Wow! If you aren’t saturated with news of the presidential campaign, you’ve been living in a cave. TV coverage (as well as print) really took off after the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire drew great interest and big ratings. That’s not to say TV news nets (broadcast and cable) were not prepared to cover this election, but the amount of air-time devoted to the campaigns is directly related to the viewers’ interest. Truth be told, these news organizations are primarily businesses always looking to improve ratings because ad revenues are directly related to ratings. So, how did the coverage go?
A large field of candidates challenged the news organizations’ coverage plans this election because there was no incumbent in the hunt. News editors were enticed by Sen. John McCain’s history, both as a war hero and a victim of George W. Bush’s South Carolina primary smear campaign in 2000, and he was rewarded with lots of coverage. McCain was "fun" to cover and always available to the press (stress the word always). He was also in the crosshairs of the rest of the GOP field, his conservatism being the target. McCain’s near-death experience in July ’07 — no money — got him boat-loads of free TV time, thanks to the nets. Let’s face it, McCain’s struggling campaign and his willingness to talk on-camera about anything, anytime, anywhere made for good TV. He got mega-dollars worth of free exposure and got his message out.
Lots of attention was paid to Giuliani, a media sweetheart because of 9/11, and Fred Thompson, former actor and senator, another high profile candidate that was built up by media coverage. But neither had staying power. And Huckabee from Arkansas, in until the end, was not very "sexy" for TV news. The result was more McCain coverage.
On the other side of the rolling political-media circus were the Democrats — another full field with some really interesting players, including a former first lady and a non-Jesse-Jackson-type African-American. Can’t get much better than that, for both the voters and the boys-and-girls-on-the-bus. Hillary Rodham Clinton (who quickly dropped the Rodham) was rising from the ashes of an unfaithful husband who got his own share of air-time (oh yes, and it was the "liberal" media that provided all that negative coverage of a Democrat in the White House, wasn’t it?). Add Sen. Barack Obama, a handsome, well-educated and articulate office-seeker who spoke not in rhyme, but in well-thought-out sentences with a message that resonated. If only John Edwards had ‘fessed up about his affair while still a candidate, the cable news guys would have had another juicy one with which to over-indulge. Terrible timing, John.
All these new and unique national candidates plus the old white-haired guy afforded very efficient use of manpower resources for the cable nets. The costly hours spent covering the candidates might have provided only seven or eight minutes of material per on-air hour. But flush out the stories with live Q&A with the reporters, add some pundits and you’ve got 30 minutes of air-time, and filling air is crucial in 24/7 television.
So now you have two full fields of candidates battling for face-time, with all the campaigns being very aware that the three 24/7 cable news nets are competing aggressively for any and all "red" meat (no offense… also blue). When one of the candidates folds his or her tent, the candidate’s campaign senior staff ends up picking apart the remaining campaigns as the cable guys look for more talking heads. Both parties and all campaigns are eager to get their own spin-pros on air, but there’s a new development in this election cycle. Pros from elections past find themselves outnumbered by new, fresh faces of both sexes and all colors — "analysts" we’ve never heard of before (and it would be OK with me if we never did again, in most cases). They arise from nowhere, and with some specialized media training, they now become accepted analysts. Very few have original thoughts, mostly picking up what the real analysts have to say and rephrasing it.
At times it seemed the pundits were getting more air time than the candidates. And that might have been the case if it weren’t for the debates. The Washington Post (yes, that liberal newspaper that is respected and digested by all in political power) called it "A Campaign Afflicted with Debate Fatigue." The ratings at times were miserable (1 million viewers) but by the VP debate (call that the "Palin debate"), they were huge by any standard (70 million).
And speaking of Gov. Sarah Palin, we had another magnet for the cameras and reporters. Don’t you think the McCain campaign knew that would be the case? They know how to play the media. Good looking, great sound-bites, sharp tongue. And after the love affair with the media wore off, the critical reporting took over. Yes, there were attempts to pay attention to gaff-prone Dem. VP candidate Biden, but let’s face it, Palin was a much juicier target. The 24/7 nets even took to giving air-time to reviews of the late night comics having their fun with Sarah. And then there was Saturday Night Live winning a record number of viewers as the GOP VP wanna-be met her twin. For viewers who didn’t catch the act, it was repeated continuously on the cable nets, even making air on some of the broadcast news shows.
These great news stories (the candidates) plus their debates and a record number of pollsters and you have the perfect storm. Have you ever been bombarded with more polls in any campaign you can recall? I’ve been involved in covering elections since 1964 and I am overwhelmed. But the reporting on polls was badly flawed. How many times were we told that one candidate was ahead by 5 points but not told that the margin of error was plus or minus 3 points, which made that five-point lead a tie. One cable net didn’t give the polls any credibility when its post-debate polls showed McCain the big winner followed a day later by a scientific poll that showed Obama the victor.
The debates forced stories and comparisons of the issues — all of which disappeared as the economy went south. That is THE issue now. But massive early and absentee voting this year plus huge numbers of new voters has been a largely overlooked phenomenon among analysts, and this may prove to be the Achilles’ heel of campaign coverage 2008. Thirty-one states offered some form of voting before Nov. 4, but you wouldn’t have known it from watching national news shows. How will the networks’ projections be affected since no exit polling has been done? And how will early voting alter the 2012 candidate strategies and the media’s coverage? I expect they’ll all figure that out before 2012.