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Fox News on Kennedy: Short Shrift, or Right Coverage for Wrong Reasons?

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When news of Sen. Edward Kennedy’s death broke this morning, cable news kicked into full coverage mode. CNN brought on Paul Begala and others to remember the Senator’s political career. MSNBC’s Morning Joe had public and personal reminiscences of the politician and his legacy. And Fox & Friends had… a Law & Order: SVU fan who helped cops foil a crime, plus hit country recording artist Jack Ingram singing “Barefoot and Crazy”!

Now, a couple points in the interest of fairness (and, um, balance). Fox News did devote considerable time to Kennedy’s death earlier in its morning show. And while the SVU segment was insipid, insipid is what Fox & Friends generally does. It’s not as though the show was making itself stupider to spite the Democratic leader. (How could it, really?)

In other words, we had two cable news networks this morning treating the death of Sen. Kennedy as if it were the only news today, and one (Fox) treating it as if it were the day’s big story, but one among several others. Could Fox have been giving the story the right amount of coverage, even if for the wrong reasons?

The pattern continued in the 9 and 10 a.m. ET hours. CNN and MSNBC broke from the Kennedy story for only the briefest headline roundups. Fox, on the other hand, gave Kennedy’s death the top of its newscast: 12 or 13 minutes at the top of each hour. It also (like its rivals) carried President Obama and Vice President Biden’s statement’s on their colleague’s death. But it also ran segments on health care reform, the budget deficit and the CIA torture investigation.

Now let’s not kid ourselves: Kennedy was a liberal Democratic icon, and Fox News, as becomes plainer every day, knows its right-leaning audience well and gives them what they want. Considering the channel’s apparent determination this summer to give a full airing to every anti-Obama remark screamed at a healthcare townhall, it’s reasonable to wonder if Kennedy’s politics affected the play the story got. I will go out on a limb and guess that if Kennedy were a Republican of similar stature, he would have gotten a smidge more Fox air. (Though hypotheticals are the easiest kind of argument to make.)

And as for the other news segments Fox ran: well, it’s obvious where the channel was coming from on them too. The 9 a.m. healthcare segment featured, no surprise, another town hall, with Sen. John McCain taking a question from a distraught woman who said she feared “for [her] freedom.” The deficit story was about “three scary things” that “the mainstream media isn’t telling you” about Obama’s deficit projections; it cited a Wall Street Journal editorial as backup. The torture story focused mainly on the reputed danger of any investigation to covert agents and terrorism-fighting in general. In the 10 a.m. hour, it added in a report on the shortcomings of the Canadian healthcare system. Because it’s Fox News, and Fox News exists to protect us from Canada.

But this raises the question, might it be good if another cable news channel—while still covering Kennedy’s important and timely legacy—was also doing segments on these likewise-newsy issues, segments that weren’t thinly veiled GOP tracts? Would it be disrespectful to make Kennedy the lead story, yet cover other news?

A death–at least, one that’s long-expected, from natural causes, with no foul play involved–is not strictly breaking news. It is news that has broken. Which offers some lattitude as to how much airtime to give it. Now, it’s not a new thing for cable news to go wall-to-wall on a big death. It did on Farrah Fawcett and, God knows, Michael Jackson in quick succession. I’m sure somebody out there has a detailed accounting to exactly how many minutes Fox devoted to, say, the death and funeral of Ronald Reagan. Once precedent is established, if you don’t give as much or more to Kennedy, you run the risk of viewers invoking, as I’ve called it before, The Holy Book of Partisan Grievance.

But past overcoverage is a weak argument for present overcoverage. Now, it’s only the morning of Kennedy’s death, and too early to say whether anybody is “overcovering” the story yet. But even if Fox is making its decisions for entirely the wrong reasons, it’s worth at least looking at it as another example of how to divide up a cable news hour after a big political or celebrity death. I mean, yes, if I want to know this morning about the tropical storm possibly tracking toward the mainland, I could go online or watch the Weather Channel. But is it such a bad thing to get the news from the news channels too? (CNN at least has the figleaf of having a sister headline channel, HLN.)

Beyond the Kennedy-to-other-news ratio, the cable networks mainly reverted to form. CNN’s coverage, bringing in the likes of former Clintonites Paul Begala and James Carville (as well as journalist analysts), focused on Kennedy’s political style, family history and legacy. MSNBC’s subject was much the same, but the tone was more personal, with the likes of Chris Matthews and Mike Barnicle offering what was more like a private, inside-the-Beltway remembrance of the Washington legend. Fox’s tone, meanwhile, definitely seemed perfunctory and forced, though anchor Megan Kelly responded to a viewer e-mail asking why the channel wasn’t talking more about Chappaquiddick by saying that the infamous car crash “was part of his legacy. But the major part of his legacy is the service he provided to his country.”

As I said, it’s early in the story’s cycle. And maybe this is all an example of the benefit of having several differentiated cable news channels. If you want a warm, insider eulogy of Kennedy, you can go to MSNBC; for the establishment-journo take, CNN; for the GOP perspective, Fox News.

But as of this morning, the only cable channel noticing news beyond Kennedy is the one that’s determined to throw red meat to his most virulent opponents on health care. (As I write, just after 11 a.m., Fox is now giving Kennedy just a few minutes at the top of the hour, then jumping in to people howling at Sen. Clare McCaskill and Howard Dean at more healthcare forums.) At some point, hopefully, all three news channels will find some balance between wall-to-wall and barefoot-and-crazy.

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