheap stunt -- would they?
Moore's televised face-off with McCain was the second straight red-faced moment for USA Today, which lost the services of Ann Coulter -- the conservative firebrand dispatched to Boston -- after spiking her first effort about "the corn-fed, no make-up, natural fiber, no-bra needing, sandal-wearing, hirsute, somewhat fragrant hippie-chick pie wagons they call 'women' at the Democratic National Convention."
But the paper merely succumbed to a trend in which political operatives, moonlighting hacks, unemployed pols and pseudo-celebrities have become interchangeable in the profession formerly known as journalism.
Ron Reagan speaks to the Democratic convention, and the next night grants an "exclusive" interview to "Hardball," where he doubles as a commentator, commentating about his speech on stem-cell research. Joe Trippi quits as Howard Dean's campaign manager and an hour and a half later he's an MSNBC political commentator. Al Sharpton ends his presidential bid and becomes a talking head for CNBC.
Political types move back and forth now with the greatest of ease. Joe Lockhart, the former Clinton White House spokesman, was analyzing the election for CNBC until John Kerry's campaign drafted him for front-line duty. Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speechwriter, was an analyst for the Wall Street Journal and MSNBC until announcing that she was taking a leave to help President Bush's campaign.
When David Gergen left the Clinton White House (his fourth administration job), he taught for a semester because he wanted a "decent interval" before rejoining the media racket -- a sentiment that now seems quaint.
"If you leave a highly charged position in politics and go into the media, it's inevitable that your attitudes and emotions will be heavily influenced by what you've just done," says Gergen, editor at large for U.S. News & World Report. "It's very hard to separate yourself from your old allegiances. People don't know who you're speaking for."
CNN's "Crossfire" has been one big revolving door since the days when Pat Buchanan (now with MSNBC) used it as a pit stop between presidential campaigns. Ex-Clintonites James Carville and Paul Begala are now the liberal co-hosts even as they offer advice to the Democrats, much as Carville's wife, Mary Matalin, did in her "Crossfire" stint before spending two years on Vice President Cheney's staff.
Newt Gingrich and Dick Morris hold forth on Fox and ex-congressman Bob Barr on CNN; while George Stephanopoulos moved from White House spinner to ABC commentator before graduating to host of "This Week." Joe Scarborough was a Republican congressman before hosting a prime-time show on MSNBC. Former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura tried the same maneuver, but his MSNBC show flopped.
Bookers, says Gergen, don't particularly care if you were a fire-breathing partisan five minutes ago. "They're looking more for name recognition than for objectivity," he says.
In the case of Moore, "our goal wasn't to get attention but to have something different and useful in the newspaper," says Brian Gallagher, USA Today's editorial page editor. "Moore is of course a high-profile figure and it's hard for him not to become an event. Our sole interest is having him in the paper. We're not interested in the show."
But you don't get the maker of "Fahrenheit 9/11" without a really big show, since the man is a walking quote machine and is constantly trailed by reporters. Moore has few warm-and-fuzzy feelings for the media establishment of which he briefly became a part, writing in USA Today: "New York is home to Fox News Channel. The top right-wing talk shows emanate from here -- Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly among them. The Wall Street Journal is based here. . . . You may think you're surrounded by a bunch of latte-drinking effete liberals, but the truth is, you're right where you belong, smack in the seat of corporate America and conservative media."
Owen Ullmann, the paper's deputy managing editor, says Moore is "a good writer" and author of two books who knows how to meet a deadline. The plan was to get Moore into a general-admission seat at the Garden, but he was forced to sit in the more visible press section after security guards blocked him from sitting elsewhere, Ullmann says.
Thus it was that when McCain, at the podium, denounced "a disingenuous filmmaker who would have us believe that Saddam's Iraq was an oasis of peace," the TV cameras had no trouble finding Moore, who smiled, waved and mouthed "two more months" as the crowd was chanting "four more years."
In the end, USA Today got what it had bargained for: a brief moment of cinematic glitter for associating itself with a divisive figure. And Moore obviously had a grand old time. What the newspaper didn't get was renewed respect for its editorial page.
Static at the Garden
As a denizen of President Bush's home state, Roger Gray thought his Tyler, Tex., radio station would have an easy time landing administration hotshots at Madison Square Garden. He was wrong.
"It's been a tougher battle here getting guests than it was in Boston" with the Democrats, Gray said. "We're having to run them down" when they appear on other stations in the hallway packed with visiting radio hosts. The problem? Texas is an automatic Bush state, which means it isn't close enough to matter.
Dick Helton, a veteran newsman from powerhouse Los Angeles station KNX, says he was supposed to interview White House chief of staff Andrew Card, but that Card was yanked when administration bookers found out he is from California, a John Kerry stronghold. "It's a little lonely when you're watching Canton, Ohio, and Wheeling, West Virginia, do so well," Helton said. "If you're from a swing state, you get anybody you want."
Republican National Committee spokeswoman Christine Iverson said that while the party takes no market for granted, "obviously it's important to get our message out on battleground stations, and that's what we've focused on."
The Envelope, Please
The coverage of the GOP convention surely deserves some awards.
Best Billboard. Jon Stewart's "Daily Show": "The most trusted name in fake news."
Biggest Comeback. Fox News Channel, edged out by CNN at the Democratic convention, boosted ratings 127 percent over its Boston performance on Monday and beat the broadcast networks -- an amazing feat -- on Tuesday.
Most Confrontational Moment: When MSNBC's Chris Matthews kept pressing Sen. Zell Miller during a remote interview, drawing this response: "I wish I was over there, where I could get a little closer up into your face!"
Best Dissing of New York Times: Tie between George H.W. Bush ("Most of their editorial comment on the op-ed page is extraordinarily liberal. . . . Their news columns are getting to show a certain bias") and George W. Bush (who cited a supposedly pessimistic 1946 Times piece about postwar Germany, adding: "Maybe that same person's still around, writing editorials").
Luckiest Defendant: Kobe Bryant, who was spared 24/7 cable analysis of his moral character and sex life when rape charges against him were dismissed during the Republican convention.
Bluntest Line. Fox's Mort Kondracke on the appearance by the Bush daughters: "They came off, frankly, as ditzes."
Freest Plug: The networks couldn't stop showing Sarah Jessica Parker and her "Sex and the City" pals after the aforementioned twins made an awful joke about the risque show and their grandmother.
Joe Scarborough: From Congress to MSNBC.