When Wolves Attack: A Pre-Mortem on Election Coverage
NEW YORK, October 25, 2004 -- In it's final days, Campaign 2004 has become even nastier. At the core of this devolution of our politics process sits the campaign media -- a mob of reporters too overworked to stray from the campaigns' master script of attack and counter attack. Character assassinations meant to further polarize American voters, have taken center stage in our 24-hours news cycle, with the candidates' stances on the issues -- healthcare, education, the economy, anyone? -- shoved to the margins.
The latest GOP ad on the air in Colorado and other battleground states features bloodthirsty wolves symbolizing the terrorist threat from which the Bush campaign claims it's saving America. It is yet another representation of the fear mongering that drives their last-minute rush to November 2. Such negative ads are everywhere with few correctives in the news.
Ad watcher Kathleen Hall Jamison says, according to Fred Brown of the Denver Post that the impact of negative advertising may be a primal survival instinct. "People remember what's bad -- the negative -- because it's more likely to hurt them or eat them." Eat them?
Mike Cummings at the University of Colorado says that campaigning is more negative than ever and candidates are less shy about "savaging" their opponents.
The viciousness on TV is not confined to the TV screens. A local story reports that "Littleton teenager Aaron Oster-Beal: awoke to the find the family's Kerry Edwards yard sale covered with a rude surprise -- a pile of dog excrement."
Talk about a campaign that's become, to put it bluntly if crudely: full of shit.
And where is the news media while all of this is going on. They are selling the ads and fanning the flames with more heat than light.
Election coverage has a dynamic that goes largely unchanged year after year. Just like in the war coverage of Iraq there is a "master narrative" driving the reporting. This year's master narrative revolves around the dirty back and forth between the campaigns, a process made simple for journalists by a coterie of campaign operatives on hand to deliver the latest jab.
It is widely assumed that our media operates outside the political system as a watchdog, a "fourth estate." But like in the Iraq War in which CENTCOM commander Tommy Franks assigned the media a role in his war plan as "the fourth front, "the role of the media has changed. Media today is an integral part of the political process as well, a key component in what I call our "Mediaocracy."
After the 2000 election, I co-edited a book challenging the simplistic belief that George Bush and Bush alone "stole" the election. In "Hail to the Thief." (Innovatio) I argued that we can only understand what happened in that election by understanding the role, function and performance of the media that covered and mis-covered it.
In February 2001, red-faced media executive admitted to a Congressional committee that their election eve forecasts, which influenced the outcome, were deeply flawed.
I wrote then. "The counting and undercounting of the election ballots, the mistaken votes and bizarre 'overvotes' was a scandal seen around the world, Rarely seen and poorly covered in the media was another scandal within that scandal -- the role played by the media itself."
That scandal was not a crude conspiracy nor is it a simple accidental occurrence Its roots can be found in the corporate media environment that has been changing for years as well as in the increasing corporatization of politics itself.
It reflects a growing symbiotic relationship between increasingly interlocking media elites and political elites. Together they form a powerful interdependent system in which overt ideology and shared worldviews mask more covert subservience to corporate agendas. Together these two forces form a Mediaocracy -- a political system tethered to a media system
After every election, journalists do post-mortems acknowledging their own limits and mistakes. The honest ones admit there was a uniformity of outlook in which the horse race and scandals are over covered and the issues under covered.
They concede that there was a focus on polls without explaining their limits adequately or how polls in turn are affected by the volume and slant of media coverage. There were criticisms of how entertainment values infiltrated election coverage, what TIME magazine calls "Electotainment" They bemoan the fact that were was more spin and "opinionizing" than investigative reporting.
Has this changed in election 2004 or is it more of the same? While others forecast the results, I can safely predict that these deeply institutionalized media failures will once again be acknowledged and decried in this year's post-mortems.
When will the media perform its own pre-mortem?
-- News Dissector Danny Schechter is executive editor of MediaChannel.org. His new film WMD (Weapons of Mass Deception) on the media coverage of the war will be released this month by Cinema Libre Studio. See www.wmdthefilm.com for more.