This election, more than any news event in our memory, has brought into focus the troubling direction of TV news. Combine the 24-hour news cycle with corporate bosses demanding returns on news investments, with competition from Internet bloggers, and you have an environment ripe for manipulation by political operatives ready to feed their opponents to the insatiable beast.
This is not a new fear, but it has been given new ugliness by the degree to which the campaign for president pivoted on media moments. Both presidential campaign staffs (and their 527 surrogates, particularly those supporting President Bush) spent considerable time, money and malicious effort producing distorted and recklessly inflammatory commercials. That inevitably led one candidate or the other to spend days denying or correcting a distortion. Those attack ads, and the responses, fed the news cycle, not the minds of intelligent voters. On top of that, much of the news coverage was undistinguished pack and hack journalism.
Sad case in point. The media helped turn Howard Dean, yelling to be heard over the troops he was trying to rally, from the Democratic front-runner to a parody act.
Only much later did Dean get the chance to tell that same media that directional microphones had masked the crowd noise. The result was that his enthusiastic shouts to be heard became, in the world of sound-bite journalism, an inexplicable outburst psychoanalyzed across the nation. None of the journalists actually in the room found anything unusual to report about the speech. But none of the journalists outside
the room could ignore the sound bite as it echoed through endless news cycles, growing like a tall tale with each telling. If there is a more pitiful example of getting trampled in the media stampede, we can't think of it.
Likewise, the 60 Minutes
National Guard story, badly vetted by CBS, actually helped the Bush campaign by playing into the charges of liberal media bias.
It was as though each candidate was redefined by the latest video-op or attack ad, like a shooting-gallery duck switching direction with each "ping" of a BB gun. It's John Kerry the anti-war activist, then it's Kerry the lying Swift Boat captain or the Cheney daughter-basher. It's George Bush the National Guard scofflaw, the debate grimacer or the 380-tons-of-explosives misplacer.
The relative weight of those stories and impressions was lost. The difference between a camouflaged Kerry in Vietnam and one in Ohio seems to be only a matter of where it is plugged into the news hole. Everything was tossed into the political spin machine and came out dirtier.
Campaigns have reduced politicians to even lower tactics and news media now more than ever play along. The public isn't served by that. It's hard to believe the public is even entertained by it. Next time, TV news must examine how the 2004 coverage became warped, and then get back to reporting important, relevant campaign news. Next time.