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PBS Shines, CNN stumbles in Sotomayor hearings

In my run-up to the Senate Judiciary hearings on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, I singled out PBS and CNN, the two TV sites most committed to fact based news and information, as places to turn for TV coverage.

By the end of the morning session, a clear pattern ion the coverage had emerged: PBS was doing an outstanding job, while CNN was offering some of the worst and most distracting coverage anywhere on TV or online. Talk about overproduced and misguided as to where the focus should be, CNN seemed to think its talking-head analysts mattered more than what was happening in the Senate hearing room.

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CNN cut away from the opening statements in the hearing room for talk among its experts more than any other news channel -- and when they weren'tcutting away for what was frankly not a very illuminating discourse, there were the commercials. I am glad to see any news outlet make money these days, but if you have to break for commercials, don't keep breaking back to the news set for talking-head chatter during what should be your coverage of the event. (Pictured Judy Woodruff)

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Jeff Session (R-Alabama) had barely finished their excellent opening remarks, when CNN cut back to the studio for analysis. Leahy and Sessions had deftly laid out the differences between the two camps, and they were huge -- both legally and culturally. The key was the standard of "empathy" articulated by Judge Sotomayer and President Barack Obama.

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But instead of hearing the opening statement of Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin), CNN viewers saw anchor Wolf Blitzer hand the discussion over to Democratic consultant Maria Echaveste who practically jumped out of her seat to attack Sessions for saying that what Judge Sotomayer calls empathy, he calls "prejudice." And, again, I have to tell you Echaveste was all heat and no light -- attitude without insight, a steady stream of partisan talking points. And she got more face time than some of the senators in the early going Monday.

In fairness, MSNBC and Fox were also cutting away for expert analysis and commercials, but each seemed far less stop-and-start, herky-jerky than CNN, which was away for a commercial when the first of two protesters was escorted out of the hearing room by guards. And CNN was also missing from the hearing room when Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) explored the role of the Supreme Court in trying to reverse racism in post-World-War-II Baltimore in his opening remarks. Thank godness, I had PBS on another channel so I could hear Cardin.

I liked seeing the heavy thunder of Karl Rove on Fox, Chris Mathews on MSNBC and Jeffrey Toobin on CNN. I was intrigued by Rove's pre-hearing analysis, But once the hearings began, the cable channels should have all pulled back and let the process in the hearing room be the star. And CNN was the worst in this regard.

PBS, meanwhile, got out of the way, and let the cameras stay on the Senate hearing room, so that viewers wouldn't miss a word. PBS has its priorities right. It's about Sotomayer and the hearings, not partisan consultants brought onto the set to talk over the coverage and try to score points with the people they work for -- instead of bringing insight to the citizen-viewers.

PBS has an excellent location for its coverage with a booth overlooking the hearing room for anchorwoman Judy Woodruff, of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and analyst, Marcia Coyle, of the National Law Journal. But instead of shooting the events in the room in such a way as to constantly remind us of how close Woodruff and Coyle are to the event, PBS is using a simple, straightforward camera shot that put the focus on the senators and Sotomayer.

Woodruff and Coyle talked only when the hearings stopped, except to identify speakers in the hearing room. And when they did talk during the breaks, Coyle generally had something important to say.

Under Woodruff's gentle questioning during the lunch break, Coyle skillfully explained the concepts of "empathy" and "activism" as they were used on both sides of the aisle Monday morning.

PBS was the place to be Monday. And unless the all-news cable channels change their ways, it would be my choice for coverage throughout the hearings.

One of the afternoon session's more fascinating moments of TV, politics and pop culture found Al Franken, the junior senator from Minnesota, delivering his opening remarks. The former Saturday Night Live writer and performer talked about watching such hearings over the years: "These TV hearings taught America a lot about the Constitution."

As he spoke, CNN put up a graphic informing viewers that Franken "portrayed a senator" in a Saturday Night Live skit on the Clarence Thomas hearings.

It could have been a little surreal, but Franken acquitted himself well as a senator who was grateful for the chance to serve and took his responsibility seriously.

And I am glad that CNN discovered that such a statement running alonside the screen is much better than letting the on-set experts talk too much.

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