Cohen & Solomon: TV Networks Election-Year Resolutions

Four years ago, the TV networks came up with some grand new year's resolutions -- promising high quality election-year coverage of the 1992 campaign. "There was way too much manipulation of television news in 1988," said CNN political director Tom Hannon, lamenting that TV "played a major role" in a "far too narrow discussion of the issues." Coverage in 1992 was going to be much different. Despite all the noble vows, it wasn't. In retrospect, the fervent pledges of four years ago are a bit eerie -- like a bad dream that keeps repeating itself. "There is a strong conviction on the part of news people to redress some of the problems we saw in 1988," Hannon declared. Tim Russert of NBC News chimed in by deploring the emphasis on fluffy campaign appearances: "In 1988, by the time George Bush went to his third flag factory, we should have known something was up." Indeed. But in early 1992, the same top network news producers who had pledged to give us substantive treatment of issues turned right around and made sure that Gennifer Flowers became a household name. It's easy to swear off superficial reporting of election campaigns. The TV networks have done it plenty of times. But to get on the road less traveled, here are some steps yet to be taken: * Stop reporting the campaign as primarily a "horse race." Already the horse-racing is routine for the '96 presidential contest. We hear a lot about polls and even rumors of polls. The situation is so absurd that sometimes a candidate's "surge" or "setback" amounts to less than a poll's margin of error. Solution: Concentrate on examining where candidates stand on the issues, not where they stand in the polls. * Issues, please. This winter, network coverage is filled with analysis of how developments in Congress and the White House may affect election- year hopes of individual candidates. Solution: Keep in mind that the psychodramas and ambitions of particular politicians are not what's important about elections. * Jump off the knee-jerk "family values" bandwagon. Some candidates love to equate "family values" with denouncing gay people, abortion rights or rap music. Yet, real "family values" might more accurately apply to child care, adequate funding for welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, federal jobs programs and a higher minimum wage. Solution: Stop reflexively using "family values" to sanctify certain political positions. * Don't give campaign commercials a pass. Amid much self-congratulation, the mass media did some tough reporting on the accuracy of campaign commercials in 1992. But since then the practice has been infrequent. Solution: Methodically report on the veracity of candidate commercials. Campaign strategists should find out the hard way that when they play with the truth they'll pay the consequences. When advertised "facts" are false, let the public know in a big way. * Drop the cliches about "special interests." Media reports commonly use the negative phrase "special interests" to describe groups of many millions of Americans, such as elderly people, workers, blacks, women and the poor -- as though their concerns were somehow narrow or selfish. In contrast, the pejorative "special interests" label rarely gets stuck on monied interests in industries like oil, banking, insurance and agribusiness. Solution: Retire the buzz-phrase "special interests" -- or start using it to refer to interests that use money, not people, to unduly influence politics. * In-depth information about campaign funding. Television news rarely provides details about the large contributors paying for campaigns -- and how their largess has coincided with a favored candidate's stands on issues. Solution: Instead of merely mentioning how much money each candidate has raised, news reports should explain who the big funders are -- and what interests they represent. As a reminder to viewers, it would help to display the corporate logos of major contributors when a candidate appears on the screen. Such changes may do nothing for TV news division ledgers. But unless the networks make substantial changes -- and stick to them -- the latest pledges to improve campaign coverage are doomed to go the way of most new year's resolutions.

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