Election 2008: News Media Get Trampled By Their Own Horse Race

Journalists, politicos and pundits debate media coverage of the presidential election at the CNN/Time magazine Politics 2008 symposium

Card-carrying members of the much-maligned mainstream media congregated at the Time Warner Center in New York on Monday and Tuesday for some soul searching – and free Diet Coke and sandwich wraps – at the CNN/Time magazine Politics 2008 symposium.

Anderson Cooper and Lewis Black:

Watch video of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and Comedy Central commentator Lewis Black talking about the 2008 presidential race at the CNN/Time Politics 2008 symposium Oct. 13 in New York.

Click here.

Three weeks before Election Day, journalists, politicos and pundits gathered to expound on and criticize the media’s performance during the longest and perhaps most surreal election campaign in memory.

There was much hand-wringing over the collective media obsession with the horse race and semantic slights (“lipstick on a pig,” “that one”) at the expense of full-bore dissections of the capital-I issues.

“I think the impulse [to cover the horse race] has been baked into political journalism for the last 40 years,” said Jon Klein, president, CNN/US.

Many reporters, he added, privately bemoan that they’re pulled into the who’s-up-who’s-down narrative – coverage rife with tired sports metaphors – when they would rather burrow into the minutiae of health care policy.

“I think there’s a disconnect between what journalists think they’re supposed to be doing and what viewers want them to be doing,” added Klein.

There also may be a disconnect between what viewers say they want and what they actually watch. To wit: Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly are the top-rated programs on MSNBC and Fox News, respectively.

And that disconnect cuts both ways. Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter pointed out that when his magazine books writers on television news shows to promote their articles, the writer often finds himself at cross-purposes with the segment producer.

Referring to Gore Vidal, Carter said, “They want him to talk about Marilyn Monroe. He wants to talk about James Monroe.”

The 'Influencers' Weigh In

Later, on “The Influencers” panel, the people who are often blamed for perpetuating the horse-race narrative got to weigh in.

Peggy Noonan, former Ronald Reagan speechwriter and conservative columnist for the Wall Street Journal who was caught on an open mike at MSNBC disparaging the McCain campaign, opined that the fractionalization and niche catering of news and information may be detrimental to the health of our democracy.

“There’s something not good about this, that we’re not sharing the same information,” she said. “We’re niche-d to death. We’re fractioned to death. You can go on the Internet and create your own reality. There’s no boring central reality.”

Talk inevitably turned to Walter Cronkite and the halcyon days of three networks.

Jeffrey Toobin, a CNN analyst and New Yorker contributor, cited Cronkite’s 1968 editorial in which he declared the Vietnam War un-winnable and led President Lyndon Johnson to lament that if he’d lost Cronkite, then surely he’d lost the support of the people.

“What figure would that be said of today?” asked Toobin rhetorically.

Someone in the audience yelled out Jon Stewart. “Maybe Tina Fey,” Toobin mused.

But some panelists complained that the over-reliance on political strategists on television news was actually dumbing down political coverage.

“Don’t underestimate the power of ignorance in television commentary,” said Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz. “The happiest people in the world are people on television panels.”

Rabinowitz went on to label CNN’s Campbell Brown “one of the most notorious offenders,” though she didn’t explain the broadside.

Brown got into a dustup with McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds when she asked him to cite examples of decisions Gov. Sarah Palin made in her capacity as “commander-in-chief” of the Alaska Air National Guard. More recently, Brown commented that the McCain campaign’s carefully controlled media access to Palin amounted to sexism.

(Brown responded to Rabinowitz in a statement: “My comments about Governor Sarah Palin have been in the context of journalists having access to the most basic information about a Vice Presidential candidate. My job as a journalist is to ask tough and fair questions. It has never been more essential for reporters to keep asking these questions.”)

"We've entered the level of fiction."

But the highlight of the two-day symposium was Lewis Black, who is not a pundit or an unbiased journalist and who thinks Santa Clause should be president.

In a freewheeling conversation with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, punctuated by Black’s frequent use of the F-bomb and signature ear-splitting soliloquies, Black compared the 2008 election to an acid trip and added that Palin’s “entry into it raises [the campaign] to the level of fiction.”

Black recounted his 1960s-era work on behalf of women’s liberation, saying, “It makes me wonder: I put a ton of time into women’s lib. What the f---? I should have been directing Girls Gone Wild. This is what we end up with? We’ve entered the level of fiction.”

Eschewing easy labeling, Black sounded a populist note, excoriating an audience member who denigrated the government.

“The government is people!” he screamed. “It’s sad that we’ve reached the point where government service is a dirty word! My father worked for the government, and he did a good job for them! I’m sick of people demeaning it!”

The audience cheered.

A moment later, Black apologized to the young man, saying he’d just had a bad day.

For complete election coverage from B&C, click here.