ONE OF THE few times George W. Bush was caught off-guard during his first presidential run came in late 1999. The reporter was Andy Hiller, of WHDH-TV (Channel 7). Hiller quizzed Bush on the names of several foreign leaders. Not surprisingly, Bush didn’t do too well; among other things, he couldn’t name the recently ensconced dictator of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf — somewhat ironic given how hard Bush has leaned on Musharraf since 9/11.
Hiller will be back roaming the FleetCenter next week, so any pols not up on their facts and figures would be well advised to stay clear. That means you, John Edwards, given that you couldn’t come up with the price of a six-pack of beer when you were asked about it by Don Imus recently. Channel 7 has announced plans to cover the convention aggressively, which is pretty much how it covers everything. In addition to reports on its regular newscasts, the station will broadcast a half-hour special at 7 p.m. on all four days of the convention.
There was a time, in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, when there was no more glamorous a beat in Boston television news than politics. The local major-network affiliates have cut back considerably in recent years. The convention is a splendid time to relive those glory years. In addition to Hiller, two other respected veterans will be reporting from the convention: the semi-retired John Henning, of WBZ-TV (Channel 4), and the very-much-unretired Janet Wu, of WCVB-TV (Channel 5). Channel 4 has been airing half-hour specials at 7 p.m. this week, and will do the same during the four convention days next week as well. Not to be outdone, Channel 5 will go with a full hour at 7 p.m., in conjunction with its magazine show, Chronicle, on the four days of the convention.
Years ago, there was no local television news in Boston other than what was offered by the Big Three. Those days are long gone. Three UHF stations broadcast hourlong newscasts at 10 p.m. In particular, be sure to check out the aforementioned Jon Keller on Channel 56. Like Hiller, Keller (a former Phoenix political reporter) enjoys springing pop quizzes on unsuspecting pols. (A bit of advice: the correct answer is, I have no idea, Jon.) Last fall, 56 broadcast a half-hour special Keller produced that was extraordinarily critical of Kerry’s record; fortunately for the senator, it was shown at a time when it looked like his presidential campaign was dead and buried, so it didn’t receive the attention it otherwise might have. Then, in January, after Kerry had all but wrapped up the nomination, Keller and I debated the merits of Kerry’s candidacy for the New Republic Online. Keller’s take on Kerry’s campaign: "the latest eruption of baby-boomer political flatulence." Look for Keller to zing Kerry nightly, as well as on his daily 7:55 a.m. commentary for WBZ Radio (AM 1030).
Also worth a look is Joe Battenfeld, on WFXT-TV (Channel 25). Battenfeld, a former political reporter for the Herald, was recruited to beef up the Fox affiliate’s political reporting last year. He is both aggressive and quirky. The other 10 p.m. newscast is offered by WSBK-TV (Channel 38), which, like WBZ, is owned by Viacom. The two stations share newsrooms, so there’s not much in the way of original content.
Finally, the most-ambitious award goes to New England Cable News, a 24-hour local news operation whose quality belies its relatively low ratings. NECN will offer live coverage of the convention and convention-related news from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., take two hours out for other news as well as for general breath-catching purposes, and then return to live coverage from 3 p.m. to midnight. Look for NECN’s chief political reporter, Alison King.
The daily highlight should be the 7-to-9 p.m. slot, when NECN will do a joint broadcast with Greater Boston, the public-affairs program of public station WGBH-TV (Channels 2 and 44). Greater Boston host Emily Rooney and NECN NewsNight co-host Chet Curtis will anchor, and Greater Boston’s John Carroll and NewsNight’s Jim Braude will report from the convention floor. (Disclosure #1: I’m a paid, semi-regular commentator on media issues for Greater Boston.) NECN has also produced a 90-minute documentary, John Kerry: A Confrontation with History, that debuted this Wednesday; it will pop up at various times during convention week.
FOR MANY Bostonians, as well as for commuters across the country, there is really only one broadcast news medium worth paying attention to: public radio. In Boston, the news station of choice is WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), which is based at Boston University. The station will broadcast reports and interviews from the FleetCenter during National Public Radio’s Morning Edition (6 to 9 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4 to 6:30 p.m.). WBUR also broadcasts three talk-and-interview shows that are heard locally and offered to other stations through NPR. The Connection (10 a.m. to noon) will broadcast live at the FleetCenter on Monday and from Harvard’s Kennedy School on Thursday. Here and Now (noon to 1 p.m.) and On Point (7 to 9 p.m.) will be at the FleetCenter all four days. After that, NPR will pick up the proceedings with a nationwide broadcast until 11 p.m., when the closing gavel sounds. Public station WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) also carries quite a bit of NPR programming. WMBR Radio (88.1 FM), based at MIT, will offer some coverage in conjunction with the progressive Pacifica network, and will wrap things up with a 6:30-to-9 p.m. special on Friday, July 30.
Boston is fortunate in still having a high-quality commercial news station — WBZ Radio (AM 1030), which, in addition to Jon Keller’s commentaries, will have veteran reporters such as Jay McQuaide, Flo Jonic, and Carl Stevens roaming the conventional hall and the city. Democratic political consultant Mary Anne Marsh and Republican political consultant Charles Manning will square off each day at 7:35 a.m. and 12:25 p.m. (Marsh is scheduled to provide commentary for the Fox News Channel as well.)
Perhaps most important, WBZ is the home of David Brudnoy, a legendary Boston talk-show host who continues to hold down the 7-to-10 p.m. time slot despite well-publicized, near-fatal bouts with AIDS and cancer. Brudnoy’s voice isn’t quite what it used to be, but he’s as sharp and energetic as ever. A conservative libertarian who likes neither the Democrats nor the Republicans, Brudnoy is a civilized, and civilizing, influence on the increasingly ugly airwaves. He’s followed from 10 p.m. to midnight by Lowell Sun columnist Paul Sullivan, another practitioner of the non-shouting school of talk radio.
Boston has two full-time talk stations — WRKO Radio (AM 680) and WTKK Radio (96.9 FM). (Disclosure #2: I’m paid to talk about the media every Friday at 9 a.m. on WRKO’s Pat Whitley Show.) The quality varies, especially with the syndicated stuff. WTKK carries the still-listenable-if-not-quite-what-it-used-to-be Imus in the Morning program (6 to 10 a.m.), whereas WRKO broadcasts that reprehensible right-wing reprobate Michael Savage from 7 to 10 p.m. WTKK also hands two hours to Mike Barnicle every day (10 a.m. to noon), and give Barnicle credit: he makes absolutely no pretense of sounding like he cares whether anyone is listening or not. For the most part, they’re not. (Barnicle is nothing if not ubiquitous. Don’t be surprised if he also pops up on MSNBC and, locally, on Channel 5, where he is a contributor to Chronicle.)
Most of the stations’ energies go into the battle for afternoon drive time. WRKO’s 3-to-7 p.m. shift is presided over by Herald columnist Howie Carr, who chortles his way through television trivia, the hazards of getting stuck behind "fat bastards" at the supermarket, and news clippings about fatal accidents that he finds amusing. Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s now number two in the ratings behind a relative newcomer, WTKK’s Jay Severin, part libertarian, part right-winger, a former Republican political consultant who delivers rapid-fire, hate-filled monologues. Severin rarely has guests and rarely talks about local politics — in fact, he often broadcasts from somewhere near his home, on Long Island. Though Severin seems intelligent and can sound reasonable at times, he frequently goes off into rants about "towelheads" (Arabs), "wetbacks" (illegal immigrants), and the size of Senator Hillary Clinton’s rear end, which might never have struck you as remarkable. Then again, Severin isn’t much of a Bush fan, either.
By rights, convention week should be Carr’s. Though he and Severin both detest Kerry (Severin only recently; previously, he was smitten by Kerry’s military service until it became clear that the senator might actually become president), Carr has specifics going back several decades. Severin has only bile. But this is talk radio. Don’t be surprised if bile wins out.
Too bad they can’t both lose.
Research assistance was provided by Phoenix intern Jocelyn Brick-Turin. Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his daily "Media Log" at BostonPhoenix.com.page 1 page 2
Issue Date: July 23 - 29, 2004
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