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CBS Had Right Idea in Scaling Back Coverage


CBS should change its mind about changing its mind.

It got it right the first time: Less convention coverage was better. What television doesn't need is identical pictures across seven or so channels.

Thursday night's speech by George W. Bush accepting the Republican nomination arguably was the rare exception. Bush is, after all, not just his party's hood ornament in 2000 but its presidential nominee, someone noteworthy not only for what he says but how he says it.

Put it this way: As a speaker, he's no Colin Powell.

Doesn't all of this equate style with content? Not necessarily.

Time was that how well or poorly a presidential nominee delivered an acceptance had limited significance nationally, even when the speaker was as intoxicating on radio as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Then came television, bringing a new set of criteria for making an impact.

A well-delivered TV speech doesn't necessarily reveal if a nominee is "up to the job." It doesn't necessarily signify sincerity (think Bill Clinton). Nor does it assure victory, as eloquent two-time loser Adlai E. Stevenson III learned in the 1950s.


Yet along with the more intimate schmoozing at which Clinton is so masterful, it does indicate how effectively a chief executive will express ideas to the public here and abroad in an age when presidents do much of their communicating through TV. The more lens-polished the president, the less likely a disconnect with the media and everyone else. If he bombs when accepting the nomination, what's ahead?

Although Bush hardly bombed, his delivery was undistinguished. It was uneven, at once conversational and mechanical, perhaps suggesting how he would speak to the nation in his administration.

So getting Bush in replicate--you might say he left no camera behind Thursday--was justified.

Yet even that monolithic relic, the GOP, has come to understand the virtue of diversity, doing everything to create that image for itself this week but have Bush wear a billowy robe and belt out gospel with an African American choir. Clap your hands and sway with the music, governor.

Or maybe they should have put him on camera to shout, "You go, girl!" when his wife, Laura, addressed the convention Monday. At least that would have been newsworthy.

So what's this about CBS planning to change tactics Aug. 13 and give viewers more of the Democrats in Staples Center here than it did the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia?

That was the word from CBS News President Andrew Heyward this week, apparently goaded into that decision by critics from both inside and out. They howled about the network not carrying Laura Bush's speech, nor all of Gen. Powell's rousing keynote address, as part of its ragged sparse coverage of the convention. A convention that merited less, not more, media attention than it received.


All right, seamless the CBS coverage wasn't. Take it from one who saw schoolmarmish Miss Laura's entire speech, however, there was no journalistic reason to televise it, any more than there would be to bring America a Democratic convention speech by Vice President Al Gore's wife, Tipper.

Haven't we enough partisan testimonials on TV? Only the most zealous of party faithful want to hear would-be first ladies predictably fawn over their men. Who cares, also, whether they're good speakers or bad? Doesn't matter.

But if you did want to see Laura Bush on Monday, she was available live on ABC, PBS, C-SPAN, CNN, MSNBC and the Fox News Channel. That was the point. CBS would have made it septuplets.

Just as Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney, appeared live on TV at least eightfold Wednesday night, with the other networks joined by NBC, which earlier had run nearly all of its convention coverage on its cable news channel, MSNBC.

A plethora of drab Cheneys, unable to work up even a minor snarl while using Clinton to spank Gore? What was that about? Despite media buzz about it, his speech will shortly fade from memory as surely as the GOP convention's minority rainbow ultimately will retreat into reality.

So how weird to see pictures of Cheney delivering it on the four monitors in my office, as superfluous as if that tiresome CBS blockbuster "Survivor" had been running simultaneously on one channel after another. Not a good idea.

The tribe has spoken.

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