The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

CNN exec on McCain’s cable ubiquity: ‘A strong and important voice in American politics’

Of late, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has become a soundbite-producing stand-in for the tiredness of modern television’s formula for presenting political analysis. Since 2009, the voluble Obama critic tops the rankings for guest appearances on the Sunday morning chat shows, with a healthy 97 appearances, according to the New York Times’s The Upshot.

Good thing the Times didn’t have to tally up McCain’s cable hits. Last night alone, in the aftermath of President Obama’s speech on the Islamic State, McCain hat-tricked appearances on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. The CNN clash was entertaining television, as McCain faced off against former White House press secretary and recently hired CNN analyst Jay Carney.

Though there was a lot of verbal posturing and attacking, the gist was this: McCain blamed Carney’s old boss for the mess in Iraq/Syria; Carney proclaimed they’d have to agree to disagree.

After McCain had spread his message around the cable-news dial, the overkill police took note. Huffington Post’s Jack Mirkinson headlined his take as follows: “John McCain Will Be Asked To Come On Cable News Until The Moment The Earth Stops Turning.

Don’t ask CNN Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist to make any apologies for featuring the feedback of the Arizona senator: “He has appeared for decades on cable news programs, network news programs. He’s articulate, he knows what he’s talking about and he has strong positions. He represents the views of millions and he represents them effectively. He’s a veteran and is loved by many veterans and he’s not just a senator; he’s a former Republican presidential nominee and a war hero.”

More: “I think that for a 78-year-old senator, he . . . remains a strong and important voice in American politics and a relevant voice in American politics,” says Feist, whose “unscientific” analysis is that McCain hasn’t been appearing on CNN more recently than he has over the past couple of decades (fact-checkable!).

So stay tuned to CNN for more McCain.

As for McCain’s opponent in last night’s tete-a-tete, Carney comes to CNN after two decades in various capacities at Time magazine and about six years in the Obama administration. CNN’s embrace of Carney, says Feist, dates back before his work in the administration to his appearances on CNN when he worked as a journalist. “He’s a smart guy and he understands how this town works,” Feist says.

And as to the hygiene of hiring someone as necessarily partisan as a former press secretary to provide analysis on a network that presents itself as a middle-of-the-road news broker, Feist cited a big benefit to having such an insider inside: “We are in a period of turmoil. The world to some extent is in turmoil and there are international crises that this president is dealing with and having one of his closest advisers . . . available to CNN is good for CNN and, I think, as former administration officials go, I’m not sure I can think of one I’d rather have,” Feist says.

But why do you have to pay to get this perspective? “When you want to invite a guest back over and over and over and have them as a regular part of coverage, it has become common to join as a contributor,” says Feist.

And hiring a press secretary as a network contributor, notes Feist, is not precisely groundbreaking. “In the last 20 years, I believe that almost every press secretary ended up at some point joining a news channel as an analyst or contributor,” he says, pointing to Carney, Robert Gibbs, Ari Fleischer, the late Tony Snow, Dana Perino and Dee Dee Myers.

In his chat with McCain last night, Carney pounded talking points that sounded as if they could have come from the White House briefing room. That’s no great surprise, notes Feist: “Obviously, when we have Jay Carney on, we’re not expecting a completely neutral perspective on the news. He worked as a senior official for the Obama administration for the last six years,” says the Washington bureau chief. “He shares largely, I assume, the viewpoint of the administration, but that doesn’t make him any less valuable. It helps explain why he was the perfect guest to have on at the same time as Sen. McCain.”

If you’re looking for more independence from Carney, Feist suggests waiting a bit. “Their positions will diverge and I’m sure you’ll see that,” he says, referring to Carney and the president he formerly represented.