Sunday, June 22, 2008

1992 vs. 2008

It's easy to forget in this fast paced media environment how political elections were once covered. In fact, leaving out the election meme, it's easy to forget how television looked, period.

This YouTube clip features the 1992 Presidential Election coverage of CBS, featuring Dan Rather at the anchor desk. The things that stand out to me are:

* the simplicity of the set
* the calm tone
* the lack of slick graphic packages
* the reliance on journalists, rather than pundits
* the lack of music
* the lack of commercial interruption
* the amount of face time Rather gets

I consider all of these things a preferable style of coverage than we get today. That's not to say that the current style of coverage isn't improved in some respects. Appropriate set changes are great, especially when they involve a break from the studio, for example. Hits from the campaign trail are valuable ways to take the pulse of the electorate. The urgency and hyperactive presentation of modern political coverage may be a way to duplicate the immediacy of the internet. Just a theory, but when you really want to know something you often click between several sites, or hit refresh on your browser. TV drama may be a way to duplicate that sense, or it may simply be a technique for scaring viewers out of changing the channel.

The overproduced opens, bumps, and closes are hokey and John Stewart/Stephen Colbert do a fine job of mocking them. The good graphic additions have been those dedicated to data or to electoral maps. There are, however, too many flying pie charts and bar graphs of minutia that need to be cut.

The use of journalists for the primary coverage of events is something long since passed away. Pundits rule the airwaves now, so much so that anchors are often pundits themselves. The art of journalism is such a thing of the past that far too many Washington Correspondents are actually op-ed types who have an agenda. A lot of these people get cushy TV jobs and don't want to give them up. Who wants to do all the hard work behind the scenes without a by-line? Better yet, who wants to do all the heavy lifting in the field and have some hairsprayed goon get all the credit, especially when I can be a hairsprayed goon.

The point about music goes hand in hand with the graphic packages. The news used to avoid any music whatsoever to remove any subliminal, psychological tone that might skew perception in one way or the other. Now, music is integrated just for that purpose. Thanks Fox.

The commercials in the 1992 clip are simply 5 second taglines accompanying a corporate logo. Would that fly in 2008? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAA!!! Right. The news are corporate logos already. They are brands in and of themselves. They spend more time promoting their own coverage than actually practicing any journalism. The advertisers rule the airwaves now. That cat's out of the bag. Remember that next time you're watching CNN cover environmental issues (you'll have to watch very carefully for the 2 minutes a day they want to promote "Planet in Peril") and the logo and tag for "Clean Coal" comes up.

Rather is one of those "last of the good ol' boys" anchors, who actually paid his dues in the field prior to becoming a talking head. Now we're so specialized that the anchor is little more than a traffic director who spins you around between pundit one, pundit two, graphic mashups, ads, and pundit three. Think Wolf Blitzer.

I'm including a clip from the 2008 Primary coverage to give a little contrast. See if what I wrote isn't accurate, and also think about how political news (elections in this case) are best presented. TV is an entertainment medium, so the answer is unquestionably 2008, but for the purpose of an informed democracy, I'd have to go against the ecological grain to say that it fails on too many levels. My reasoning? The points made above show how the information value of political coverage has been drowned in the entertainment value. That's the nature of the medium. The problem with leaving it at that is that drowning information for the sake of entertainment may work for the bottom line, and it may work according to the logic of television, but there is still room for journalism in entertainment. There is room for entertainment and information to work together successfully. One would argue that television can never be the most effective means of acquiring and integrating political information, but it can be better than it is now without sacrificing its own nature to the doldrums of 1992.

The internet has changed the way we cover news, and politics, just as it's changed the coverage of sports. They are all one and the same. The horse race wins out over the wonkish policy issues. Wonkishness on the internet works by integrating media forms. The long form text of the internet allows for detailed information to be communicated, while hyperlinks and video embeds give a more dynamic and entertaining vibe. The embedded YouTube clip, for example, is the sauce or the salt or the chocolate topping. It's the part of the information that you WANT. The text is the vitamins, minerals, protein,'s the information you NEED. Television has less opportunity to do this, but it can still make a better attempt.


mike's spot said...

A moment of silence will be held in honor of Mike Plugh tonight during Prof Levinson's class-

Mr Plugh- We will miss you- japan got lucky.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Plugh, I demand you show me the proper RESPECT!
Signed, Nick Dunn's friend (Doug Pryor)