You can’t call it an October surprise. Late in the month, with Election Day not far off, the television news channels have been true to form.
Leading the TV race to the bottom, national cable outlets fixated on sniper attacks while giving scant coverage to key election issues. Every once in a while, anchors and correspondents — as though disassociating from their own roles — paused to marvel at how the sniping story was deflecting public attention from the stretch drive of the 2002 campaign.
Yes, the cable networks attracted some highbrow company. For instance, on Oct. 21, viewers of the PBS “NewsHour” could hear the host Jim Lehrer present — as the top story of the day’s news summary — the latest hazy developments in the sniping investigation. But it was the round-the-clock cable frenzy that seemed to be driving the boys and girls on the media bus.
Like countless other overblown crime stories, the sniping tragedies were perfect fodder for cable outlets. The execs who call the programming shots calculated the benefits — including endless opportunities for talking heads to speculate; lots of live news conferences with officials in police uniforms; low costs in the quest for high ratings; ghoulish titillation playing to the macabre strengths of such dubious journalistic luminaries as CNN’s Connie Chung and MSNBC’s Jerry Nachman; and, overall, an aura of danger and excitement.
“The serial sniper story gave the 24-hour cable news networks some of their highest ratings of the year, feeding the hunger for fresh information and increasing pressure on law enforcement officials to tell all on television,” noted an article in the New York Times. But the newspaper of record was hardly above gratuitous pandering in the snipe-o-rama media spectacle.
“It was the New York Times that ran a graphic pinpointing the location of every traffic surveillance camera in the vicinity of the shootings,” Boston Globe writer Eileen McNamara observed. “That information assists who, exactly, besides the shooter?”
The same question is applicable to vast quantities of the sniper coverage.
Jabbering reporters and assorted experts on television usually seemed clueless. But we can already say that the serial sniping — in tandem with media priorities — went a long way toward hijacking news coverage at a time when appreciable numbers of Americans were casting absentee ballots and millions of others had yet to make up their minds about how they’d vote on Nov. 5.
While the number of people watching each cable channel is often quite low, the aggregate effect can be outsized. Cable news is nonstop, frequently redoing its own coverage while duplicating what’s on other networks. The effect is wall-to-wall repetition, hyping itself and distorting the windows on the world provided to viewers and reporters alike.
At times, during the weeks and months after 9-11, journalists and other observers spoke disparagingly — and, in the case of some familiar cable TV personas, sheepishly — about the obsessions of the previous summer. In retrospect, the on-air preoccupations with the likes of Gary Condit and shark attacks seemed not only trivial but also injurious to the social and political health of the country.
In the years ahead, we’re likely to look back on the pre-election days of autumn 2002 in much the same way — not because the shootings in Maryland and Virginia weren’t important, but because the revved-up machinery of the cable news networks had the effect of propelling news editors, and media consumers as a whole, to lose perspective.
The choices made on Election Day will determine whether Republicans or Democrats control the Senate and the House of Representatives. The decisions made by those legislative bodies will profoundly affect the lives of Americans for years and decades to come.
If journalism is supposed to be the first draft of history, the fixation on the sniping story badly needs quick revision. But even if such coverage disappeared, the general prognosis for healthy political discourse would still be bleak.
Most of the “information” that voters do get about candidates via news media is filtered through high-cost campaign advertising and newsroom judgments that take contenders seriously because they’ve raised a lot of money in the first place. The current news onslaught of grisly fluff is a symptom of media priorities that have left democratic possibilities in the dust.