TV News in Deep Gumbo
Billy Tauzin takes on the media.
Op-ed by Tim Graham, director of media analysis, MRC,
as printed in the November 20, 2000 edition of National Review Online
By Tim Graham
Did the national media help put us in Palm Beach Punch-Card Hell with their irresistible urge to call the state for Gore ten minutes before the polls closed on the Panhandle? Did the media's biased bad manners discourage last-minute Bush votes? And why did the networks lunge to call victorious states for Gore at the top of the hour, while eventual Bush states sat colorless for hours on end?
With their around-the-clock exploitation of slim margins of victory, these aren't just academic questions for the TV news divisions. Louisiana congressman Billy Tauzin, a major force in Congress on telecommunications regulation, is suggesting he'll hold hearings in January to press the network bosses on their strange election-night behavior and incorrect projections. Let's take a minute to savor the glorious idea of network chieftains being grilled for their faulty product, not unlike the tobacco bosses.
Like the tobacco industry, the networks insist that their product has never been hazardous to our political health, and they sound almost as ridiculous. In response to Tauzin's press conference, CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward huffed, "The accusation that there was bias in CBS News' reporting of election night results is completely without foundation." NBC News said it "prides itself on its standards of fairness and accuracy" and that it is conducting a "thorough review" of their election night calls. ABC News issued a similar statement. CNN chairman Tom Johnson proclaimed: "I state categorically there was no intentional bias in the election night reporting."
Yeah, and smoking Chesterfields is great for your smile. Do these people actually believe that the American people have never sensed an "intentional bias" before in political coverage? If we compared them to entertainment television, it's a little like the producers of NYPD Blue suggesting that reports that the cop characters have bared their derrieres on air are "completely without foundation."
The network flacks are now suggesting that "independent" and "external" specialists will come in to evaluate these memorable projection screw-ups, but that is probably code for the same wink-wink, buddy-buddy watchdogs like Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, who defend media liberalism like James Carville defends the Clintons.
Tauzin actually threatens to throw TV news into some deep gumbo, public relations-wise. (Tauzin's website is in Cajun; you have to click past that to a page in English.) Republicans are usually very afraid of the media. Even Newt Gingrich tried to protest lamely that coverage of Bill Clinton was too tough. But this narrow technical issue with a potentially historical impact (backed up by scholarly analyses) has spurred Tauzin and his GOP colleagues to put media bias on the congressional agenda.
It's reminiscent of the summer of 1999, when the Boston Globe, followed by other newspapers, exposed that PBS and NPR stations has long abused their tax-funded empires by exchanging direct-mail lists with Democratic campaign committees and liberal interest groups. Before those stories broke, Tauzin had been holding kissy-face "oversight" sessions with public broadcasters and their liberal-activist backers. Once a technical issue with partisan impact surfaced, Tauzin was moved to hold more hostile hearings (of which I was glad to be a part, at least to rebut the completely ridiculous bloviations of PBS pet Ken Burns). It was a slap on the wrist, to be sure, but a bad PR week is better than nothing. Congressional hearings give the media's misbehavior a much higher profile than the Media Research Centers and Accuracy in Medias can muster. This summer, CBS boss Heyward told a pesky C-SPAN caller that MRC and AIM could be dismissed as "activists and extremists of the right."
Tauzin's hearings were inspired by the following charges:
1. Yale professor John Lott estimated that 10,000 voters in the Florida panhandle could have been discouraged from voting by the networks' simultaneous premature Goregasm in Florida.
2. The moderate Republican Leadership Council reported it found 2,380 voters in those ten Panhandle counties who were discouraged by the network calls.
3. David Eisenhower of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Center found a curious pattern of networks calling Gore states quickly, but Bush states slowly. Take the Florida call and compare it to Alabama, which Bush won by 15 points, yet took almost a half an hour to color in for Bush. Will Tauzin succeed in finding a few media-addled Rose Cipollones (one of the first dusky-voiced hard-smoking plaintiffs against Big Tobacco) to testify? Like the heavy smokers, any conservative voter with a working knowledge of politics ought to know better than to listen to national media calls before deciding whether to vote or not. (Hint, hint, people: they don't want you to vote.) But that's never stopped a congressional grilling before, so let's get ready to rumble.
If the House Republicans were less cautious, it would be instructive to ask the network chieftains about the hundreds of coverage decisions they made before Election Night, and whether charges of prolonged and persistent pro-Gore bias are "completely without foundation." Did it prejudice the elections to host entire programs on unproven rumors of Bush cocaine use? Or three hours of NBC's Today Show on a 24-year-old drunk-driving charge, complete with Katie Couric calling on Democrats to "carpe diem"? By comparison, why ignore new charges (in this year's Bill Turque bio Inventing Al Gore) that Gore was a heavy pot smoker in the 1970s, and that he (and Tipper!) intimidated his Mary Jane-and-munchies host John Warnecke in 1988 to shut up to reporters. Turque even came up with additional corroborating witnesses, but only one candidate got the illegal-substance arrows shot at him.
What we really need for these hearings is a Jeffrey Wigand, an insider whistleblower with incriminating memorandums with sentences like, "In the eventuality of a Bush victory (yeah, when mollusks fly!)…." or "Don't forget to breathe deeply before you start using the term 'Speaker Gephardt.'" But who will leak on this leak-dependent industry?
Perhaps we could also get some prominent Republican to suggest that in the future, to prevent additional damage, the network stars go outside the office and project their election findings out on the balcony where no one will get hurt.
National Review Online
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