Political stories normally fit in a neat left-right divide, with Fox and MSNBC ready and willing to take predictable and opposite sides. But then came Eric Massa.
"We're talking about Eric Massa 24/7 on the TV," Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) complained on the House floor.
The problem for cable: Is he our guy or theirs?
The opening act was murky. Initially, only POLITICO linked sexual harassment allegations to Massa's announcement that he wasn't going to run for re-election. But when some of the charges began leaking out the political lines seemed clear: Although Massa had once been a Republican, a Democratic congressman who had opposed the Iraq war and voted against health care because it wasn't liberal enough seemed an ideal conservative target.
But then Massa said he was being pressured to resign by White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel – a story line that proved irresistible to the Drudge Report and Fox talk show host Glenn Beck.
"Left and Right need to hear what Massa has to say," Beck wrote on Twitter, announcing that Massa would appear on his show Tuesday night. "Agree or disagree - YOU decide if there is truth in his story."
The anticipation was almost too much to bear.
"Beck's idea was to give over an entire hour of his show to a man who just a day earlier seemed poised on revealing the dark, secret, inner-workings of the whole socialist conspiracy running the country – a man who knew where the bodies were buried, and now on live TV, he was going to name names," the Nation's Chris Hayes said on MSNBC. "But then things did not go quite as Beck had hoped."
No, they did not.
"The more Beck struggled the clearer it became that he was opening Al Capone's vault only to find some dog-eared ,well-combed over old men's fitness magazines," was the way Jon Stewart gleefully described it on "The Daily Show."
At the end of the show, after Massa's rambling, at times bizarre, answers, Beck declared to the camera: "America, I'm gonna shoot straight with you. I think I've wasted your time. I have wasted an hour of your time. And I apologize for that."
Stewart suggested that Beck had a new sign-off phrase right up there with Edward R. Murrow's "Good night and good luck."
"It was funny to see the conservatives all jump on the bandwagon when he said I was forced out because I was the final vote," “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace said Friday, "and then they get a load of what this guy's saying and say, 'Well, no, no, no, forget Eric Massa. No, forget about him.' Suddenly, they weren't so interested in him."
What followed was a rare moment of cable news bipartisanship, with both left and right commentators agreeing that Massa has some serious issues. "Countdown" guest host Laurence O'Donnell, for one, dubbed Massa the "craziest man in the Congress."
Left and right also found common cause in sophomoric and borderline homophobic mocking of gays. The Massa mess led to countless punch lines involving tickle fights and groping, with MSNBC's "Morning Joe" crew seeming to never get enough jokes or passing up the opportunity to play The Village People's "In the Navy" in honor of Massa's former career as a Navy officer.
But bipartisanship is an ephemeral thing. Although an exasperated Beck said on his radio show Wednesday that "we don't ever have to pay attention to this man ever again," it didn't take Karl Rove to figure out that Massa was a way of getting at Democrats, specifically that ever-popular conservative target, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Best-selling author and blogger Michelle Malkin, who on Tuesday questioned why Beck would have "a progressive zealot and political opportunist" like Massa on his show, said Thursday on Fox & Friends that the "Massa controversy was not just about Eric Massa, that in fact, this is about Nancy Pelosi."
Pelosi, she said, had pledged "so publicly and ostentatiously to clean the swamp, to drain the swamp, and what she has done is overflown it-overflowed it. And I think the stance of the Democrat majority has been to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil."
The battle lines were drawn once again. The House took a symbolic vote encouraging the House ethics committee to investigate Massa. Republicans, still recovering from the political damage done by former Florida Rep. Mark Foley’s sexual harassment issues in 2006, said Massa's behavior was equally serious. They demanded to know what Pelosi knew and when she knew it.
That night, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow aired an interview with Pelosi, and began a series of questions about Massa by pointing out the other side was trying to use the by-now former congressman to score political points.
"Republicans are trying to make a whole new issue," Maddow said. "And I have to ask you about this because it's sort of the story of the day from the Republican perspective. And they're trying to make an issue of Congressman Massa's-not just his resignation but how allegations against him were handled."
Maddow asked about Pelosi referring the matter to the ethics committee and also when her office may have been told about concerns with Massa. Pelosi responded to Maddow's questions-which were similar to what conservatives had also been asking-and then praised her for the way she framed the issue.
"[The] fact is that you started this conversation in the right way," Pelosi said. "That it's another subject that people would like to be a distraction. I will not take my eye off the ball, which is to pass health care reform right now, and to at this time to build support for what we are doing. And -- people like to mix those two. Not you – but the Republicans. You're never to be taken for one of them-but I know you're nonpartisan."
Mark Jurkowitz, associate director for Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism, looks at media coverage in a weekly study that comes out every Tuesday. While this week's isn't complete, Jurkowitz said that in the first few days, the Massa story is one of the biggest across all platforms and getting the most attention on cable news so far.
Almost certainly Massa will have been covered more this week on cable than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan-the fact which prompted Kennedy's eruption on the House floor that no reporters were paying attention to Rep. Dennis Kucinich's resolution to bring the troops home from Afghanistan at the end of this year.
Meanwhile, Kennedy's take on the week of Massa coverage may be the last word – "despicable."