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The 2006 Election: Another Nail in our Democracy's Coffin?

New York, New York, November 28: After every election, there are post-mortems and then, after that, come the studies to confirm the presence of many institutional and deep seated flaws in our ritualized electoral-democracy.

Annually, journalists acknowledge their own limits and mistakes. The honest ones admit there was a uniformity of outlook in which the horse race is over-covered and the issues under covered.

They concede that there was a focus on polls without explaining their limits adequately or how polls in turn are affected by the volume and slant of media coverage.  There are criticisms of how negative ads and entertainment values infiltrated election coverage, what Time magazine calls "electotainment." They bemoan the fact that there was more spin and opinionizing than reporting along with less investigative reporting.

And then they do it all over again.

It happened again this year, as if the media industry and the press corps never learns from its own mistakes and is doomed to repeat them. Why? Phil Troustine former political editor of the San Jose Mercury News, told Nieman Reports, "too many reporters are cynics, not just skeptics. This leads to the sense that they are hard bitten realists when they are simplistic and often biased." They also work for corporate media outlets who design the coverage and assign the journalists. Mostly, they are not free or independent agents.

A 2006 survey  by the Committee of Concerned Journalists of their own members revealed that many journalists think the news media is failing voters by not adequately covering this past year's campaigns.

"Only 3% give the press an A grade, while another 27% give the news media a B. At the same time, 42% give the coverage a C and 27% say D or F.

The poll surveyed 499 CCJ members between October 8 and October 15th. The Committee is a national consortium of journalists and journalism educators in various media."

The Mediaocracy blog, inspired by a book I wrote of the same name asks. "What are the particular concerns these journalists have? By large majorities they feel the news media has become sidetracked by trivial issues, has been too reactive and has focused too much on the inside baseball that doesn't really matter to voters, according to the survey.

In other words, most of the campaign reporting does not deliver what journalists think the public wants or needs. This is in line with other general surveys of reporters regarding the current state of their profession. A Pew Research Center report in 2000 showed that less than 40% of journalists surveyed said the media was fulfilling its public responsibilities."

THE LATEST STUDY

The Project on Excellence in Journalism has just assessed this past year's election after extensive on day research "On Nov. 7, a team of researchers from the Project for Excellence in Journalism monitored the coverage of 32 news outlets-18 web sites, six blogs, four broadcast networks, three cable channels, and NPR as the results rolled in and Congress changed hands. This report, "Election Night 2006": An Evening in the Life of the American Media," breaks down that performance by media platform and contains an evaluation of each individual outlet.

What did they find?

"l. The two most valuable things the news media offers on these fast-moving election nights now is a quick summary of key results for those wanting the headlines and deep veins of data that users can mine on their own. That may explain why TV Web sites fared well.

2. In contrast, rich narrative story telling and snap punditry, the long suit of the morning newspaper and the TV telecast, may be less valuable-at least as the numbers are rolling in on the first night.

3.Most news organizations are still finding their way in this new multi-media environment. Often they are trying to do too many things and lack the resources and flexibility to adjust to the speed of the news. They need to make clearer choices.

4. The Exit Poll may be more important today, not less, since users are probing that information directly, functioning as their own editors--going state by state, looking for demographic information, late deciders, and more. This is not just the purview of experts and academicians anymore."

5. When the system works-voting occurs without widespread problems and the media establishment isn't faltering-citizen sentinels, bloggers, and other observers, while potentially important watchdogs, have a more restricted role."

Sorry to disagree. The system is NOT working well. On November 26, three weeks AFTER the election, the NY Times discovered that voting machines in Florida swallowed 18,000 votes and worry that without a verified paper trail. Results will be compromised. Their editorial was titled "Deja vu" in Florida." The Times seemed shocked in concluding that electronic voting "could end up undermining democracy?

"COULD?"

Now I am the one who is shocked. How is it that so many of our mainstream media outlets IGNORED this problem, and did not demand that it be fixed BEFORE the election. For years now, an election integrity movement has been crusading on this issue but they have been brushed aside, and are rarely in the news. There is no shortage of information on the subject.

BURYING THE LEAD

Years ago, Jim Naureckas of FAIR wrote: "In journalism, it's called 'burying the lead.' A story starts off with what everyone already knows, while the real news - the most  surprising, significant or never-been-told-before information - gets  pushed down where people are less likely to see it...."

Why? What accounts for media organizations looking away and covering elections the same way each year as if they are following routines?

Responds Naurekas: "many journalists are  instinctively protective of the legitimacy of the institutions they cover." He then adds, "but the job of a journalist is not to promote but to question.  The theory behind the First Amendment is that the system will be strengthened by an unflinching look at the system's flaws."

Too many journalists fail to separate the election outcomes from the self-interested financial interests that influence them or the way incumbents manipulate the system to their advantage. Elections are often determined by what's called the "Air War"-TV commercials, many negative attacks ads that do more misrepresenting than presenting, more selling than telling.  The cost of these political ads on television, the third highest source of ad revenues for the industry, has more than quadrupled since 1982.

Today, commercial media has gone AWOL on this most obvious responsibility. "Pre-election news coverage of the candidates has in many cases all but disappeared," says Paul Taylor, chairman of the Alliance for Better Campaigns -- a MediaChannel Affiliate that advocates free airtime for candidates. "What little candidate coverage that  remains is devoted to incumbents, by a margin of nearly five to one,  over challengers."

In a study of media coverage, MediaChannel affiliate Norman Lear Center revealed that the amount of election-centered discourse provided by the typical local station during the height of the 2000 presidential primary season was just 39 seconds a night - far short of the five-minute  standard advocated by a 1998 presidential advisory commission headed by then Vice President Al Gore.

Another MediaChannel affiliate, the Center  for Media and Public Affairs, found that the total minutes of coverage  of the 2002 midterm election on the national network news programs had  declined by 78 percent over the coverage those networks devoted to the  1998 midterm election.

POLITICAL DEVOLUTION

All of this got worse in 2006. The media is failing us along with the political system it allegedly covers. There is a devolution underway, not reform and change.

Years ago in a book called "Hail to the Thief" on the outcome of the 2000 election, I wrote:

"The media is no longer, if it ever did stand apart from politics as a neutral--much less objective--watchdog operating outside the political system to strengthen democracy. In an age of corporate mergers and unprecedented media concentration, the media have in effect, merged with politics and now function as a key component of a system that Norman Mailer sees, with a whiff of the Mafia theory of Organization, as a  "family."

"The American political body has evolved," he wrote in an essay in his l998 anthology The Time of Our Time" into a highly controlled and powerfully manipulated democracy overseen by a new species of aristocracy formed at the junction of four Royal Families--the ten  thousand dollar suits of the mega-corporations, the titans of the media,  the high ogres of Congress and the upper lords of the White House."

In 2006, years after all the hand-wringing over the fiasco in Florida, and the debacle in Ohio, I see no reason to revise this judgment.


News Dissector and filmmaker Danny Schechter is the "blogger-in-chief for Mediachannel.org. His latest film is InDebtWeTrust.(InDebtWeTrust.com) Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org