by Mark Berkey-Gerard
Oct 17, 2000
When George W. Bush made an insulting remark about New York Times reporter Adam Clymer that was inadvertently picked up by the microphones at a campaign stop last month, Times editors debated whether to refer to the comment as a "vulgarity" or an "obscenity." Whatever it was, it was not a political liability. Bush refused to apologize. And why should he? It was not the first time a presidential candidate (or for that matter a president) had insulted a journalist. His very father had revived a sagging campaign a decade ago by attacking CBS News anchor Dan Rather. This time around, other members of the press editorialized on how the comment would help the younger Bush's popularity: If there is anyone lower in public esteem than a politician, it is a member of the press.
During a campaign season, though, it is hard to keep the two apart.
For much of the first hundred years of American history, voters went out to see and hear candidates for themselves. But since 1896, when presidential candidate William Jennings Bryant first took reporters along on the campaign trail, the role of the press in political campaigns has steadily increased.
Despite the growing amount of political coverage, some voters complain that they cannot learn about the issues they really want to know about. What they get instead are detail after detail on the candidates' private lives, the "horse-race," the politicians' personality, the campaign tactics. Political journalists "are interested mainly in pure politics and can be coerced into examining the substance of an issue only as a last resort," James Fallows wrote four years ago in "Why Americans Hate the Media."
It is ironic that Bush's anger towards Clymer was reportedly based on Clymer's coverage of Texas' abysmal health care record and a story that rated the accuracy of a Bush ad on prescription drugs as "zero." But what became the big national news story had nothing to do with health care or prescription drugs; it was that Bush had uttered a cuss word.
Voter turnout has continued to fall over the past 40 years, while the substance of press coverage has gotten more superficial and the business of covering the campaigns has become more lucrative. Is there a connection: Has the press played a role in the transformation of the citizen from participant to spectator? There may be no way of knowing for sure, but if Americans are generally not impressed with journalists, they do not blame them for this decline in political engagement. It's not just voter turnout that is down, after all; the number of people who seek out campaign news is at record lows as well, something surely the news organizations aren't trying to bring about. But even if they are not to blame, critics say, the press still could be doing things differently -- and that could make a difference.
THE MEDIA CIRCUS COMES TO TOWN
Though New York City is known as the media capital of the world, with a tough, sometimes mean-spirited, press corps, as well as powerful, and entertaining, politicians, there are firsts even here. And so it was in February, when the Apollo Theater housed the first presidential candidate debate ever in Harlem, between Democratic primary opponents Al Gore and Bill Bradley. It was a rare opportunity for an African-American community to gain the attention of the national candidates.
With hundreds of journalists at the scene, chanting crowds of supporters, and nine television trucks along 125th Street, the media frenzy had many in Harlem wondering if the debate had deteriorated from a historic event into a big show.
"It's nice that it's at the Apollo, but this is a circus," said Harlem resident Shawn Faloye, as a man on a six-foot-tall unicycle with an Al Gore sign peddled past. "What I'm looking at doesn't seem real."
Before the debate had even started, news organizations announced polls showing Gore held a 2-1 margin over Bradley among black voters, making any substance seem irrelevant. The focus turned instead to showmanship and the insults being hurled by the two candidates who debated in front of a handpicked crowd that included prominent politicians and celebrities.
The press headquarters was situated across the street from the Apollo, in the second floor of a church. There, over one hundred journalists sat at rows of tables, snacking on cold-cut sandwiches, talking on the phone, and typing on laptop computers. In the front of the room, ten televisions broadcast the debate.
In the end, much of the national press had traveled hundreds of miles to watch the historic Harlem debates on TV, just like the rest of the country. Two-thirds of the public still gets their election news primarily from television.
THE MEDIA TOWN GOES TO THE CIRCUS
This summer, the New York Times sent a staff of 70 to cover the Republican and Democratic conventions and filled five to six pages a day. They were not alone. A record 15,000 journalists received credentials to cover each of the conventions. This was an incredible number, especially considering that the arenas only seat around 50,000 people at a time, and that the national conventions have not produced any real news in four decades; they have become essentially massive pep-rallies to publicize foregone conclusions.
With the expansion of magazines, cable stations, and the Internet, political media outlets have flourished and the amount of material needed to fill those outlets has increased.
New Yorkers have more ways to follow the national and local campaigns than any other city. There are four daily newspapers, scores of alternative, community, and ethnic newspapers, 24 hours of local news, one of the most prominent public radio stations in the country, and a host of local election websites.
But more doesn't necessarily mean better. Danny Schechter of the public interest organization, MediaChannel.org, gives the New York press a poor rating for their campaign reporting.
"The coverage is often stripped of context and, while reporting on what candidates say, rarely investigate the interests they represent, or the background of the issues they raise," Schechter says. And in the weeks leading up to election day, he adds, the temptation to cover the sensational increases.
DOING LESS WITH MORE
Despite the massive amount of money and time spent covering politics and elections on the national level, voters don't seem to be impressed with the result.
In a recent study, 68 percent of voters gave the 2000 presidential campaign coverage a rating of "fair" or "poor." Only 5 percent rated it as "excellent." They also felt they learned the most from watching a live political debate (the least frequent programming) and least from Sunday morning political programs and radio talk shows (the most common kinds of programming).
Some critics say that's because real and original reporting is actually shrinking.
A study by the Pew Research Center showed that three-quarters of the national election coverage between February and June included two main themes: Gore lies and is marred by the Clinton scandal, and Bush is "a different kind of Republican."
Jane Hall, a teacher of journalism ethics at American University, said the reoccurring themes stemmed from "pure opinion, rather than journalistic analysis."
But it's not just opinion being used to fill pages and television news.
As comedian Al Franken once remarked, "There are so many great things about CNN. If something important happens, CNN will show it over and over again -- like when Bob Dole fell down at a campaign rally."
COVERING THE PERSONALITIES
Last week, local journalists tried to keep pace with Senate candidate Hillary Clinton, as she set a frantic campaign pace in the city.
They rode in vans from her chat with Brooklyn law students to a meeting with teachers in Manhattan. They mingled at the open bar before she gave the keynote address on gay rights at the Empire State Pride dinner. They tripped over each other in an effort to position their tape-recorders and microphones for the quote that would shape a daily, and perhaps, national story.
The City Hall reporters, on the other hand, were shuttled to the Bronx to hear the mayor give a pitch for the new fundraising plan at the New York Botanical Gardens. Giuliani was presented with a tree and quipped about how he had cleared his schedule that night to watch the Yankees.
It wasn't the prize assignment the City Hall reporters expected.
Before Giuliani dropped out of the Senate race, the reporters were set to cover arguably the most watched race in the country. With Clinton and Giuliani exchanging words nearly a year before the election, the race was shaping up more like a showdown for City Sheriff than a Senate seat.
But they weren't the only local reporters whose careers took a downturn because of a change in Republican candidates. This summer, two biographies of Mayor Giuliani came out within days of each other, obviously timed for the middle of a heated campaign. However, the authors soon found themselves on the radio talk shows and in newspapers explaining why the books were still relevant. The first printing of "Rudy!" the book by Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett, was cut from 100,000 to 45,000 copies.
Still, that's 45,000 people who wanted to read a book whose biggest revelations were about Giuliani's long-dead father.
While most voters say they do not want to know about candidates' private lives, they do like to know about traits like honesty, and they like to be able to connect with them on a personal level.
And despite polls throughout the Monica Lewinsky affair that said the public thought the media was making it too big an issue, the Barbara Walter's interview with Lewinsky drew an estimated 48 million people. Only the Super bowl drew more viewers that year.
ADS INSTEAD OF NEWS
In this year's primary race in New Jersey, residents of New York City were ten times more likely to see a campaign ad from John Corzine than a news story about the race.
That's not just because he's from a neighboring state and doesn't deserve news coverage. Critics say media organizations that are supposed to provide voters with information are, instead, profiting from it.
This year local and national TV stations will earn somewhere between $600 million and $1 billion in political advertising, compared with $90 million twenty years ago. With the networks headquarters and the largest media market in the country, New York City media corporations see substantial portions of that money.
While ad income from campaigns is up, some networks are deciding to cut the less "profitable" kind of campaign coverage.
Although this presidential race is the closest in years, NBC and Fox Networks decided not to air the first presidential debates, showing baseball and a season premiere instead.
Earlier this year, broadcasters opposed proposed changes in Federal Communications Commission regulations that would allow for free political airtime. Media lobbyists mustered the political weight to defeat the proposal in the Senate and sway even campaign finance reform advocate, John McCain, who stated that the "FCC is clearly overstepping its authority here."
A recent report by the Center for Public Integrity cited television broadcasters as the biggest block to campaign finance reform.
But the battle for reform in television coverage hasn't stopped. Last week, under pressure from campaign reform groups, CBS and NBC announced that they would allow five minutes per day of issue discussion in the month before the elections.
HORSERACE AND TACTICS
In a 1999 study, only one in ten voters said they were interested in polls about which candidate was winning or losing at a given time. But this year, evening network news stories examining 'horserace' coverage are up 26 percent since the last election. [See Steve Ross' analysis of polling in this week's Feature]
But polls aren't always just meaningless facts to tease and amuse the audience. A recent study by the Poynter Institute indicated that voters who were poll-savvy also knew more about the issues and the candidates.
Polls also give the public, rather than the candidates or journalists, a chance to voice their opinion.
The problem, critics say, is when the polls drive the news and replace a meaningful discussion of issues.
"When employed inappropriately by overzealous reporters and analysts," said Kathleen A. Frankovic, director of surveys for CBS News, "polls can be used to create an exaggerated sense of precision that misleads more than it informs."
Another criticism is a journalistic tendency to focus on "behind the scenes" strategy and political maneuvering.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton held a meeting with thirteen teenagers who asked detailed questions about guns in school, job-training programs, and scholarships for inner-city kids. Just a month earlier, the President met with a panel that consisted of the network anchors, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and Tom Brokaw. The questions posed by the two groups were vastly different.
"None of the questions from these news professionals concerned the impact of legislation or politics on people's lives," Fallows wrote in his article "Why American's Hate the Media." "Nearly all concerned the struggle for individual advancement among candidates."
Journalists find it "more fun and easier," Fallows said, to write about "positioning" and "handling" an issue than they do looking into the policy issue itself.
WHAT THE PRESS CAN DO
It's not just good government groups concerned that less than half of the population voted in the last national election. News programs are also concerned if people care less, and therefore read and watch less.
Critics suggest that that there are things news organizations can do in order to improve their coverage and get voters to engage.
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, says that news organizations should reach out to a younger audience, emphasize the issues and their importance, and report less on private lives and political tactics. But even he admits there are limits to what anyone can accomplish.
"In the end, it may turn out there is nothing that news organizations can do to stem erosion of the political news audience, short of sending Gore and Bush to a desert island and having people vote to banish one or the other."
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