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Previously in Politics & Prose:

The Burden of Florida (December 14, 2000)
The cavalcade of racial injustice that was the Florida recount.
by Jack Beatty

Gore in Aught-Four? (November 30, 2000)
What Al Gore knows—and Republicans only pretend not to.
by Christopher Caldwell

The Spirit of Party (November 22, 2000)
Florida, November 2000. Two partisans, one Republican and one Democrat. An imaginary dialogue.
by Jack Beatty

Does Gore Deserve to Win? (November 1, 2000)
Jack Beatty on Gore's many failures—and why none of them outweigh the importance of defeating Bush.

My Father's Politics (November 1, 2000)
Scott Stossel on George Packer's Blood of the Liberals and the plight of the would-be liberal today.

Fuzzy Economics (October 12, 2000)
George W. Bush is right—the era of big government being over is over. Even if he's the one elected. Christopher Caldwell explains.

More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.

Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

Prime-Time Propaganda

What the election revealed about the media

by Jack Beatty

January 10, 2001

In the midst of the long count in Florida, I despaired of trying to communicate with Republicans. Some Republicans must have felt the same way about Democrats. How could our perceptions of the same reality be so at odds? Isn't there a Truth above political truth? And who could tell us the difference? To Democrats the rulings of the Florida Supreme Court were just and the 5-4 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore was outrageously political. Republicans saw it exactly the other way around. Watching the debates between rival spokesmen, talking heads, law professors, demographers, and statisticians, one witnessed a charade of intelligence bent to partisan service mirrored by a media that in uncritically reporting propaganda validated it.

A troubling aspect of our politics stood out starkly in the Florida sun: the politicians and spokespeople expected us to accept propaganda for argument, rallying for reasoning, verbal bombs—"They are stealing the election!"—for veridical statements. This followed on a campaign in which George W. Bush did not explain— nor was he challenged to explain by either Al Gore or the moderator of the debates, Jim Lehrer—the contradictions of his proposal to privatize a portion of Social Security. For his part, Gore got away with spending the same dollar twice, if not three times, in the promises he made to any group of voters large enough to fill a meeting hall. Worse, neither candidate so much as gestured at vision. Neither tried to say what was historic about our time, to limn its possibilities and dangers. Instead of a rendezvous with destiny, we had one with a lock box. Why have we come to expect so little from men who ask us for so much? I want to focus on just a shard of the answer, but a significant one: the iatrogenic role TV journalism played in the election.

During the fall, C-SPAN rebroadcast past presidential debates from 1960 onward. I saw bits from several of them, but the whole of only one: a Bush-Dukakis debate from 1988. The candidates were not edifying, but what struck me as different from 2000 was the quality and bite of the questions put to them by Margaret Warner of Newsweek and Andrea Mitchell of NBC. In one question to Dukakis, Warner cited criticisms of his economic program made by nonpartisan academic experts, whom she mentioned by name. The question assumed a Truth beyond political truth. As seen by the disinterested experts, here were the realities to which Dukakis's program had to answer. Here were Dukakis's claims about them. Why didn't they square? It bothered Warner that they didn't, and she made it bother us. Her loyalty was not to party—she asked Bush equally tough questions—but to the journalist's job to publicly sort truth from propaganda, and to do it in public, where it becomes a political act.

Jim Lehrer, in an interview with The Boston Globe on the eve of the first 2000 debate, held at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, said that to preserve his objectivity as the anchor of The NewsHour on PBS, he had not voted in decades. (I can't guess for whom Warner voted in 1988, but I feel sure she did vote.) To be a good journalist, he could not be a good citizen. Presumably, the sifting of claims and candidates that most voters go through to reach a decision had not gone on in his mind for years.

During one of the debates, Lehrer asked a question that betrayed the vast political indifference entailed by his monastic objectivity. So, then, in practical terms, you both favor prescription drugs for seniors? I thought Bush would promise to make him an ambassador on the spot. Blurring his differences from Gore on the issues was Bush's main strategy in the campaign, and, in that helpless question, Lehrer did Bush's blurring for him. Warner-like, he could have singled out the elements of the Bush plan that gave it the look of a Potemkin contrivance. Even the insurance companies who were to be its vehicles had expressed doubts. It would have manifested objectivity to ask an incisive, tough question like that, building it, as Warner did, on sources outside either campaign, and not just on unnamed "critics"—a lazy citation favored by Lehrer that feeds the pernicious idea that political truth is the only kind we have. Warner's 1988 question did not elicit a worthy answer from Dukakis, but it modeled critical thinking for the viewer-citizen. Lehrer's disarmed thought.

It's a lot to hang on Lehrer, of whose news program on PBS I am an often admiring watcher, but his disservice to public understanding as moderator was a microcosm of TV's event-shaping part in the election. Examples include: the early call of Florida for Gore while the polls were still open in the Republican Florida panhandle; the premature call of the state for Bush, which gave him an insurmountable psychological and political advantage over Gore in the recount; the startling fact that it was a Bush cousin, John Ellis, an election analyst hired by Fox News, who first called the state for Bush, stampeding the other networks into collective folly; CNN's Bernard Shaw, the moderator of the vice-presidential debate, asking a delighted Dick Cheney to justify possibly the only pro-environment vote he cast in a congressional career of voting with the polluters and despoilers of the environment. From that journalistic embarrassment to institutional disgrace on election night, television undermined democracy.

Chastened by their medium's mischievous interference in the election, the TV journalists covering the recount became passive conduits for propaganda. Republicans charge this; Democrats charge that. Now back to you, Judy. The reporters acted like mirrors not lamps, substantially failing to independently assess the facts, weigh the charges being levied by both sides (were "votes being manufactured," as the Republicans charged, or not?), and establish the truth. The election-night fiasco, I suspect, will reinforce this tendency in TV political coverage for some time to come. So, although it is often interpreted as a sign of civic decline, it is perhaps perversely encouraging that the audience for the nightly network news shows has fallen from 60 percent of the viewing public as recently as 1993 to 38 percent in 1998, that the average age of those who do watch them is fifty-seven, and that young people virtually ignore Jennings, Brokaw, Rather, Lehrer, et al.

Is it fair to damn TV for both action and inaction? I think so. The action—racing to be the first to call key states and the election—flowed from corporate competition; it was all about business and ratings and bragging rights. The inaction—from the feebly informed questions asked in the debates to CNN's turning itself into a wire service for wild claims—was a failure of journalism. Democracy can survive the premature call of an election. It will have a harder time surviving a medium of mass propaganda disguised as an instrument of truth.

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Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

All material copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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