November 7, 2000
Americans head to the polls today to choose the country's next president, but how well has the news media informed them about candidates and their positions?
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
SMITH: The quantity of the reporting on the presidential race increased
dramatically this year, with traditional news outlets being joined by
all news cable channels and even the Internet. But what about the quality,
to say nothing of the accuracy? To help us answer that question we're
joined by Marvin Kalb, executive director
of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy;
by Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism;
and by William Powers, media columnist at the National Journal.
Gentlemen, welcome to you all. Marvin Kalb, grade the media performance in this campaign, if you will, on the basis of accuracy, fairness, and maybe enterprise.
|Quality and accuracy|
MARVIN KALB: And in ten seconds. I'm a hard grader. I would say overall about B +. I think that the American people got, in fairness, degree of objectivity, responsibility on the part of the press, pretty much the information that they probably needed to cast an intelligent vote. But there are holes in it. And they're bothersome. And in connection with a judgment on the holes in the journalistic coverage, I would give it a D. And there are three areas. I think foreign policy was just ignored during this campaign. I think the press had a responsibility....
TERENCE SMITH: By the candidates or by the press or by both?
MARVIN KALB: Well, you see, if the candidates want to ignore it, that's one thing. That may be to their political advantage, but the press cannot ignore it. We live in a very complicated world. It's dangerous as hell out there. And the journalists should have been in a position time and time again to question these people about what they would have done. You got a lot of generalities, but not enough questioning.
TERENCE SMITH: The other two holes?
MARVIN KALB: The other hole... I think one of the others would be young people. There was very little attention being paid to a large group of people that our Vanishing Voter Project showed really are disconnected from the political process. And we spent very little time as journalists looking into that. And then thirdly, there is a large underclass in this country. If you looked at the coverage, you would think that everyone is a millionaire. That's not true. There are about 20 percent to 23 percent of the American people who are underprivileged, hugely underprivileged. They were ignored. They shouldn't have been.
TERENCE SMITH: Those sound like big holes. Bill Powers, how would you grade the performance in this campaign?
WILLIAM POWERS: I would give the media an A, much improved grade, actually. I was stunned at the extent to which the media responded to criticisms that have been made over recent years, particularly the last few elections and tried to do a better job. Partly it's a result of the explosion. You have got more outlets competing with each other, so they're trying new things. For example, there was a call in the last few elections to have more involvement of real people. We need to see more real people voicing their opinions, getting involved in the media coverage. Well, real people were all over the networks after the debates, were they decided yet, Bush, Gore - I mean, that particular feature was a bit of a flop because real people who are undecided don't have much to say generally, and they didn't have much to say, but it showed the media sort of trying and, as I said, trying to improve on mistakes they made in the past. Another improvement was character coverage. You saw these incredible biographies of the candidates, both in the major newspapers, spilling over to the smaller newspapers, and then on TV. You saw these long, two-hour George Bush biography, Al Gore biography that I thought were extraordinary. The Washington Post did 75,000 words of pure biography on Gore alone. The New York Times did about that much on the two major candidates combined. That's a book. That's a book-length amount of information.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Tom Rosenstiel, we have a mixed grade. We have an A. What say you?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, the press has improved in terms of covering campaigns. The problem is that we don't really... we have too narrow a definition of what a campaign now is -- of what a political election now. As the politics, as campaigns themselves have become more intricate, more sophisticated, the strategies, the tactics, we've improved in our coverage of that, but that has consumed now the focus of most of the press. There are a lot of things that journalists once did that they no longer do, no longer have time to do as they have focused instead on this more intricate kind of campaigning.
TERENCE SMITH: Such as?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Such as knocking on doors and talking to voters. We can put them in an artificial focus group, but it's so artificial that it doesn't work. Knowing states, knowing county chairmen -- thinking of the election the way Teddy White did in 1960 as a national window on us as a people -- what this campaign says about us. So we know a great deal about the what of these two campaigns. We have a much less clear idea of the why. Why have neither of these guys closed the deal?
|A tilt in media coverage|
TERENCE SMITH: Why is it so close, too?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Why is it so close. Why are the gyrations up and down? One consequence of not understanding the underlying factors that are going on in the country and driving the campaign, it makes, I think, in the end it will make it harder for the winner to govern. What was the meaning of the election? We don't know. We've already got exit polls coming in tonight. And we don't know.
TERENCE SMITH: Marvin Kalb, there is often said to be a tilt in the press, either an alleged liberal bias or going overly soft on George W. Bush. Did you perceive a discernible tilt in the coverage when you look at it across the board?
MARVIN KALB: I think that there was a tilt, but I don't think it was one of those deliberate tilts. I don't think it's a matter of the press being very liberal, no matter how they vote, actually -- and therefore covering it in a certain way. I think this business of expectations came into play here. Every journalist....
TERENCE SMITH: You're talking about the debates?
MARVIN KALB: In the debates particularly. The journalists were just hugely wrong about the debates. Gore was supposed to wipe up the floor with Bush. Well, it turns out that Bush's numbers began the rise in that three-week period of the debates themselves. And so the reporting was that Gore was terrific. He was going to be absolutely outstanding. No one took into account the possibility that if you set the bar real low for Bush, all he had to do was pronounce America properly and it would be a terrific thing. And that is in fact what happened.
TERENCE SMITH: Bill Powers?
WILLIAM POWERS: I thought there was something encouraging in that, Marvin, which is that you had these pundits after the debates saying that Gore had won, had done well or Bush had done well, or whatever, and then you would see the polls almost consistently in the three debates were the opposite after few days gap. And it turned out that the pundits were not having the influence that we have said they have here - and it's running America and so forth. I think we're seeing as the media explodes and there's more and more pundits all over the place they have less power. I think that's a good thing.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, that's the issue. Do they have influence, or are....
TOM ROSENSTIEL: It's a little of both. Each individual pundit has less. There are no mega pundits anymore.
WILLIAM POWERS: Thank God.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: However, so many people now are getting their journalism, getting their information from the punditocracy instead of actual information. One of the reasons that the pundit class was so ineffectual in its reaction to the debates was because they're sort of tepid the moment after the debates. It's difficult to digest. It's like a poll that's taken too early. It's meaningless. Everything is in flux. However, we did a study of most of the coverage through October at the project and found that 70 percent of the debate stories focused on the performance aspect of the candidates, who is breathing heavily and invading... whose hair was combed properly. Now, this redounded very much to Gore's disadvantage because the expectations were high and because theatrically he was less adept than Bush. And I think that probably does account for one of the reasons that Bush seemed to benefit from the debates was the press context. The press doesn't tell people what to think, but it does tell them what to think about.
|A gentler treatment of George W. Bush?|
TERENCE SMITH: But in the final study you did through the course of the campaign, in the final phase funded incidentally by the Pew Charitable Trust, as is the media unit of this broadcast, you found a gentler treatment of George W. Bush?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Yes. I think again because of the tactical, the sort of overwhelmingly tactical focus of the coverage, Bush has run a better tactical campaign. Gore has run a less adept campaign from a purely campaign standpoint. And the coverage we found in October was twice as likely to be negative towards Gore and twice as likely to be positive toward Bush. So the bias here is not a liberal-conservative bias, but it's a bias around the story frames, the story lenses that the journalists use.
MARVIN KALB: But that is to me the whole point. So what? So what if this campaign is not run as smoothly. So what if the guy's tie is on slightly askew. What is it that these people are saying? In what way, for example, would a future president, one of these two people, actually respond to a crisis? Would George Bush send American forces to the Middle East in defense of... he spoke very warmly of defending Israel. Would he, in fact?
TERENCE SMITH: Did you get the answer to that in all that reading you did?
WILLIAM POWERS: My feeling on that is the issues matter, of course, hugely. But performance, it all tells you a lot about a president. He's performing when he's responding to a crisis. He's performing in front of the nation in a debate. I think if he decides to handle the debate a certain way, that element of the performance not only affects the voters but tells you a lot about them.
MARVIN KALB: Bill, I think there are two things. And we're so hung up these days on how people look on television, how they sound on television, quality of the voice, that sort of thing, that we don't any longer focus... that's wrong. We don't any longer sufficiently focus on what it is that these people are actually saying.
WILLIAM POWERS: I think we do both.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Implicit in the role, the enhanced role of the handler is the notion that they know how to move the electorate. They know what will move votes. And that tends by nature to be something that is more manipulatable, something that implies a somewhat more cynical view of how politics works. You can't really shape what George W. Bush believes in, but you can shape how he presents it.
|The missed stories|
TERENCE SMITH: Very briefly in the time we have left, what about the missed stories of this campaign? Where there some?
MARVIN KALB: I think some of those missed stories....
TERENCE SMITH: You mentioned in the beginning.
MARVIN KALB: Another one which I think is just beautiful, it's the Pat Buchanan story. About a year ago, oh, yes, a year ago Pat Buchanan was going to have X amount of strength and draw strength away from Bush and the Republicans. Nobody gave a hoot about Nader. And suddenly Nader emerges from the left. That was certainly a story that nobody foresaw a year ago.
TERENCE SMITH: We're almost out of time. Just a topic?
WILLIAM POWERS: I do think Marvin hit on it in his first comments. You have areas -- poverty and so forth -- that were addressed by candidates. What we got coverage on was the positions, but not the problem -- there should have been more focus on -- here's why they're coming up with positions on these things because this is going on in America; we didn't have reminders. And I missed that on many of these issues we mentioned.
TERENCE SMITH: Gentlemen, we have to leave it there. Thanks, all three of you.
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