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Gotcha, 24/7

The political ball's in cable's court. And a new player, Chuck Todd, gets his shot.

August 17, 2008|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON, D.C. — When THE political parties hold their national conventions in coming weeks, network anchors Brian Williams, Charles Gibson and Katie Couric will have an hourlong special each evening to report on the gatherings. Chuck Todd will have 20 hours a day.

Todd, NBC News political director, will deliver analysis on MSNBC from dawn until late at night, squeezing in appearances on the broadcast network. If anyone symbolizes the way the cable news networks have sought to dominate coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign, it's Todd, who has emerged as one of MSNBC's most important players in this memorable political season.

A 36-year-old goateed number cruncher who was barely known outside the Beltway a year ago, Todd now has fans who call themselves “Chuckolytes” and a growing profile in the news division, as an almost old-fashioned straight shooter among his highly opinionated colleagues and the shouting heads that dominate cable.

He's getting a major platform at the conventions, starting with the Democrats in Denver on Aug. 25. For the first time, Todd will be sitting behind the anchor desk, helming an hour of the cable coverage every day. It's a role that invariably will be viewed as an audition for an even larger post -- succeeding the late Tim Russert on NBC's Sunday program “Meet the Press.”

The fact that Todd is in the running for arguably the most influential political job in television speaks to the unexpected rise of the young analyst, who joined NBC last year from the online political newsletter the Hotline to take what historically had been a behind-the-scenes position. It's a career arc similar to that of Russert, who joined NBC as an executive, not expecting to go on the air.

Todd's expanding role underscores how the cable news networks are beefing up their coverage to take advantage of the huge interest in this year's presidential campaigns, during which historic firsts in an extended primary season captivated a record number of viewers. With a general election already generating daily clashes between the campaigns of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, they're counting on the drama to continue.

The political conventions may be set pieces that typically generate little news, but they function as key opportunities to grab the attention of media-saturated viewers following every development of the race on YouTube and blogs. To compete in this arena, the networks are not only stocking up on big-name pundits -- Fox News signed Karl Rove and NBC nabbed former McCain advisor Mike Murphy -- but are increasingly turning to neutral political authorities to bolster their coverage.

Steady as he goes

Todd IS now one of MSNBC's most visible faces, the dispenser of plain-spoken yet keen political insights. (On a recent edition of "Hardball," he explained that "the Obama camp doesn't want to seem as if they're trying to shove the Clintons out of the way, that they're trying to do like the old Soviet Union and destroy all the statues.") A day rarely passes when he's not on the air, confidently breaking down electoral math for the channel's jostling personalities.

"There was no expectation that this guy was going to be a TV guy," said MSNBC President Phil Griffin. "But he's got the magic."

It's not just because of his comprehensive knowledge of the political map, which colleagues frequently refer to as "encyclopedic." "Others who are in the space tend to draw more attention to themselves than Chuck does," said NBC News President Steve Capus. "He's not out there showboating."

the HotlineTodd, a matter-of-fact father of two, is not sure what to make of his sudden prominence and worries about being overexposed. "I'm really trying to make sure I never go on the air when I have nothing to talk about," he said. "I want to make sure that the people who do pay attention to what I say, they feel like they learn something every time."

But MSNBC's appetite -- like that of its competitors -- has been voracious. While the broadcast networks have devoted about 31% of their news airtime to the 2008 campaign this year, cable networks have spent about 62% of their time focused on the race, according to a news index compiled by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The lopsided coverage has shaped the narrative of the race, with an emphasis on the kind of tactical and contentious stories that cable feeds on. Inflammatory comments made by Obama's longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., for example, aired almost ceaselessly until the candidate addressed them.

"This campaign coverage has really bounced from controversy to controversy -- gaffe pingpong," said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director for the excellence project. "And that is very much how cable tends to operate."

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