Dumbing Him Down

Is it a huge surprise that American multitudes say they don't know what John Kerry and the Democrats stand for? How would they know? And who bears responsibility?

First point about the attention that's being paid: An ABC representative took to The New York Times (July 28) to brag that the network had made the right -- that is, the commercially correct -- call in deciding to cut convention coverage to the bone. “The figures released Tuesday by Nielsen Media Research,” wrote Neil A. Lewis and Bill Carter, “suggest that the number of total viewers for the Democratic convention's first night fell to about 13.5 million this year from about 17 million four years ago.”

But hold on. Two paragraphs later, Lewis and Carter wrote, “[V]iewing on the cable news channels showed a big increase, with about two million more viewers watching this year's first-day coverage than did four years ago.” And then, “PBS, the one broadcast network that has continued to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage, also experienced a sharp rise in viewers … an average of 2.5 million viewers for the three hours of opening night coverage, compared with 1.9 million four years ago.”

Meanwhile, in some areas, ABC added a digital channel, also sent out on the Web, for those who take their convention coverage neat. No figures are forthcoming for that.

Apparently no figures exist for C-SPAN's wall-to-wall coverage in 2000 or 2004, either.

Meanwhile, cable-news networks totaled 4.7 million on Monday night, up from 2.7 million in 2000.

Let's do some arithmetic. Leaving ABC digital and C-SPAN aside, the first-night total TV audience added up to 20.7 million, compared with 21.6 million in 2000. This represents a decline (again, not allowing for the possibility of a compensatory uptick in C-SPAN's audience) of a grand 4 percent -- not exactly what was implied in the Los Angeles Times headline “TV Ratings Dip Sharply From 2000.”

There may well be, as Lewis and Carter wrote, “a sharp decline in public interest in … scripted political events.” But the networks may still be guilty of self-fulfilling prophecies.

Second point regarding the coverage of what Dan Rather is pleased to call the convention as “infomercial”: Missing from every single newspaper account of network thinking about public obligations is an accounting of the profits made by the networks, their owned stations and affiliates, from the broadcast licenses they hold at the people's pleasure, licenses worth hundreds of millions of dollars (as determined in that ultimate adjudicator of value, the market), and for which they pay not the thinnest dime, either Roosevelt or Reagan.

Meanwhile -- third point about what the candidate and his supporters say and when they say it -- it's not as though Kerry has been exactly quiet. The pundits may roll their eyes at Kerry's prolixity, but the networks aren't exactly giving Americans more than a nibble. Take the gigantic question of foreign policy. George W. Bush's White House, Kerry said in Seattle on May 27, has “looked to force before exhausting diplomacy; they bullied when they should have persuaded. They've gone it alone when they should have assembled a whole team. They have hoped for the best when they should have prepared for the worst. They've made America less safe than we should be in a dangerous world. In short, they have undermined the legacy of generations of American leadership, and that is what we must restore, and that is what I will restore.

“Shredding alliances is not the way to win the war on terror, or even to make America safer. As president, my No. 1 security goal will be to prevent the terrorists from gaining weapons of mass murder, and our overriding mission will be to disrupt and destroy their terrorist cells. Because al-Qaeda is a network with many branches, we have to take the fight to the enemy on every continent -- smartly. And we have to enlist other countries in that cause.”

Kerry went on in this vein for 3,500 words. And the night of this speech, how many did America's still dominant news channels convey? ABC: 28 words. NBC: 42 words. CBS: 43 words.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of Letters to a Young Activist.

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