TELEVISION KEPT politics in the forefront of American public life through the late 1970s, but as explained by the ABC’s Taylor, a number of factors have changed the situation since then. Campaigns lost their novelty appeal as television events. Chunks of the broadcast audience moved to cable and the Internet. The appeal of politics has suffered, in part, because of the rise of a commercial culture more consumed by money and entertainment than the business of government.
Yet rather than resisting these forces, Taylor says, broadcasters have given in to them and made the vicious cycle stronger by doing so. The networks, for example, have ceded their primacy in political coverage to cable news networks like CNN, MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel. That said, while ABC, NBC, and CBS are still losing viewers, their combined audience of 30 million dwarfs viewership for the cable news networks — CNN’s prime-time audience is a little more than one million.
Still, even though more information is available through a greater variety of sources, relatively few people take advantage of it. Take the 2000 presidential campaign. Polls taken by the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government two days before the election found that more than 50 percent of respondents couldn’t answer simple questions about Bush’s stance on gun control, abortion, and taxes, or Gore’s position on Social Security, school vouchers, and affirmative action.
Rooney and some other observers remain untroubled by the failure of many voters to inform themselves. "People are going to seek their own level of entertainment, and I wish more people would watch my show than Seinfeld reruns, but they don’t," Rooney says. "As long as the informed people are voting, I’m fine, and I certainly don’t blame the broadcasters for this."
Yet Thomas E. Patterson, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School and the author of The Vanishing Voter: Public Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), faults broadcasters for surrendering their professional responsibility by cutting political coverage — other than that of scandals — throughout the ’90s. "I think they were driven almost entirely by the marketplace, by commercial considerations, and didn’t give much of a damn about professional responsibility and public-service obligations," Patterson says. "They can kind of blame it on the audience and on the politicians, but in fact the root change was ... profit-seeking."
A five-year study of local television by the Project for Excellence in Journalism recently found that quality — signified by such things as enterprise reporting, airing longer stories, and better sourcing of stories — is the most likely path to commercial success for local broadcasters. The perception nonetheless remains widespread among even some broadcast veterans — not to mention the consultants who help stations formulate coverage — that political coverage is a ratings loser. In the scant 12-to-14-minute news quota of a typical half-hour broadcast, other topics get higher priority, with the exception of election-night coverage, debates, and selected sporadic events.
"If we had five minutes of politics at six o’clock consistently for one year, our ratings would plummet and we’d go out of business," says a Providence TV reporter, who asked to not be identified. "A lot of people think this is boring. It wouldn’t take too long before they’re going to stop flipping on at six o’clock. People just aren’t that interested, and there’s no way we can make them interested."
It’s possible, though, that some consultants and broadcasters have drawn simplistic conclusions after quizzing viewers on a laundry list of topics. "When you say coverage of politics and government, look out," notes Jim Thistle, director of broadcast education at Boston University and a former TV executive. "[But] a lot of it depends on how you ask the question. If you say coverage of how the government is spending your money, you may get a higher response."
Obviously, the challenge of reinvigorating our political life extends well beyond journalism. Even though negative advertising has the long-term effect of discouraging political participation, Patterson cites as a larger factor generational change and the coming of age of young people, who, "according to Gallup, are the least interested, least informed, at least in the history of recorded polling. They grew up at a time where there was no great national cause to draw them into the arena. What they did see in the arena was a lot of scandal."
Taylor notes that political campaigns are inherently important since they can have a direct bearing on things — health, wealth, security, environment, education, and so on — that people do care about. The dramatic elements of character and plot make campaigns compelling, and the audience gets to choose the ending. "Yet somehow, when all of these elements are tossed into the broadcast-media blender, the whole concoction comes out as ‘ratings poison,’" Taylor notes in outlining the ABC’s pitch for free air time. "This is not merely a failure of politics; it is also a failure of journalism."
IT’S HARDLY coincidental that the ABC’s monograph features an epigram from James Madison, who warned, "Popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge brings."
The ABC is doing its part to spread knowledge by running a classic grassroots campaign to garner public support for the free-air-time proposal. It’s formed a national coalition with more than 50 groups, including the AFL-CIO, AARP, NAACP, and chapters of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. The alliance’s Web site cites 10 steps that supporters can take, from simply talking up free air time in their community to e-mailing five friends the link to an interactive computer game in which a hapless candidate frantically chases campaign contributions before being gobbled up by a sharp-toothed television set (check it out at greedytv.org). And Taylor is barnstorming around the country pushing ABC’s proposal; in October, he stopped in Lexington to address an audience of about 300 people. "You have a status quo of incumbent members of Congress winning 98 percent of the time," he notes, prior to a stop in Rhode Island this week. "I think the answer is, this system is broken. The public knows it’s broken, elected officials know it’s broken. Sooner or later, this too will be fixed. It takes time to make the case. That’s what we’re doing now — we’re making the case."
In the meantime, for all the grousing heard locally about the just-ended gubernatorial campaign, local television coverage of the campaign was something of a model. The 6 p.m. newscasts of the Big Three network affiliates — WHDH (Channel 7), WCVB (Channel 5), and WBZ (Channel 4) — received grades of A in a recent survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism; WHDH and WCVB’s 6 p.m. newscasts were rated among the best in the nation. The gubernatorial debates that aired locally and the variety of coverage on additional outlets — such as New England Cable News (NECN), WGBH, and WLVI (Channel 56) — show that, at least in Massachusetts in 2002, the public interest was relatively well-served. "I’ve always thought that anyone who gets all their news from television ought to be getting more elsewhere, but I think in this particular governor’s race, if a voter watched the debates and regularly watched TV news, they would have known enough to make an informed vote," says Andy Hiller, WHDH’s political editor. Voter participation climbed since the last gubernatorial election, from 57 percent to 63 percent, and, "when it’s all said and done, TV news was one component of the atmosphere that generated larger voter turnout, which I like."
Like other observers, WCVB’s general manager, Paul La Camera, attributes a higher level of coverage to the city’s more robust civic culture. "Boston is a passionate political city," he says. "Politics is news here, and we treat it as such. Certainly, there are other markets where it’s taken less seriously, but no one is ever going to accuse us of that." Indeed, Hearst-Argyle-owned WCVB deserves plaudits for introducing in 2000 a minimum of five minutes a night of candidate-centered discourse in the month before elections. La Camera says his participation on the White House panel on the public-service obligations of broadcasters helped to inspire the move.
Still, even in Boston, the trend has been away from day-to-day televised coverage of politics and government, according to Thistle. "At one time, everybody maintained a State House bureau," he says, whereas WBZ’s John Henning is now the only full-time broadcast reporter on Beacon Hill.
The present system works well enough for those who are willing and able to throw millions of dollars at television advertising. But in a nation where television remains the dominant source of information for most people, it’s hardly a surprise that meaningful political discussion, even with increased local broadcast coverage, can be drowned out by negative campaign commercials and other programming. "When all is said and done, the losers here are the voters, because voters really did not get a chance to hear about substantive issues," says Katherine Macdonald of Wellesley, director of the free-air campaign for the Massachusetts League of Women Voters. "They hear the negative barking that was going on [between] O’Brien and Romney. All that kind of clutter really takes away from finding out what people stand for."
By failing to qualify for Clean Elections funding, Green Party gubernatorial candidate Jill Stein lost her best opportunity to get access on the airwaves. As a result, she didn’t air television commercials and went largely ignored by the broadcast media, at least until her inclusion in a Channel 56 debate about a month before the election produced a boomlet of support. For Stein, the situation compounded the inherent difficulties facing third-party representatives seeking media exposure. "It locks out anyone not obliged to defend the status quo," Stein says. "That, to me, is the crux of the rut that we’re in. Our political system becomes truly incapable of deliberating in the public interest if one must join a club of sponsorship of the status quo."
The problem extends beyond election coverage, she notes, to the way sensational stories and the weather get daily emphasis on television, and pressing issues — like growing economic disparities or housing and health-care crises — get little attention, if any. "I think the problems in the media coverage reflect the real problems in the political system in general, and the closed access to media in many ways reflects the closed access to the political system," Stein says. "If one does not have a free medium with open access, then the political system is really closed."
Certainly, the outlook isn’t made any brighter by the Republican victories on Election Day and Michael Powell’s deregulatory leadership of the Federal Communications Commission. Then again, those who believe that the status quo is good enough are the ones with the most to lose.
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com