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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Weary of It All, Maybe, but Nation Talks of Little Else

Reaction: Steady barrage of media coverage finds a willing, even eager, audience. From late-night comics to bumper stickers, everyone has an opinion.

November 16, 2000|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a bone-chilling wind whipped through Times Square, Frank Lazar lingered with other New Yorkers on Wednesday to stare up at a giant television screen beaming the latest presidential election news. He was late for work and turning blue, yet the image--and the story--stopped him in his tracks.

"This whole thing has been so diverting, it's taken up a great deal of time in my office. And it certainly makes up for what was a very dull campaign," said the computer system designer. "You can't escape it."

Americans may be weary and perhaps disgusted by the Battle of Florida, but they also are mesmerized by it. In many homes, offices, stores and Internet chat rooms, the talk is of little else--even though some profess to be appalled by the political circus and the media's often overheated coverage.

A week after pundits whipsawed the nation with false projections of winners and losers, America's electoral train wreck has become yet another media spectacular, an unscripted disaster movie lurching toward an uncertain conclusion. And while people voice conflicting emotions, they haven't panicked. A host of commentators predicted last week that the public would lose patience with an interminable battle. But Americans seem willing to let the issue play out as long as they get to put in their two cents' worth.

At Stanford University's School of Business in Palo Alto, for example, information project manager Stephen M.H. Braitman said election gridlock has been dominating conversations, especially when news breaks about the latest lawsuit 3,000 miles away. As stories move on the Internet, he said, "people talk about them and it becomes a real buzzing discussion. People go back to their work, and suddenly [George W.] Bush's lead is 300 votes, and then people talk some more. So you have this eruptive behavior in response to the news events.

"I can't remember a story as invasive as this one has become. It's historic, strange, important and amusing all at once."

It's also quite a show--from late-night comics outdoing themselves to bumper stickers reading "Don't blame me, I think I voted for Gore," to Pizza Hut commercials mocking America's political indecision.

"As long as people are laughing, I don't think we're in danger of a constitutional crisis," said political analyst and columnist Charles Cook. "Americans may not have shown up for the presidential election, since barely 50% of them actually voted, but they sure do love to talk about it."

The media, naturally, is all too happy to oblige: Television ratings for all-news cable channels like MSNBC, CNN and Fox News Channel have reached historic levels on several postelection days, according to Nielsen Media Research. Newspapers are filled with election news, and the Internet is crackling with 24-hour information. The hunger for it seems insatiable.

"I usually don't engage people in a lot of political conversations," says Bronxville, N.Y., attorney Cindy Tague. "But I got into a discussion about this with a UPS deliveryman the other day. I'm appalled at what [Al] Gore is trying to get away with, and I just couldn't keep quiet about it."

At a Seattle gas station, accountant Angela Watson was riveted Wednesday by a TV screen showing the latest CNN report. "I've been watching all I can. I'm not worried, but I am fascinated. Whoever wins, we'll all remember this. It's certainly the first time in a long time I haven't been bored waiting for an oil change."

Back in Times Square, under the giant screen, cable TV employee Marilyn Schwartz smoldered when she saw Regis Philbin display a front-page photo of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Then she started shouting: "Enough already! This whole thing is nonsense!" Would she stop watching? "No way. I'm hooked."

This grass-roots obsession is more intense now than it would have been four years ago, many observers say, because the structure of the media landscape has changed profoundly. The presence of all-news cable networks, talk radio and Internet chatter, combined with existing media outlets, means that election news runs in a 24-hour stream. Even though there may not be new developments to report every 20 minutes, all-news outlets compete fiercely for customers, ratcheting up the intensity of the coverage.

"The media certainly have a vested interest in making this as dramatic and compelling a story as they can," said Jim Carey, professor of journalism at Columbia University. "On the one hand, they don't want a constitutional disaster. But on the other hand, they say: 'Gee, we can fill three hours of the "Today" show with something more than gardening tips and Ricky Martin. There's a real honest to goodness story out there!' "

Still, every story has its limits, and so far the American people seem to be showing restraint, said USC journalism professor Bryce Nelson.

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