Undoubtedly, the story of the 2000 Presidential Election will occupy more than a few lines in high-school history books in years to come. That's perhaps one of the few certainties to come out of the past tumultuous week, a week that's given us all a chance to catch up on our Florida geography, and discover that "chad" is not merely Jeremy's singing companion, or a square-shaped country in Africa.
But there's one other certainty: Television news has hit rock bottom. Oh, we thought they'd gotten there long ago, back when O.J. was still better known for knifing through defenses rather than ex-wives. No, we've dropped to a whole new level. And I'm not just talking about the now-famous Election Night gaffes, when the networks swung for the fences and missed twice, calling Florida for Gore, then for Bush, anointing him President even, before backing off into the quagmire we find ourselves in today.
No, everybody's entitled to a couple of free swings. But since Election Night, the national television media has truly struck out. Instead of doing anything remotely resembling journalism, anchors from Rather to Brokaw to Shaw have contented themselves with acting like umpires at a tennis match. Up in their chairs, they freely pontificate about what's going on below, but do precious little to get to the heart of the matter at hand.
Case in point: the now-famous hanging, dimpled, and otherwise maimed pieces of cardboard named after that not-so-famous African country. We have heard, ad nauseum, the Republicans complain of the treachery implicit in trying to determine when a chad is a true chad, or no chad at all. We've heard the Democrats defend manual recounting, claiming it's easy and honest, and that a bad chad is hard to find.
Who's right? Don't expect the networks to tell you. They're too busy watching the partisans serve and volley to worry about doing any real journalism.
So how much enlightenment are the networks providing? Don't hold your breath. Despite their multi-million budgets, the major networks are devoting precious little energy to getting to the bottom of the stories they are purportedly covering.
Take the chad issue. Any network could devote half a dozen reporters to sorting that one out, once and for all. This isn't rocket science, folks. Get a few ballots. Punch a few chads. Dangle a few, too, for good luck. Then tell the American people the results of your labors. Go out on a limb; tell us all that chads are truly a major problem, or tell us that the chad issue is a non-issue. But do your job; tell us something.
How about getting yourself a bonafide Palm Beach County voting machine, or better yet, two or three? Take a few of your sample ballots, and click away at them with the machine. Show your viewers the results. How hard is it, actually, to dangle a chad? Do chads dangle easily, or can little old ladies from Pasadena punch through with a minimum of punch? Report some real news for a change.
No, in the immortal words of Richard Nixon, that would be wrong. In the interest of "fairness" -- of giving each side equal time, all the time -- the networks conspire to deprive us of any real news. Instead, they keep feeding us an endless diet of talking-head pablum, from morning to night, letting the inmates -- in this case, the candidates -- run the asylum.
Both sides in this election duel-to-the-death can say whatever ridiculous thing they care to say, and their comments are treated with uniform respect. Spin meisters for both candidates can and have uttered complete gibberish, and reporters have nodded knowingly, paused politely, and muttered, "and now back to you, Dan."
One wonders what would have happened had CNN and MSNBC existed back in the Thirties. "Thank you, Dr. Kaas, German Center Party chairman. Now we'll take you back to Berlin, for the perspective of Dr. Joseph Goebbels, campaign manager for Herr Hitler. Back with Dr. Goebbels, right after these messages..."
Actually, we shouldn't be shocked at the failure of the networks to do any real, honest reporting these past eleven days. National television, after all, is just local television writ large, and local news coverage has been sinking slowly into the sunset for the best part of two decades. In the pages of the Flyer, we have outlined on more than one occasion the dismal state of local television journalism -- an oxymoron in a medium dominated by "guns and bunnies," where ratings are all, and hard content virtually nil. Should we be terribly surprised at the networks' avoidance of "tough" stories, when painfully few local television news operations make any serious effort at covering hard news?
In July, 1999, the Flyer ran a commentary on the sorry state of local-television news reporting across America, written by former WMC/Channel Five news anchor Basil Hero. Hero fingered the entire system of "educating" television journalists; "their focus," he wrote, "is on the cosmetic arts of news presentation, not on political science, economics, and history which are the real tools of journalism."
Because the Rathers and Shaws of the world are such large figures in national life, we have all perhaps assumed that they at least possess those tools. Their sorry coverage of Election 2000 makes it clear that we are mistaken.
(Kenneth Neill is the founder and publisher/CEO of The Memphis Flyer. You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org)