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Media don’t give it to us straight

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, April 9, 1996

National media practices and the conduct of journalists are in the limelight again. Example: A new study by the non-profit Center for Media and Public Affairs shows that the campaign news reports of the three major networks on the GOP primary season from January 1 to March 4 devoted more than five times more airtime to the comments of celebrity journalists than they did to the comments of the candidates themselves. The old adage — that the most dangerous place in the world is between a politician and a TV camera — may have to be revised.

This study also showed that the average candidate sound bite was only seven seconds — compared with an average sound bite of 42 seconds in 1968, nine seconds in 1988 and eight seconds in 1992.

When the mavens of the electronic media do cover the candidates, studies show they spend more than half the time on the “horse race” aspect of the campaign ‹ i.e., who’s up, who’s down, who’s in, who’s out. The world of politics, especially presidential politics, is a world where substance doesn’t count for much because substance isn’t covered much.

Since 1960 and Theodore White’s The Making of the President, writing about political campaigns has increasingly focused on the anatomy of the campaign — its inside workings, the tactics and strategies, and the who is doing what to whom.

In fact, most readers have to go to the op-ed page of their newspaper or to an opinion journal to read much about substantive issues — and here again the issues are covered through the filters of an analyst paid to express his or her own opinions rather than to convey facts. For example, both Alan Keyes and Lamar Alexander had compelling messages about the importance of revitalizing America’s civic institutions — families, neighborhoods, religious organizations and voluntary associations — and giving them more responsibility for helping people absorb the changes that are buffeting American society. However, their views were ignored or trivialized.

About the only substantive issues to be covered in any depth were Steve Forbes’ flat tax proposal and Pat Buchanan’s ideas about closing the door to immigrants and imports ‹ and none received anything close to what might be called “balanced” reporting or analysis.

There are lots of remedies in waiting. One is found in Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, a new book by Atlantic Monthly editor James Fallows, who would have journalists dissect policy proposals and tell us whether they make sense or not. By contrast, former Washington Post political reporter Paul Taylor, now perched at the Pew Charitable Trust, is trying to persuade the networks to offer two to five minutes a night in the heart of prime time during the last month or so of the general election for candidates to talk directly to the American people about the issues.

If we look at the habits of people who pay attention to public affairs, the Taylor-Pew proposal, which gets rid of the journalist as a middle man, is probably more aligned with trends in media use by attentive publics. The Fallows proposal, which expands the gatekeeper role of the journalist, will be seen by many as a step backwards. Reason: Media consumers increasingly prefer their information straight, as shown by the rapidly growing popularity of everything that’s unmediated — from C-SPAN to the Internet.

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