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Considering that the events weren’t supposed to be newsworthy, the media got some kind of workout at the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Between the historic nature of the nominees from both parties, a hurricane that threatened the RNC and a plethora of story lines, there was no shortage of stories — not to mention winners and losers.
> Convention coverage. If anything, the ratings proved there’s no such thing as political fatigue in 2008. Interest might have cooled a bit in the summer, but things rekindled when speeches by Barack Obama, Sarah Palin and John McCain set convention ratings records.
> Fox News Channel. The network scored big ratings for the RNC and a coup for Bill O’Reilly: The Fox News-reticent Obama agreed to an interview on “The O’Reilly Factor” that began running Thursday and landed the show’s second-highest ratings ever. Fox News also showed leadership online with a quirky but smart 24/7 webcast during the conventions.
> CNN. The title of “Best Political Team on Television” might be in dispute, but there’s no doubting that CNN, like Fox, has become the place for political junkies. The CNN Grill, which took over well-situated bars and restaurants in Denver and St. Paul, became the place to meet and eat for weary conventiongoers and journalists of all stripes. Marketing chief Scot Safon and his crew should think about branding restaurants a la ESPN.
> “The Daily Show.” The sharpest and truest convention coverage again happened on Comedy Central. Jon Stewart and his crew did a week of shows in each city — and did voters a great service by relentlessly mocking Democrats and Republicans alike.
> Katie Couric. Beyond “Daily Show,” some of the best and most offbeat coverage came from usual traditionalist CBS News with its nightly webcast that signed on as soon as the network signed off in primetime. Couric got to show her quirky, fun side — one that was squelched when she joined the “CBS Evening News.”
> Outdoor acceptance speeches. The networks were none too happy about the late notice and added expense for Obama’s Invesco Field extravaganza. But between the ratings and a strong lineup of speakers, the Democrats pulled it off with no visible hitches.
> New Orleans. With Hurricane Gustav targeting the Gulf just in time for Katrina’s three-year anniversary, the networks moved many of their resources away from St. Paul; this time around, the media — and the government — were ready for any possibility. Luckily, the Big Easy was spared.
> MSNBC. In Denver, it was on-air squabbling between Joe Scarborough and the rest of the network as well as an ongoing feud between Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann. But that was nothing compared to the moment in St. Paul when, during Palin’s speech pillorying the media, delegates turned to the skybox and chanted, “NBC! NBC!”
> Music. Sure there were performances by Stevie Wonder, Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow, but there also were some awful music choices on both sides of the aisle. Who thought it was a good idea to play Robert Palmer’s 1980s hit “Addicted to Love” after President Clinton’s speech? The GOP, meanwhile, got in trouble with Heart for playing “Barracuda.”
> Backgrounds. I can’t say I understand the reasons for the Greek-style columns and blue stage at Obama’s acceptance speech; it looked like a Japanese restaurant. And the early part of McCain’s speech was done with an awful, green background (and the wrong Walter Reed building, at that), even though the campaign had vowed never to use that shade again.
> Freedom of the press. The media was under almost constant onslaught during the RNC for its perceived sexism and bias against Palin and for doing its job covering the protests outside the security perimeter in St. Paul.
While there certainly were excesses in Palin’s coverage before her speech Wednesday, much can be explained by the fact that she was such a surprise selection, so she wasn’t vetted by the media before her pick. As one prominent journalist said, having the media do that on deadline — or during the course of several days — for an unknown candidate can be “messy.”
More difficult to explain is the targeting of working reporters covering the protests surrounding the RNC. St. Paul police showed a constant disregard for credentialed journalists whose only “crime” was covering a legitimate story. The fact that authorities held — and charged — about two dozen journalists shows that among the many laws the police upheld, the First Amendment wasn’t one of them.
Paul J. Gough can be reached at paul.gough@THR.com.
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