A Nation Transfixed ... by Politics? ; High Ratings for News Coverage of Election 2000 Belie Claims That Americans Aren't Interested in Politics
Alexandra Marks writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
Network news executives must be scratching their heads.
Their ratings are doubling - in some cases tripling - and there's not a scent of scandal, sex, or celebrity chatter issuing forth from their news desks.
What's got Americans riveted is just plain, old-fashioned hard news - the story of an election too tight to call, and the accompanying, complicated legal wrangling.
And the country can't seem to get enough. On Monday, the major networks even broke into their afternoon soaps to bring the live drama unfolding at the Florida State Supreme Court. Media critics were delighted.
While coverage of the ongoing Election 2000 has been praised as exemplary, enterprising work, the media have also been chastised for their tendency to over-hype - as in the breathless "BREAKING NEWS" logo permanently attached to the bottom of the screen.
Indeed, a recent Newsweek poll found that more than two-thirds of Americans think the networks have presented the Florida recount story as more of a crisis than it really is.
But critics say this watershed election could have a lasting effect on the media, by turning on its head the conventional wisdom that politics is an automatic audience-killer.
"It shows that politics is relevant to people's lives; it's not necessarily bad for ratings," says Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
The bottom line
Since the early 1980s, when network news operations began focusing more on the bottom line, politics and public policy have taken a beating on the nightly news. Elite election unit budgets were slashed, seasoned political reporters were shown the door, and soft "news you can use" was welcomed in by executives anxious to keep ratings up.
An analysis by Harvard University's Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics, and Public Policy found that from 1977 to 1997, the number of stories about government and public affairs dropped by nearly 20 percent. At the same time, sensational and human- interest stories rose, along with negative coverage of political candidates.
A study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press also found a steady erosion in the public's confidence in government over the same time frame.
But the shift to "infotainment" did little to halt the steady loss of viewers. News ratings continued to plummet, except when an O.J. or a Monica burst onto the scene to capture the nation's attention.
"Some of the recent trends in news coverage may be not only weakening the public sphere, but may also be eroding the demand for news and adversely affecting the news audience," says the Shorenstein Center's Tom Patterson. …