I don’t want to join in the national whine about mainstream media’s coverage of the presidential elections — how shallow it is, how devoid it is of really tough questioning of the candidates. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But there is something I’m hearing on the radio just about every day, nearly every hour — I don’t watch any of the national TV news shows anymore, though sometimes I hear PBS’s “News Hour” — that’s annoying as hell. On both NPR and CBS — where I have the dial tuned 90 percent of the time most days — the networks are making a habit of running straight-up reports on Bush’s and Kerry’s perambulations around the union, complete with soundbites of their boilerplate stump speeches, and treating the appearances as if they are news unto themselves, as if the thing listeners really need to know is where the candidates are today and the inflections in their voices as they repeat for the ninety-ninth time all the ways they are fit for the presidency and their opponent is not. The items go something like this: “President Bush was in Ottumwa, Iowa, campaigning for votes in this crucial swing state. [Bush soundbite: “Can you imagine being more liberal than Ted Kennedy? He can run from his record, but he cannot hide!” (Sound of cheering.)] Tomorrow, the president will campaign in Ohio, another crucial swing state.” The same thing — and the items from the Kerry campaign are largely the same — day after day after day.
What a waste of time. What a sad pretense of conveying useful information. Once you’ve reported that “he can run but he can’t hide” line, or Kerry’s “it’s the wrong war at the wrong time” line (though Kerry is actually talking about an issue, what’s the point of repeating it ad nauseum? Of course it’s easier to stick to the scripts the campaigns provide. It’s easier than trying to find something happening somewhere in the 50 states that’s really campaign news — I don’t care what it is: a speech from Nader or the Libertarian or other candidates, news on local disputes over voting machines, new poll numbers in the battleground states or Dick Cheney or John Edwards or some wacky senator of congressperson going spastic out there (actually, NPR in its latest hourly news update did have an item on Christoper Reeve’s wife campaigning for Kerry in Minneapolis. That was better than they usually do.)
If I were putting together a newscast or a news roundup, I’d say skip the empty theater the campaigns are presenting; make them actually say something real and meaningful if they want to get their message out on the public airwaves. Otherwise, use news of real substance and shrink the sterile, meaningless tidings from the campaign to an itinerary item: The president’s addressing preapproved, prescreened crowds of loyal Republicans in Ohio and Pennsylvania today. Challenger John Kerry will be talking to duck hunters in Oregon.