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Campaign's lasting effect for media

By Tim Rutten / November 3, 2004


Whatever the election results are, there's a growing sense that this race may involve tectonic shifts in the landscape of political journalism. It's still much too early to recognize clearly, let alone chart, what the new lay of the land may be. It's important, moreover, to keep in mind that much that seems new may have as much to do with changes among the consumers of media as with the media itself.

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For more than a generation, American political journalism - like most public opinion research - has organized itself around the assumption that public participation in the electoral process has been low and is generally drifting downward. The problem, as editors and producers saw it, was to get people interested. Call it the minimal interest/low turnout model.

That was then; this is now.

One consequence of the nation's deep, bitter, essentially even division is that its people have rediscovered their politics. The most recent survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 96 percent of registered voters believed this campaign is "important" and that fully 66 percent found it "interesting." As recently as June, just a third of the survey's respondents thought the campaign was worth following. More than 8 out of 10 voters said they found the race easy to follow, and 73 percent called the campaign "informative." However, their interest in the message doesn't translate into approval of the messenger.

Andrew Kohut, who directs the Pew survey, said 58 percent of voters "think that members of the news media often let their own political preferences influence their reporting." And yet, a 54 percent majority rates the media's coverage of this election as "good" or "excellent."

Television is one place where you already can see this paradoxical perception - that the media are biased, but their coverage is good - at work.

Here, the changes wrought by campaign 2004 are readily discerned: This election year marked the end of the mainstream broadcast networks' serious participation in American political journalism and the decisive rise to influence of the cable news operations.

When CBS, NBC, and ABC declined to offer serious coverage of the national political conventions, it was a clear signal that their news divisions' corporate overseers had lost the will - that is, the financial incentive - to fulfill their obligation, as federal license holders, to operate in the public interest. In fact, the networks' only notable campaign moment was another sign of decline and fall: the humiliation suffered by "60 Minutes" and CBS News anchor Dan Rather, when they rushed onto the air with an anti-Bush exposé based on patently fraudulent documents.

This year, television's electoral coverage has been dominated by cable news, in ways both distinctive and disturbing. For all intents and purposes, we now have a Republican TV news network - Fox News - and a Democratic one, CNN. According to that Pew survey, 70 percent of voters who say they get most of their election news from Fox plan to vote for President Bush, while just 21 percent intend to support Sen. John Kerry. Among voters who rely on CNN for their news, 67 percent support Senator Kerry and 26 percent say they'll back Mr. Bush.