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CAMPAIGN 2000 | HOWARD ROSENBERG

Coverage Misses Its Political Opportunity

March 08, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG

If Tuesday was super, the TV reporting wasn't. Not always, anyway.

There was a time--in another epoch, it seems--when a big election was an event on Los Angeles television. But no more.

As far as most local stations were concerned, the California primary might as well have been the Caledonia primary. Coverage was spotty. KNBC-TV did supplant "Dateline NBC" with election coverage. And KABC-TV did briefly break into ABC's popular "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" for a story on the passage of Proposition 22 on gay marriage and later broke into "Sports Night" for an update package.

Although a few stations announced Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore as winners here when the California polls closed at 8 p.m., only KCAL-TV, which was beginning its evening news, bothered to carry Sen. John McCain's concession speech live.

Mostly, it was pretty much business as usual in a general display of indifference that was typical of the way this primary has been covered by TV here. Talk about thumbing your nose at an enormous news story.

As the national voting results arrived in bunches, the early evening's most cogent and best-organized coverage came from CNN, where Jeff Greenfield remained that rare reporter/commentator able to bring texture, context and humor to horse races that evoke only shrill whinnies from most of his competitors (MSNBC's overbearing Chris Matthews coming immediately to mind).

*

Meanwhile, CNN's Bill Schneider continued to be the Mr. Chips of election data. On MSNBC, Tim Russert was again a maven about election strategy. And affirming that smarts and experience do count, the Fox News Channel's Brit Hume was ever smooth and incisive. All of which you would expect from these scarred veterans of political wars.

But television is inevitably television.

So missing from this post-mortem, naturally, was a thoughtful discussion of ideas, as if this country's future would be shaped by the candidates' slogans and Tuesday exit polls instead of their vision. Would former Sen. Bill Bradley's candidacy be cremated or buried at sea? What sank Sen. John McCain? Would he try to carry on? Would Bush ever learn to tell a joke? On and on these sages went, one yada dissolving into another, while moving deeper into the evening with crucial New York initially too close too call.

It's a safe bet that no one will ever confuse any of these 24-hour news networks with Rodin's "The Thinker."

They have perfected and polished to a high gloss, in fact, the art of reporting about nothing. And even more stunningly, doing it in-depth.

The low point of this phenomenon Tuesday came hours before the evening's minions of schmoozing pundits had assembled to ponder and re-ponder these pivotal contests in 16 states. This nadir was an MSNBC segment putting under a microscope Bush's rebounding late-night appearance with Jay Leno on NBC-TV Monday following his flop last week with David Letterman on CBS-TV.

"Was he funnier this time around with Leno than he was with Letterman?" a political humorist was asked.

That this stroking of chins over something so trivial actually went on for several minutes confirmed how adept these news channels have become at holding their noses and shoveling You Know What into the great pit they are required to fill every day.

In their defense, by the arrival of Super Tuesday, there wasn't much left to say about the status of these matchups between Republicans Bush and McCain and Democrats Bradley and Gore.

What's more, credit these cable channels with supplying the overwhelming bulk of election coverage on TV this political season, the over-the-air networks (and their affiliates in Los Angeles) long ago having shed nearly all of this unwanted tonnage from their sagging shoulders.

But still, the afternoon hours leading to the closing of the polls found the news channels at their very worst.

The race to speculate was fierce, the competition to pontificate savage, the battle to forecast brutal, the urge to bury McCain and Bradley, based on polls, irresistible. By late morning, they were already past tenses. By noon, the "It's over for Bradley" mantra had risen to a deafening crescendo, as if actual news were being reported instead of presumptions based on polls.

"Hey, is this thing over?" Fox anchor Shepard Smith asked Gore advisor Marla Romash about the Democratic contest.

"No, not at all," she replied.

"Of course, it's over," he snapped.

Then . . . why did he bother to ask?

*

The media's compulsion to report what they think they know is always strong. And as it turned out, Bradley's candidacy did appear at an end. If you were a Bradley or even Gore supporter in states holding elections, and you hadn't yet voted, however, hearing your vote was meaningless would hardly get you off your can to hit the polls and cast your ballot. And if there were enough of you, your absences might have an impact on local and state races.

Not that the media would be to blame. If it's over, it's over.

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