SNL's Take on the Election Is Better Than Most News Coverage

It was perhaps surprising to hear a presidential candidate reference the irreverent comedy workhorse, Saturday Night Live, in a nationally televised debate -- but for those who've been tracking Hillary Clinton's sometimes rough handling by the media, it made sense for her to bring it up in Tuesday's debate.

This past Saturday's SNL show (blessedly back, thanks to the end of the writers' strike) had a couple of hilarious skits: one portraying swooning CNN correspondents in the last debate asking Barack Obama a tough question: Was he comfortable? Did he need a pillow? -- while attacking Clinton. The other, a "Women's News" segment with guest host Tina Fey using the "B" word liberally and proudly, in defense of Clinton, closing with the shout that "B ... is the new black!" -- or totally chic.

The show recognized what many observers had come to feel: that the media has conducted itself poorly and are worthy of parody. And watching Tim Russert, parodying himself in Tuesday night's debate, scowling eyebrows, raised voice, blustery manner and slightly weird questions -- encapsulated what's wrong with the media. Tim seemed to have the mistaken belief that he was the third debater, an impression only heightened after the debate when Chris Matthews repeatedly lauded Russert on "reeling in" Hillary Clinton with a question on her war vote. Increasingly the media has become the story -- and not such a complimentary one. While the "serious" reporters and pundits were this morning condescending of Clinton's mention of the comedy show, SNL's take on the coverage seems at least as informative as what shows up on nightly cable shows.

Hillary Clinton and her supporters believe she has been unfairly covered. Howard Wolfson, Clinton's press secretary complained bitterly this week: "I think it is true, that every time the Obama campaign in this campaign has attacked Senator Clinton in the worst kind of personal ways, attacked her veracity, attacked her credibility, said that she would say or do anything to get elected, the press has largely applauded him."

This past weekend, the drumbeat of reporters who began to agree with them, if only slightly, grew louder. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, on his weekly CNN show Reliable Sources, tackled the subject and concluded that Clinton had grounds to complain, that there was indeed at least the impression of a "pro-Obama press corp." He was not alone: "There is a gathering sense in the media that Obama has gotten something of a free ride," Howard Fineman of Newsweek and MSNBC conceded, then went on: "But, fair or not, it is still up to the Clinton campaign to slow that train's momentum before it is too late, which it almost is."

Yet recognizing that a bias exists does little to correct the problem. Interestingly, NBC, the network that carried the debate on its cable outlet MSNBC Tuesday night, is a media petrie dish worthy of years of scientific study. The Women's Media Center has commended NBC for its groundbreaking weeklong coverage of African American women on Nightly News. NBC is also the home of Saturday Night Live, of course.

But MSNBC is also the home of Chris Matthews, David Shuster, and formerly Don Imus, the infamous bad boys of television who have all had to apologize for sexist remarks: Matthews for asserting Clinton's political career was made possible only because her husband cheated on her; Shuster for claiming Clinton was "pimping out" her daughter by using her in the campaign. In fact, it was Shuster's comments that briefly jeopardized last night's debate. Clinton threatened to boycott. Shuster took a two- week suspension and was back on the air last night to report on the debate. The relationship between the Clinton camp and MSNBC talent is described as "a grudge match."

In the run-up to the Tuesday debate, we watched Chris, Tucker, Keith, and Chris again, then Tim with Brian Williams (the only one of the evening, by the way, to come off looking journalistic.) What was wrong with this picture? As the Women's Media Center has pointed out before, and to NBC executives personally, we believe the absence of women in this prime time line-up does a disservice to viewers -- and to the information process. And knowing the history of line-crossing, it's hard not to read disdain on their faces as they describe Hillary Clinton.

The Women's Media Center submitted a series of questions to both NBC and CNN for the last two debates, including one about stemming the epidemic of violence against women. A little less personal grandstanding, and more thoughtfulness, might have allowed an opening for at least one new question for both candidates to answer.

But the media's problems are not confined to NBC, nor are they purely of sexism, or even the absence of women. The news profession is suffering from a more fundamental sickness that needs an immediate cure. The media needs to step back into its role of gathering the facts, doing the exhaustive research, and reporting to the citizens of this country what they need to know.

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