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Sunday Hosts Under The Microscope At Pre-Convention Panel

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Sunday morning was business as usual on the networks, with Face The Nation, Meet The Press, and This Week performing their familiar weekly duties against the backdrop of the impending Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. But a couple of hours after those shows were off the air, their hosts gathered in downtown Denver to subject themselves to a little scrutiny, courtesy of the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy. Moderated by Judy Woodruff (with the same affable and capable guidance she puts to great use at News Hour), Tom Brokaw, Bob Schieffer, and George Stephanopoulos participated in a discussion that was frank, brimming with collegial humor, and filled with highlights.

Woodruff got immediately down to brass tacks, asking the panel how they would assess the campaign coverage in general. "Robust but uneven," offered Brokaw, who went on to assert that the country was much better served in this election cycle by the "wider screen" provided by the confluence of cable news and the internet. Schieffer averred that the coverage was "generally very good," but noted that the press tends to reflect the tenor of the campaign itself -- a theme he would come back to again and again. George Stephanopoulos noted how intense and rapid the news cycle has become: "Everything is covered, all of the time," and said the most difficult part of the job was working through the sheer abundance of campaign emails and blog posts.

Woodruff next asked the hosts to characterize the quality of coverage provided Hillary Clinton. Schieffer was the most succinct, calling it "fairly evenhanded." But Brokaw dissented, stating that he felt like things came to be "loaded up against her." There was "too much discussion of her needing to drop out of the race," Brokaw said, adding that these calls were "unfair and inappropriate in many instances."

Stephanopoulos felt differently, saying that a time came where it was simply "a fact that [Clinton] couldn't win," and that timing played a role in the coverage -- May was noticeably different from March. And as for perceptions of increased scrutiny, Stephanopoulos noted that the front runner draws the most fire.

Schieffer probably stated it best when he said that "we need to find a way to shorten [the primary] process."

Things got decidedly stickier when Woodruff asked if the key issues of the day had been given proper coverage. Brokaw said that without going back and taking "an inventory" of the past coverage, there was no way of really answering that question. There were twenty-two debates, and the candidates themselves could have initiated the discussion of issues.

Of course, this got me thinking about what a deficit the news consumer starts at when the celebrity face of a news organization asks the candidates about policy questions related to education, Iraq, energy policy, et cetera. Queries tend to solicit broad overviews with little depth. To me, a game-changing way of getting great issue coverage in politics would be to expand the exposure of specialized reporters. For example, reporters who cover education issues for a living are better suited to dig down into areas of vulnerability.

Stephanopoulos stated bluntly, "it's just not true that these issues are not being discussed." He's right, of course. They are being discussed, but in many cases, far from sight. Take the recent news out of Iraq, where withdrawal timetables are suddenly, plainly, a part of negotiations between the Bush and al Maliki governments. This development had its origins in a congressional hearing back in June, where Iraqi Parliamentarians began the steady push for U.S. withdrawal. To get that news, one had to turn to the Washington Independent. So far as I can recall, this story was not given much play in network or cable news. It was certainly never discussed on Sunday! But these hearings presciently bespoke the Iraq turning point we have arrived at today.

The issue of issues behind them, the panel turned to more esoteric queries. Was there sexism or racism in the coverage of the Democratic primaries? Brokaw said, "I don't think [Clinton] was the victim of sexism. I just don't." Schieffer echoed Brokaw, literally: "I do not agree that sexism is more rampant in America than racism, I just don't." Stephanopoulos disagreed, suggesting that "sexism and ageism are more acceptable" than racism, noting that the comedians that populate his "Sunday Funnies" section, simply do not "have a handle" on how to lampoon Obama.

On the matter of John Edwards and Rielle Hunter, the panel split on whether or not they should have given the story more coverage. "We pressed our sources and couldn't report it," Stephanopoulos said simply. Schieffer went folksy on the matter: "A woman has a baby and says that fellow over there is the daddy and that fellow over there says I'm the daddy. That was pretty much it." Brokaw was more thoughtful, saying that the one "question he couldn't answer" was: would the press have gone after Romney or Giuliani as hard?

Brokaw's most puzzling moment came when discussing McCain's success, which he attributed to the candidate's "indomitable will." Brokaw opined that McCain won by simply being "the most authentic...he wasn't trying to reinvent himself." I encourage Mr. Brokaw to get to know that John McCain who ran for office in 2000!

The discussion grew even more electric when Woodruff threw the panel on the not-so-tender mercies of Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who disputed Brokaw's take on John McCain and proclaimed, simply, that the media does not do a good job covering the issues. But it wasn't long before Rendell proffered the quote of the session -- disharmonious words sure to spook the entire convention. "Ladies and gentlemen, the coverage of Barack Obama was embarrassing. He basically got a free pass."

Rendell was pretty specific in the network he was singling out -- MSNBC -- if not the precise personage who lay at the root of his objection. Let's just say that when Chris Matthews decides to run for office in Pennsylvania, he'd better not be counting on Rendell's support. Where Matthews is concerned, it's pretty clear that Rendell's "tingle" is somewhere behind his temples, and white-hot at that.