Crazy cam­paign cov­er­age

The Covington News - - Opinion -

Wow! If you aren’t sat­u­rated with news of the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, you’ve been liv­ing in a cave. TV cov­er­age (as well as print) re­ally took off af­ter the early con­tests in Iowa and New Hamp­shire drew great in­ter­est and big rat­ings. That’s not to say TV news nets (broad­cast and ca­ble) were not pre­pared to cover this elec­tion, but the amount of air-time de­voted to the cam­paigns is di­rectly re­lated to the view­ers’ in­ter­est. Truth be told, th­ese news or­ga­ni­za­tions are pri­mar­ily busi­nesses al­ways looking to im­prove rat­ings be­cause ad rev­enues are di­rectly re­lated to rat­ings. So, how did the cov­er­age go?

A large field of candidates chal­lenged the news or­ga­ni­za­tions’ cov­er­age plans this elec­tion be­cause there was no in­cum­bent in the hunt. News ed­i­tors were en­ticed by Sen. John McCain’s his­tory, both as a war hero and a vic­tim of Ge­orge W. Bush’s South Carolina pri­mary smear cam­paign in 2000, and he was re­warded with lots of cov­er­age. McCain was “fun” to cover and al­ways avail­able to the press (stress the word al­ways). He was also in the crosshairs of the rest of the GOP field, his con­ser­vatism be­ing the tar­get. McCain’s near-death ex­pe­ri­ence in July ’07 — no money — got him boat-loads of free TV time, thanks to the nets. Let’s face it, McCain’s strug­gling cam­paign and his will­ing­ness to talk on­cam­era about any­thing, any­time, any­where made for good TV. He got mega-dol­lars worth of free ex­po­sure and got his mes­sage out.

Lots of at­ten­tion was paid to Gi­u­liani, a me­dia sweet­heart be­cause of 9/11, and Fred Thomp­son, for­mer ac­tor and se­na­tor, an­other high pro­file can­di­date that was built up by me­dia cov­er­age. But nei­ther had stay­ing power. And Huck­abee from Arkansas, in un­til the end, was not very “sexy” for TV news. The re­sult was more McCain cov­er­age.

On the other side of the rolling po­lit­i­cal-me­dia cir­cus were the Democrats — an­other full field with some re­ally in­ter­est­ing play­ers, in­clud­ing a for­mer first lady and a non-Jesse-Jack­son­type African-Amer­i­can. Can’t get much bet­ter than that, for both the vot­ers and the boys-and-girls-on­the-bus. Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton (who quickly dropped the Rod­ham) was ris­ing from the ashes of an un­faith­ful hus­band who got his own share of air-time (oh yes, and it was the “lib­eral” me­dia that pro­vided all that neg­a­tive cov­er­age of a Demo­crat in the White House, wasn’t it?). Add Sen. Barack Obama, a hand­some, well-ed­u­cated and ar­tic­u­late of­fice-seeker who spoke not in rhyme, but in well-thought-out sen­tences with a mes­sage that res­onated. If only John Ed­wards had ‘fessed up about his af­fair while still a can­di­date, the ca­ble news guys would have had an­other juicy one with which to over-in­dulge. Ter­ri­ble tim­ing, John.

All th­ese new and unique na­tional candidates plus the old white-haired guy af­forded very ef­fi­cient use of man­power re­sources for the ca­ble nets. The costly hours spent cov­er­ing the candidates might have pro­vided only seven or eight min­utes of ma­te­rial per on-air hour. But flush out the sto­ries with live Q&A with the re­porters, add some pun­dits and you’ve got 30 min­utes of air-time, and fill­ing air is cru­cial in 24/7 tele­vi­sion.

So now you have two full fields of candidates bat­tling for face­time, with all the cam­paigns be­ing very aware that the three 24/7 ca­ble news nets are com­pet­ing ag­gres­sively for any and all “red” meat (no of­fense… also blue). When one of the candidates folds his or her tent, the can­di­date’s cam­paign se­nior staff ends up pick­ing apart the re­main­ing cam­paigns as the ca­ble guys look for more talk­ing heads. Both par­ties and all cam­paigns are ea­ger to get their own spin-pros on air, but there’s a new de­vel­op­ment in this elec­tion cy­cle. Pros from elec­tions past find them­selves out­num­bered by new, fresh faces of both sexes and all colors — “an­a­lysts” we’ve never heard of be­fore (and it would be OK with me if we never did again, in most cases). They arise from nowhere, and with some spe­cial­ized me­dia train­ing, they now be­come ac­cepted an­a­lysts. Very few have orig­i­nal thoughts, mostly pick­ing up what the real an­a­lysts have to say and rephras­ing it.

At times it seemed the pun­dits were get­ting more air time than the candidates. And that might have been the case if it weren’t for the de­bates. The Wash­ing­ton Post (yes, that lib­eral news­pa­per that is re­spected and di­gested by all in po­lit­i­cal power) called it “A Cam­paign Af­flicted with De­bate Fa­tigue.” The rat­ings at times were mis­er­able (1 mil­lion view­ers) but by the VP de­bate (call that the “Palin de­bate”), they were huge by any stan­dard (70 mil­lion).

And speak­ing of Gov. Sarah Palin, we had an­other mag­net for the cam­eras and re­porters. Don’t you think the McCain cam­paign knew that would be the case? They know how to play the me­dia. Good looking, great sound-bites, sharp tongue. And af­ter the love af­fair with the me­dia wore off, the crit­i­cal re­port­ing took over. Yes, there were at­tempts to pay at­ten­tion to gaff­prone Dem. VP can­di­date Bi­den, but let’s face it, Palin was a much juicier tar­get. The 24/7 nets even took to giv­ing air-time to re­views of the late night comics hav­ing their fun with Sarah. And then there was Satur­day Night Live winning a record num­ber of view­ers as the GOP VP wanna-be met her twin. For view­ers who didn’t catch the act, it was re­peated con­tin­u­ously on the ca­ble nets, even mak­ing air on some of the broad­cast news shows.

Th­ese great news sto­ries (the candidates) plus their de­bates and a record num­ber of poll­sters and you have the per­fect storm. Have you ever been bom­barded with more polls in any cam­paign you can re­call? I’ve been in­volved in cov­er­ing elec­tions since 1964 and I am over­whelmed. But the re­port­ing on polls was badly flawed. How many times were we told that one can­di­date was ahead by 5 points but not told that the mar­gin of er­ror was plus or mi­nus 3 points, which made that five-point lead a tie. One ca­ble net didn’t give the polls any cred­i­bil­ity when its post-de­bate polls showed McCain the big win­ner fol­lowed a day later by a sci­en­tific poll that showed Obama the vic­tor.

The de­bates forced sto­ries and com­par­isons of the is­sues — all of which dis­ap­peared as the econ­omy went south. That is THE is­sue now. But mas­sive early and ab­sen­tee vot­ing this year plus huge num­bers of new vot­ers has been a largely over­looked phe­nom­e­non among an­a­lysts, and this may prove to be the Achilles’ heel of cam­paign cov­er­age 2008. Thirty-one states of­fered some form of vot­ing be­fore Nov. 4, but you wouldn’t have known it from watch­ing na­tional news shows. How will the net­works’ pro­jec­tions be af­fected since no exit polling has been done? And how will early vot­ing al­ter the 2012 can­di­date strate­gies and the me­dia’s cov­er­age? I ex­pect they’ll all fig­ure that out be­fore 2012.

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