NEW YORK -- Our campaign season has become mired in the thick of a battle most of us never asked for.
Repeated attacks on both candidates' Vietnam War record -- mounted by competing cliques of political operatives -- speak of a democratic process overrun by well-funded character assassins.
The problem is not the mud being slung by the likes of John O'Neil (Swift Boats on the right) and Glen W. Smith (Texans for Truth on the left), but a media that merely parrots their corrosive rhetoric, failing -- through professional scrutiny and investigative legwork -- to put to rest claims that simply aren't true, and to hold liars to account.
With less than 50 days left before Americans go to the polls, the main news outlets seem content to spread the gunsmoke of controversy -- to the degree that their attention to the latest sparring over Bush and Kerry's military service 30 years ago has obscured coverage of each candidates' stance on the issues that voters say matter most.
Media for Democracy analysis of network news' campaign coverage in the first six months of 2004 reveals that NBC, ABC and CBS devoted less than five percent of their nightly coverage of the candidates to their positions on the economy, health care, education and national security. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll listed these four issues as the most important factors determining Americans' vote for president this year.
Passing Up the Beef for the Sizzle
That many in the nation's media are overlooking issues that resonate most with Americans is not for a lack of recent events:
On September 3, Medicare announced a 17.4 percent increase in premiums next year, the largest single increase in the program's 40-year history.
On September 7, The Congressional Budget Office forecast the federal deficit for 2004 would be $422 billion higher than last year's record $375 billion gap.
As children returned to classrooms last week, an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report found that the number of younger Americans with a high school education had slid to 10th place among member countries.
And on Thursday, The New York Times revealed that an internal US intelligence report prepared for President Bush presented a gloomy outlook for Iraq, saying that at worst the country might descend into civil war. Meanwhile, U.S. forces and the interim Iraqi authority virtually have ceded control of much of the "Sunni Triangle" to insurgents.
These stories and their political implications were simply bumped down the television news queue by a campaign press gang that seems inextricably drawn to political mudslinging.
"The media, particularly cable TV (which drives so much of the agenda nowadays), make it worse by favoring hot-button stories over complex, hard-to-illustrate real problems that the next president can actually work on," Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter wrote earlier this week.
To the extent that mainstream media focus on character controversies of the past, they are cheating Americans out of what we say we want most: a meaningful discussion of the candidates' stances on the issues that have an impact in our daily lives and on our country's future.
Returning to Message by Covering the Debates
The upcoming presidential debates are broadcast media's last chance to return their coverage to message. Three debates have been proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates, the organization that oversees the quadrennial face-off between leading presidential candidates. President Bush has yet to say whether he will participate. John Kerry has agreed to meet the president at all three.
In any event, network executives are still weighing whether to show up at all. And their track record isn't encouraging. In 2000, Fox skipped the first of the presidential debates, opting to air the premiere episode of "Dark Angel," a short-lived fantasy drama set in a post-apocalypse future. NBC gave local stations the choice to air the 2000 Major League Baseball playoffs instead of the debates. Many NBC affiliates did.
This year Fox has the rights to broadcast the baseball playoffs. Expect the worst.
Last week, members of the Public Interest, Public Airwaves Coalition - an alliance of more than 25 powerful public interest groups [including MediaChannel.org] -- called on the ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox networks to make an immediate commitment to air all the presidential and vice presidential debates. As yet, there's no response from the network heads.
Their silence is itself an admission -- as Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism put it aptly on Sunday -- "that the prestige and influence of their news divisions no longer matter much to them."
A failure to broadcast the debates in full would sound the final breach of broadcast news media's contract with Americans -- to engage voters in our democratic process with programming that informs about candidates' positions on the most critical issues of the day. Without their fulfillment of this vital public service, our political system is left to the whims of partisan rancor and propaganda.
-- Timothy Karr is the executive director of MediaChannel.org and Media for Democracy -- a citizens-powered initiative to hold media to a higher standard of political coverage in 2004.
© MediaChannel.org, 2004