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How TV Killed Democracy on Nov. 7

February 14, 2001|TODD GITLIN | Todd Gitlin, a professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University, is author of "Sacrifice" (Henry Holt & Co., 1999)

Suppose that a first cousin of Al Gore had been running one of the network news teams issuing election night projections. Suppose that, having previously recused himself from a columnist job, saying his objectivity would suffer from family loyalty, this cousin had chatted with Gore six times on election day. Suppose that the same cousin had been first to declare Gore as the winner in Florida on election night, helping coax the rival networks to follow suit, leading George W. Bush to call up Gore in order to concede, thereby helping create a presumption that Gore was the duly elected president of the United States long before all the votes had been counted.

Can anyone reasonably doubt that the pundits would be working themselves into a nonstop lather charging "the liberal media" as accessories to grand larceny? Can we imagine, say, Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel right-leaning barking heads dropping the subject?

Just kidding, of course. John Ellis, the cousin in question, is George W. Bush's. Ellis' own account reports his chatty times with his cousin. The network is Rupert Murdoch's. Murdoch defends Ellis in these words: "Every journalist is desperately trying to get in touch with candidates--that's their job." Just as the U.S. Supreme Court enunciated a special rule for Bush vs. Gore, shutting down the Florida vote count by suddenly discovering the principle of equal protection of the law in an election--a principle it hadn't troubled itself to notice since Jim Crow days--the media have "moved on," as they like to say, to show business as usual.

As the House Energy and Commerce Committee begins hearings today on the networks' bad election night calls, let it also consider the tremendous subsidy that our political system hands the media plutocrats. The maximum network commitment is to convenience their own status quo. In more than one way, the television networks conduct themselves as if democratic elections take place for their own delectation.

It's rare for network arrogance to matter as egregiously as on Nov. 7. But Ellis' private family channels are the tip of a grander scandal, which is the dominance of the national voicebox by vastly profitable organizations, their pundits tilting rightward as they blare their talking points, stripping everyone else's sound bites to seven seconds each, all the while operating on public airwaves, collecting hundreds of millions of dollars from political ads while lobbying furiously against campaign finance reform.

Try finding a discussion of these issues on any news network. The barking heads who usurp the space of public affairs with high-volume jeers are not equal-opportunity offenders. Ever since Ronald Reagan's presidency, when George Will, the president's debate chum, became inescapable in newspapers, magazines and on television, there has been no left-of-center equivalent. Would Jim Lehrer's "Newshour" tolerate a Democrat who, like its regular Paul Gigot, the Wall Street Journal columnist, celebrated a riot (the one that had been organized on Nov. 22 by Republican operatives to shut down the Miami-Dade vote count)? Onetime Democrats like Chris Matthews and Tim Russert have absorbed the pugnacious atmosphere, with Matthews insulting anyone to his left and Russert flattering the likes of Rush Limbaugh, kowtowing to James Baker while cutting off Warren Christopher, and telling viewers no fewer than three times on Nov. 8 that, the way things were going in Florida, it was time for Al Gore to play statesman and concede. Not one barking head ever suggested that Bush concede under any conditions whatever.

The election night debacle was not partisan, but it dovetails nicely with normal network presumption. Embarrassed, the networks have been a tiny bit chastened. ABC, CBS and NBC appointed in-house commissions to see where they went wrong in their statewide projections, having suddenly been shocked--shocked!--to discover that by rushing their judgments, not only do they affect voting elsewhere across our six time zones, but candidates may make crucial decisions on the basis of TV projections.

But don't let anyone tell you that the Voter News Service is to blame all by itself. The Associated Press, which is co-proprietor, received the same dubious Florida projections but did not announce them. Of course the AP does not have advertising dollars at risk in rushing to judgment.

It's rare, of course, for network arrogance to loom so large, just as it's rare for vote malfeasance to tilt an election. It's also rare for an airliner to crash. Nevertheless, when it does crash, we expect the authorities to figure out exactly what happened and what needs reforming.

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