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Tuesday October 10, 2000

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Screwing the people: network news and the presidential election in America

By Dan Cassino

Every four years, the people of America are presented with a unique task: choosing who will be the most powerful man in the world. It is part of our civic responsibility to vote for Al Gore or George Bush or Ralph Nader. But the media, especially in the dominant form of television, have even greater responsibilities. It is their duty to help us form our decisions by presenting the views and issues on which each candidate runs. It is their duty, in the age of mass media, to facilitate the exercise of democracy. It is these duties that they too often shirk.

The first Friday in October

Let's take a look at news coverage last Friday. It was far from a typical day: last Tuesday was the first presidential debate in an election that was too close to call. Thursday was the only vice-presidential debate, one that made some people want to vote for the vice-presidential candidates instead of their bosses.

ABC's World News Tonight had one story on the campaign. In 79 words, Kevin Newman reported that Bush was attacking Clinton in the Midwest, and that Gore was in Florida, still stumping on Social Security. That's it. Even in the rather typical election of 1988, ABC's World News Tonight featured thirteen minutes of campaign coverage, more than half of the broadcast.

On the first Friday of October this year, the only meaningful commentary on the campaign came from NBC's Nightly News. Lisa Myers reported how much each of the candidates rely on polling to tailor their messages, bringing in independent pollster John Zogby to comment on the importance of the phone surveys and focus groups. It isn't quite issue reporting, but it tells us something about the candidates. More, perhaps, than any of the other network news broadcasts could claim.

While not performing as well as NBC, CBS at least put the alphabet network, ABC, to shame with much more extensive coverage. They analyzed the results of the vice-presidential debates, going to both sides for comment on how their men did. The results, of course, were predictable. Of course, Al and Tipper Gore were pretty certain that Lieberman won the debate. G. W. Bush was equally certain that Cheney had triumphed and proved that he himself could be president. Not great coverage, certainly, and not the sort of coverage that the public deserves, but a good try.

Unfortunately, things got worse. To lighten things up a bit from all that heavy news, CBS ended the show with a montage of all of the late-night talk show jokes about the debates.

Horserace coverage

In a way, however, all of this talk about election coverage is irrelevant, unless we consider the two different kinds of campaign coverage: horserace coverage and issue coverage. Horserace coverage is the sort that we get most often. It focuses entirely on the race between the candidates, and the various attempts to determine who is going to win. This election cycle, because of how close the race is in most national polls, horserace coverage has been dominant. Literally every night, two or three new polls are released by Battleground, Zogby, Gallop or some coalition of news organizations, and we are left to analyze the results. Gore is up by two in one poll, down by three in another, in a dead heat in the third. Horserace coverage only deals with movement in polls, and speculation as to the causes of the movement.

Three major problems come with horserace coverage. First is the reliance on capricious and often inaccurate polling data. Second is the assumption that this data means anything. Finally comes the issue of why the voter should be concerned with it.

In taking polls, the results are determinant on how the statistics are compiled. This week, one poll showed Gore with a three-point lead. On the opposite end, another poll showed Bush ahead by eight. Almost none of these polls are reliable. First, any statistician would throw out immediately any purportedly national poll that comes from a sample of less than 1200 people. Any less and the poll can't possibly represent all of the disparate groups that form the national population. Second, the poll doesn't have any validity unless it samples from a group of likely voters- people who actually intend to vote in the upcoming election. This may seem obvious, but lists of registered voters are used by many news sources - mostly because they're a whole lot cheaper. Finally, in a tight race, nearly all of the results fall within the margin of error of the poll, and this makes any edge is meaningless.

Moreover, in a close race like that of this year, national polls don't mean a thing. This is because the United States doesn't have a popular election process. Rather, we give out electoral votes by state. The only numbers that matter are the electoral count for each candidate, and the opinion polls in those states that remain too close to call. There's even a chance - it's happened before- that the winner of the popular vote will lose in the general election.

Finally, there's no reason that voters should care about the opinion polls. Hopefully, they are going to vote on their consciences, for the candidate that best reflects their views; in that case, there is no reason for them to know where the candidates stand in the race. The best such coverage can do is discourage people from voting for a losing candidate.

Issue Coverage

On the days for which the news content of the three network evening news broadcasts were analyzed, less than twenty percent of the coverage is what would be referred to as "issue coverage," rather than horserace coverage. Issue coverage is characterized by an attempt to explain the policy stances of the candidates- to actually figure out what they stand for. Especially in recent years, networks have run away from this type of coverage like the plague. In the day selected for 2000 election coverage, there was no issue coverage.

So why don't we have issue coverage? Quite simply, the people in the know tell us that no one cares. Much of political debate is fighting over numbers: whose tax plan will give what to whom, whose social security plan will ensure that the system remains solvent for the next 20, 50, 100 years or whatever. Conventional wisdom in the media tells us that even if viewers understand the numbers, they aren't compelled by them. What the American people want is news that is humanized for their consumption. This is why Gore and Bush try so hard to find normal people to illustrate their points. Gore, attempting to show that seniors really are being crushed by the price of prescription drugs, dug up a woman who, apparently, had to recycle cans in order to make ends meet, thanks to her prescription drug bills. No one pays attention to the actual numbers: just the face, however contrived, that we can put on the issue.

However, recent events have proven that Americans do, in fact, care about the issues behind politics. Last week, 25 million people tuned in for the season premiere of the West Wing, a show which garnered a record nine Emmy awards earlier this year, mostly because of its compelling coverage of the most technical issues in Washington. One episode from last season focused entirely on the Census; and even one of the more soporific concerns of the Census, whether statistical sampling should be allowed in determining the population of urban areas. No news organization outside of PBS' "Newshour with Jim Lehrer" would consider spending five minutes on the issue. Here, a dramatic program spent the better part of an hour on the debate. And people watch. And people enjoy it. And it wins awards. In a way, it wouldn't be unreasonable to say that "The West Wing" does a better job of covering issues in politics than the evening news does.

However, this doesn't mean that we should use it as our template for coverage. It is, in the end, fiction. What the success of "The West Wing" proves is that people do care about the issues, provided that they are presented in an interesting manner. It isn't that people don't care; it's that the media aren't trying hard enough to make people care.


History shows us one sure-fire way to increase news coverage of the debate: introduce third-party candidates into the fray. Inevitably, they make the debates more interesting, and they require the networks to distinguish between the issues of the candidates with more than the labels "Democrat" or "Republican." Even if Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan are fools to run, having them in the debates seems to ensure better coverage.

In all of this, of course, we have to consider that the news business is a business. Even if they have a responsibility to cover the issues, they also have to make a profit, or they won't be able to cover anything. Most people in the media see this as a balance that needs to be preserved. In newspapers, this is fairly easy: roughly half of the space is devoted to advertising, and the rest of the space, appropriately called the "newshole," is filled with the news. In television, however, the situation is much different. Television networks only function because the government allows them to use the airwaves. These airwaves are public property, and we allow broadcast stations to use them so that they can educate, entertain and inform us. Their very existence creates an obligation to the public, one that they cannot be allowed to shun. If their focus is on making a profit rather than serving the public through issues reporting, campaign coverage and in-depth news, if they deny any obligation to carry out their end of the bargain they have made with the public, they should be forced to pay for the airwaves they use. How much are the rights to broadcast on American television worth? There is no way to gauge any exact amount, but based on the market being broadcast to, a license is worth millions. This is the debt they owe us, and the debt on which they should not be allowed to continue to default.