for release Friday October 08, 2004
by Melodie Davis
Quiet Advice for This Noisy Election Season
I’ve always tried to steer clear of overt political agenda in this column partly because I do not consider myself the most informed. Not keeping up with everything comes partly out of my contempt for mudslinging, an aversion to conflict and the continuous attempts by both parties in most elections to dig up dirt, expose it, and then spend days and days hashing it out and responding and counter responding.
We have brought this on ourselves. It is our culture of always wanting/needing more more more—even in the way of news, entertainment, information. When news channels and now the Internet produce up-to-the minute news round the clock, the media producers are slaves to the god of more. However, the god of more is always interested in more scandal, more sex and more sizzle that sells papers, attracts viewers, listeners and websurfers—not deeply thought out analysis of complex and hard to understand issues.
One of the most helpful interviews I read this political season was printed in Columbia Journalism Review, a periodical covering the journalism business. It focused on the rise to “front runner” status of primary candidate Howard Dean and then his subsequent fall to “also ran,” and the role of the press in it, compiled by interviewer Jane Hall (Sept. 2004). It doesn’t matter what candidate or party the article was talking about: it could have been any candidate.
“The problem is the national press can’t write the same story 30 days in a row. But candidates have to say the same thing 30 days in a row,” said Dean.
And so in the national press you have to have stories that bring up new angles, new dirt, and resorting to rehashing things candidates did in their college and young adult days when most of us did things we are now ashamed of. I don’t really care what either Bush or Kerry or their parents, wives or kids did 30-40 years ago. All of us grow, change, and change our opinions, goodness knows.
Dean added that the local press is more able to write about events and local appearances by candidates and how the candidate’s positions relate to local issues rather than national appearances where the candidate has just repeated the same old speech.
On a national level (and of course this happens locally too) you have editors and producers who put the squeeze on reporters and story gatherers to come up with juicy stuff. The fact that only 11 corporations control most of the news in the U.S. means we should be talking not about the “liberal” bias or “conservative agenda” but the “corporate crush”—the stranglehold and pressure a few media monopolies place on the media. There are very few truly independent voices. And you rarely have corporations anymore who are willing to give people a year and a half to research a single story (like Woodward and Bernstein did long ago).
Dean feels that the media played a huge role in his rise to the top and his fall, finally accusing him of being hotheaded after an event while he was the front runner. He went to an event, which, according to Dean, essentially turned into a press riot. There were about 50-60 people, jostling each other, one congressman was knocked down, someone was hit in the head with a camera lens, and the press people were so loud that Dean wanted to get away. “They followed me to the bus pushing and shoving,” he recalled. As a reporter asked a final in-your-face question, Dean responded, “You know, you guys have got to get a grip and start to behave.” The press called him a hothead, giving the impression that it was Dean himself who had somehow wrecked the event.
There were other examples of how events look when taken completely out of context, like where Dean screamed to a crowd after losing in the Iowa Caucus. In reality, he was talking to 1200 screaming kids who couldn’t hear him, but when it got played and replayed hundreds of times in subsequent days, the producers took away the crowd noise and the pictures of the crowd—which of course made Dean look unbalanced. He doesn’t blame his loss on the coverage: “Edwards didn’t have a scream and he didn’t win either,” he quips. “The replaying of that incident reflects worse on the press than it does on me. Because of the enormous pressure to ‘sex up’ the news and have a storyline, the truth often is missed.”
Bottom line: try not to pay a whole lot of attention to the “headline” stories in the campaigns: the scandal stories and accusations tossed back and forth. Don’t focus on the controversial aspects of their character or campaigns. Try to take a quiet look for yourself at what you understand about the man or woman running today—not who they were 30 years ago. Do you like what they stand for? Are they a person of integrity? Turn off contentious radio talk shows—they are no help at all in a campaign. Read a few key, back-to-the-basics interviews or articles, and then make up your mind and vote.
Write to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.
NOTES TO EDITORS: text = 883 words; end material = 105 words
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