SOLOMON: The Media Summer of 2000

The media summer of 2000 is now history. As leaves begin to fall, let's consider a few key dynamics of the political season that has just passed.

Despite complaints about smarmy orchestration and chronic pandering, the Republican and Democratic conventions resulted in gobs of deferential coverage. Some journalists rolled their eyes or even shed a bit of light on the big money bags behind the Oz-like curtains, but each party got what its backers paid for -- a week of mostly upbeat publicity.

Meanwhile, Americans saw very little news about the iron-fist tactics that police used in the host cities to suppress thousands of social-justice demonstrators. Evidently, several days of militarizing a downtown area is the latest new thing for laying down the political law.

In Philadelphia, while the Grand Old Party partied, police raided a protest headquarters. The gendarmes proceeded to confiscate and destroy large numbers of handmade puppets being readied for deployment in the streets. The crackdown was understandable, since art can be subversive. Better to be on the safe side!

Two weeks later, in Los Angeles, the Democratic show unfolded with frequent boasts of authentic inclusion. At the same time, outside Staples Center, the decidedly "unincluded" ran gauntlets of locked-down thoroughfares and rubber bullets. The American Civil Liberties Union quickly pointed out that police were targeting journalists for physical attack. But freedom prevailed: Demonstrators were invited to assemble in a designated "protest zone."

Realpolitik smarties seem to have convinced most reporters and pundits that the era of big government is -- or at least should be -- over. Evidently, the downsizing of the public sector includes the First Amendment. Don't worry, your One-Half Amendment rights are secure.

In the electoral arena, the "bipartisan" (translation: two-party monopoly) Commission on Presidential Debates has upheld the notion that small is beautiful. Narrow is great, too.

By mid-September, plans for the fall debates were just about complete, with only George W. Bush and Al Gore scheduled to square off. Most journalists seem happy with the match-up excluding Ralph Nader and Patrick Buchanan.

Although quite a few daily newspapers around the country have editorialized in favor of opening up the debates, elite national media seem comfortable with sticking to the two-party nominees. Political humorist Mark Russell gave voice to the prevailing media attitude: "Some say that Nader and Buchanan should be included in the debates. And while we're at it, let the Minor League Toledo Mudhens play in the World Series."

Ha ha. Well, that's settled.

However, a minor detail is worth noting. Most members of the public -- also known as "the American people" in politicspeak -- remain unenlightened about the virtues of confining the presidential debates to a pair of corporate-friendly politicians. According to a new Zogby poll, Reuters reports, "likely voters agree that third party candidates should participate in the debates." When citizens were presented with a list of a half-dozen potential participants, two of them -- Nader and Buchanan -- received majority support for inclusion.

As a public service, some commentators have done their best to drive down the poll numbers of the third party candidate with the most popular support. This summer, several widely syndicated columnists -- with Anthony Lewis of The New York Times in the lead, followed by such thinkers as The Boston Globe's Thomas Oliphant and The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne -- went after Nader with liberal vengeance.

Not coincidentally, there has been scant media interest in probing fundamental implications of the government's shoddy "regulatory" apparatus that made the Bridgestone/Firestone tragedies possible. Although still routinely tagged in news stories as a "consumer advocate," Nader and his awesome grasp of such issues did not intersect with the mass media frame.

News accounts of the lethal Firestone debacle have detoured around words like "crime" and "murder" -- which could be accurately applied to the premeditated cover-up decisions made in high corporate places. By the time autumn officially began, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was saying that at least 103 people died and more than 400 others were injured because of the defective tires.

"Corporate crime wave" doesn't exactly roll off the media tongue.

If a small group of thugs made decisions that caused the deaths of more than a hundred Americans, the airwaves and editorial pages would be filled with calls for severe punishment including long prison sentences or even executions. After all, in medialand, we cannot tolerate crime in the streets.

Crime in the suites is a very different matter.

It's so much easier to stick with bipartisan debates. Why complicate the media picture?

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