Media Myopia and the Future of Democratic Politics

Article excerpt

As I write this column, the major media are still gripped by a modern political soap opera. Votes from the 2000 U.S. elections have been counted and recounted, litigation has reached the highest court in the country, the stock market bounces nervously, and media pundits speculate on the health of the nation. Yet the Florida recount battle has distracted many citizens from a story with more enduring significance.

The major media "call" of Florida for Al Gore--and then for George W. Bush--on the evening of November 7 exposed a narrow and herdlike media. Its leaders place short-term, bottom-line considerations ahead of larger democratic needs. Consequently, the media today are incapable not only of serious scrutiny of our democratic practices but even of informed coverage of political races. Drawing on identical data and obsessed with the desire to be first, the major media all marched lemminglike off the cliff election eve.

Political reporting increasingly resembles sports coverage. Endless polls tell us who is gaining ground, and issue coverage is confined to discussions of who gains strategic advantage by the way disputes are parried or poses are struck.

If politics is being covered as a horse race, one would expect the media to at least do that job well. But Florida became almost as much of a badge of shame to the media mavens as it was a legal crisis for the Bush and Gore camps. Unable to resist the urge to be first with the call, major media twice gave viewers misleading information. Painful and embarrassed retractions occasioned promises to seek the causes of error and to do better next time. Unfortunately, little of the on-air commentary provided viewers with an adequate sense of the depth of the problem.

All of the major media based their calls on data supplied by the Voter News Service, a consortium established by the networks to conduct exit polling and gather results from sample precincts. Through the 1988 presidential election, however, each of the networks maintained its own polling operation. Under that prior system, it would have been entirely possible for different networks to have made different "calls" on Florida. Or, seeing their rivals making other forecasts, some could have held off.

The VNS was created solely to save costs. Media analysts total the savings at around $10 million per network. For these savings--a tiny fraction of their total budgets--citizens pay a high price. Not only are the number of samples on which predictions are based limited, networks must also work from one uniform set of exit polling data.

Exit polls purport to provide some sense of why elections go as they do. But these polls can shape, as much as reflect, ongoing political debate. Such questions as "Does the economy or the environment matter more to you?" are based on and reinforce the contestable view that these concerns can be neatly separated. (I would argue that here in Maine, jobs that erode the fisheries, forests, and scenic vistas--our "natural capital"--may themselves not be sustainable. …