Throwing Pies at the Media's Election Coverage
December, 13, 2000 -- This original column went up ten hours before the Supremes in black gave democracy another black eye. Now, a kind word must be said. The coverage of the Supreme Court decision, which in essence gives Dubya the White House, was handled well by the journalists I watched. CNN, ABC's "Nightline" and PBS's Charlie Rose all zoned in on the clearly political character of a decision which made clear, if it wasn't already, that the High Court would not go higher and transcend partisanship. Why I was so sure that they would find a cleverer and less blatantly one-sided remedy just underscores the persistence of my own residual illusions.
For once, the news media focused on a judicial dissent, even as most of it had ignored political dissent during the campaign season. Over and over the words of Associate Justice John Paul Stevens rang out through the late night electronic haze: "Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election," he warned eloquently, "the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law." So, in the full media gaze, the Court joins the candidates, the parties, the lawyers and, yes, most of the media itself for reasons cited below, in a Hall of Shame from which we may not soon extricate ourselves.
And on a personal note, an amusing discovery. While shuffling through some papers in an overstuffed archive, I came across a faded document about a fellowship in politics that I won when I was still a graduate student. It led me into a brief stint as an Assistant to the Mayor of Detroit. Back then, I was seemingly poised for a career in professional politics. There I was, if you look at the photo, clean, coiffed and conservative looking. Next to me on the page was a fellow fellow who did not turn away, as I did later, from the seductions of serving power. He was moving into the system; I was soon to move against it. His name yes, it's true Richard B. Cheney! ( I don't remember him as a Dick then.) There used to be six degrees of separation. Not any more. So now it can be revealed: the Dissector-Cheney connection!
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The American election drama has so far had the effect of delegitimizing virtually every institution that it sucks into its vortex. Voting and politics have lost credibility. Lawyers and the courts seem lost in arcane arguments and slanted verdicts. The U.S. Supreme Court no longer appears above the fray. And then there's the media, which continue to come off as a one-note pack, breathlessly scurrying to pump out "breaking news" while chasing lawyers and their "contests" in a way that often misses more important stories.
As Shakespeare had it with respect to Hamlet's Denmark: Something is rotten. Maybe it is just as well that the deep flaws in our allegedly democratic system finally surface for all to see.
On one of those endless quickie polls that infest TV news these days, there was the following from ABC's "PrimeTime Thursday." As is often the case, the only way major media treat the public's growing estrangement from the process and their coverage of it is to turn it into a joke and trivialize it. May I share what I saw on one of Disney's news magazines:
Thursday, November 30, 2000
(This is an unedited, uncorrected transcript.)
CHARLES GIBSON: Is our system of electing a president working, or is it broken? Forty-one percent said it's working, 57 percent said it's broken. And then a third question we threw in just for fun [emphasis mine DS]: Who most deserves a pie in the face, Al Gore, George Bush, the media or the lawyers? Al Gore got the highest percentage. The media got 23 percent. I thought sure it would be the lawyers. We came out worse than the lawyers did.
TEXT ON SCREEN: Taking America's Pulse: Who Most Deserves A Pie In The Face?
Al Gore 27%
George W. Bush 19%
The Media 23%
The Lawyers 18%
None of the Above 12%
DIANE SAWYER: I thought we'd come out worse.
CHARLES GIBSON: You did?
DIANE SAWYER: And I think everybody's being polite to us, since some of the time, with all this coverage, I want to throw a pie in my own face. So. ...
CHARLES GIBSON: If you run into us in the street, forget we ever did this.
DIANE SAWYER: Right.
CHARLES GIBSON: Our instant poll.
DIANE SAWYER: Right. And we thank you all for joining us tonight. So glad to have you with us....
Run that by me again.
ABC reveals that over half of the people polled say the system is in deep trouble, even as the program buries its own lead by reporting the views of the minority first ("41 percent say ..."). But when they talk about their own role, when Diane Sawyer speaks of "us," they reveal mixed feelings toward their own profession. They don't cover the media's role because the media's impact is central and worth examining. Oh, no. They raise it as an afterthought as Charles Gibson puts it, "just for fun." No one is really laughing except perhaps me, when in an unexpected outburst of network candor, Sawyer, one of ABC's principal newscasters, admits without any explanation, natch, that in her heart of hearts she thinks the public should have turned more against the media. And that she, the savvy Sawyer, wants to throw a pie in her own face.
Somehow I don't think I will live to see that.
If it is true that over a fifth of viewers are hostile to the media, it is probably because of that election-night snafu when what seemed like an inaccurate electoral projection about the outcome in Florida was broadcast. (If viewers knew more about the media's role as lap dog, not watchdog, to most politicians, that percentage would surely climb.) Everyone remembers that "Florida for Gore" call, and then the embarrassing retraction, followed by "Florida for Bush," followed by another "oops," and then, "too close to call."
The networks and their detractors had a field day with this "mistake," apologizing up and down the broadcast spectrum for rushing to judgment. But could it be that the networks were right all along? That their first call, based on exit polls, was accurate in that a majority of Floridians did vote for Gore, and the problem was actually that several thousand did not have their votes properly counted? Will that be history's verdict, whatever the Supremes or other judges, in their infinite wisdom, pronounce? As I write, it is not clear who will be the ultimate winner, the one with the bragging rights to have stolen it "fair and square."
Breathless and Brainless
This story has become addictive, which is just fine with the TV companies. They are thrilled about the higher ratings and revenues. The progressive media critic Norman Solomon has, to my surprise, praised the coverage, writing: "For more than a month now, the intensity of post-election coverage has been remarkable especially on the nation's cable news channels." My friend T.J. Walker, a more liberal pundit, is also happy: "For the first time since MSNBC, Fox News Channel, Court TV, CNN and the Internet have all existed together, here is a big news story that isn't dependent on breasts or blood. Doesn't that count for something? Washington political commentators have temporarily stopped confessing to their mothers that they wished they had become sports announcers or entertainment journalists."
I am not sure he's right much of this coverage is entertainment coverage, or "electotainment," as Time magazine calls it. I was impressed when a real entertainment executive issued a challenge to the news media at a New York rally I attended. As The New York Times reported it: "Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax Films and a prominent Gore campaign supporter, who was at the rally, challenged the news media to dig deeper into the Florida election, likening it to Watergate. ... '[T]wo reporters broke a story and brought a government down in America,' Mr. Weinstein said. 'Where is that courage now? Break this story, break the fraud. If you do, I'll make a great movie about it.' " Now that's an incentive today's celebrity wannabe journalists will relate to.
Oxford University professor Timothy Garton Ash compared the TV coverage to a soap opera called "Democracy." "In civics textbooks, children should be taught," he wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, "that next to the traditional three powers of executive, legislative and judiciary, there is now the fourth power, television." Another British critic, D. Morley, is quoted in Greg Philo and David Miller's new collection of essays "Market Killing: What the Free Market Does and What Social Scientists Can Do About It" (Longman) (in which your News Dissector also appears) to the effect that "contemporary elections in the west are principally 'TV events.' They have their principal existence in and through the medium of television." This is something that Ash also understands, even if many American reporters do not, noting: "What we need after 'Democracy' is another soap opera that shows us the true workings of television: the personal politics and high connections of anchormen and executives ..." Hey, prof, welcome to the MediaChannel.
The TV networks have thrown their resources into what's been called "breathless and often brainless coverage." Curiously, at the same time many on-air media pundits seem to long for it all to be wrapped up as quickly as possible. How many times have you heard media wise men speak of how the public is tiring and impatient when the polls show the opposite? Columnist David Corn cites and refutes an all-too-typical example: "Appearing on an NPR [National Public Radio] station in Los Angeles, conservative commentator David Frum said that Gore's stay-and-fight stance riled people so much because it symbolized a 40-year trend in which the rules of society have been undermined. (Yep, blame it on the '60s.) But Frum did not name any rule that Gore had violated." To my surprise and to his credit, conservative columnist Christopher Caldwell admits: "It will be months before any journalist is able to think about it with a head cleared of partisanship." Personally, I kind of like all this partisanship. At least it is passionate, after a campaign that went out of its way to be as bland as possible, with the two candidates agreeing more than disagreeing during what passed for "debates."
Hysteria is being inflamed by the likes of the contemptible Taki, Caldwell's colleague at the New York Press, who warns America to "wake up" or lose its freedom. "Most of this great country is overwhelmingly for Bush," he asserts, complaining that only "a few high-density urban areas where new immigrants and racial minorities constitute a high percentage of the population decide which way the country is going." You be the judge if this assessment is racist or not, but it certainly brings to the surface a clear rationale for why the "Bush Team" (both camps are called teams, as if politics were now considered a sport) would be doing its darndest to exclude voters of color, which is the big election scandal that has, for the most part, been downplayed. Civil rights groups understand this and are trying to make as big a fuss as they can though they've so far failed to force their issues onto the news agenda. Former Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workers, who fought for the right to vote in the South in the 1960s and with whom I worked decades ago, have come out of retirement to protest voter rights violations. Was their letter reported? If so, I missed it. There have also been complaints from disabled and vision- and hearing-impaired voters in Florida.
More Absent Stories
Other problems cry out for more coverage. Texas radio host and political humorist Jim Hightower says the media are chasing the wrong explanation for the allegedly disappearing votes for Gore: "These votes weren't 'lost' to misaligned butterfly ballots, pregnant chads or some conniving election official who deposited them in a closet. Rather, these were the uncast ballots of almost half of the American electorate, who chose not to vote this year largely because they feel they've been cast out of the process by a vacuous, cynical and elitist political system that no longer addresses their needs and aspirations. These mostly are middle- and low-income folks, people making less than $50,000 a year. While they make up some 80 percent of the U.S. population, exit polls on November 7 found that for the first time they've fallen to less than half of the voting population." Hightower blames "New Democrats" like Gore and Lieberman for this, not the Bushwhacking Republicans. Hightower is on to something that rarely gets reported on election night when it seems that everyone is voting. They are not.
Another underreported story has to do with the technology used in our screwy voting system. The Miami Herald says the chad problem has been there for years: "Screw open the back of any baby blue Votomatic machine in Miami-Dade County and thousands of chads may fall out from its holding chambers." But some of the "solutions" proposed to solve this problem, which was rarely, if at all, reported before the election may open the door to worse abuses, as Virginia Collier points out in "Your Stolen Vote":
"Hand-counted paper ballots, the only completely verifiable vote-counting system, have been nearly eradicated in the United States over the past thirty years. This wasn't an accident, or the benevolence of progress. The new punch-card system widely instituted across the country was remarkably easy to rig. But documented evidence of massive vote fraud shaved wheels, pre-printed internal voting results, forged canvass sheets, broken ballot boxes with replaceable seals created the need for a more subtle approach. Now the punch card is being replaced by the computer voting machine the most unverifiable, riggable voting system ever created. There is no longer a paper trail, no way to go back and recount if fraud is suspected. All the workings of the machines are hidden from the public eye and the eyes of election officials. The corporations that write the vote-counting software don't consider themselves accountable to the public and refuse access to the source codes that program the machines, claiming they are "trade secrets." These corporations are paid big bucks pedaling their wares to compliant elections officials who willingly step aside, abdicating their responsibility to oversee the safety of the vote count."
Can this be true? If so, it is a much bigger story than the unproved rumors of an affair between George W.'s brother Jeb and Florida Secretary of State Kathleen Harris flying around the Internet which "Saturday Night Live" satirized with a hysterical made-up soap opera called "Palm Beach" on December 9.
Now that's a story PrimeTime might look into.
"Just for fun," of course.
Danny Schechter is the executive editor of MediaChannel and the author of "News Dissector" (Electronpress.com) and "Falun Gong's Challenge to China" (Akashicbooks.com).