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Clinton and Palin: The circus is back on cable TV news

Christmas came early for cable TV news with the official nomination of Senator Hillary Clinton for secretary of state and the return of Sarah Palin to the lower 48 to campaign for Saxby Chambliss in Georgia.

The Clinton story is the one that matters, because 24/7 cable TV news can't seem to help but cover the Clintons as a soap opera. And given the powerful emotions – both negative and positive – that the Clintons somehow always seem to generate in coverage, you can only hope this approach and tone doesn't spill over to or obscure what has so far largely been substantive coverage of the presidential transition.

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But yesterday, for all the hugely important and complex news President-elect Barack Obama made at a news conference in which he announced his national security team, cable TV news was mostly Hillary, Hillary, Bill and Hillary, with a little bit of Sarah in Georgia all night long.

Every time, I looked up at the TV, there was a new cable TV headline with Clinton in the title. "What about Clinton factor?" the banner on MSNBC said. "What's the Clinton agenda?" another asked on Fox's Hannity & Colmes show. And on Fox, "agenda" is not a good word when it is used in the same sentence as "Clinton." Greta Van Susteren all but rubbed her hands together in glee as she talked about former President Bill Clinton agreeing to release the "vast" list of names of people who have donated to his foundation.

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Don't get me wrong, there is room for debate here as to whether cable TV just goes tabloid crazy at the mention of the Clintons for its own ratings-crazed reasons, or the couple really is a walking soap opera. After all, it wasn't Wolf Blitzer, Chris Matthews or Shepard Smith who had a sexual relationship with an intern in the White House.

Actually, as I write about that sordid episode, I am thinking soap opera doesn't do justice to the energy with which the Hillary Clinton nomination was covered last night. In terms of the passion with which the narratives of her personal and professional lives were discussed, the tone was closer to a telenovela. But, again, the coverage was predominantly about personality (Hillary and Bill Clinton's) and conflict (things she and Obama said about each other and how they made nice yesterday) rather than policy and the daunting challenges she now faces.

And you can only hope, the more responsible executives and producers in cable TV news will try and rein in their newsrooms' worst impulses as they move forward through the confirmation process.

As for Palin, forget about it. CNN's headline for the story during Campbell Brown's show was simply, "She's back." And it was hard to argue with mockery implied in those two words.

It is hard to not cover Palin as a bit of a cartoon character. But the press has to try to do so. It must also never forget that as comical as Palin might now seem, how willing she was to take presidential politics to a dark and dirty place of innuendo and smear that even her own presidential candidate, John McCain, ultimately felt the need to denounce.

(Above: Associated Press photo of President-elect Barack Obama with members of his new national security team, Sen. Hillary Clinton and retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, by Pablo Martinez Monsivais.)

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