For this year’s party conventions, the cable networks revised the first rule of pontificating on television—“It doesn’t matter what you say, so long as you look good saying it.” As America’s partisan passions intensify, the prime directive of polarized punditry evolves. Now the rule is, “Say something that will make people look at you.” It’s a significant shift, one that applies the “if it bleeds, it leads” rule of TV news into the very talking heads that occupy your screen: You need to bleed rhetoric, and if you do, the camera will be there to capture it.
That’s the rule that dictated coverage of the Democratic National Convention the past four days, at least when it came to the cable news channels. (The major networks, as I argued last week, already gave up the ghost, and are now better suited to additional coverage of American Ninja Warrior, or possibly yet another exposé on the appalling bathroom conditions for the Olympic athletes in Brazil.) Whereas the Republican show was headlined by an unpredictable narcissist, and therefore pulled camera lenses toward the stage, the Democratic display was almost the opposite. The Hillary Clinton campaign is stage-managed down to the last focus-grouped tweet, in the grand tradition of politicians who follow the rule book. As a result, the cable news teams pointed their cameras away from the stage. They wanted unpredictable and exciting—at least when it comes to what they cover, not their own people—and the crowd at the DNC, both inside and outside the hall, was more than happy to provide it.
By the final night of the convention, when every pundit wanted to make sure they got TV time dissecting Clinton’s speech, the focus was back on the talking heads, but the dominant narrative had already been established. A rowdy, rambunctious group of liberals and leftists were in Philadelphia to butt heads, and it made the events onstage take a backseat to the provocateurs offstage. Fox News—as is required by its mission statement, written in blood on the ceiling of Rupert Murdoch’s temple of antigovernment prayer—had a ball highlighting the anti-Hillary crowd, returning time and again in the first couple days to anyone willing to sit down with their network and express their distaste for a distaff Clinton presidency.
None of this is surprising. Fox followed its live coverage of the convention every night with Sean Hannity, a sentient right-wing talking points cyborg. And a dolt like Geraldo Rivera was treated with the respect he deserves, which is to say he was treated like a journalistic Tantalus, the fruits of human dignity forever out of his reach, the water of integrity and ethical standards evaporating beneath his feet. But amid the rote punditry was genuinely compelling coverage of the DNC’s ideological battle. Every time Fox cut to another angry protestor, or highlighted the fractious nature of the left wing of American politics, it made for great TV, and occasionally even enlightening programming.
MSNBC was even more addicted to the liberal-vs.-leftist narrative, making a continual and concerted effort to seek out disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters who refused to jump on the Hillary bandwagon. Despite the already overwhelming number of Bern victims willing to vote for Hillary—somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 percent, according to polling data—the left-leaning cable channel wanted the dog-and-pony show to be more combative, for obvious reasons: Who doesn’t want to see a dog fight a pony? Much like the media ginned up coverage of a lopsided campaign race in 2012 to make it seem more neck-and-neck, MSNBC highlighted a fracture (which does exist, make no mistake) between ideological bedfellows. It’s a juicy angle for political haymaking, especially when it lets them capture great lines like “I would vote my heart, not my brain”:
That’s the kind of gaffe that works on two levels for MSNBC. First, it’s a delicious reality TV moment. And second, lines like that allow the establishment media to do what’s in their interest, which is to paint the opposition to inside-the-beltway candidates as mistaken or naive. The symbiotic relationship between Washington media and Washington pols is well documented. An opportunity to cast those impeding the anointed candidate’s progress as misguided—with the ostensible aim of giving equal time to Clinton’s reluctant opponents—is the ideal way to make the news under the guise of reporting the news.
This isn’t to say MSNBC is wholly in the pocket for Hillary. The network’s bias is toward higher ratings and more money. To blow out the conflagration between opposing wings of the Democratic party is good business sense. Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, and other MSNBC anchors have given ample time to positive coverage of the Sanders campaign and many of its policy positions. But at this late date, the noble forces of informed debate succumb to the ideological goals of those in front of and behind the camera. And it’s no stretch to say that, barring a few individuals playing it close to the vest, most folks at the Wells Fargo Center were invested in delivering the White House to Hillary Clinton. They don’t have to say it directly. They can nod and let Elizabeth Warren say it for them.
By the end of the week, the furor had subsided. The protesters outside the convention hall had evaporated—rapid dissipation of energy being a left-wing specialty. And the actual delegates had mostly come around, with the remaining anti-Clinton holdouts (mainly a fraction of the California delegation) marginalized to such a degree that even a few desultory boos during her speech passed by without remark. So it was time for the pundits to get down to the hard-bitten analysis TV commentators are known for. In other words: balloons! Tons of fucking balloons, and people throughout the convention hall couldn’t be more thrilled. Better yet, the cameras sought out any scene of delegates indulging their sillier sides, because cable news cameras are apparently the equivalent of 11-month-old children: They love bright shiny objects, a trait they share with many people on the floor. Just watch the guy behind Andrea Mitchell in the clip above. As she pontificates, it quickly becomes clear no one has ever loved balloons—popping them, throwing them, reveling in the very fact of their existence—as much as the gentleman behind her.
Serious or jokey, third-tier pundit or elected official, all must bow before the might of rubbery balls of fun. When Cory Booker showed up to criticize Donald Trump and score political points, he was practically crowded out of the frame by cameras drinking in the convention floor’s latex glories. Party operatives taking selfies among balloons, delegates trudging through balloons and kicking them in the air, photojournalists capturing the blanket of balloons—all of it was placed front and center, and Booker couldn’t compete with the Chuck E. Cheese’s spectacle.
And yet, even amid the spritely revelry, Fox News managed to subtly maintain its ideological perspective. While CNN and MSNBC depicted the convention-goers, amusing themselves and generally indulging their sillier side, Fox chose very particular images. Specifically, images of Hillary Clinton playing with balloons. Notice what it does if you turn the sound off on this last clip (which is advisable in any case, as Newt Gingrich’s voice sounds like a constipated refrigerator cooling system): It renders the first female candidate for president a flighty woman, not serious or possessing gravitas. Since she just finished a weighty speech, trying to portray Clinton as serious and dour wouldn’t work, so instead the visuals go the other way: She might be full of big words and severe intentions, the image suggests, but she’s still a girl who likes to play with balloons. Fox News maintains its message more consistently than any other cable network, which is to be expected. What might be underappreciated is the network’s talent for extending this discipline to even the most innocuous moments—like a pantsuited grandma playing with balloons. Now that’s ideology.