The media’s ‘split-screen day’: Boehner quits, Francis addresses the world
Pope Francis spoke truth to power, John Boehner gave it up and the media confronted a devilish conflict Friday.
Moments before Francis was to speak at the UN, Boehner told his Republican caucus that he would abdicate both his House Speaker's post and his Ohio seat. It prompted instant media juggling, dueling TV chyrons and new top stories on Boehner in online versions of papers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.
NBC/MSNBC stalwart Andrea Mitchell quickly and accurately called it a "split-screen day" as she stood outside the UN and, as soon as Francis was finished, spoke to MSNBC anchor Brian Williams about the Boehner story, not the just-concluded Francis speech to the world.
"It is a shock but not surprising," said MSNBC congressional reporter Kelly O'Donnell. Well, it was a definite shock.
Fox News Channel, the favored destination for the same warring Republicans whom Boehner had often failed to corral, went whole hog on the domestic political bombshell, beckoning former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as soon as Francis concluded.
"It's easy to have a hardcore group making a lot of noise but harder to put together an absolute majority," said the often bombastic Gingrich, who himself exited the same job amid internal dissent, a Democratic shellacking in the 1998 midterm election and a violation of House ethics rules.
"I did not expect to interrupt the pope and talk about the resignation of John Boehner," said Bill Hemmer of Fox, even though Fox had not really interrupted the pope.
But one didn't necessarily have to await the end of the Francis speech to know that, on this day, Francis was a winner, Boehner a loser. One held world leaders enrapt in a New York hall, the other was essentially shown the exit by conservative insurgents.
The focus on Francis and the UN speech had been pretty intense. As I watched in Chicago, I could find it live on all the cable news networks, ABC and NBC but not CBS, which does not have its own cable TV counterpart and still opted for its daytime pabulum of "Let's Make a Deal."
The speech was unavoidably engrossing. Audiences don't get much more A-list than this one, which included leaders from nearly all the world's nations, along with a dash of celebrity (actor Daniel Craig) and teenage moral leaders (Pakistani Malala Yousafzai, herself the star of a new documentary, "He named Me Malala").
"POPE FRANCIS ADDRESSES U.N GENERAL ASSEMBLY," said the uppercase CNN chyron but, lower down, in small letters, "Soon: House Speaker Boehner to discuss resignation." (That proved erroneous)
MSNBC did the most vivid juggling by having the pope's speech on the screen, then a live shot of a few reporters gathered around empty microphones in the Capitol: "Awaiting Boehner," it said. (NBC's simultaneous coverage dispensed with the MSNBC-like Boehner video square)
If you were interested in the speech, Fox was especially pithy with his quickly changing, uppercase summaries of his remarks at the bottom of the screen:
"CHRISTIANS BELIEVE THE WORLD IS THE FRUIT FROM GOD…ENVIRONMENT IS A FUNDAMENTAL GOOD IN ALL RELIGIONS…HARM DONE TO THE ENVIRONMENT IS HARM TO HUMANITY…ABUSE OF POWER LEADS TO RESOURCE MISUSE, MASS EXCLUSION…WORLD DEMANDS LEADERS TO IMPROVE ENVIRONMENT, STOP CRIME."
Oh, there was also this one: "IF YOU FIGHT AMONG YOURSELVES, OTHERS WILL DEVOUR YOU."
That one seemed at least pertinent to Boehner's very personal news.
As soon as Francis concluded, MSNBC's Brian Williams turned to the Boehner move, as other outlets dwelled longer on the images of Francis at the UN. Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews proved good sidekicks for the juggling of pope and politician.
Mitchell, who was standing outside, smartly noted a certain wrongheaded conventional wisdom that Boehner wouldn't be going anywhere because Tea Party dissidents just didn't have the votes for an alternative.
But, in time, everybody put aside the chattering about Boehner and turned (thankfully) to the pope greeting families of 9/11 victims and others at ground zero. It is, as Williams noted, "a powerful place to visit."
The clearly grateful families who met him had won a lottery. They were a good dealer luckier than an exiting Ohio congressman on an unavoidably solemn day in New York.