Campaign's lasting effect for media

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.

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.

The partisan cast of Fox's audience is a consequence of the network's business model and its on-air structure as a kind of right-wing electronic op-ed page - a 24-hour cycle on which studio chat shows are strung like beads linked by snippets of news. Fair and balanced it may not be, but cheap and opinionated it surely is.

CNN, by contrast, has pursued a brand of journalism that attempts to observe the traditional mainstream ethical attachment to balance and dispassion. Whether it can maintain that stance as its audience drifts more solidly Democratic is an open question. The logic of broadcast management in which programming decisions are so intimately directed by viewer preferences would seem to argue against it. Clearly, perceived political bias doesn't bother many people; increasingly larger shares of the audience are tuning to cable stations for news.

The specter of TV journalism divided along partisan, ideological lines is disturbing enough, but it pales alongside the implications of the most serious media controversy to erupt in the campaign's closing weeks: the abortive attempt by Sinclair Broadcasting to order all its stations to air an anti-Kerry documentary in prime time.

However influential old media - as in newspapers - may remain, and however significant new media - as in the blogosphere - may become, the majority of Americans get most of their news from local television. That's been true for more than a generation, and it's one of the reasons the Sinclair flap ignited such passions. All of the Baltimore-based broadcast company's stations are in small- and medium-size cities, places where the importance of local TV news is amplified.

As Elizabeth Jensen and other Los Angeles Times reporters have documented, the chain has grown in the face of what amounts to Federal Communications Commission indifference to its own regulatory strictures on media concentration. In several instances, Sinclair has been allowed to control two stations in the same market. It has been allowed, moreover, to compel all its stations - and remember, each is individually licensed to operate in the public interest - to air news and conservative commentary produced by the corporate headquarters.

The ability of an operation like that to focus all its resources on tipping a tight election is obvious, which is why all hell broke lose when Sinclair announced plans to air the anti-Kerry documentary. Threats of lawsuits, boycotts, and congressionally directed regulatory action followed. Sinclair backed down.

The problem is this: While what Sinclair proposed to do was, by every defensible journalistic standard, wrong and unethical, it was entitled to behave so as an assertion of its rights under the First Amendment. The First Amendment protects all speech, not just true speech or good speech or fair speech. It affords its highest protection, moreover, to political speech, which the documentary - whatever its moral or factual defects - most assuredly is.

This threat to the most fundamental of our liberties was created by the FCC's failure to defend the public's interest. Media concentration raises the stakes in any given legal controversy to a point where it virtually invites legal and governmental intrusion into the media's editorial decisions, putting the First Amendment at unconscionable risk.

There's an unlooked-for lesson from this campaign.

Tim Rutten writes about the media for the Los Angeles Times. © Los Angeles Times.

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