By Ken Tucker
Updated February 16, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

The last election threw TV news for a loop: Botched predictions left veteran network anchors looking like cub reporters; cable news outlets shoveled the facts, the flubs, and the filler out to the public faster than their broadcast competitors. By the time the Supreme Court horned in and a winner was declared, the news landscape had been altered.

ABC’s Peter Jennings? His James Bond urbanity has been overshadowed by the Austin Powers garishness of Bill Maher, the Playboy-philosophy major who’s turned Politically Incorrect into a bachelor pad of louche libertarianism. CBS’ Dan Rather? His cornpone similes finally reduced him to an opening act for network colleague David Letterman’s more acerbic political pronouncements. NBC’s Tom Brokaw? He’s having more success with his Greatest Generation book franchise than as a king in the court of public information. That crown was passed to an in-house usurper: MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who’s used his toehold as host of the news-talk show Hardball to become the parent network’s most-heeded talking head. God and C-SPAN help us all.

Where Brokaw mumbles, Matthews brays: He yammers his hammering questions, and cuts off the answers if the guest doesn’t yell back. Matthews can motor-mouth complete sentences, which in TV terms renders him intelligent, and he’s learned to accompany his sneering gibes at whatever passes for liberalism these days with a big grin on his mug. With his mischievous air and mess of blond hair, he’s the Tom Sawyer of punditry, whitewashing whatever political chicanery he happens to approve of.

As Matthews’ profile rises, so does that of his entire channel. MSNBC used to fill the afternoon with HomePage, a high-tech grab bag aimed at females, anchored by the Powerpuff Girls of journalism, Ashleigh Banfield, Mika Brzezinski, and Gina Gaston. The show, which had the gals gabbin’ ‘n’ gigglin’ one second, then putting on their Serious News Faces to read a disaster story off their TelePrompTers, was doomed, and the Florida recount gave MSNBC an excuse to break up the Powerpuffs and scatter them throughout the network’s news-day schedule.

Chris Matthews, meanwhile, is so influential, his frequent guest and buddy, newspaper columnist Mike Barnicle — a third-rate Jimmy Breslin impersonator — has landed his own post-Hardball show, in which he tries to match Matthews’ bluster with jus’-folks rants. He’s against Jackass (which he hadn’t watched) and Eminem (whose CD he hadn’t listened to), condemning the latter for demeaning women. Then he turned on a dime to say that he’d ”drooled all over [his] tie” looking at some Jennifer Lopez pix. Since his show doesn’t seem to have a formal title yet, let me suggest one — Mike Barnicle: Two-Fisted Hypocrite.

MSNBC’s other new afternoon entry is a transmission of Mitch Albom’s Detroit-based radio show. Albom, author of Tuesdays With Morrie, does a standard wise-guy show — reading silly items about, say, a stripper seeking tax breaks for a ”boob job,” then taking a call from Jimmy Carter to chat about his childhood. MSNBC already airs radio’s Don Imus, who lives to lick the boots of Washington’s elite, so who needs another radio-on-TV show?

CNN is also getting into the personality game. During CNN Morning News, anchors Daryn Kagan and Leon Harris occasionally find themselves making awkward small talk between news items while sprawled in comfy chairs against a window (gee, think their producers watch the Today show?). The charm of CNN used to be that the Atlanta-based sets looked as if they’d been filched from a Staples fire sale; the newsreaders were secondary to their stories. Now, the channel seems desperate for a hit of that Matthews mojo, so they’re pushing personality journalism — everyone from correspondent Wolf Blitzer to lawyer Greta Van Susteren has been handed his or her own show — but they’re clumsy magicians down South.

The worst is The Spin Room, hosted by ”conservative” (read: right-wing) Tucker Carlson and ”liberal” (read: neocon) Bill Press. Set up to argue, Press is a hopeless, dithering wimp who makes Carlson’s bow-tied twit look like The Rock. Between them, Carlson and Press would be hard-pressed to win a debate with network weatherman Flip Spiceland over whether or not the sun is out in Atlanta.

Big surprise: News suffers in this atmosphere. On Jan. 30, C-SPAN aired the Senate Judiciary debate over the attorney general confirmation of John Ashcroft. At the same time, MSNBC’s Mitch Albom chatted with Dyan Cannon about her abysmal sitcom Three Sisters (hmmm, an NBC show), while CNN’s TalkBack Live let citizens bicker over Georgia’s state flag. Both outlets might as well have been the Cartoon Network airing the real Powerpuff show. Hardball: C The Spin Room: D



The Spin Room