Commentary: How will media changes affect the election? | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: How will media changes affect the election?

Aug 20, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 20, 2008 - Despite numerous changes to communications over the past half century, the focus of presidential campaign coverage in the U.S. remains the same. It's the horserace: Who is ahead? Who may catch up? But other aspects have changed. More information and information of different types are available to the voter. Yet, whether voters are really better informed is open to question.

Timothy Crouse covered the reporters covering the presidential candidates in 1972. In his book, The Boys on the Bus, he described the phenomenon of "pack journalism." Editors did not want anything original in coverage and the three TV networks did not want a story that had not appeared in The New York Times. Reporters reported what was said at campaign stops but did not question the veracity of the remarks. Female reporters such as Helen Thomas and Cassie Mackin, not part of the boys, did challenge presidential statements but they were the exception.

Today, that pack mentality has been tempered significantly by a new trinity of information sources. Talk radio, cable news and the internet provide a cacophony of information that interacts with traditional print media and network nightly newscasts. In some cases, reporters have become performers, and reporting and commentary are hopelessly comingled.

Rush Limbaugh may be the leader in making talk radio a constant for many. For three hours every weekday, Limbaugh gives his conservative views of the body politic. He has numerous imitators, most of whom also adhere to a conservative vision. Rush is far removed from the old pack.

Since its inception almost three decades ago, cable news has grown and its reach has become more extensive. CNN was the pioneer, with an initial style based on traditional journalism. Now, however, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC offer news filtered by opinion. Candidate surrogates, commentators and reporters from print frequently appear on the news shows. Straight news often merges with opinion.

The media outlets all have web sites, which parlay breaking news and commentary. And the Internet can be the origin of news stories. Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermons were put on YouTube and repeated everywhere. A contributor to the Huffington Post, a web-based news site, broke the story of Barack Obama's "bitter" comments. The web is also filled with bloggers who develop issues and keep them in the public eye. Again, fact and opinion are frequently merged.

This newer trinity of information sources spins stories from one to the other with great rapidity. A minor gaffe can become major with constant repetition. Traditional media also report these stories but seem to have less of the constant spin.

Are voters better informed? Most American households have cable or satellite TV and an increasing number have home computers. The constancy of news coverage and its incessant commentary affect traditional coverage and reach voters in some form. Traditional reporters have become analysts; for example, many on MSNBC are highlighted as analysts for that network as well as writers or editors for newspapers or magazines.

Nonetheless, the horserace aspect still predominates. How many stories were about when Sen. Clinton would drop out of the race for the nomination or who would be a vice presidential candidate and how would that add to the Electoral College map?

The ubiquity of poll results adds to the now exaggerated feeding frenzy. There's a daily tracking poll and results from other polls pop up frequently. They are also interpreted within the framework of bias of the new trinity. It's not unusual for those on cable and elsewhere to set an expectation bar and evaluate candidate performance based on the criteria they themselves have set.

The story is still the same -- who is winning -- but it is now propagated much more widely. The old pack and its straight reporting have been superseded by a horde of opinion makers with their own ideological trappings. An important topic for study would be to see how talk radio, cable news, and Internet sources affect voter perceptions of candidates and issues. Have the changes in the game changed the outcome?

Lana Stein, St. Louis, is professor emerita of political science, University of Missouri at St. Louis.