Everybody blames the media. I am here to defend them. If it weren't for the media, the phrase "the long count" would still call up memories of Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. (Or maybe Dempsey-Firpo.) If it weren't for the media, when somebody said "chad" you'd still respond "Jeremy." If it weren't for the media, "The Palm Beach Story" would still be a Preston Sturges movie, not a pressing, urgent moment.
Yet you still cast aspersions on the media. Numerous readers, for example, took umbrage at my assertion in this space two weeks ago that the political press is a pretty good market mechanism, giving voters complete knowledge about candidates, and allowing them to cast informed ballots. What do I say now, several grumbled by e-mail, in the wake of the mistaken, seesawing, Election Night calls?
The same thing.
Let me explain. I never said or implied that the news media were flawless. To the contrary, I said they were relentless and enveloping, so consumed with politics that, by the time a Presidential race is over, the media have uncovered, extracted, masticated and ingested every fact, supposition, projection and rumor about the candidates and their beliefs. That combination of hard information and soft opinion so permeates society, I believe, that voters operate with knowledge. Those who do not-those who say they are too numbed to know, or who still claim confusion about issues and personalities-have no one to blame but themselves.
That's got nothing to do with whether four TV networks made inaccurate calls about the winners in one state or another. To censure "the political press" for those boners is like blaming "the business press" because your stockbroker recommended AT&T. Such censure deflects accountability from other places that should be held at least partially liable. These include the social scientists who proffer flawed projection models, incompetent or corrupt state and local elections officials who have allowed antediluvian voting procedures to continue into the 21st century, the Internet and you.
Yep, the Internet and you. The fact is TV networks wouldn't feel pressured to offer these projections if the public weren't hungry for a winner-any winner. We like our races to be short and sweet. When we go for marathons (like the ever-lengthening baseball season or, for that matter, a Presidential campaign), we still want to have a clear victor-preferably before we go to bed. And because the profusion of Web news operations is willing to offer more micro-news, the TV networks feel pressured to provide the projections, or become increasingly irrelevant to their core audience.
In other words, you may want "the media" to be more responsible. But you really don't. You want it all, and you want it now-no matter how messy that "information spill" might be.
Are the media flawless? Of course not. Even the elite political press, replete with scholar-reporters, suffers from an acute case of historical ignorance. My friend Harold Evans, whose book "The American Century" now crowns the paperback best-seller lists (as it did the hardcover lists last year), points out that the press have gotten the history of close elections entirely wrong.
The news media have been repeating endlessly the "fact" that Richard Nixon nobly backed away from challenging the election of John Kennedy in 1960, despite serious allegations of vote fraud in Illinois. Pure myth, Harry said in a speech last week. First, Kennedy's electoral college lead was so commanding that even if Nixon had prevailed in the first Mayor Daley's home state, he would have lost the election anyway. Moreover, newspaper reports from the time document at least five separate Republican legal challenges in different districts around the country. So much for nobility.
Of course, that you're reading this small corrective in "the media" supports the concept of information spill. The wave of inaccurate reports about Nixon's capitulation are being followed by a backwash of historical footnotes-not just in Ad Age but (I suspect by the time you read this) in USA Today, The New York Times, MSNBC and the Des Moines Register as well. The ultimate result may not be a popularly elected President. But it will be a reasonable first draft of history. Chew on that chad for a while.
Copyright November 2000, Crain Communications Inc.