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Jewish World Review Oct. 3, 2000 / 4 Tishrei, 5761

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Consumer Reports

The death of Big Media

But who knows where voters are getting their facts? --
TWELVE YEARS AGO, I decided that the ideal way to cover the 1988 presidential campaign would be to report on what happened in just five rooms–at the morning meetings in the candidates' headquarters in Washington and Boston, and at the late-afternoon meetings of the producers of the ABC, CBS, and NBC network newscasts, all on the West Side of Manhattan. My theory was that American voters got most of their information about the campaign from television, that the campaigns' morning meetings would show what they wanted on the evening newscasts, and that the networks' afternoon meetings would show how successful each campaign had been. Bush and Dukakis campaign managers Lee Atwater and Susan Estrich listened politely when I asked to attend their meetings but, understandably, turned me down.

It was a good idea, then. From the 1960s to the 1980s the three network nightly newscasts were, in fact, the town square of American politics. They replaced newspapers, whose circulation has flat-lined since 1960, as Americans' chief source of political news. At their peak, in 1980, 38 percent of households, and 75 percent of those with their TVs on, were watching on any given weeknight.

Today, the nightly news audience of the networks has slipped to 23 percent. Political junkies increasingly get their news from cable channels, talk radio, and the Internet. Others get little political news at all. There is no national public square. The old idea, invoked by Al Gore this year, was that you could force voters to watch presidential debates by "roadblocking"–showing them on the three broadcast networks. But there are no roadblocks in a 100-plus cable-channel country, and NBC has announced it won't carry the first debate anyway. You can't cover the 2000 presidential election in five rooms. It would take hundreds.

Shaggy dog. This is not altogether a bad thing. The old-line nets' dominance put great power in a very few–and mostly liberal–hands. George Bush's most electric moment in debate in 1988 came not against Michael Dukakis but with Dan Rather. Today the TV nets and national newspapers still lean left, but voters who want nonleft news can get it elsewhere. Only half of voters polled by the Los Angeles Times recently said TV news and newspapers were their main sources of political information; 11 percent cited the radio, and 7 percent, the Internet. Case in point: George W. Bush's climb in the polls last week. The CNN/USA Today/Gallup tracking poll showed Gore leading 51 percent to 41 percent on September 18-20, while the Battleground 2000 poll was the only national poll showing Bush ahead. The Gallup, Battleground, and Los Angeles Times polls taken a week later all showed Bush ahead. Evidently, Bush overtook Gore.

You would have a hard time figuring out why from the newscasts. Working for Bush, in my judgment, were his well-heralded appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and Live With Regis and his little-noted ad crisply comparing his stands on education, tax cuts, and prescription drugs with Gore's and setting forth the idea that Bush would provide choices and Gore, more government. Gore, in my view, was hurt by his fabrications about his mother-in-law and dog, his misrecollection that as a child he'd heard a lullaby written in 1975, and, perhaps, by his failure to recall the word "mammogram." The mammogram slip did not make it onto any of the old-line network newscasts, all of which gleefully had run stories on the word "rats" appearing for one-thirtieth of a second in a Republican ad; ABC and CBS ran nothing on the lullaby; CBS took two days and NBC three to report the fib about his mother-in-law's and dog's medical costs. Yet the news evidently got out somehow, and voters were reminded of Gore's tendency to spin tall tales.

Those are plausible explanations for Bush's rise in the polls. But the truth is no one knows for sure. We know less about what voters know and how they come to know it than we did a dozen years ago. That's how it's bound to be in a country with increasingly decentralized news media and a fragmented electorate. The atmosphere is very different in nontarget states–almost everyone in New York seems to ooze contempt for Bush, while almost everyone in Texas seems filled with disdain for Gore–compared with in targeted states, where all the campaign ads are running and where even indifferent voters are exposed to arguments from both sides.

The campaign is likely to be harder to follow as the weeks go on. Everyone can see the debates, but many won't bother. Voters in target states with key demographics will be bombarded by a $55 million Republican direct-mail and telephone campaign largely invisible to others. Democrats and their allies will send out mail and make calls that will also come in under the radar. Target-state voters will be flooded with information, while those unlucky enough to live in nontarget states may scarcely guess that a campaign is going on. We vote as one country, but we live in many different Americas, and the campaign is being fought out on different terms in millions of rooms.

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


09/09/00: A fair question
08/28/00: Making labor's day
07/11/00: The new Mexico: The 20-year history behind an overnight change
07/06/00: A textbook campaign: Bush makes hay before the convention lights shine
06/23/00: Beat the press
06/06/00: Reining in regulators: Will the Supreme Court clip Washington's wings?
05/25/00: In plain English: Bilingual education flunks out of schools in California
04/28/00: Gore in the balance: His book reveals a fanatical approach to the environment
04/04/00: President-elect Putin offers a basis for hopes–and for fears
03/14/00: Over the long, long haul, the issues may yet favor the Republicans
03/02/00: Will unions rule? Indispensable to Gore, labor may be the campaign's secret winner
02/15/00: A reformers' party
01/03/00: The voters rule: In Manchester, Mexico, and Moscow, an imperfect system works
01/19/00: The era of Big Promises
12/08/99: Welcome to the world of 'good enough'
11/2/99: Just saying no
11/12/99: Money talks, as it should
10/28/99: Mexico votes – for real
10/03/99: Going against type
09/28/99: The unions go public
08/31/99: China's strait flush
08/25/99: The first two contests
08/03/99: Paddling upstream
07/08/99: Taking Hillary seriously
06/22/99: Trying the lawyers
06/07/99: Facts on the ground

©2000, Michael Barone