By the time you read this, we will have been awash in much hand-wringing
about the media's collective behavior on Election Night. There will
be much breast-beating over the news media's reliance on exit polls,
and over calling races too soon, only to have to rescind projections
a few hours later.
I'm especially hoping for a pharmacological analysis of Dan Rather's
intake on Election Night--what was he on, anyhow? "This is the dance
of democracy," he hyperventilated as midnight approached. Then morphing
into electronics salesman mode, he added, "This day, votes only
talk, everything else walks." The race in Florida, gushed Rather,
was "hot enough to peel house paint."
And although he too lobbed the requisite number of sports metaphors
been able, as sportscasters say, to get to the big house"), what was
notable was the repeated use of gambling metaphors. For Gore to win,
"he'll have to run the table"; he was "looking for an inside straight
draw." Quite a few of the boy pundits--Fred Barnes, William Kristol--echoed
the "run the table" line. Hmmm ... American democracy as a crapshoot--maybe
they're on to something.
And what were those graphics? Tim Russert on NBC kept bringing
out his little white greaseboard that flashed glare into the camera
while he wrote his latest illegible electoral calculations on it
with magic markers. Over on CBS, the visuals were just as high-tech.
As we looked at an electoral map of the country, Rather's giant
hand, holding a No. 2 pencil as a pointer, entered the screen to
identify states, reminding us of the hand of destruction that used
to hold Mr. Bill on Saturday Night Live. Yes, the coverage
was irresponsible and surreal.
But the real story about the media and Campaign 2000 occurred months
and weeks before Election Night, and remains the most important
story for progressives after the election: the total conquest of
political commentary by the right. What this meant for the Bush
campaign was simple. A man of very limited experience and knowledge
with an appalling record as governor, a man who, frankly, started
making Dan Quayle seem like a policy wonk, had a fifth column working
on a daily basis to legitimate his candidacy.
For millions of us, this led to an eerie sense, especially during
the debates, of a complete disconnect between our perceptions and
what we were told we saw and heard by the "experts." We began to
think that maybe we had seen an exchange different from the ones
the pundits saw. In the second debate, for example, Bush said: "We
have to work with Nigeria. That's an important continent." He also
proposed that the United States make a trade with Third World countries
that have "valuable rain forest lands": We'd forgive their debt
if they'd fork over the rain forests to us. (That comment was a
whopper, much more important than whether he will fry two people
or three in the James Byrd case, and nobody called him on
So when the second debate was all over, and Bush speechwriter Peggy
Noonan, professional Clinton-hater Chris Matthews, Don Imus regular
(and ethically challenged) Mike Barnicle and others on MSNBC, FOX
and elsewhere suggested Bush might be the next Disraeli, many of
us felt like we were in the former Soviet Union listening to something
out of Pravda. The ubiquitous William Kristol (ABC, CBS,
NPR) pronounced Bush the clear winner.
Tim Russert, who likes to pose as the Mt. Rushmore of objectivity
while advancing neocon frameworks for interpreting the news, maintained
that Bush gained ground because he established "parity" with Gore
on command of foreign affairs. Can I please remind folks that, in
the second debate, Bush said, "It's important to be friends with
people when you don't need each other so that when you do there's
a strong bond of friendship," by way of explaining overarching foreign
policy principles. If this is "parity," I think it's time to nominate
my springer spaniel for president.
On ABC the creepy, preening George Stephanopoulos, who often overcompensates
for having worked for President Clinton by tilting to the right,
also proclaimed Bush the winner after the second debate. But this
wasn't just his assessment. On Nightline, he insisted that
"all the polls show he won." ABC flashed a snap poll of debate viewers
showing that after the debate, 54 percent supported Bush. What the
network didn't tell viewers--in part because it was probably too
soon to tell--was that the majority of debate viewers that time
were Bush supporters. Fewer Gore supporters had tuned in this time
around. So of course more viewers supported Bush! CBS also flashed
an instant poll showing that 51 percent of those who watched said
Bush won. These were meaningless figures, but they fit beautifully
into the hands of the Bush spin doctors. A highly partisan assessment
was presented as totally neutral.
The same conservative spin held sway after the third debate. Gore,
whatever you think of him or his "body language," clearly had a
better command of the issues. Bush promised an African-American
woman "affirmative access," a non-existent policy, and seemed, at
times, flustered and unfocused. Yet with a few exceptions, Matthews,
Kristol, et al. proclaimed this a "tie" or a "draw"--and some suggested
that Gore lost, again, because he was too aggressive onstage.
Then there were the focus groups of undecided voters in Tampa or
Cincinnati we saw after the debates. Various commentators have already
complained about the media's inordinate emphasis on the least informed
and most confused members of our citizenry as opinion leaders for
the rest of us. Less noted by these same commentators, however,
was how these displays reinforced conservative spin on the campaign.
The focus groups on MSNBC were run by Frank Lutz. The network introduced
him as a pollster, not a Republican pollster, which is what
he is. We don't know how Lutz chose members of the groups, but was
it just a coincidence that after both debates the majority of Lutz's
voters started swinging toward Bush?
The mainstream media bought the Bush camp's spin on all the debates:
that Bush won the first because Gore came on like a pit bull, won
the second because Bush didn't identify a Balkans country as "Yugoslabovia,"
and won the third because Gore's pacing and body language were too
aggressive. How did such assessments turn into the prevailing common
This, my dears, is no accident. There are three cable news channels
now that present 24-hour news and talk: CNN, MSNBC and FOX. Of them,
Fox is openly and proudly conservative, with its roster of white
male conservatives on The O'Reilly Factor, The Beltway
Boys and Hannity & Colmes, its token right-wing blonde
Paula Zahn (whose regular guests on The Edge include Pat
Robertson) and its star anchorman, Brit Hume, former tennis partner
of George H.W. Bush. MSNBC, while parading as unbiased, is dominated
by the conservative commentary of Chris Matthews and Don Imus. Matthews
easily migrates to the Today Show as a supposedly neutral
analyst, and did so after all the debates to spin for Bush. CNN,
the least biased of the three, still has a show hosted by Evans
and Novak, but none hosted by, say, Barbara Ehrenreich or Bob Herbert.
For balance, on Sundays, the show has four white men--Evans, Novak,
Hunt and Shields, the token liberal.
Now it's true that MSNBC or FOX may only have 200,000 viewers at
a time. But because they are two of the three available news and
commentary channels, and because their pundits have regularized
their migratory patterns into the mainstream media, their conservative
influence has been magnified.
Writers for Rupert Murdoch's The Weekly Standard, a conservative
rag, are everywhere, as if the magazine were the equivalent of Time
or Newsweek, but it is never identified as right-wing. The
night before the election, The Newshour on PBS featured four
commentators, all of them well-to-do white men over 40, with one,
David Brooks, from The Weekly Standard, yet no one of any
gender from the left-wing press. Likewise, "experts" from the Manhattan
Institute abound, yet it is never identified as a conservative think
tank. And so on and so forth.
Many maintain that the remarks of pundits have little effect on
voters' ultimate preferences in the voting booth. But I think we
still aren't sure about the impact of these instant comments, polls
and focus groups, especially when their biases fuse. Obviously,
they can make people like me feel like we've gone through the looking
glass when we compare our own assessments of the emperor's utter
nakedness with the pundits' descriptions of his gorgeous, golden
robes. But these recent features of political broadcasting may have
more long-term, corrosive effects. Snap judgments about appearance
and demeanor are now perfectly legitimate measures of political
merit, and this kind of simplification is the bulwark of conservative
The right did not gain control of the airwaves overnight. They
worked at it for years. They complained to networks and advertisers
about "liberal bias"; in Congress they threatened and defunded the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting; and their media conglomerates,
such as Murdoch's News Corporation, have the money (and the blessings
of the government through the Telecommunications Act of 1996) to
buy their own conservative outlets.
It's time for us to fight back. Keep a notebook by your TV. Keep
track of how many conservatives you see on the news and talk shows.
Let's start barraging them with e-mails, letters and faxes about
right-wing bias. Say it with me, over and over: right-wing bias,
right-wing bias, right-wing bias.
The fifth column took an empty vessel and told us, over and over,
that it was filled with gold. That they got away with it may be
the most infuriating--and dangerous--legacy of this election.