You can tell a lot about a news operation by how it responds to a breaking news story on a holiday or weekend when the A-Team is away.
I first wrote that in November about cable coverage of the Mumbai attacks and the sorry performance by MSNBC, which mainly stuck to its canned lineup of prison documentaries while CNN and Fox scrambled to cover the story live.
Well, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin dropped a political bombshell late Friday afternoon in announcing that she would resign only two and a half years into her term, and it was fascinating to watch the 24/7 channels already in holiday mode chase the story.
MSNBC responded this time. Even though the program guide had a prison documentary slated for the 4 p.m. hour, MSNBC had Alex Witt at the anchor desk and such analysts as A.M. Stoddard, of The Hill, dissecting Palin's resignation.
MSNBC was using NBC News resources as well. An on-screen headline said: "Sources tell Andrea Mitchell Palin is out of politics for good." We'll check back in on that one in few weeks to see whether it turns out to be true or not. But it sure beats a Lockup doc.
By the 5 p.m. hour, MSNBC had NBC backup White House correspondent Mike Viqueira on, and he provided some of the finest analysis anywhere on TV up to that point. He was one of the first to deconstruct Palin's resignation speech and point our how "meandering" it was.
The speech was more than meandering -- it was disjointed, inconsistent and utterly unconvincing in her explanation as to why she was resigning. Good job by Viqueira in nailing that on the run.
Fox was impressive in quickly getting up to speed and bringing in a range of diverse and savvy voices. And, again, maybe it was mostly the result of the usual A-Team of conservative analysts being unreachable right away on this holiday weekend, but you have to acknowledge the excellent analysis offered on Fox by Lanny Davis, a former White House aide to Bill Clinton, and University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato.
The latter was brilliant in explaining how Palin's abrupt mid-term departure would make her look like Ross Perot, the 1990's independent candidate whose presidential aspirations were in part dashed by opponents who labeled him as "erratic, unstable and likely to resign in mid-term" -- just like Palin did Friday.
I had just left CNN's Washington bureau about 3 p.m. Friday after taping a segment for Sunday's Reliable Sources, so I had a pretty good on-scene sense of how much the news operation was into holiday weekend mode. Suzanne Malveaux, who had been subbing all week for Wolf Blitzer, was at the helm of The Situation Room Friday.
And while it was clear CNN couldn't field its usual on-air team of top political analysts, it showed some real depth putting CNN political editor Mark Preston on the set with Malveaux and bringing in political producer Peter Hamby by remote. The presence of those two seemed to really stabilize and center the coverage.
They were followed by a range of voices, including that of conservative strategist Ed Rollins, who offered a withering and informed analysis of Palin's decision to resign on a dime.