Battle of the Network Anchors

Ted Koppel and Jon Stewart face off on the convention floor.

Friday, July 30, 2004

Because of our predilection (scroll down to Wednesday’s entry) for watching convention coverage on the always-perverse MSNBC network, Surfergirl did not catch the much discussed balloon mishap that had CNN inadvertently broadcasting the shouted obscenities of a producer immediately after John Kerry’s speech. If only it were possible to monitor all the channels at once from a wall-size bank of television monitors, like a crazy millionaire in the movies! But, as has been noted over and over this week, a modern political convention is a place where unexpected things like Balloongate very rarely happen.

One exception was Ted Koppel’s surprising encounter with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart on the Wednesday night edition of Nightline. Koppel was in Boston that night, covering … well, the coverage; the theme of the show was “the Democratic National Convention through the eyes of the beholders.” I had tuned in mainly to watch what was billed as an “interview” with Ana Marie Cox, aka Wonkette, the D.C.-based satirical blogger hired this week by MTV to attract the nerdy blog-reading demographic. As it turned out, Wonkette’s appearance on Nightline amounted to little more than a 20-second sound bite—something about her Web site claiming to be no more than the journalistic equivalent of candy, albeit a kind of candy that “takes a while to acquire a taste for.” (Mmm, gimme some.)

But after the commercial break, something unforeseeable happened on Nightline: an anchorman showdown! What began as a casual media-on-the-media puff piece turned into a fascinating five-minute referendum on old and new ways of looking at the meaning and purpose of television news. In a one-on-one chat on the deserted convention floor after the day’s festivities had ended, Koppel, in his low-key, dignified, What-Me-Worry way, got medieval on Stewart’s ass.

From the start, Koppel made no secret of his distaste for Stewart’s show: “A lot of television viewers—more, quite frankly, than I am comfortable with—get their news from […] The Daily Show.” His first challenge to Stewart: “You say that [the Democratic Convention] is like a product launch.” “Not like a product launch—it is a product launch,” Stewart replied, and proceeded to outline his take on Kerry’s nomination as the result of a year-long process of corporate branding: “John Kerry: now with lemon!” A pretty standard line of argument for those of Stewart’s generation, reconciled as we are to our postmodern condition as the constant targets of marketing and spin, but to Koppel, it must have sounded like the sheerest nihilism. As the interview proceeded, it became clear what a gulf lay between Stewart’s and Koppel’s views of the world, and it was heartbreaking to watch, like eavesdropping on your cool brother and your nice uncle as they pursue some hopeless ideological argument over Thanksgiving dinner.

“Unexpected things used to happen in the world. They don’t happen anymore,” continued Stewart matter-of-factly. Parried an impatient Koppel, “Oh, sure they do.” Stewart was careful to separate The Daily Show’s mandate from that of “real” television journalism: “I know my role. I am the dancing monkey.” But that dodge didn’t satisfy his broadcast-news interlocuter: “The reality of it is—and this is no joke—there are a lot of people out there who do turn to you.” “Not for news,” Stewart countered, and they were off again.

What was at stake in this debate between two men, a generation apart in age (Stewart is 42, Koppel 64), both of whom host some version of a late-night daily talk show on current events? Clearly, Koppel’s beef went far beyond the question of whether most folks who watch The Daily Show do so for yuks. (As a long-term viewer, I would contend that of course they do, and that anyone who can’t tell the difference between Stewart’s out-there satire and actual investigative reporting is too dumb to understand the “real” news anyway.) No, the battle of the network anchors was about nothing less than the future of TV journalism.

Koppel, a venerable holdout from the era of the three-network system, stands up for the beleaguered notion of an objective truth that journalists can wrest from politicians, protect from satirists, and bring to the American public. Stewart, on the other hand, finds it “dispiriting” that broadcast news has become complicit with the prespun narratives coming from both left and right: “It’s Coke and Pepsi talking about beverage truth.” And yet Koppel is far from naïve— he quickly concedes that the convention-as-product-launch concept is “one I’d like to steal sometime”—and Stewart is no jaded Gen-X cynic. At one point, he even encourages Koppel to use the bully pulpit of Nightline to speak truth to power: “You can say, ‘That’s B.S.’ You don’t need humor, because you have what I wish I had, which is credibility and gravitas.”

Wednesday night’s discussion came to an abrupt end when Stewart, who was clearly ready to go on talking, was told by a polite but brusque Koppel, “You’re finished.” To my mind, Stewart (who, crushed-out fans like myself will be keen to hear, was looking foxy-fine in a casual black sweater and jeans) won the day. But I was looking forward to Round Two on Thursday, when Koppel was scheduled to be Stewart’s guest on The Daily Show. Koppel never showed, and his absence went unmentioned. Last-minute scheduling snafu, or anchorman blood feud? A call to the Daily Show office to find out went unanswered, so I’ll have to leave you to speculate on that one. What do you think I am, a news reporter?

Wednesday, July 28, 2004 The Polymorphous Perversity of Chris Matthews

With so many Slatesters weighing in brilliantly from the floor of the Democratic National Convention, it’s hard to know what to bring to the conversation from couchside. The biggest disadvantage of home-based viewing, of course, is missing out on the high political theater of the rare you-had-to-be-there moments: Monday’s candlelit violin rendition of “Amazing Grace” dedicated to 9/11 victims, which William Saletan described as one of the most moving moments of the convention, served as an occasion for remicrowaving dinner here on the home front. But as Dahlia Lithwick, also writing from Boston, pointed out yesterday, there’s an inherent Catch-22 built into the notion of live-on-the-scene coverage: “We can’t hear as well as you do, or see as well as you do, but we’re supposed to triangulate your direct experience against the fact that we are here.” Housebound political junkies should be counting our blessings as the quadrennial pseudo-event chugs into its third day: We can leave when we want, fast-forward if we have TiVo, and grab a snack without waiting for the next Dunkin’ Donuts truck (which, given the security threat apparently posed by the circular pastries, could be a long time coming). Best of all, unlike the crowd at the FleetCenter, we can change the channel (noting as we do that the convention schedule dovetails neatly with “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel. Coincidence, or witty programming coup?). There’s Fox News, whose anchors telegraphed their take on the so-called “liberal night” of the convention by continuing to yammer over the first 15 minutes of Ted Kennedy’s speech. Meanwhile, CNN’s choice to broadcast from down on the convention floor, rather than from the usual skybox headquarters, has resulted in a lot of references to Wolf Blitzer’s high-tech earpiece mic—the same kind Britney Spears uses in concert, apparently—and an inordinate number of drunken yokels mouthing, “Hi, Mom!” at the camera. PBS’ placid, gavel-to-gavel coverage, with commentators like cuddlesome conservative David Brooks and hyper-sincere presidential historian Michael Beschloss, is all serious political discourse, all the time—informative enough if you’re the kind of viewer who thinks all the real action is happening at the podium. But in that case, why not just watch C-SPAN?For my money, the network whose coverage gets the closest to what it must feel like to be on the convention floor—some mixture of giddiness, boredom, patriotic fervor, and sugar shock—is MSNBC (and I don’t say that just because their boss pays my bills). Chris Matthews, the famously manic host of the talk show Hardball, tends to overpower his interview subjects in a more intimate format, but he’s truly in his element at a political convention. The frantic pace, the pinballing clichés and counterclichés, the overwhelming influx of media stimuli, are the element in which he swims. During last night’s pregame show, Matthews conducted a surprisingly in-depth 10-minute interview with Ben Affleck, whose frat-boy screen demeanor belies a sharp eye for current affairs. Matthews himself seemed stunned, even subdued, by the chops of his celebrity interlocutor, closing with the awestruck benediction: “You have a stunningly developed political mind, and I fear you.” As the night’s big speeches got rolling, Matthews’ internal censor went on an extended coffee break. Amidst the generalized hum of pundit praise after Barack Obama’s keynote speech, Matthews admitted to feeling “a little chill in my … legs right now.” (He actually paused a little before “legs,” as if struggling to locate the sensation.) But Matthews is nothing if not polymorphously perverse; he’s the first to acknowledge that the blond down on those chubby gams stands on end for the ladies as well. Discussing Teresa Heinz Kerry’s controversial “Shove it” in the post-primetime wrap-up, he asked Richard Holbrooke, the Kerry adviser and former U.N. ambassador: “Do you think the American people have an appetite for a spicy woman of Latin background from Africa?” Ay caramba! Minutes later, he was confessing to no one in particular: “I don’t mind saying I find her very attractive—a European film star in the vein of Jeanne Moreau, or Anouk Aimée. But not everyone loves foreign movies like I do.” Matthews in convention-comedown mode is something every media junkie should witness at least once. At one point, again addressing Holbrooke, he began, “I’m just wondering if you, as a political analyst …” After a pause (insofar as Chris Matthews can ever be said to “pause”) he came to a realization: “Well, I’m a political analyst, I suppose.” That description (like everything else on Hardball) is subject to debate. But Matthews is certainly something that political coverage on TV could use more of: a loose cannon.  1:23 p.m