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Ambushed by Potemkin Journalism

Sound-bite coverage and PAC-orchestrated campaigns have turned politics into a niche forthe media elite.

November 06, 1996|WILLIAM BRADLEY | William Bradley, an advisor in several Democratic presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, writes the New West Notes newsletter. E-mail:

Oh, that Rupert Murdoch! After vowing that his fledgling TV news operation would validate his huge investment by providing major election night coverage on Fox, the global godfather of tabloid media blindsided the other broadcast networks by instead airing "Beethoven," a comedy about a St. Bernard. It was the latest blow against conventional media coverage, not to mention another sign that the political process is going, um, to the dogs. First came the dramatically downsized coverage of and ratings for last summer's Republican and Democratic conventions, which had supposedly been made viewer-friendly as infotainment events. Then came the presidential and vice presidential debates--more accurately characterized by Dan Rather as "joint appearances"--whose avoidance of big ideas was matched by their drastically shrunken viewership.

Nearly 40% fewer Americans watched this year's presidential debate than did in 1992, 1988 and 1984. The audience was just half that of 1980. The vice presidential debate was an even bigger bust, with barely half the 1992 viewership for what was said by many insiders to be a preview of Campaign 2000. Welcome to the era of post-prime-time politics, marked by less coverage, more money and less engagement.

We had already seen the erosion of the national town square, first as the primacy of print gave way to that of television, then as network television itself found its broad sway diminished by new technologies (expanded local newscasts, a profusion of cable channels and the emergence of the Internet), social fragmentation and the mercantile value of choice.

The consensus this town square ended up promoting was often false, but it was accompanied by the credible semblance of a civic culture. Now that semblance is vanishing.

Nearly 60% of Americans say they get their news primarily from TV, and only 23% from newspapers. With politics disappearing from prime time, newscasts become even more important. But here, too, the great vanishing act continues.

When the Rocky Mountain Media Watch surveyed 72 local TV newscasts around the country one night last month, it found more than two-thirds aired not one story about local or state elections. As for the national broadcast networks, a respected media newsletter, the Tyndall Report, says that election coverage on network newscasts was down 35% from 1992.

What this means is that public affairs--even presidential politics--has become niche media, dealt with mostly by the likes of CNN, PBS and C-SPAN.

Ignorance and apathy play their part, of course. Decades of grade and test inflation, coinciding with the television age, have taken their toll. But the technological and sociological factors leading to our post-prime time political era are more than matched by crises in politics and journalism.

The virtual politics of the time--in which history is not so much made as it is replaced by "moments," political resonances detached from historical continuity and intellectual coherence, driven by the metastasizing cancer of special-interest money--is accompanied by Potemkin journalism. In it, the Potemkin village that our political debate has become is taken as real.

Sound bites, surface positioning and "gotcha" personal scandals are the stock-in-trade of Potemkin journalism. It's the trap of beat reporting and news-as-product, leading inexorably to the odd spectacle of 15,000 journalists covering conventions in which no news was committed and few Americans who were not paid to do so had any particular interest.

Some have proposed "public journalism"--focusing on issues instead of conflict--as an alternative. But the choice is an empty one. Conflict-averse political "news" is no more real than polite "debates" that touch on many issues but manage to avoid any discussion of our corrupt political system, our globalizing economy or how we might actually balance our budget beyond cutting that tiny portion called welfare.

On the morning after such a dispirited election, it would be heartening to say that solutions are in sight. Unfortunately, that's true only of the problems. But the rise of post-prime-time politics may actually be good for the nation, in that it punctures the comforting illusion of relevance.

For Bill Clinton, these are the good old days. For those who want politics and journalism to focus on the challenges of the future, the boulder is at the bottom of the hill.

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