SMITH said he would discuss both the highs and the
lows of the media coverage of one of the most interesting,
closely fought elections in recent decades.
There was a lot of good work done, especially in the print
media, stories that challenged candidates' inconsistencies,
dissected their TV advertising, and framed the claims and
arguments of both sides clearly and fairly. The "so-called
mainstream media" -- such papers as The New
York Times, The Washington Post, The
Boston Globe -- and also USA Today provided
such coverage. There was good work done as well on television.
Frontline profiled the candidates in effective, informative
ways. Smith's own program, The NewsHour, where "we
dare to be dull," looked hard at the candidates and many
of the key issues; we developed fact-check segments about
what the candidates were saying on the stump and ad-watch
segments that focused on their paid commercials. There was
also a lot of good discussion in the "welter of talk"
available on the cable news channels. "It was unfortunately
very heavily mixed with opinion."
Internet Comes of Age
The most significant new aspect of the coverage of the election,
different even from that of the 2000 presidential campaign,
was the attention paid to and the coverage provided by the
Internet. In at least two respects, this was the election
in which the Internet came of age.
the Internet emerged as a powerful, even unprecedented fund-raising
vehicle. The Internet has created the template for campaign
fund-raising in the future. The Internet had been long promised
as a source of money for politics, but it really delivered
in the 2004 campaign, raising hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Democrats used the Internet more effectively for fund-raising
this time around, but the Republicans will surely catch up
in a big way. They already had begun to catch up by the end
of the campaign.
and more important, the Internet established itself as a source
of news coverage, fact checking and criticism of the candidates,
their surrogates and of the mainstream media. Both established
Internet web sites and "the ever-growing army of bloggers"
were major players in the campaign and have continued to be
a significant presence in the media landscape since the election.
Smith cited the famous (or infamous) instance of the decisive
role played by bloggers in exposing the forged documents used
in the CBS story purporting to show that President Bush had
been derelict in his National Guard duty during the Viet Nam
war. This episode demonstrated the power of this new medium
to challenge mainstream news providers and to shape the national
debate. One has to wonder, Smith added, whether this story
was truly "spontaneous" -- that is, whether the
bloggers who first raised questions about the authenticity
of the documents were acting independently or had been tipped
off somehow. His skepticism may be misplaced, Smith acknowledged,
but it does seem implausible to him that only 18 minutes into
the hour-long CBS broadcast the blogosphere was already circulating
questions about the evidence. In any event, the power of weblogs
to influence political discourse in our country is now undisputed.
also cited two recent instances of the influence of the Internet.
Complaints generated by bloggers were instrumental in the
recent resignation of Eason Jordan, chief news executive of
CNN, who was alleged to have implied in a speech that coalition
forces in Iraq may have targeted journalists. Second, an article
in the Internet magazine Slate exposed the counterfeit
journalist -- later shown to have advertised as a gay prostitute
in nude photos on pornographic web sites -- who had been admitted
to the White House press corps and for two years had been
lobbing soft questions to President Bush during news conferences.
These examples show the power of the Web not only to offer
commentary, but to drive events and force responses from mainstream
media and from politicians.
Among the low points in the campaign coverage, Smith said,
was "that whole senseless distraction about the war in
Viet Nam. Not the war in Iraq, the war in Viet Nam. We had
to spend about a month arguing about that, and the respective
roles of the two candidates." This discussion led nowhere;
nothing new was turned up.
controversy turns from the topic itself to the media delivering
it, the original subject tends to get lost. This is distressing
if the subject itself is significant and calls for answers.
In the CBS case, for instance, the original questions was,
"Did the President receive preferential treatment as
the privileged son of a distinguished Texan" when he
served in the National Guard and when he was allowed to leave
the Guard before completing his service? And the corollary
question: If the documents CBS was using were faked, who faked
them, and why? Good questions, never answered.
make a similar point about the Eason Jordan case. The questions
he raised about the role of coalition forces and the death
of journalists in Iraq have not been adequately pursued by
the media and remain unanswered.
were also some big shortcomings in the category of unaddressed
topics. Our media, for instance, have never resolved the problem
of how to cover the war on terror as a political issue. It
certainly is a political matter. How to separate the politics
from the news? The media have muddled the concept of national
security with this generic war on terrorism, and then mixed
Iraq in unthinkingly. In the short-handing practiced by most
media "this all gets blended in to a fair muddle."
weakness of the media coverage of the election was its failure
to recognize and to report on the Republicans' superior competence
at electioneering. They ran a far more effective campaign,
a sophisticated 50-state operation. They proved to be far
better than the democrats at organizing and better at getting
their message out.
YOUNG said she felt both the right and the left were
broadly dissatisfied with the mainstream media. There was
a failure to cover many important issues. It was "the
most mean-spirited, the most hysterical campaign in my memory."
It was ridiculous that we spent so much time refighting the
war in Viet Nam, but we must remember that Kerry set the agenda
on this topic by stressing his war experience at the Democratic
convention. Young found it "amazing" that the Democrats
underestimated the backlash from veterans over Kerry's anti-war
activism when he returned from Viet Nam. The Kerry campaign's
slowness to respond to the swift boat ads showed a "shocking
lack of preparation" and foresight.
New Media World
The election of 2004 certainly revealed that we live in a
new media environment. One key change was the rise of Fox
News, the appearance of a vigorous, ideologically different
voice among TV news sources. This new voice was, of course,
especially audible on the Fox talk shows.
major element in the new media landscape was the rise of the
blogs. How fast this has all happened! How many of us even
knew what blogs were two or three years ago? Both for better
and for worse, the blogosphere undermines the power of the
old media gatekeepers, and the old fiction of journalistic
objectivity. But there has been a lot of utopian talk about
the rise of citizen journalists and how anyone with a computer
can now be a journalist. Has this created more noise than
light? Probably. But it is important to remember that mainstream
opinion columnists compete with each other for attention and
information and, like bloggers, often reach beyond their expertise.
of polarization in our media and our politics is unprecedented
in her experience, Young said. But we must realize that blogs,
though they surely contribute to this polarization, merely
magnify tendencies that already exist in the mainstream media.
Young said she does believe, as one commentator has suggested,
that the blogosphere hurt the Democrats in the election. The
Democratic bloggers pushed the party to the left away from
the moderate center of the country, while the right wing blogs
did an effective job of denigrating and discrediting the mainstream
media. Both these tendencies, then, were helpful to the Bush
of perspective is helpful in thinking about the undeniable
polarization we all recognize. Our media is more partisan,
yes, but in this it resembles the European model and also
resembles the media landscape in the U.S. of 50 or so years
ago. There are advantages in getting beyond the era when a
belief in the media's commitment to a so-called objectivity
encouraged or enabled unacknowledged assumptions that were
in reality liberal or elitist. A more overt politicization
of our media may be preferable to the subtle and largely unconscious
bias of an earlier era.
cautioned that the notion of aiming for an honest objectivity
remains important; it would not be healthy if everyone assumed
it was appropriate to inject one's political views into one's
The mainstream media's preconceptions led to certain revealing
failures, according to Young. A kind of basic script or template
gets accepted, creates certain expectations and obscures certain
facts or realities. For example, there was lots of coverage
of the role of evangelicals in the Bush campaign, but little
attention to the sharply partisan, pro-Democratic role played
by African-American churches.
of the country into red states and blue states was simplistic
and deceptive, Young said. To label entire states and regions
as uniformly conservative or uniformly liberal was a foolish,
fundamental error. Such neat ideological patterns don't hold.
Atheists voted for Bush; 25 percent of gays voted for Bush.
One way the media failed was to give inadequate coverage to
folks who did not fit the stereotypes.
Right now the big story is the media manipulation by the White
House. First, we had the story of the conservative columnist
Armstrong Williams who was paid $250,000 to promote Bush's
no child left behind policy. And now we have this new story
about Jeff Gannon-Jim Guckert, who was accepted as a legitimate
journalist and given a place in the White House press conferences.
Maureen Dowd's column in the New York Times today
says the Republicans are not just tampering with the press
but reinventing the press. But this seems excessive. "Both
these stories strike me as not so much insidious as incredibly
stupid." Williams was a pro-Bush columnist and would
have supported the President in any case. The Gannon case
is even more bizarre. Couldn't the White House have found
someone "who was not moonlighting as a stud service person?"
undermines the notion of the Republicans as evil geniuses
of media manipulation.
the crossing of lines between journalists and politicians
has happened before in the respectable media as well. Such
respected journalists as Bill Moyers or Chris Matthews have
worked as staff members, speechwriters and consultants for
Democrats. There is a bit of a double standard here when it
comes to the right.
URRICHIO, CMS Director: Some stories seem to have
a life of their own because some issues dominate while others
are quickly forgotten. How does this happen? Who decides which
stories are covered? Is it the politicians or the people?
And does the press itself not have any leadership in setting
the news agenda for the public?
The media does pick from what is in front of them and what
is already a major issue in the campaigns. For instance, the
swift boat advertisements were a relatively inexpensive way
to bring certain claims to the forefront of the media, because
they were constantly replayed by news stations. I’m
bothered that so much time was spent rehashing the allegations,
motivations, and the Kerry campaign’s response. The
media did not investigate the details and substance of the
claims. When this was finally done weeks later, the claims
were found to have little substance. This is where the news
failed. The media should not just repeat old information in
order to make up for the lack of time or ability to dig deeper.
But again, people will ask, why should the media set the agenda?
I think that the politicians set the news agenda. For instance,
the Kerry campaign was not prepared to deal with the swift
boat charges. They did not do any investigative work of their
own. So, it is not fair to pile all the blame on the media.
I agree that the Kerry campaign should have been
more prepared, but I also thought that the media was slow
to uncover the facts. I am interested in the colors used to
represent each political party. Red is known to be a dominant,
vibrant color, suggestive of power, while blue is a more passive
color. Is this representation a media creation? Perhaps this
representation should be altered in the future.
This is interesting, because it wasn’t very long ago
that red used to stand for communism!
This graphic representation began on TV screens in
1996 or 2000, I think. The red-blue referral became set in
stone in 2000 when the election results were so close and
the election maps were looked at frequently. It is only a
shorthand reference for which party carried the state.
EASTON, CMS graduate student: Could you contextualize
the resignation of PBS president Pat Mitchell in today’s
She will fill out her term, so she is not actually resigning.
She advised the station managers that she will not continue
after this term. But her announcement raised bigger issues.
It is a changing world for public broadcasting. Corporate
underwriters are less willing to support public broadcasting
and the political perspectives of different broadcast are
being examined more critically. In my opinion, public broadcasting
should be allowed to become more financially independent and
therefore free from political considerations. In order to
be effective, public broadcasting needs to figure out how
to define itself.
QUESTION: Most of the media coverage during
the campaign centered on two candidates, who had very similar
platforms. Why wasn’t there more coverage of the other
candidates? More information on them would allow new ideas
to surface and would allow viewers to judge the candidates
for themselves. Why is the media avoiding these candidates?
Because the public only devotes a certain amount of time to
media coverage, the news organizations have to focus their
coverage on the areas they think matter most. The question
is how much time should be given to a candidate who may bring
in new ideas but, facing political realities, will not win.
It is a question of balance.
It is not all the media’s fault that the coverage seems
biased. We do have a basic two-party system that makes it
almost impossible for a third-party candidate to win. The
news organizations are limited by time and resources.
MIT students seem to be cynical about the mainstream
media. They say they feel manipulated by these news sources.
They go to the BBC, Jon Stewart, and religious/secular alternative
news sites instead. This trend suggests that students are
not being educated about politics, which worries me. How can
we get students to become engaged in the mainstream media?
One way for the mainstream media to attract the younger generation
is to get into the areas that the alternative sources are
good at – blogging, for example. Also, young people
today are used to everything being quick, so the speed of
the Internet news sites is especially attractive to them.
I think the mainstream media could also attract the younger
generation by providing a greater diversity of voices. By
diversity, I do not mean only gender and ethnic diversity,
but also a diversity of viewpoints. Perhaps by offering more
competing viewpoints the truth will emerge.
It used to be believed the younger people do not get interested
in the news until they have a house and a young family. I
am not certain that model will continue. That is why it is
important that the mainstream media have a conversation with
their audience in order to find out what viewers want to know.
I’d like to hear more about the media’s coverage
of Election Day itself. We didn’t hear much about the
mechanical problems or the long lines of voters waiting to
vote. I feel that these problems do not fit with a legitimate
government. Where was the media coverage of this?
There was some coverage of these irregularities, but the conclusion
was that they did not change the final outcome. On election
night, the largest news organizations were very careful not
to predict the winner based on exit polls. They were careful
not to repeat their mistake from 2000.
Again, it seems the politicians set the news agenda. The Kerry
campaign decided that the charges were not substantial enough
and did not pursue the charges. This is why the irregularities
did not become a huge news story
There seems to be increasing partisanship in the media, yet
there are more independent political parties today than in
the past. Also, the younger generation seems to be less partisan
because they have not decided their political identity or
are just apathetic, yet they do not believe the media is objective.
What can account for this?
I think the people who are less partisan, who are more laid
back and apathetic, are less likely to seek out alternative
media sources, while those with stronger opinions seek out
like-minded news sources. This may account for the polarization.
America is a divided country, something that was obvious from
the close results of the last two elections. It seems that
people go to alternative media sources that support their
views for a sort of reaffirmation or feeling of community.
BLOSSOM HOAG, MIT: I’m very active
with the Sierra Club. Environmentalists may feel that no matter
how much time they devote to working on a campaign it doesn’t
make a difference. The media didn’t cover the environmental
issues of the last election. Even though these issues weren’t
prevalent in the campaign, I think the media could delve into
areas other than those that make up the forefront of the campaigns.
What more would it have taken to arouse the environmental
community? The Bush administration rolled back several pieces
of environmental legislation and promised to do more, yet
the voices of the environmentalists weren’t as strong
and loud as would be expected.
The environmentalists supported Kerry because of
his environmental stance, but this stance never came out in
A lot of issues ended up being treated as secondary to Iraq.
Iraq took up a lot of the attention.
THORBURN, Communications Forum Director: I fear that
there is a strong tendency for the democrats, or both sides,
to blame the media. Perhaps the problem lies not with the
media, but with our country’s imperfect democratic processes.
There is no range of parties or a parliamentary model that
allows for different voices to be heard. Many of the problems
being brought up here, it seems to me, are not attributable
primarily to the media, but to the simplifying and polarizing
tendencies built into our two-party system.
It does seem that this oversimplification of different views
has led to the feeling many people have of being politically
homeless. Many people are alienated by some part of a party
platform and do not complete identify with one party.
The two presidential candidates were so alike and repeated
the same points. I feel that the candidates could have separated
themselves by bringing up issues that were their own, such
as the environment for Kerry. Gore didn’t bring up his
environmental stance either, and he ran for president before
9/11. The fact that these issues were not at the forefront
of either election may have nothing to do with 9/11. Could
the candidates be more concerned about how they are perceived
when they hold a particular stance?
Kerry did make speeches on the environment, but they were
drowned but by other issues. Candidates repeat again and again
their few basic points because they believe in repetition
to drive home a message.
The environmental message can be alienating to some part of
electorate. For instance, Gore’s message, that it is
necessary to alter our lives and our society for the environment’s
sake, can easily be interpreted negatively by the Republican
Party. As a result, these issues may not seem to be as valuable
to a candidate who is trying to win an election.
Kathy talked about the need for a greater diversity
of voices in media, and Terence said that the media couldn’t
do a quick and effective review of the swift boat claims because
of a lack of resources. I’d like to know what kind of
impact media conglomeration will have on the coverage of the
campaign and on continuing coverage of the administration.
The consolidation of media is a major issue. TV broadcasting
can be very profitable, but a consequence is that news departments
become just a cog in a profit-making machine. The problem
in media coverage is not in the established opinion news,
which is known to hold a particular bias. The problem occurs
when “opinion is inserted under the guise of objectivity”
– when a news station claims to be fair and balanced,
yet inserts bias.
Having fewer owners does not necessarily mean they all have
the same views. In cities, the closing of newspapers is a
problem because there is a loss of editorial viewpoints. However,
it is possible for owners to ensure that diverse viewpoints
are maintained. The Detroit News merged operations with the
Detroit Free Press, but maintained separate viewpoints. I
do think that bloggers and internet-based media are a positive,
refreshing addition that allows for the emergence of new and
Kathy asked at one point, who elected the media? This is troubling
to me. Her suggestion that the politicians elect the media
implies that the media has to know its place and is inferior
to politics. It also suggests that politics is a monolithic
party, which is not true. Can you offer me any clarification?
YOUNG: The question of who sets the agenda
is complicated. In an ideal world, the people would decide
the agenda. I think that in the past decades, there was a
media monolith that decided it should set the agenda and promote
certain political values. Bloggers and the internet have begun
to challenge that.
The only people who elect the media are those who pay for
a newspaper or turn on a certain TV news station.
Why has the fact that Bush only speaks to self-selected audiences
been ignored by the media? Also, a poll revealed that 40%
of people believe that weapons of mass destruction had been
found in Iraq. How would the media have developed strategies
to reduce that misinformation and confusion?
It is not surprising that the public believed that, because
it was clearly intimated by the administration and war supporters.
The technique of self-selecting audiences is not original
and has been taken to a new level by the Bush administration.
Bush does this not just for campaigns, but also for regular
speeches. This means that the president never hears any criticism.
These staged events receive little coverage by the media.
part of summary compiled by Joellen Easton
--discussion section compiled by Marie Thibault