Danny Schechter is the author of News Dissector—Passions, Pieces & Polemics 1960-2000, and a long-time journalist, documentary producer, and media critic. Roland Schatz teaches Communication and Strategic Information Management at the Universities of Berlin, Leipzig, and Prague, and is the founder of Media Tenor, which researches and tracks emerging media trends. In Mediaocracy 2000 -Hail to the Thief they have collected and put in context 24 articles on the role of the media in U.S. elections, specifically focusing on the 2000 presidential election. Mediaocracy 2000 -Hail to the Thief (a joint project of MediaChannel.org, Media Tenor, and The World Paper) presents a bulging dossier of evidence that the corporate news media, especially the television networks, have largely abandoned efforts to present serious, diverse and in-depth coverage of election issues and controversies. In thus failing to fulfill their mandate to serve the public interest and foster the democratic process, the media pose an immediate and alarming threat to the bedrock principle—the consent of the governed—on which our form of government is based. In the words of Crocker Snow Jr., editor in chief of The World Paper, this book details "a litany of ineptitude by American news agencies, newspapers, broadcast outlets and Internet editors." Read it and weep.
Excerpts from MEDIAOCRACY 2000 -- HAIL TO THE THIEF
Excerpts copyright©2001 by Danny Schechter
One minute it was news. All the News All the Time. The biggest news on the planet. Bold headlines. Non-stop TV cycles of 24/7 "Breaking News." Breathless broadcasts.
And then, as if someone clicked a remote control, reports about the struggle for power were gone. The story vanished from our TV screens and newspapers. Despite so many unanswered questions, so many allegations of gross irregularities and alleged violations of federal laws guaranteeing the right to vote, the political battle was pronounced ‘over.’
The election of 2000 was decided not by the people but by the courts. Without a blink, the mainstream American media promoted George W. Bush’s ascendancy to the Presidency with the finality of a sports victory. (That may be because TV reporters covered it as they would an athletic contest, constantly referring to the candidates as the "Bush Team" and the "Gore Team.")
Once politicians proclaimed "closure," a media echo chamber moved into the Amen corner. In the flash of a quick cut MTV-like edit, the closest and most controversial political contest in U.S. history became yesterday’s story—an event left for historians to wrangle over, and conspiracy theorists to debate. The mainstream media had signed off with a speedy sayonara, urging the rest of us to get in line, accept, and follow the new leader.
"Nary a Public Peep"
Writing in Gully, an online magazine, Ana Simo complained that so few others were seemingly NOT as shocked as she was, stating: "The dirtiest U.S. election in more than a century—and one of the dirtiest elections anywhere in the world in recent times—elicited nary a public peep from the American people. Whatever they felt, Americans largely kept it to themselves. The nation’s deafening silence as democracy was trampled is the saddest outcome of this election."
What was responsible for this "deafening silence"? Simo ticks off a few factors including the deep respect Americans have for the courts, for the rule of law. She also cites a desire for stability after the uncertainties of a legal battle that yin-yanged back and forth for more than a month. Noting the obvious and pervasive public indifference to both candidates, she nonetheless focuses on the key problem: the central role played by the press in the political outcome, indicting "the quick onslaught of conformist, self-congratulatory propaganda spewed out by the media and by both political parties of the ‘time-to-rally-round-the-flag-and-be-good-sports’ kind. Within seconds of George W. Bush’s judicial installation, network anchors were hectoring people to accept the outcome, however abhorrent—a shockingly inappropriate, politicized, and unsolicited piece of advice."
The search for a deeper understanding of why the U.S. election campaign of 2000 turned into such a debacle for democracy has just begun. It has, until now, mostly focused on what did and did not happen in the voting booths of Florida, or "Fraudia" as some critics came to call a State whose apparatus was controlled by Republicans led by the new President’s own brother Jeb Bush. This debate has for the most part turned on voting discrepancies, state voting statutes and county by county practices, disputed legalities and narrowly politicized wrangles about what a recount of the ballots would or would not show.
Undeniably, those issues are real. But there’s more to it, much more. Eight years ago, Bill Clinton’s campaign organized itself around a theme defined by the well-known slogan "It’s the Economy, Stupid." In 2001, as we look back at one of the most suspect democratic elections of our time, I’d modify that slogan to suggest: "It was the media stupid."
The Scandal Missing from the Media Was the Media
The counting and undercounting of the election ballots, the mistaken votes and bizarre "overvotes" was a scandal seen around the world. Rarely seen and poorly covered in the media was another scandal within that scandal–the role played by the media itself. In this book, we argue that one can only understand what happened in the election of 2000 by understanding the role, function and performance of the media, which covered the election by miscovering it.
"We are the only democracy that organizes its national campaign around the news media," Political scientist Tomas E Patterson concluded after studying US election coverage from 1960-1992. "News coverage has too often become a barrier between the candidate and the voter rather than a bridge connecting them." After almost every election, there are studies like his showing the substantial impact that news coverage had on voter attitudes and decisions. But no sooner are such studies published than their lessons are forgotten.
What has been true for many years was especially true in the year 2000 which may have established a new low for the media demeaning democracy. "Presidential campaigns are America’s "political Olympics," says journalist Liz Cunningham who has written about how we choose candidates in the television age. "So the basic issues surrounding media coverage—distortion, bias, manipulation, character are in sharp focus." In many ways TV News has established its bonafides by its coverage of politics. As this book show in sickening detail, that credibility is shot, or should be. The love affair between the journalists and the politicians, in former NBC correspondent Linda Ellerbee’s words "gives unsafe sex a good name"
That scandal was not a crude conspiracy nor is it simply an accidental occurrence. Its roots can be found in a corporate media environment that has been changing for years, as well as in the increasing corporatization of politics itself. It reflects a growing symbiotic relationship between increasingly interlocking media and political elites. Together, they form a powerful, interdependent system in which overt ideology and shared world views mask more covert subservience to other agendas. Together these two forces form a Mediaocracy, a political system tethered to a media system.
On one level, this Mediaocracy was there for all to see, day in and day out, month after month, visible on hundreds of TV channels and media outlets all competing for our ears, eyeballs and attention. But on another level, despite the ubiquitous chatter, polls and punditry, it resembled the tip of a shadowy iceberg with its far more insidious bulk hidden well below the surface. In that respect, the media role in our electoral process has, in words used by media guru Marshall McLuhan become "a hidden environment, pervasively invisible."
An Accessory to the Crime
If the election of 2000 was stolen as many believe, the media is, at the very least, an accessory to the crime, a crime that represents a more ominous threat to democracy itself, a crime that is not limited to one election in one year. This was and remains a full blown crisis in confidence, not a mere ho-hum "irregularity" or "anomaly." In legal terms, we are talking felony, not misdemeanor.
That larger crime is the subject of this book, assembled in the immediate aftermath of the outcome of the 2000 election, compiled while its many assaults against the values of a democratic culture are still fresh in mind but still not fully assessed. The editors and contributors of the MediaChannel.org are releasing it before the inexorable forces of a media-induced amnesia erase our collective memory of recent events in the rush, ostensibly, to "heal" and move us back to business and a politics of passivity-as-usual.
This book is not the work of media bashers or conspiracy nuts. It reflects the thinking of independent journalists and analysts, media makers and practitioners. Some of us are insiders, well aware of how the media system works and often doesn’t work. Some of us are critics with an outsider outlook. None of us are hostile to the media per se, although we do tie its apparent decline to the growing severity of the larger crisis in what we grew up believing was a culture committed to democracy.
A MediaChannel Collection
Hail to the Thief is a collection of reports, articles, analysis, studies, essays, columns and tracking data that did not for the most part find its way into mainstream media discourse or political debate, at least not in time to have much effect or alter an approach which time and again tilted towards the status quo. In a campaign that The Wall Street Journal compared to Coke and Pepsi’s battle for market share, the coverage reflected the corporate world views of the two dominant candidates and the marketing campaigns they ran. (After he settled in to the White House, George W Bush reorganized its operations along corporate lines "to function with the crisp efficiency of a blue chip corporation," according to a front page story in the New York Times,( "Bush is Providing Corporate Model for White House, Sunday March 11, 2001." )The big media companies that covered them are no less corporate in their organization and aims, and most often just as ideologically homogenous in their approach, tending, as our data shows, to cover the same story the same way.
Just as the candidates had agendas, so does the media. The former wanted votes, the latter craved audience but also served an ideological role. The objectives of the politicians were the subject of considerable coverage; the role of the media rated much less.
Most of these articles are drawn from the Internet, a medium that did not exist as an influential force in earlier elections. Most appeared on the MediaChannel.org, a not-for-profit web site that was set up by concerned journalists to monitor and debate the role of the media. Some were written for MediaChannel.org directly and others by some of the 656 plus affiliates who together form the largest online media issues network in the world. Throughout the campaign and the election, these outlets provided compelling but alarming coverage that showed how many media outlets had been co-opted by the political parties, skewing reportage, biasing coverage in favor of one or another candidate and refusing to cover independent candidates or feature critical perspectives. Our analysts often reported a pro-George Bush bias, although we also covered media outlets that seemed to favor Al Gore and many that had no time or space for Ralph Nader.
Hail to the Thief also taps the unique contributions of two leading MediaChannel.org affiliates: Media Tenor and The WorldPaper. Media Tenor, based in Germany, is a professional monitoring organization that works primarily for commercial clients. At our request, they tracked and analyzed media coverage of the campaign each week. Many of their findings based on sentence-by-sentence analysis can be found here.
The WorldPaper, through its global network of affiliated newspapers, has a finger on the pulse of a type of "inside-out" world opinion and reporting that rarely infiltrates American media. Their editors have assembled editorial insights from journalists around the world because what happens in the US election invariably affects all peoples and nations. Their editor, veteran journalist Crocker Snow, has written the preface to Hail to the Thief.
A Media Dissent
This coverage of the media coverage tells a story that the media itself does not. It is the story of how Big Media got into bed with Big Politics, of how it consistently under-informed the voting public and turned off large segments of the electorate, discouraging younger voters. By monitoring media choices, framing and filtering, by critiquing programming, pressures and news routines, MediaChannel.org affiliates reveal a clear pattern of how news organizations undermined a fair election and in the process assisted in the theft of an election from the people themselves. Their approach, in the view of many of the writers in these pages, devalues democracy.
So, if something was "stolen" in the 2000 Election , it was the very idea of a fair and democratic electoral process, "robbed" from the American people—not just one political office, even if was the Presidency.
"If democracy is genuinely committed to letting citizens have equal influence over political affairs, it is crucial that all citizens have access to well-formulated political positions on the key issues of the day, as well as a rigorous accounting of the activities of the political and economic powers that be and the powers that want to be," asserts media historian Robert W. McChesney in Rich Media/Poor Democracy. It was the absence of such regularly supplied information that led McChesney and others to call the media today a "significant anti-democratic force" in American life.
Together, the contributions to this book represent a media dissent, no less important than the electrifying judicial dissent filed by Supreme Court Associate Judge John Paul Stevens in the case of "Bush v Gore." With a few well chosen words, Stevens declared that while we may never know who won the election, the loser is clear: the integrity of the judges, and by extension, the public’s faith in an unbiased judicial system.
The reputation of the Supreme Court was tarnished in this election, as were the parties and the candidates. But so was the performance of the media. According to survey researcher Andrew Kohut writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, when the public was asked to grade the media’s contribution in 2000, just 28 percent gave grades of A or B for election coverage. Almost four out of ten respondents (38 percent) offered up a failing grade, a D or an F. Significantly, this same public disdain for the media was registered after prior elections. Clearly, media chiefs did not choose to hear what the public thought and did little to respond to earlier calls for internal reforms. So much for the media system "giving the public what it wants."
For us, the journalists and editors who set up MediaChannel.org, what is at stake are the credibility, integrity and role of the media itself, and by extension the public’s faith in their elected officials and their democracy.
Indicting the Media
Think of this book as one basis for an indictment that is, in these times and in our media-dominated culture well beyond adjudication. No black-robed judges will hear it because surely it would be dismissed on a prima facie basis as a violation of the First Amendment, which has been interpreted to give media companies free reign without restraint or guiding sense of public service. Although we know full well that in a legalistic sense we may lack standing to bring such charges, we are standing up and speaking out anyway in the hope that the proverbial "court of public opinion" will find much to agree with and much to learn within these pages. We are not advocating censorship or interference in editorial decisions. We are suggesting that the media has an affirmative responsibility to serve the public interest and promote a democratic culture.
Hail to the Thief shows how the media helped pollute the environment in which Election 2000 took place. To adequately contextualize media complicity, one needs to track institutional changes over time in both industries: politics and the media. These articles offer some of this crucial background but also deal directly with the specific ways media had an impact on the election, shaping public opinion and downplaying important issues.
Among the "counts" of this indictment are the following claims, for each of which the studies cited in these pages offer compelling evidence:
Taken together, these factors and others show that the media’s decision to ignore important political issues had a significant impact on the election outcome. Moreover, a careful analysis of this recent interaction between the media and politics reveals an inescapable paradox: the U.S. news industry’s amazing capacity to gather and disseminate information about our political process has been met by the media’s apparent lack of interest in doing so.
The Merger of Media and Politics
Our central finding: the media no longer, if it ever did, stands apart from politics as a neutral—much less objective—watchdog operating outside the political system to strengthen democracy. In an age of corporate mergers and unprecedented media concentration, the media have, in effect, merged with politics, and now function as a key component of a system that Norman Mailer sees, with a whiff of the Mafia Theory of Organization, as a "family."
"The American political body had evolved," he writes in an essay in his 1998 anthology The Time of Our Time, "into a highly controlled and powerfully manipulated democracy overseen by a new species of aristocracy formed at the junction of four Royal Families—the ten thousand dollar suits of the mega-corporations, the titans of the media, the high ogres of Congress and the upper lords of the White House."
Our focus is on one of those "families", the titans of the media, and the nonstop clatter of the cable news channels, and news/talk radio, of constantly updated news cycles and scientifically calibrated spin machines, of talk shows in the morning and comedians late at night, of newspapers scrambling to keep up with reports on their own constantly updated web sites. There are hundreds of outlets competing for our attention in what media columnist Michael Wolff of New York Magazine calls an "information swamp." "Nobody can be trusted," he writes, " . . Nobody is able to offer credible interpretations of motives (partly because their own are so suspect.) . . . As in the Clinton impeachment, every single blowhard who has gotten on the air has been wrong about basically everything."