The death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was the first of a liberal politician of legendary stature since the rise of the cable news networks and as such it brought out their biases in slightly new ways.
MSNBC, which has increasingly positioned itself as the anti-Fox, covered his death wall-to-wall and most often sounded the heroic note. CNN, staking out the middle, made it the day's main, but not only story. And Fox News, which had to measure respect for the dead against its habitual rightward spin, made its feelings known by treating it, for the most part, as just another of the day's news events (though the lead story, to be sure).
At MSNBC, Ed Schultz of "The Ed Show" was upfront about where he stood: "I'm going to take the opportunity to speak for millions of liberals across America," noting -- in reference to Kennedy's reputation as the "lion of the Senate," a phrase repeated endlessly Wednesday -- that "the lion in a fight never gives up; liberals, this is our calling to see this fight for healthcare for every American to a successful finish."
The network's Chris Matthews -- whose already scheduled warts-and-all-but-how-we-love-them documentary, "The Kennedy Brothers," was moved up a night, to Wednesday -- wondered "why would a good-lookin' rich guy spend his life worrying about people left out?" Of the Kennedys he said, "Despite their human frailties, they called us to a higher, and yes, nobler cause." And Keith Olbermann declared, "It is hard to imagine that there is an American living today whose body, literally body, is not in better shape than it would have been were it not for this man."
The moment was more complicated for Fox, and the news outlet came at the story from different angles. Shepard Smith's evenhanded, respectful anchoring might have come from any network. Rabble-rousing Glenn Beck did not address Kennedy's passing at all on his show, as might have been expected (or feared), but briefly addressed it in an appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor," where he said, by way of praise, that Kennedy "stood up and never flinched."
O'Reilly also brought on Laura Ingraham to stick pins in Kennedy's legacy, and Geraldo Rivera, who managed to link his career with the late senator's. O'Reilly himself, decrying some online attacks on Kennedy's character, summed up his network's take: "Like him or not, he was a patriot."
The Kennedys are a more complicated story than even a day of more or less constant coverage can untangle. But certain themes were agreed upon across the dial: that he was not perfect, but improved over time; that when he stopped thinking about becoming president, he truly began his life as a senator; and that he was unusually loved by his colleagues, including those across the aisle. Utah Republican Orrin Hatch was the go-to guy on this theme: "I'll miss him," he said.