In my last column I expressed my opposition to litmus tests for candidates seeking appointment to the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission.

But some litmus tests are worthwhile, such as those silly little chemical paper tabs that turn blue or pink — much like states on a simplistic “Who’s ahead?” TV campaign map. A presidential election year is exciting. It is like the Olympics, a horse race, a lottery and a baseball or football championship rolled into one big sporting event extraordinaire. That is the problem: The media treats politics as a sporting event. We receive “horse race” reports on who’s ahead, or on petty strategems rather than in-depth reporting on candidates’ positions, the merits of ballot issues, deeper strategies and what or who is behind ballot measures and candidates.

The media’s coverage of politics is a litmus test of its level of social responsibility. We need the media to help us choose between candidates and decipher complicated ballot measures. If the media shirks its responsibility to present issues-oriented information because profit-driven media moguls believe issues reporting is dull, the result is a poorly informed public — which sabotages the very democratic processes on which our nation is founded. Local television and radio stations are supposed to serve the public in return for free use of the airwaves, at least that was the way it was until the fairness doctrine was gutted under the Reagan presidency. According to John McManus, a Stanford University researcher who heads a Grade-the-News program that monitors Bay Area news, free access to the airwaves today is limited to a select few media giants, and it’s worth a lot of money. KRON TV recently sold for hundreds of millions of dollars — approximately half its value is attributable to this right of free access, McManus estimates. According to a Grade-the-News analysis, in the March 2 California primary campaign several local stations spent more time running political ads than reporting on the issues. The major stations provided less than 3 percent of total news time to the issues in the campaign. There was even less coverage of local issues and candidates. Some cable stations flunk the litmus test of social responsibility even more blatantly because their reporting is anything but unbiased. Anyone doubting this should see the film, “Outfoxed.”

My patience is wearing thin about the media’s obsession with whether John Kerry deserved his medals or whether George Bush shirked his National Guard duty during the Vietnam War. Do we really need to hear ad nauseum about the debate format and how many presidential debates each candidate favors? George Bush loves to see the media debating the debates and focusing on events that occurred 30 years ago. While these shallow discussions occur, the time for discussing his record in office runs out. I want — and need — to know more about each candidate and what he or she plans to do if elected. Where is the coverage about who really can best protect us against terrorists? Who will best restore the reputation of our nation for integrity and cooperativeness so badly damaged by the war in Iraq, prisoner torture and other events? Who is best equipped to reduce our huge budget deficits? How does each candidate intend to address the health-care-coverage crisis? I hope someday the media will pass the litmus test of social responsibility. When I see more kids wearing T-shirts with pictures of their favorite candidates than there are kids sporting their favorite ballplayer’s face I will know the media has done its duty.

How we apply the social-responsibility litmus test to the media is a question to be debated at two forums, sponsored by the Human Relations Commission and others. The first forum scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 20, 7:30 p.m. in the Palo Alto City Council Chambers. Several experts will discuss what good coverage of a campaign should look like: McManus, Stanford communications professor Ted Glasser, and Jim Sanders, News Director at KNTV. A second forum, scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m. at Cubberley Auditorium, at Stanford’s School of Education, will discuss how well the media did. Panelists Glasser and McManus will be joined by Robert Rosenthal, vice president and managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Our elections are simply too important to be treated like some kind of game, and the media large and small need to be told this — by both Democrats and Republican, as well as Greens. Libertarians and anyone else who cares about democracy.


Originally posted by Jeffrey Blum on Palo Alto Online on October 10, 2004.

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