Time to get real
The Florida-recount story proved
the public has a taste for substance.
But will the media follow through?
By Dan Kennedy
The 1990s — which, after all, didn’t officially end until 11:59:59 p.m. this past Sunday — was a decade of media one-downmanship. From all O.J. all the time to the secrets in JonBenét’s basement, from the death of Princess Diana to the staining of Monica Lewinsky’s dress, it was an era when the scandalous and/or the tawdry ruled the airwaves. More substantive matters were consigned to the dark corners, rarely to be seen or discussed.
GET THE BASTARDS:
in 2001 we should see reporters practice the sort of journalism first glamorized in Jason Robards’
1976 portrayal of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in All the President’s Men.
But as a new year (and decade and century and millennium) dawns, I’m actually optimistic. The reason: the post-election fiasco in Florida.
Yes, on one level it was outrageous. George W. Bush, loser of the national election by more than a half-million votes, essentially stole the presidency by using every tactic at his disposal to prevent tens of thousands of legitimately cast ballots from being examined. And the media let him get away with it by portraying his maneuvers as morally equivalent to Al Gore’s bid to have all the votes counted — a bid, I’ll admit, that was tainted by Gore’s own opportunism, but that never reached the breathtaking depths of Bush’s naked grab for power.
What gives me hope, though, is not the outcome, and certainly not the media’s inadequate performance. Rather, it’s the way the public’s attention was riveted to something truly important.
Think back to two emblematic moments: the oral arguments before the US Supreme Court that took place on December 1 and 11. On each day, the networks broadcast audio tapes of the just-concluded 90-minute sessions, the only visuals being still photos of the participants, punctuated by that endlessly repeated file footage of the justices gathering for their team photo. The arguments were highly technical, often arcane, filled — as Bush would put it — with legalistic language. And the public ate it up.
“It may embolden members of the media to once again conclude that the public’s attention span is more than a 20-second soundbite,” says Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman.
The story was particularly well-suited to media that cater to news junkies. According to the Washington Post, for instance, the combined viewership of CNN, MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel averaged 3.2 million on November 8, 9, and 10, the early, most dramatic days of the post-campaign. By contrast, the average combined audience during the third quarter — when there was, if you’ll recall, a presidential campaign under way — was just 631,000. The New York Times reported that the Web sites CNN.com and MSNBC.com each attracted between 12 million and 15 million individual users in November — up from fewer than 10 million in October, the final run-up to the election.
Of course, far more Americans get their news from the Big Three broadcast networks than from cable outlets or the Internet. But even there, the Florida story was dominant. According to the Tyndall Report, a newsletter that tracks coverage on ABC, NBC, and CBS, the networks devoted nearly all of their evening newscasts to the Florida recount during the six weeks between Election Day and Gore’s final concession — a far more extensive commitment than they ever made during the campaign itself, when they blew off virtually all of the primary-season debates (the only exception being a Bill Bradley–Al Gore encounter on Meet the Press) and could barely stir themselves to cover the two national conventions.
“I’ve long thought that the media generally, and television in particular, underestimates the public,” says University of Virginia government professor Larry Sabato, a longtime media observer. “Real events matter. Never in my life have so many people stopped me at the grocery store to talk about politics. We’ve got the potential for a renaissance in civic interest.”
So what is to be done with this renewed interest in politics? Can it be sustained? Or will we soon be on to the next sex-and-celebrity-drenched media moment? The early signs are not all positive. CNN, the most sober of the all-news outlets, is dumbing down, dumping a lot of its hard-news coverage in favor of a cheap talk-show approach starring the likes of loud-mouthed legal analyst Greta Van Susteren. Nor can we be sure that news organizations will stick with substance now that the once-in-a-lifetime drama of the Florida recount is behind us.
Within days of Bush’s being declared the president-elect, after all, MSNBC was broadcasting wall-to-wall coverage of — yes! — the christening of Madonna’s baby.
Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect a medium as ephemeral as television to do anything other than move on to the next hot subject. Fortunately, TV is not what drives the journalistic conversation. To an extent that’s not always appreciated in this post-literate era, the culture of journalism remains largely a print culture. Yes, far more people watch the network newscasts than read the New York Times or the Washington Post, but the newscasts themselves are largely shaped by the agendas that the national papers choose to pursue.
And there are signs that, at least as far as the press is concerned, the Florida story isn’t over yet. Not even close. The Times, the Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Miami Herald, using Florida’s freedom-of-information laws, are all doing their own count of the rejected punch-card ballots. Their efforts won’t necessarily reveal the identity of the real winner: such an exercise is necessarily subjective, depending on such things as whether or not you count a dimpled chad. But by going ahead and doing what Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris refused to allow, the papers will shed considerable light on exactly what went wrong, and how to prevent it from happening again.
And those are hardly the only issues the press has been following up. The Orlando Sentinel, for instance, has been looking at paper ballots that were rejected by optical-scanning machines because they contained two votes for president — and has found that a considerable number of them were actually botched votes for Gore. Now, if anyone had thought to recount these so-called overvote ballots, they might have put Gore over the top. (Mickey Kaus, of Slate and KausFiles.com, speculates that the Sentinel found more overvotes for Gore than Bush — even in a Republican county won by Bush — because Gore attracted more inexperienced, first-time voters who marked the space for Gore, then marked the write-in space and wrote “Gore” just to be sure.)
Even more important, the controversy over whether the African-American vote was held down through intimidation, the use of error-filled lists of felons (who cannot vote under Florida law), and the presence of shoddy vote-counting equipment in majority-black precincts continues to simmer. The Times, the Post, and Salon have already produced some excellent reporting on such ballot-box discrimination. But the final word has yet to be written.
Jason Robards, who died on December 26, was symbolic of the media’s tug-of-war between substance and image. One of his greatest roles was as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in All the President’s Men, the 1976 movie that inspired thousands of young people to enter journalism school. But that’s just the point: Robards wasn’t a courageous editor; he played one. It was Hollywood’s idea of journalism, not journalism itself, that was celebrated. Yes, Bradlee, Bob Woodward, and Carl Bernstein brought down a president, and yes, they would have been household names even if the movie had never been produced. But the movie made Watergate exponentially more appealing to aspiring reporters.
The journalism depicted in that mythic piece of moviemaking could never live up to reality, so it’s unsurprising that the journalism many of these young people came to practice was one of cynicism more than substance. The media were largely passive in covering Iran-contra, the great scandal of the 1980s (broken, if you’ll recall, by a small magazine in Syria). Political coverage in the ’90s — what was left of it, anyway — consisted mainly of horse-race prognostication, the Lewinsky scandal, and such pointless blathering as whether Gore was too much of a liar and Bush too stupid to be president.
Consider the media role-reversal that has taken place since the 1970s, when journalists were considered heroes and politicians such as Richard Nixon were (rightly) seen as the scum of the earth. Today, polls show that the vast majority of the public loathes the media — and one of the most popular shows on television is West Wing, which portrays the president and his staff as sympathetic, hard-working, fully realized human beings. As Matthew Miller wrote in Brill’s Content last March, the show “presents a truer, more human picture of the people behind the headlines than most of today’s Washington journalists.”
We are about to embark on a remarkable few years. A president who lost the popular vote, and probably would have lost the Electoral College too if his minions hadn’t stolen Florida, enters office pushing right-wing crazies down our throats such as attorney general–designate John Ashcroft (who once praised a pro-Confederate magazine that interviewed him) and interior-secretary nominee Gale Norton (a protégée of anti-environmental extremist James Watt). Bush also continues to talk up nutty ideas such as his $1.3 trillion tax cut, most of which would go to the wealthy. This isn’t just bad policy — it’s not even what the country voted for.
The lesson for the media is not to suck up to the incoming administration as though it consisted of Josiah Bartlet and company. Rather, it is to take their job seriously — to keep reporting important stories, and not to substitute cynicism for serious-mindedness.
“There was a gleam in his eye that said, ‘Got the bastards!’ ” wrote the Washington Post’s Lloyd Rose in praising Robards’s portrayal of Bradlee. In the years since, the noble sentiment behind “got the bastards” has devolved into “gotcha,” the mindless, meaningless entrapment of politicians in small inconsistencies and hypocrisies.
Now it’s the dawn of 2001. And there are bastards to be gotten once again.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.