D.C. Talkers: The Shot Heard ‘Round Washington

Feb 27, 2006  •  Post A Comment

A funny thing happened on the way to TelevisionWeek‘s fifth annual survey of the best and the worst of the political, elected and government figures who are the meat and potatoes of the Sunday political-interview programs.

Vice President Dick Cheney shot past President Bush as the hardest to get and the biggest newsmaker after he accidentally shot a fellow quail hunter Feb. 11 in Texas and then didn’t speak publicly about it until during an interview with Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume several days later.

It is the first time that the president has not topped the list as the No. 1 get.

The vice president also was far and away the butt of the most jokes, not just among late-night comedians but also in the news bureaus of Washington, where one of the funniest lines was in a news coverage note that said crews covering Mr. Cheney’s comings and goings had asked for bulletproof vests.

The hunting accident that put a politically connected 78-year-old lawyer named Harry Whittington in the hospital and left bird shot lodged in the outer wall of his heart will forever be closely associated with Mr. Cheney, agreed all of the newsmaker show insiders to whom TVWeek talked-after being promised, as always, total anonymity in return for complete honesty.

The hunting accident “is not going to disappear,” said one newsmaker show veteran. “It’s going to be in the political lexicon forever, like Al Gore inventing the Internet.”

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., always considered hard to get and high-maintenance, now ranks just behind Mr. Cheney and other administration members, but she’s the belle of the ball when the talk turns to media odd couples.

The 2008 presidential election, which is making Sen. Clinton more careful, is raising the profile of others on newsmaker shows as White House hopefuls from both parties practice their presidential lines.

Among the other notable changes in this year’s report card is how dramatically Condoleezza Rice has fallen as a newsmaker since President Bush promoted his former national security adviser to secretary of State and, for just the briefest blip in time, fashion butterfly.

“She’s being pretty darned careful,” said another newsmaker show veteran. Being careful and refusing to stray from administration talking points do not earn points from those who produce and book newsmaker shows and who ask questions they hope will make news in Monday newspapers and on other networks’ news programs. The competition for such mentions is as fierce as the battle for ratings points, and can be a major factor in which show gets the biggest guests at the optimal point in the news arc of stories.

Speaking of ratings, NBC’s “Meet the Press” remains firmly atop the ratings heap with a season-to-date average of 4.17 million viewers per show, according to Nielsen Media Research. CBS’s “Face the Nation” has solidified its second-place ranking with an average of 3.10 million viewers, followed by ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” with 2.64 million viewers, “Fox News Sunday” with 1.41 million viewers and CNN’s “Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer” with 632,000 viewers.

Secretary Rice is not alone in her newsmaker decline. The Bush administration as a whole is regarded as more buttoned up than ever.

On the other hand, the irrepressible Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., remains as popular as ever in newsmaker circles, which leads to both his ranking as a great guest and the very real prospect of damage from overexposure. The bottom line on Sen. McCain behind the scenes of newsmaker shows: “We love him because he is very honest about issues.”

Sen. McCain added cameo appearances in the R-rated feature film “Wedding Crashers” and the heart-pounding Fox series “24” to his entertainment resume in the past year. TVWeek could not resist asking for a show of thumbs on his performance in Hollywood.

The always ubiquitous Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is not so affectionately mentioned when the topic is overexposure.

When TVWeek asked the respondents to give odds on whether this year’s midterm elections would produce a shift of power on Capitol Hill, the responses ranged from “pretty high” to “very doubtful.” But most fell in the middle.

If someone occasionally sounded wistful, it was not about politics but rather about a shakeup that would freshen the big pond in which they all compete for the biggest fish with the best sound bites.