Conventions often leave analysts star-struck
NEW YORK—A trend toward gushing about rather than analyzing political speeches was apparent during television coverage of the conventions even before CNN's Piers Morgan compared Bill Clinton to Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr.
Perhaps fueled by a pressure to stand out and a more partisan media, analysts frequently seemed star-struck by speakers and slipped into blurb-happy evaluations of the news in front of them.
Morgan took to Twitter before former President Clinton's speech nominating President Barack Obama for a second term was even halfway through.
"Already the best speech of either convention," the prime-time talk show host tweeted. "An oratorical genius right up there with Churchill, Kennedy, MLK and Mandela."
He was hardly alone. "I'm giddy," MSNBC's Ed Schultz declared after Clinton's speech. The former president "never ceases to amaze," said CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "Just an amazing speech," said
And the latter two are moonlighting Republican operatives.
Clinton got the superlatives flowing faster than anyone, but first lady Michelle Obama and potential first lady Ann Romney also had their share of bubbly evaluations.
Michelle Obama's speech was "probably a grand slam," Blitzer said. Schultz dubbed her a star. Fox News Channel's Steve Doocy called Romney's address "absolutely electrifying." MSNBC's Chris Matthews raved about San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro making one of the best speeches he'd ever heard.
By the morning after Michelle Obama's speech, CNN was asking its audience to answer an instant poll question: "Should Michelle Obama run for office?"
There were attention-getting pans, too. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's address to Republicans was nicknamed a "me-note" instead of a keynote address. Fox's Charles Krauthammer said Clinton's speech was a "giant swing and a miss" and Barack Obama's acceptance speech "one of the emptiest speeches I have ever heard on a national stage."
"What you're seeing is a much greater emphasis on what the political pros call optics," said Bill Wheatley, a former top executive at NBC News who now teaches at Columbia University. "There's an increasing amount of theater criticism, if you will. There's often more being said about how things look compared to how things are."
Conventions in general are pep rallies, and this year more than ever Democrats and Republicans are intent upon firing up their supporters to get out and vote.
Networks and TV personalities that appeal to partisans -- MSNBC on the left and Fox News on the right -- increase the likelihood of cheerleading. Only four years ago MSNBC displaced Keith Olbermann from political night coverage in favor of more dispassionate anchors. Now their opinion hosts hold sway. The network's ratings for the Democratic convention were up sharply and Fox led every network for the GOP gathering.
"I don't think the coverage overall deserves too much criticism," said longtime CBS anchor and current AXS-TV host Dan Rather. "But if there is any criticism -- and I don't exempt myself at all from this -- is that there is not enough analysis and way too much commentary."
Rather sheepishly admitted to tweeting that Clinton had hit "a home run" in his convention speech.
Here's where pressure to keep active on social media may hurt television coverage, he said. People tweeting during a speech have less time to absorb what is being said and are less likely to work with researchers and fact-checkers to see if what comes from the podium is accurate.
"It takes a lot of guts to do that and you've got to be organized to do it," he said. "While there is some of it on television, in my humble opinion there isn't nearly enough."
Since two networks, MSNBC and Current, continually flashed Twitter messages from media personalities and others on their TV screens during the conventions, it will only tempt people to do more.
Networks used to have plenty of reporters roaming convention floors searching for news. Since there isn't much news for them to find anymore, the emphasis has shifted to commentary. The set on CNN often seems filled with people who need to make an impression quickly. Broadcast networks have fewer people on the air but less time to talk, too.
Sam Feist, CNN's Washington bureau chief, said the network has assembled a team with deep political experience and he wants to hear what they have to say.
"These are experts on politics," he said. "How they react to an event or convention speech is interesting or fascinating. I'm always interested to hear their first reaction after a speech."
Pundits found fewer reasons to gush over the president's acceptance speech on Thursday; both NBC's Chuck Todd and MSNBC's Christopher Hayes called it "workmanlike." That left more room to analyze rather than opine: NBC's Brian Williams reported on the crowd's reaction rather than his own, and Savannah Guthrie talked about the strategy behind the words.
"Most of the audience is pretty smart," Rather said. "I have a lot of confidence in the audience. They're pretty good about separating brass tacks from bull shine."