No one has more newsgathering sources overall than CNN, and in 2008, no one provided better convention and election coverage. Led by John King, Wolf Blitzer and Candy Crowley, CNN owned the territory like no other cable channel.
But the ratings have not been kind to CNN since. Fox News has thrived and MSNBC has improved its position by going with hardcore, ideological programming in prime time — Fox from the right and MSNBC from the left. The big change the last four years is MSNBC embracing wall-to-wall leftist politics with the addition of non-journalistic show hosts like Al Sharpton, Lawrence O’Donnell and Ed Schultz. They will be joining Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews in convention coverage.
And let's not even talk about the gang of failed Democratic governors and leftist ideologues that will be joining former Democratic vice president Al Gore on Current TV, a channel that barely registers in the Nielsen ratings.
“So here we are in 2012, and the cable news channels are the networks that really give the conventions the most coverage,” says Sam Feist, Washington bureau chief and senior vice president for CNN.
“We’re going to, on the one hand, give the candidates and the parties an opportunity to tell America why they should vote for them. That’s part of what a convention is,” he explains. “But on the other hand, we’re going to ask tough questions of their surrogates and we’re going to fact check their speeches because that’s our job. ... We’re the only cable news channel that hasn’t picked sides in this election.”
CNN, which begins its wall-to-wall convention coverage today with its Sunday shows based in Tampa and two prime-time documentaries on GOP candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama, has used technology, talent and keen production values to generally present the most engaging convention coverage.
But while CNN’s Washington-based, all-star political team from 2008 is largely intact, corporate management in New York has constantly been messing with the on-screen product as it searches for ratings, forcing show hosts like Erin Burnett and Piers Morgan into the mix on nights of political coverage.
They will both be there during the conventions, which is why I withhold any kind of all-out advance endorsement of CNN in favor of C-SPAN.
In the end, for all the millions of dollars spent by the network and cable channels in 2008, what really made the conventions such good television were the performances of two people whom the networks and cable channels had no control over: Sarah Palin and Barack Obama, who both gave rock star performances at the podium.
The kindest thing I can say this year in that regard: Let’s not pre-judge.