MSNBC landed exclusive rights to the South Carolina Democratic Party (SCDP) convention this past weekend. It was unprecedented and has opened the door to future scenarios that similarly undercut the trust in both media and politics — if that’s somehow possible.
To review, MSNBC landed live broadcast rights, which included a three-hour embargo on footage that reporters from other news organizations and publications could use. Since 21 of 24 Democratic presidential candidates would speak over the weekend, in the largest gathering we’ve seen of those vying for the nomination, it was a big-time newsworthy event. That’s especially true for cable news where presidential races receive heavy focus.
Fox News, ABC News, CBS News, CNN and C-SPAN sent a joint letter to the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party to protest the decision to provide MSNBC with exclusive rights.
“The political parties have always had a tradition of open media access,” executives from the networks wrote in the letter, provided to The Hill. “Your decision to restrict live coverage of your state party convention to a single news organization is the antithesis of openness. It is also concerning in that it could set a precedent that would end up seriously limiting citizen access to other key presidential electoral events.”
And that’s all 100 percent correct. It is the antithesis of openness. It does seriously limit citizen access. Yet, the media’s reaction has been anything but a roar. Closer to a whimper.
I suspect if Fox News were granted exclusive rights to a Republican convention in 2024 with 24 candidates running, the protest store would run out of pitchforks and torches. Cries of “State-run Media!” would reverberate from the usual suspects, marinated in references to threats to a free, fair press. I’m sure, somehow, President Trump would be blamed for creating a toxic atmosphere for the Fourth Estate that led to curtailing access.
The usually reserved and unopinionated C-SPAN has been the most vocal critic, with political editor and host Steve Scully telling me that the party was needlessly hurting itself. Consequently, C-SPAN moved its crew to cover a Planned Parenthood event in Columbia, S.C., instead.
Scully, in an email, called the SCDP’s decision “very disappointing” and added “I have reached out to the party chairs in Iowa, New Hampshire and other primary and caucus states to [ensure] that we can continue to cover their events, and so far all have agreed on the importance of C-SPAN cameras at their political events.”
Imagine that: C-SPAN having to make calls to ensure it won’t be locked out of other state party events. The slope has officially become slippery.
As for MSNBC, it decided to not have news anchors be the lead anchors of the event, opting to have a former Democratic presidential candidate in Al Sharpton and a partisan opinion host in Joy Reid “anchor” its coverage instead.
“This is probably one of the first times that a major state convention is going to have a show broadcasting from inside of it,” South Carolina Democratic spokesman Tim Sullivan told the New York Times. “We wanted to put on this big show for our convention-goers and for our viewers.”
A big show it was. For one audience, on one network. And the next time it happens, which is likely, you can point directly to what we witnessed — or failed to witness live — on a June weekend in South Carolina.
Joe Concha is a media reporter for The Hill and co-host of “WOR Tonight with Joe Concha” weeknights on 710-WOR in New York. Follow Concha on Twitter @JoeConchaTV.