The national media have apparently forgotten the hard lessons of Election Night 2000. That evening and into the wee hours of the next morning, national TV news networks proclaimed Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore the apparent winner. Then, they proclaimed Republican George W. Bush the apparent winner. Finally, they shrugged their collective shoulders and admitted the race was too close to call. NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw confessed that the networks were left with egg on their faces. During the subsequent weeks of the disputed 2000 presidential elections, national news media promised it would do better in the future.
How quickly they forget.
For the past several weeks, before the first voter had stepped into a polling place, before the first constituents had met in a caucus, the news media had all but proclaimed candidate Howard Dean the Democratic nominee for president. Stories of Dean's front-runner status blared from television and radio, filled magazines and newspapers. As it happened in the 2000 election, news media based their Howard Dean predictions on surveys instead of actual votes. Watching, reading and listening to these stories, one could have assumed that Dean's nomination was inevitable.
The Iowa caucuses proved the media wrong.
In the first contest of the primary season, Dean came in third. The Iowa caucuses do not spell an end to Dean's candidacy. There are still numerous primary elections to come. The Iowa caucus, however, did prove that a political race isn't over until the all of the votes are counted. It should also serve as another hard lesson -- a winner cannot be declared before the polls have opened. Anything else smacks of arrogance and presumption. Being proven so dramatically wrong, the media's credibility is weakened again.
Yet, this media obsession with predicting front-runners also undermines the electoral process. A good example is a caller to a recent radio show. The caller was a self-proclaimed television news junkie. He said he daily watched hours of cable TV news networks. From his viewing experience, he could name the predicted Democratic front-runners; he knew whose wives were campaigning and whose weren't; he knew which personalities were considered cranky, inspiring, or boring; he could list which candidates were feuding with one another. But he said his many hours of TV news did nothing to inform him about the candidates' beliefs, policies, or ideas for the presidency or the nation. National TV news had left this devoted viewer in a political vacuum. And for all of the attention given to predicting an outcome, the national news media got even that wrong.
It is time for national news, and all media, this newspaper included, to pay less attention to predictions and concentrate on platforms, to give less space and time to personalities and more coverage to proposed policies, to step back from the process and delve deeper into the politics.
News media should leave the outcome to the voters but give the voters as much solid information about their choices as possible.
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