Does It Matter, This Campaign?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   October 1996

Does It Matter, This Campaign?   

Journalists seem unsure about how to make it interesting, or whether it is.

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     


Dick Morris and the prostitute may have kept the three major TV networks from looking even worse. This story added to the minutes they could count as campaign coverage.

Counting everything – coverage of the primaries, the national conventions and a political consultant's dangerous dalliance – ABC, CBS and NBC had aired a combined 1,491 minutes, about one third of this on each network, in campaign coverage during weekday nightly news by September 6: a huge drop from the past.

The networks had not been exactly bountiful in covering the campaigns in 1988 and 1992, but for the comparable weeks in those campaigns the figures were 2,408 minutes and 2,088 minutes.

Check this: From Labor Day Monday through the following Friday, NBC managed one minute. CBS gave us three and ABC had eight.

People are just not interested, we're told. Maybe not. And maybe the networks have not given them good reason to be. It is hard to believe that the great talents of the network news staffs, with all the resources they could use to find and report stories about government and all the people who may be part of it or want to be, could not come up with much that was interesting and might be related to the election.

Newspapers are harder to clock. My sense is that the best ones are doing better than ever in informing people about the issues in the presidential campaign: facts about the candidates' positions, including carefully measured surveys of the voters' views on an array of things. This kind of coverage usually reflects detachment, modern measurement, cool heads, good organization and attractive display.

The methodologies employed, though, tend to be tone-deaf about the passions, even when they are intended to report the levels of voters' passions.

A few days ago I heard David Broder, The Great Listener, read his extended notes from an interview with a New England voter: an NRA member and an avid liberal. Hearing the complexities of this man's thinking, expressed in his own words, gave me a dimension of understanding that I had not gotten from issues polling (even where it is accompanied by short quotes from real people).

I feel a similar loss in journalism's disembodiment of politicians. We get their words, their carefully crafted sound bites, on issues, and see their personal postures. Why do you get the feeling, then, that the reporter may never have actually talked to a politician, not really, finding some way to get behind the facade, and then finding some way to show this actual person to a reader or viewer? Instead, we often just get a journalist's stompdown personal opinion about a politician.

What do we see or read, for instance, about the daily struggle of people in public life who try to do the right thing in the face of the Dick Morrises and the Philip Morrises? In our privatized, corporatized, Reaganized, anti-government culture you usually learn about such people only when they "opt out," whereupon, because they are no longer in there trying, they become heroic.

Ah, well. Maybe the main thing wrong with the campaign coverage is just that journalists are as undecided as everybody else about whether it matters. If you think it may not, how do you make it interesting? l

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