TV plunges into Super Tuesday but doesn't forget softer fare

The cable news countdown clocks were positioned. Use of adjectives like "epic" ran rampant. There was talk of "establishment" Republicans in revolt and Bernie Sanders in retreat by Wednesday morning.

The news media melodrama over Super Tuesday voting was undercut on American television all Tuesday morning only by, well, realities like celebrities having breast reductions, a marathon space mission and discussion of "why other's emotions are so contagious."

Welcome to another morning on Television America, one with important political overtones that jockeyed for attention alongside softer fare involving the nation's anatomy, psyche and tabloid curiosities.

Yes, there were abundant sober, analytical and deeply reported newspaper pieces. Those included how Hillary Clinton is already plotting tactics in a general election campaign against Donald Trump. There was also a look at the seemingly confounding matter of how Trump's support keeps expanding, regardless of how nasty, bullying or factually inaccurate he may be each day.

But, on cable television, the ratings-driven decision to stick with the improbable political campaign remained unfettered. Networks are expending significant resources in all the key primary states to track perceived public sentiment on a seemingly minute-by-minute basis. It melded lots of smart folks opining about, if not outright inveighing against, the current Trump-dominated state of play, with the constant noting the myriad logistical matters tied to today's window onto democracy.

Thus CNN reporter Brian Todd took us to a virtually empty polling place in Ashburn, Virginia. He then showed viewers how he must exit the polling place and walk a whole 40 feet outside — yes, 40 feet — before he's allowed to talk to any voter. It's a matter of voter privacy, he conceded, though the coverage rules he must abide by didn't really seem like that arduous an obstacle to overcome, or even worthy of any note. But there were many hours before the first votes came in, according to the countdown clocks, so there was a whole lot of time to kill.

It was potpourri of previews and seemingly largely premeditated punditry, with experts pretty much talked out already but forced to say something, anything, about Trump and Clinton, the Ted Cruz vs. Marco Rubio side battle or rich speculation about a chaotic Republican National Convention in Cleveland this summer. Mark Halperin and John Heilemann on MSNBC delved into the weeds with sophistication, laying out an array of possibilities, such as Rubio perhaps not sticking around for the March 16 Florida primary if he fares poorly Tuesday and has no wins to show by Florida.

Redundancy was a necessary given. David Gergen, a symbol of the sort of old-school punditry thrown for loops all year, admitted on CNN that, when it comes to that GOP convention, he didn't have much of any idea beyond dispensing a variety of pure hypotheticals. TV hates equivocation, but it is refreshing.

The overall cable news coverage at times can reflect a blend of editorial imperatives, marketing concerns and the placating of internal political sensitivities. Thus, one finds aging alumni, no longer really in the fray, popping up. At MSNBC, that meant former NBC icon Tom Brokaw given brief space on the "Morning Joe" set, where his attempt to bring a melancholy sense of proportion seemed to fall short, no matter how well-intentioned.

He brought up a series of recent school shootings, nationwide, including one the day before. "It's invisible in the dialogue of the country, and that's outrageous." he said. "We have a long way to go before we learn we get connected to what's real and what's not."

We sure do. But, without skipping a beat, Joe Scarborough declared, "I suspect the Republican establishment in Washington, D.C. will wake up tomorrow morning and realize that all the illusions they they have been thinking about, and all the nursery, ah, bedtime stories they have been telling themselves over the past six months ended up just being fables. They're going to have to wake up to a new reality they find very ugly."

Throughout the morning, Scarborough and co-host Mika Brzezinski seemed rather intent on taking a de facto victory lap, perhaps sensitive to criticism of their perceived partiality to Trump. If he saw this pro-Trump sentiment months ago, Scarborough asked rather rhetorically, why didn't the GOP establishment? In the process, he made himself out to be more neutral political scientist than alleged Trump partisan.

Over at Fox News, the presumably preferred network for many GOP primary voters, a pollster underscored how so many of Trump's disputed comments were just eaten up by voters. "The independents love Trump," she said. "His simple language, good guy, tough guy, genuine. Or what they believe to be."

But there was apolitical programming, especially on the morning broadcast stalwarts. And they clearly know that there's a limited number of politics junkies. Going broad means going elsewhere, too, to maintain the loyalty of audiences that dwarf those of cable news.

Thus, "Today" was checking in on astronaut Scott Kelly's nearly yearlong mission, which is about to end, on the international space station. It also chatted about the emotions of others being contagious in a mini-classic of accessible pop psychology. Meanwhile, "CBS This Morning" broached a pharmaceutical query: "Pink Pill Questions: review raises concerns about women's libido drug."

And then there was "Good Morning America" at ABC, which kept advertising an "exclusive" and "revealing" interview with Ariel Winter of "Modern Family" semi-fame. The primary topic? Her breast reduction surgery.

There were the characteristic not-so-pointed opening questions for her, such as whether she'd been prepared for celebrity. ("ONLY ON GMA: Ariel Winter Opens Up About Surgery," was the headline across the screen as she spoke)

Then we got down to the news, namely how she'd gone from a 33F to a 32D. "I had wanted to get a breast reduction since I developed," she said. "It was super unconformable to sleep, to walk. Just didn't feel right."

Now she feels much better. Whether the country's political watchers will feel likewise by Wednesday morning remains to be seen.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.


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