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When former FCC Commissioner Newton Minow famously observed that television was a “vast wasteland,” cable news hadn’t even been invented yet. With hundreds of channels in today’s media marketplace Minow’s wasteland has grown even vaster—but narrower as well. The bandwith occupied by CNN, for example, is a black hole that lays to waste intelligent thought, responsible journalism and viewer sanity.
Take Wolf Blitzer (please!). How many times an hour does he refer to “the best political team on television?” Enough to make you wonder just how secure the network really is with that assertion? And when he soberly announces “you’re in the situation room” am I the only one who wants to say, “no I’m not, I’m in my living room!”
Still, I’ve refrained from throwing ping pong balls at the screen when Blitzer is on because I care about the subject he’s talking about. That’s why I was so offended when Blitzer announced the “breaking news” that the electoral map had changed and four states that had previously been listed as “toss ups” were now being given to Obama. “Obama now has 231 of the 270 electoral votes he needs to win,” Blitzer announced, “while John McCain has 194.”
Excuse me? Have we had the election yet? Or are the networks so addicted to the excitement of election night coverage that they are turning their ratings-boosting primary coverage into a nightly drama, instead of having to wait until November to do it again? The networks’ addiction to exit polls, tracking polls, spin and conflict make elections seem like just another reality TV show, only with cheaper prizes. “Who wants to be president” isn’t as compelling a question as “who wants to be a millionaire” or “who wants to be America’s top model or new idol.” Maybe if CNN gave the runner-up in the presidential campaign a record contract they’d do better in the ratings. (Although as much as I like Hillary Clinton, I’m not sure I want to hear her sing).
It’s alarming when the media tries to remove voter participation from the political process, when they shift from reporting the news to making it themselves. I’m reminded of the old Groucho Marx line about the fellow “who stuffed spaghetti with bicarbonate of soda, thus causing and curing indigestion at the same time.” And during the 2004 campaign, in an article about an experiment to measure whether Republican and Democratic advertising lit up different parts of the brain, I cited an old science fiction story about a future where elections were determined by a single voter hooked up to a computer. The lesson in both these examples is that technology can go too far in the pursuit of democracy.
Besides offering employment to women from the Planet of Big Hair and men with shiny teeth, I’ve often wondered what purpose CNN serves in today’s media marketplace. PR people know that in its ravenous appetite for material, the network will take just about any bait offered them and won’t dilute their press releases with much original reporting.
After the networks started to broadcast exit polls, they were pressured to hold back on releasing them until voting had ended. Now, it seems we need a new rule to keep CNN’s premature electulation in check. Tell them to hold off on awarding electoral votes until we actually start voting. Ratings are fine, but give democracy a chance.
P.S. My point about Tim Russert's stewardship of Meet the Press was echoed by the New York Times today:
Tom Brokaw, the temporary host, did not try to duplicate Tim Russert’s trademark custom of digging up old videotape to catch politicians flip-flopping and contradicting themselves...
...it makes sense to recast the job and return to the early days when guests really did meet the press, answering to a panel of inquisitors who together did what Mr. Russert did alone.