Wednesday, October 06, 2004

We Don't Report, You Don't Decide

Fox didn't broadcast yesterday's Vice-Presidential debate. They were the only broadcast network not to broadcast the debate. The excuse was that they were going to broadcast the New York Yankees - Minnesota Twins game, presumably because it would get better ratings than a debate, although that's probably an excuse to broadcast a Gomer Pyle re-run.

Fox has considerable influence over when specific baseball games are played. They like to have as many Yankee games in primetime in the East as possible, and in this round of the playoffs, that means among the four division series, the Yankees will be playing the most games in prime time. You get odd things, though, like Anaheim and Boston playing a late night game before an early game the following day just to satisfy Fox' whims as far as broadcast slots.

In point of fact, the very days on which a game is played can be determined by the broadcast needs of Fox. Some teams are playing two in a row, day off, then one, others are playing one, a day off, then two. Some days all four series are being played. The basic point here is that there's incredible flexibility with respect to the broadcast schedule.

Now, once every four years, we have a conflict a couple of times during the course of the playoff season between baseball broadcasts and telecasting the Presidential debate series. In 1992, my wife and I had playoff tickets to game 5 between the Braves and Pirates, which was also the night of the second Clinton-Bush (pere) debate. We took a battery-powered TV to the game and gave play by play of what was happening in the debate to the fans around us. We had a little cluster of about a dozen people watching with us, even during one of the best playoff games in the best playoff series ever. Yes, even fans so rabid they wanted to go to the ballpark were interested in the political debate.

Why can't baseball just do its civic duty once every four years, and not schedule any games to conflict with the debates? It seems more reasonable than asking the President to schedule himself around baseball, especially since baseball series all have off days in their schedule, anyway.

More to the point this year, Fox could've asked the game be played on another day. What's up with that?

Oh yeah. Fair and balanced. We report, you decide.

I'll get into this in a little detail below, but it's real clear Fox simply didn't want its viewers to see Cheney and Edwards debate, because they knew that Cheney would come off poorly.

Cheney is a gigantic liability to the Bush campaign. His demeanor is condescending and gruff, he lies and is insistent about his lies, his entaglement with Halliburton and the military-industrial complex and the international oil industry makes manifest the truly venal nature of the current administration. When he's let loose on the campaign trail, he's limited to preaching to audiences of the hard-core right in an effort to shore up the Republican base. Letting him be seen by swing voters in swing states is just about the last thing the Republicans want at this point. Cheney himself clearly didn't want to be there, insisted on a format favorable to him (seated behind a desk, like it was Meet the Press and not a debate), and in point of fact often simply didn't respond to Edwards. This may not be a big deal to voters convinced to vote for either party, but his indirectness and mendacity clearly swayed a lot of undecided voters who did watch the debate last night. The ones who didn't, of course, included voters who were watching the baseball game.

So, who would watch a baseball game instead of a Vice-Presidential debate?

Could it be fans of...the Minnesota Twins?

For those of you not paying attention, the playoff teams this year are the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, Anaheim Angels, the Atlanta Braves, the Minnesota Twins, and St. Louis Cardinals.

The two teams playing in swing states are, of course, the Twins and Cardinals. Until recently, Missouri was looking reasonably safe for the Republicans. Minnesota is still very much in play (although Missouri is looking more even after the JFK-GWB debate.)

This is really simple. Fox chose to broadcast the baseball game, the specific baseball game involving the Twins, so they could assure that that many fewer swing voters in a swing state saw the Vice President in all his gory horror and Edwards in his strong suit -- discussion of the issues and the character and judgement of Dick Cheney.

More Journalism in Action

I also watched a few other newscasts yesterday, in part because I was interested in the eruption of Mt. St. Helen's. On CNN, as they were interviewing a USGS scientist, I noticed on the crawl beneath the live interview they were quoting the same geologist they were interviewing live! I watched the words he was quoted -- in quotation marks -- as saying on the crawl, and I noticed that he was saying something different in the interview (something substantive, like the severity of the eruption). Like you needed more proof the crawl is idiotic, CNN manages to contradict itself in real time using the same news source.

On NBC, I tuned in for the pre-debate news broadcast with Tom Brokaw (something I watch about once every three years). The LEAD teaser for the broadcast -- which they repeated for four different commercial breaks -- was about a dog in a kennel who had figured out how to let himself out, ate his fill of kibble in the food room at the pound, and then let a group of friendly dogs out of a specific kennel to have their fill night after night. This was finally captured on hidden camera by a perplexed shelter management. It was damn cute, although this story originated in the UK. So on a night when the most powerful man in the country (the "Vice" President) was going to have his only public face to face confrontation with his opposition, and a volcano was erupting, NBC's big story was a dog who could let itself out of its cage. Remember the movie Broadcast News, where Holly Hunter's character shows a clip of a cool domino-drop to a room of newscasters, showing that "soft" news was corrupting real journalism? At the time this movie came out, in 1987, it seemed a little hyperbolic to think that a news station would lead with fluff at the expense of real news stories. Such hyperbole is the stuff of Hollywood plot lines, after all. But it seems a little less ridiculous now. Scarily so.

1 comment:

Ray Davis said...

Hold on thar, I thought *Bush* was officially designated liability for the Bush campaign. Cheney has been a corrupt CEO for longer than all our families combined (blood of virgins -- why do you think they push abstinence education?), and he's got his Mr. Burns moves down. Sure he lies, but he lies even more confidently and with far better articulation than the prodigal boy, and he tripped up Edwards a number of times. The number's greater if you assume that no one will check his facts, which seems like a safe assumption.

For obvious reasons, though, I hope you and Fox are right.