DISCONNECTED: Politics, the Press and the Public
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order video Are Americans getting the campaign coverage they want, the coverage they deserve, or coverage that's out of control?

realmedia video clip Dramatic changes in the news media over the last decade have created a new kind of campaign coverage. Traditional news sources like daily newspapers and network news programs now compete for scoops with 24-hour cable channels, and rumors turn into news as fast as they surface on the Internet. Politicians increasingly rely on image consultants and pollsters to shape their message and insulate them from an onslaught of journalists looking for an exclusive story. With voter turnout in national elections at an all-time low, is campaign media coverage part of the problem or just a mirror for America's new political realities? DISCONNECTED: Politics, the Press and the Public, peels back the headlines to look at the process driving campaign coverage and the struggle facing politicians and the news media to find new standards.

Using the signature Fred Friendly Seminar format, a panel comprised of leaders in journalism and politics reveals the economic pressures, personal agendas, and professional judgments that are shaping what America learns about its candidates.

In the hypothetical scenario that moderator Arthur Miller describes to launch the discussion, a senator running for president plans to make headlines by unveiling his major health care plan at a town meeting. There is abundant press in attendance and all goes well until a reporter for an Internet magazine comes across two campaign aides outside the meeting engaged in an intense argument. The argument turns ugly, and one aide slaps the other across the face. Suddenly, media coverage of the evening is up for grabs. Will the headlines be the substance or the sensation? In Jake Tapper's opinion there should be no hesitation: he has a hot story and, even better, it's exclusive. Does it matter what the argument was about? Does it matter if the candidate is aware of it? Does it matter how the candidate will address the incident? While these questions can be answered later, Tapper believes it's already enough of a story to publish. Professor Larry Sabato believes this kind of news judgment is a mistake. "That's the problem with the press," says Sabato, "They've lost their connection with the American people and what the American people really care about."

But it unfolds that the media's problem, if there is one, is much more nuanced. Miller asks the other journalists what decision they would make in covering the argument, but their evaluation is already complicated by the migration of the story onto the Internet. Jeff Greenfield predicts the all-news cable channel, with hours of programs to fill, will pick up the story off the Web and start to discuss its significance. While at first glance the fight might be petty, does it signal a tension in the campaign about important policy choices? Ramon Escobar, speaking as the local news director in the town where the event took place, feels the pressure to carry a story reported on cable, but how the candidate is handling this violence between staff members emerges as a key issue. Taking the measure of the candidate becomes a rationale for further coverage.

Whatever their criteria for coverage, journalists are not the only source for information about this incident for the public. The late night television talk shows and Don Imus on morning drive radio are expected to have a field day with the notion of two campaign aides, who happen to be female, in a "smack-down" fight. "It will be a major source of the kind of cynical irreverent humor that has come to dominate politics," says Greenfield, noting that this possibly insignificant story may come to "define the whole campaign in the popular culture."

While the public, according to Sabato, is turned off by sensationalized stories, ratings and circulation figures indicate otherwise. "People say they want substance, but they love the other stuff," says Mayor Campbell. Feeling vulnerable to pervasive media coverage of the phrasing of everything they say and media scrutiny of everything they ever did, politicians have turned to spin doctors and pollsters for help. Ed Rollins, a veteran of many political campaigns, says that there has to be a certain discipline to a campaign, and a candidate, to "stay on message." "The first rule you have to tell him is not to think out loud, which is the hardest thing of all," says Rollins. Fred Yang, the polling expert, agrees. "Given the way politics is, and coverage is, and media is, we can't tell the full Bill Campbell story," says Yang. "We've got to tell parts of you. And what my polling does is figure out what are the best parts of you that resonate with people, craft that into a message, and that's what your campaign is."

But what happens when a disciplined message is rocked by a rumor? If reporters get a tip about sordid, possible illegal behavior, can they just ignore it? If they investigate, does that just draw attention to the rumor? And if they just ask the candidate, straight out, at a press conference if the rumor is true, how does the candidate avoid being branded by innuendo? Politicians claim they are trapped in a no-win situation. If they don't answer any question that comes their way, no matter how personal, they are hounded for being evasive. Faced with that hypothetical scenario, Congressman Frank says to the journalists intent on reporting the story, "what answer could he have given you that you wouldn't have covered?"

In a competitive media environment, not carrying a hot, sensational story carries risks of its own. "That fear is a very large factor in every newsroom," says Dan Rather. "And it goes this way. If I don't do it, somebody else is going to do it. When somebody else does it, they're going to get a higher number, they're going to get a better rating, they're going to get more circulation. This is a reality and the public needs to understand. There's no joy in saying this, but it's true. That fear increasingly dictates."

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