Chris Matthews HardballThat was the provocative question three newscasters debated this morning at the cable industry’s annual convention on the eve of what MSNBC‘s Chris Matthews predicted will be “the most exciting political season we’ve ever had” — in part because of the growing importance of cable news. As you might imagine, the boisterous host of Hardball With Chris Matthews sucked up most of the oxygen in the Cable Show panel that also included CNN‘s John King and Univision‘s Maria Elena Salinas. She lamented that people “now have designer news. They want to listen to people they agree with.” That’s dangerous, she says, because “they don’t know the difference between a news person and a commentator.” King says that while “there’s nothing wrong with advocacy journalism, there’s nothing wrong with objective journalism, too.” But Matthews says viewers understand what they’re watching. For example, when Fox News bills itself as “fair and balanced,” its audience knows that the slogan is “ironic and fun loving and they’re in on the joke.” He contrasted today’s sharp-edged approach to the old days when “people like Andy Rooney were always with the (government’s) embedded thinking…. Without cable it’s just network thinking and embedded thinking which is dangerous for democracy.”

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Matthews made the boldest predictions about the 2012 presidential contest, although he says it’s still “too early to call.” The public’s view of Obama will depend on the performance of the stock market, “and that’s a dangerous place,” Matthews says. But the three, hour-and-a-half debates between the candidates “will probably be spectacular,” adding that “we’ll have a 24/7 debate about each debate.”

In response to a question, King defended his controversial decision as moderator of a debate before the GOP presidential primary in South Carolina to ask former House Speaker Newt Gingrich about his ex-wife’s statement that he had once asked her to have an open marriage. Gingrich fired back at King, saying the question reflected “the destructive vicious negative nature of much of the news media (that) makes it harder to govern this country.” King says that the ex-wife’s charge was “the biggest story in politics that day….I don’t think there’s any debate it was a fair question and a relevant news question.” King also suggested that Gingrich was feigning his indignation. “He brought (current wife) Calista up after the debate,” King said, and they said to the newsman: ” ‘Wasn’t it a great debate?’ … A lot of people said that gave him the South Carolina primary.”