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Blurring the Line Between News, Comedy

August 02, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Rev up the laugh track.

At the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, the pundit was asked by MSNBC on Tuesday to comment on the previous night's speeches of the wife of nearly nominated George W. Bush and retired Gen. Colin L. Powell.

"I thought Laura Bush was very authentic," the pundit replied, "and I thought Colin Powell challenged the party."

The pundit was next asked for his take on former President Bush responding angrily to President Clinton's sharp personal attack on his son.

"He's a dad, and I guess he's a dad before he's a statesman," said the pundit.

The pundit was then asked about the pick of Dick Cheney as Bush's running mate. The pundit said no problem.

"If you're a Democratic strategist," the pundit was then asked, "who do you pair with Al Gore to beat the GOP ticket?" The pundit ticked off a list of possibilities as plausible as other names mentioned.

The pundit was comedian Al Franken.

Well, why not? From editorial cartoons to late-night TV monologues, humor inevitably devours politics. If ever a convention demanded comical comment, moreover, it's this week's colorized-for-TV gala of the Grand Old (until recently pastel) Party, whose own launch of whimsy Monday night--assigned to that master of the thudding quip, Ben Stein--crashed like the Hindenburg.

Not that Republicans can't be funny. How about the "rolling" roll call of states being deployed across the convention's four nights, as if the suspense of waiting for Kansas to report Tuesday would have been just the ticket to hold TV viewers past Monday. Now that is funny.


Just as capable of sham and buffoonery, Democrats will get the same razzing when they meet in Los Angeles starting Aug. 14. For now, though, it's the GOP being needled by satirists from Franken to "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher and "The Daily Show" comedian Jon Stewart. It was Franken whose late-night escapades as a pesky floor reporter on Comedy Central squeezed humor from a turnip at both parties' conventions in 1996, at one point, for example, stalking a fleeing Pat Robertson with a question about the "age-old conspiracy of Lucifer."

That flavor of absurdity is sadly absent from this year's convention programming. Franken, a liberal Democrat, is in Philadelphia not to play floor reporter but to take part in a satirical shadow convention, the curious thing being that he played it mostly straight with MSNBC on Tuesday.

What he had to say was surely no thinner than most of the straight TV punditry at the convention. While lauding Clinton, he offered an intriguing thought: The good job he thinks the president has done may backfire on Democrats, helping Bush instead of soon-to-be-nominated Gore.

Franken suggested that many Americans may look at Clinton's record and wonder, "How hard is it to be president if you can do it while being investigated for eight years?" If concluding it isn't hard, he hypothesized, they may take a "flier" on this nice guy Bush, even if they believe him not that bright.

Or was that a joke?

In any case, what the Franken interview showed was just how desperate news-channel reporters are for material at a convention of fast-breaking non-news. It was an extension of what occurs when groupies posted outside major awards telecasts ask the unfamous passing by if they are "anybody." If the answer is yes, these loopy zealots want your autograph.

So maybe Franken was just strolling by when grabbed, just as any Republican willing to answer a question about the party is automatically labeled a GOP "spokesman."


In the bones-to-pick department, meanwhile, Clinton's criticism of candidate Bush--followed by that bristling retort from Bush the Elder--became the Tuesday driblet that news-starved TV reporters tried swelling into a tidal wave.

Asked to respond, Republican after Republican gave Clinton what-for. Typical was passivist-come-lately Bob Dole telling Wolf Blitzer on CNN: "You don't go over the edge and hurt feelings. You have opponents, not enemies, in this business."

Not merely funny, that was hilarious, although the Wolfster could not have accepted it more stonily had Dole been delivering the Ten Commandments.

In other bones, Fox News Channel anchors are now commanded to lead into station breaks by anointing FNC "the most powerful name in news." It's not even the most powerful name in cable news (CNN is), meaning they are fibbing. Which they didn't learn from Journalism Ethics 101.

Meanwhile, here's hoping the next reporter who says "only time will tell" goes through a trap door.

And finally, if this convention is so scripted for the small screen--as journalist after journalist is correctly saying--then why are they there? To report that there's nothing to report? Perhaps Lucifer is making them do it.

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