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Media Circus

Race to the Bottom

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 11/1/2000

People speak of holding their noses when they go to the polls on Nov. 7; I have to hold mine just to write about this year's presidential-campaign coverage. Believe me, there are media sideshows I'd rather discuss, but I feel a weary obligation to say a few words about the main event.Network TV coverage of the presidential race is something like a postmodern remake of "The Emperor's New Clothes." In this version of the fairy tale, there are two rivals to the throne parading around in little more than Speedos, but unlike the spectators in the Hans Christian Andersen tale, this story's mob frankly acknowledges that the princelings are nearly naked. Pundits chatter tirelessly about the style and boldness with which the two near-nudes display their near-nudity. The dreary task of media critics is to analyze this blather. As one condemned to study local media, I'm the guy in the back row watching the dreadful extravaganza on a fuzzy 6-inch monitor.

This has been a silly campaign. The most popular news outlets have focused on the utmost trivia--George W. Bush's verbal stumbles, Al Gore's "alpha male" pretensions, yadda yadda--while only feebly attempting to hold the big guys accountable for their wanton exaggerations, obfuscations, and rhetorical head-fakes. While major-league pundits have warned us to distrust both Bush and Gore, stoking our cynicism, they've provided us with few facts to contrast with the candidates' fictions. With the debates over, you could unplug your television for the rest of the electoral run-up and be none the worse off.

The best commentary I've seen on the triviality, herd mentality, and skewed standards of the national media comes from Bob Somerby, the grumpy comedian/columnist/Friend of Al who routinely appears on WJHU's (88.1 FM) The Marc Steiner Show to analyze the campaign opposite Towson University rhetoric professor Richard Vatz. Somerby's scathing, well-documented essays on what he calls "the celebrity press corps" appear under the heading of "Howlings" on the all-politics Web site Speakout.com. As one of the vice president's Al Gore's former Harvard roommates, Somerby is predictably a Gore apologist. Nonetheless, his Oct. 25 post is correct in slamming national commentators--on public as well as commercial television and radio--for inventing and popularizing the notion that "lower expectations" apply to Bush's performance as a debater and orator. It's like giving the guy a head start, a form of manipulation that could be decisive in this stunningly close race.

When it comes to understanding the issues in the presidential race, you're better off reading The Sun than watching national television--that is, if you've already decided to ignore Ralph Nader (more on which later). Sun national staffers deserve credit for seeking substance in the major parties' campaigns, even on topics the candidates themselves have done their best to play down. Good example: Ellen Gamerman's Oct. 23 piece on the politics of abortion and gun regulation, matters that sharply distinguish Gore and Bush yet which the candidates do their best not to mention, leaving advocacy groups to do their dirty work. Jonathan Weisman has also provided good analysis, including a healthy side-by-side comparison of the stretchers and whoppers uttered by Gush and Bore during the Oct. 17 debate. What we could really use is an ongoing USA Today-style lie-tracking chart; I've searched in vain.

Aside from the overriding vacuousness Somerby derides, the worst thing about the national media's electoral coverage is the self-justifying, self-perpetuating dismissal of the Nader candidacy. I belabored this topic three months ago (Media Circus, 8/9) with regard to The Sun. Since then, the big media have continued to ignore the Green Party candidate except to say that he could spoil the election for Gore. What about the nitty-gritty issues he raises, challenging both Bush and Gore? And whatever happened to journalism's interest in telling stories? Shucks, back in the day, reporters had tons o' fun with yarns about Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan.

Without wishing to sound like, uh, Ralph Nader or somebody, I have to say that one obvious reason for the virtual blackout on the guy is that corporate media don't want his message to get out. This goes for Republican-leaning publications (which, on the surface, might wish to damage Gore by boosting Nader) as well as the more liberal media that want to protect the veep's left flank. Nader's philosophy offends corporate oligarchs at General Electric (which owns NBC), Disney (ABC), Westinghouse (CBS), and the Tribune Co. (which owns The Sun), to name a few. They have the power to confine Green Party news to the e-mail circuits of a small, easily stereotyped demographic--and to the shrinking pool of publications they don't already own. Locally, the only real debate on Nader has been right here in City Paper--which is owned by the Scranton, Pa.-based media company Times Shamrock. We thank our corporate masters for making this column possible.

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