First off let’s be clear: the primary job of the chattering pundits on 24 hour news stations is to keep viewers tuned in until the next commercial break. Lifting up their ideological allies and savaging their political opponents is, for some of the networks, a secondary goal. Informing, illuminating and educating is a distant mission, one that makes the participants feel good when it happens to happen.
Given this reality, it’s not surprising that they spend a lot of time manufacturing conflict where none exists or fanning small embers of discord into roaring flames of chattering nonsense. An example is at play with the convention coverage. The biggest complaint the pundits had concerning Monday night was that the speakers didn’t attack Senator John McCain. This is nonsense. First off, there were some pretty strident attacks earlier in the evening by folks like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But more importantly, that wasn’t the purpose of Monday night. The first day of the convention focused on honoring Senator Ted Kennedy and passing the torch from the Kennedy dynasty to Senator Barack Obama. That the Massachusetts Senator attended in person made the moment even more impactful. Yet imagine the horror the talking heads would have conveyed if Senator Kennedy had used the moment to savage Senator McCain. The Democrats handled this moment well, ignoring the opposition and reminding Kennedy Democrats (who, incidentally, later became Reagan Republicans and are crucial for the Obama campaign to recruit) that the Kennedy clan has embraced Senator Obama.
The other purpose of Monday night was to (re)introduce Michelle Obama to America. After savage attacks from the GOP, she was in danger of being a liability to the campaign. The speech she delivered will be remembered as one of the turning points of the campaign, at once personal and inspirational. Yet if she had attacked Senator McCain that’s all anyone would have been talking about. It would have undermined everything else her moment in the spotlight was meant to convey.
The talking heads think in terms of seven-to-eight minutes — the average time between commercials breaks. They were hoping for a down and dirty evening full of venom in order to create the conflict that keeps viewers in their seats during the advertisements. Instead they got an uplifting evening that put a positive spin on the Obama candidacy. That might be boring for the news networks, but it’s smart politics. First, every campaign knows it’s important to establish your own positives before savaging the other side. Second, because of the campaign narrative through August, the Obama campaign needed to remind voters that Barack and Michelle Obama are people they can live with in the White House for four-to-eight years.
Monday night may have been frustrating for the talking heads, but it was a good night for the Obama campaign. And before the McCain staff thinks they are getting away easy — expect the next two nights to be unrelenting in their attacks on Senator McCain’s economic and foreign policy positions.
And if you want to avoid the commercials and, more importantly, the annoying drone of the pundits, watch the convention on C-Span. It’s far less annoying than putting up with the folks at Fox, MSNBC and CNN.