By RAYMOND A. SCHROTH
The next two weeks are going to be the worst possible for TV, Walter Shapiro, political analyst for USA Today, told Reliable Sources, the Sunday morning CNN media criticism show, during their postmortem on the Bush victory in South Carolina. He didnt mean that the TV coverage itself was going to be the worst; rather that the bunching up of the primaries in the last week of February and the first week of March would so strain the networks resources that it would be hard to land anchors and reporters in so many places at once.
But we know that somehow they will do it. Somehow -- whatever the limitations, biases, self-interest and ignorance of the editors and reporters -- it is hard to recall a campaign that has been so thoroughly and fairly covered. Whatever the apprehension about shrinking media outlets as conglomerates merge and buy out one another, new information sources seem to emerge.
From where I sit, I can keep WNYC/NPR on all day for Morning Edition, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and BBC at midnight. Every morning I read The New York Times, the New York Daily News, and the Newark Star Ledger, then work through the 15 periodicals in my mailbox.
On the Internet we can check out The Washington Post or almost any other paper in the country, plus independent opinion magazines like Slate and Salon, plus the Drudge Report, which, in spite of its daily scandal, is most valuable as an entry site to every columnist in the country, plus the recommended new Danny Schecter international media survey, www.mediachannel.org. Then the Lehrer News Hour, the continuous news on CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, C-SPAN, then debates, debates and debates, and the endless analysis after the debates.
With all the coverage, the tragedy is that among politicians the level of discussion and campaign tactics is so low. George W. Bush went to Bob Jones University knowing exactly what he was doing. He would accept without protest the institutions anti-Catholicism and ban on interracial dating in exchange for rabid Christian-right support, which included deluging call-in shows and phone lines in both South Carolina and Michigan with anti-McCain smears. Now he insists he is incapable of acquiescing in anti-Catholic talk because his brother Jeb is a Catholic. In the end, however, McCain was seen as a negative campaigner because he compared Bush to Clinton. He should have said Nixon
Of course a lot of the super-thorough coverage is the same old stuff, the same handful of popular historians -- like Michael Bechloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin (Brills Content tracked 17 sightings of Goodwin in October) -- who can put sentences together and not alienate viewers. Unless you subscribe to The Nation, surfing all these media outlets will result mainly in the same middle-of-the-road-to-conservative perspective. We can also be sure the correspondents on the buses are not telling everything they know -- yet. Theyre saving nuggets for the books they will publish after the election.
Nevertheless, some issues that might have been overlooked have gotten the coverage they deserve. Two examples.
First, straight-talking John McCains uncritical loyalty to Richard M. Quinn, his chief strategist in South Carolina, who is also editor of the quirky magazine, Southern Partisan, which publishes anti-Abraham Lincoln, pro-slavery, pro-David Duke articles. The story, as far as I can tell, appeared first in The New Republic a month ago, but the mainstream media picked it up, and on Sundays Meet the Press, Tim Russert was pummeling McCain as he had pummeled Bush the week before on his trip to Bob Jones University.
Just as he had refused to criticize the Confederate flag on the State Capitol, McCain waffled, Bush-like, on the magazine. The editor of The Nation, he said, is not responsible for the articles in the magazine; his friend is not responsible for the articles in his. McCain didnt have Journalism 101 at Annapolis, but if he doesnt know that the editor of The Nation or NCR is responsible for the articles, whether he/she agrees with them all or not, he should.
Second, the public in general is not interested in criticism of the death penalty; but the Jesus-admiring Bush, whose ruthless record of executions was mentioned here two months ago, is gradually getting some critical attention. Now the issue can be set in the context of the Illinois governors suspending executions because of the states record of wrongful convictions, and the Jim Dwyer-Barry Scheck-Peter Neufeld new book, Actual Innocence, which notes 65 wrongful convictions.
In The New Republic (Feb. 21) James Wood writes: In one week in 1997, the pro-life governor had four prisoners put to death; in January of this year he polished off another seven. The question here is not the rights and wrongs of the death penalty. The question is whether Bush has the right, figuratively speaking, to his title of pro-life. And whether these actions, by a man who claims to have Jesus Christ as his greatest political influence, can be called Christian.
During the South Carolina Larry King-moderated debate, where most of the squabbling was about negative ads and all Alan Keyes had to do to look presidential was keep his mouth shut, Keyes still managed to lower the tone of the discussion by his rhapsodic endorsement of executions. I wondered whether many black or Catholic viewers felt ashamed.
On Presidents Day evening, for anyone hoping for an inspirational note, something worthy of the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, who must be shaking his head in heavenly disgust, the Democratic debate at Harlems historic Apollo Theater was a dispiriting affair. There were the two men aspiring to lead America scratching each others eyes out like a couple of alley cats.
Again, Bill Bradley is a man who -- if we judge by his autobiography and some eloquent speeches over the years -- feels deeply about Americas racial divide, and he did try to say something about what the whiteness of ones skin means. The 30-second format, however, wont stretch for deep thoughts on complex issues. Meanwhile, theres something demeaning about Bradleys trying to prove, on the basis of relatively minor inconsistencies in Gores voting record, that hes unworthy of the presidency.
Besides, Gore is demonstrating his unworthiness in other ways: The man we used to see as a fundamentally decent dry stick has morphed, like the possessed teenager in the werewolf movies, into a hairy monster with blood on his teeth. He has convinced the Democrats who will nominate him that he will tear Bush to shreds and throw his corpse by the side of the road. Then we will have a president whom we can neither respect nor love.
Meanwhile, we can watch debates and read the newspapers and long for some discussion of the issues that never seem to come up:
1. Racial Integration. Remember the idea that black, white, yellow and tan people should live together in the same neighborhoods and go to the same schools?
2. Prisons. The freest country in the world now has 2 million people in prison, a higher proportion of its citizens in jail than any country in history. Sixty percent of those in federal prison are there for nonviolent drug offenses. One in three black youths is either in prison or on parole. It would have been wonderful to witness an honest discussion of this phenomenon on Presidents Day, one that did not pander to the audience. When the question of the death penalty did come up, the candidates did tongue twisters trying to answer without actually saying they were pro-death.
3. The growing gap between the rich and poor. The top 1 percent of the population now controls 40 percent of the wealth. In Silicon Valley, Calif., where new millionaires are minted every day, according to The New York Times, people with full-time jobs cant afford a home and ride the public buses for shelter.
4. Foreign Policy. The civil war in the Congo has drawn in countries from all over Africa and has taken on the dimensions of a world war; violence is breaking out between the Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo; Israel is bombing Lebanon, and the Israeli-Syrian-Palestinian peace talks are stuck in the mud; the Northern Ireland accords are crumbling; and Russia has reduced the whole city of Grozny to rubble.
5. The character issue. All these candidates want to be perceived as having character, but the more they reach for that brass ring, the more they fall off the horse.
One of these post-debate discussions gave me my personal high point of the campaign. After the Iowa primary, when the issue of character and religious commitment was still warm, Chris Matthews asked a 17-year-old student what Gore should have done when he realized the extent of Clintons lies. The boy replied, I may sound idealistic, but I hope I would resign. I wonder if an Iowa newspaper editor has assigned a reporter to keep a non-intrusive eye on that boy to see if he goes into public life.
Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is NCRs media critic.
National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2000