Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Networks Sleep While Democracy Burns

Sometimes mainstream media reveal their failures in displays so stark that it makes the job of media critics too easy.

NBC, ABC and CBS frequently forget to serve their viewers, to be sure, but certain miscues are a special boon for bloggers and media reformers, who work tirelessly to show that the titans of the mainstream consistently miss the most important stories of our time.

Network coverage of the political conventions this week and next is a case in point, as American politics takes a back seat to mainstream media reality.

The "Big Three" have decided that democracy is bad for business, and are treating viewers to excited hormones (ABC's "High School Musical"), miniskirts (NBC's "Deal or No Deal") and bachelor hi-jinks (CBS's "Two and a Half Men") instead of Democratic and Republican convention coverage in Denver and Minneapolis.

Citizens v. Consumers

At PBS, where "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" still thinks of its audience as "citizens rather than consumers," the conventions will be covered from gavel to gavel. ABC, CBS and NBC are yielding little more than an hour of prime time on most convention nights.

This is the sad reality of a corporate media that prefer laugh-tracks and the bottom line to political discourse.

While the networks yuk it up with sitcoms and teen libido, the message they're sending the American public is that the most important political gatherings of the last four years don't merit the nation's full attention - and certainly matter less than the standard prime-time fare offered up on any other night.

Television and the Age of Apathy

The damage goes beyond that: In the era of television elections voter turnout has been stuck between 50 and 55 percent. Over the same period, many young voters (aged 18 to 24) have increasingly passed on voting altogether - there's been a steady decline in youth turnout, despite spikes during the 1992 and 2004 general elections.

Even when they tune in network news, the public is spoon-fed coverage that rarely reflects the viewing public's political interests.

NBC, ABC, CBS and their cable counterparts overwhelmingly portray the elections as a horse race pitting TV-ready personalities against one another. Obama is the inexperienced firebrand, McCain the seasoned, straight-talking maverick. This drama may play well on the small screen, but it accomplishes little towards informing voters about the candidates' political views.

According to MediaTenor research from the 2004 presidential elections, less than 5 percent of networks newscasts dealt with candidates' positions on policy issues, such as health care, education, the war in Iraq, the economy and employment -- even though American voters consistently rank these topics as the "most important issues for the government to address."

The same pattern can be seen on the news in 2008. Candidates are not being identified according to their stances on the issues, but by their posture of the day. As a result, too much coverage emphasizes immediacy and spin over substance and issues. Who's up in the latest polls? Who scored the latest zinger on the campaign trail?

In 2004: Worm Munching Trumps Obama

In the face of this critique, network executives have circled their news vans and lobbed criticism at the conventions themselves.

In 2004, NBC's then anchor Tom Brokaw called the conventions heavily scripted "infomercials" not worthy of news. That year, NBC fed viewers a prime-time diet of worm munching on "Fear Factor" instead of featuring the debut of rising political star Barack Obama, who took the stage in Boston, delivered an electrifying speech and launched his political prospects.

NBC was not alone. ABC and CBS also deemed that historic moment as "too scripted" for prime time.

To be fair, conventions are designed by the parties to spin their candidate before the media, but it's up to the networks to unpack the hype and deliver real political analysis and breaking news to their audience.

Turning their cameras on is a start.

No comments: