By Tony Palmeri
from the March, 2004 issue of The Valley Scene
The Media Rants column is in significant measure the result of my frequent conversations with Bill O'Rights and The Media Baron. Bill and The Baron have known each other for many years. The Baron believes that he and Bill share key core values: respect for individual freedom, open government, promoting an informed citizenry, and protecting the right to dissent. Bill O'Rights worries that The Media Baron is letting corporate values like market share and consolidation get in the way of meeting his Constitutional responsibilities. The Baron vehemently denies placing dollar over duty.
Bill O'Rights and The Media Baron have their most heated engagement during presidential election years, for it is in those years that The Media Baron reveals whether he is loyal to facilitating or frustrating the democratic process.
Media Rants caught up with Bill O'Rights and The Media Baron recently and asked them to respond to a few questions.
Media Rants: So what do you think of media coverage of the presidential campaigns so far?
Bill: As always, there are some outstanding individual reporters and commentators in the print and electronic media. John Nichols of the Madison Capitol Times and Gloria Borger of CNBC are two that come immediately to mind. Each provides fresh insights about the campaigns that help an average voter understand the way democracy works in America. But overall, the coverage is terrible: obsession with opinion polls and "horse race" coverage, journalists asking self-serving or inane questions during debates, ignoring issue coverage in favor or personalities, almost a complete shut out of anti-establishment candidates like Dennis Kucinich and a complete shut out of third party candidates. It's truly awful.
The Baron: Oh Bill, there you go again. You know as well as I do that more information is available to the public about candidates than ever before. Every major newspaper and television station has a website that provides in depth descriptions of the candidates' views on all major issues. Mainstream media now provide more and better quality coverage of serious presidential campaigns than ever before.
Media Rants: Wait a minute Media Baron. How does something like saturation coverage of Howard Dean's Iowa concession speech represent better quality coverage?
The Baron: Okay, let's talk about that. Wouldn't you both agree with me that maybe the most important single quality a president can have, especially in the post 9/11 era, is the ability to remain cool under pressure? Unless Dr. Dean is extremely naïve, he had to know that by taking on the Democratic Party establishment and attacking President Bush he would have any number of political hacks and media pundit hawks just waiting for the opportunity to destroy him. Mainstream media gave Dean every opportunity to defend himself against attacks and demonstrate his method of handling pressure. Do you think we should have ignored the negative responses to his Iowa scream and ask him for his position on health care instead?
Bill: I do agree with you about the "media pundit hawks." The Center for Media and Public Affairs found that, "Only 49 percent of all on-air evaluations of former Vermont governor in 2003 were positive while the rest of the democratic field collectively received 78 percent favorable coverage." And you must be aware that even CNN's general manager now admits that "the scream," which was broadcast 633 times in the 4 days after the Iowa caucuses, was overplayed.
Media Rants: Bill, are you suggesting that the First Amendment requires a media outlet to be fair? Media have the freedom to cover campaigns however they wish, don't they?
Bill: No, the First Amendment does not require fairness. And yes, media outlets have great freedom to determine how to cover campaigns. But when the media barons tell us they really believe in the responsible exercise of free speech, we need to hold them accountable to that. University of Chicago Law Professor Cass Sunstein's insightful way of understanding the First Amendment is helpful here. Sunstein's "communitarian theory" of freedom of speech says that the First Amendment is worthless if it is not used to promote a healthy political culture. According to this theory, news media act responsibly when they give serious attention to serious issues and give exposure to a diversity of viewpoints.
The Media Baron: And how pray tell would the professor hold news media accountable?
Bill: His suggestions include broadcasters providing candidates free airtime to make their case to the voters and guaranteeing a right of reply for candidates bashed by a commentator. Sunstein would even require commercial stations to provide financial subsidies to public television, a move that would allow the commercial stations to leave their entertainment programming uninterrupted while provide public television with the resources to sponsor more and longer debates.
Media Rants: In the few words we have left, would one of you please recommend some independent sources Fox Valley voters should consult this election year?
Bill: Some of the better ones include the Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk (http://campaigndesk.org/), the Center For Media and Public Affairs (http://www.cmpa.com/), wispolitics.com (http://www.wispolitics.com/) and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign's cooperative campaign finance database (http://www.opensecrets.org/wdc/).
Media Rants: Many thanks to Bill O'Rights and The Media Baron. We'll be checking back in with them later in the campaign season!
Tony Palmeri is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh