LAKEWOOD, CO—More than a dozen media experts, news reporters, political observers, and bloggers debated the role of media in the upcoming 2012 election on the campus of Colorado Christian University in a conference conducted by the Centennial Institute last week.
The conference’s ambitious title, “Media Fairness and the 2012 Campaign,” hoped to explore the multifaceted and changing industry from the perspective of voters’ ability to wade through information overload, how the media addresses thorny and often difficult economic issues, and acknowledge the expansion and contraction in media due to changing technology.
“Journalism has been not only a messenger but also a combatant in every American presidential election in history, with the possible exception of those involving George Washington,” according to a “problem statement” handed out to conference attendees. “Polarization” within the media provided much fodder for many of the speakers, with media “fairness” hotly contested throughout the panel discussions.
“In 250 days, Americans will elect a president,” said John Andrews, director of the Centennial Institute, and former State Senate president in Colorado. “Colorado is watched as one of a half dozen swing states that may determine the outcome of the presidential election.”
“The role of the media as a reliable intermediary between ‘we the people’ and those who seek to have us trust them with the power of elected office, especially the White House, has never been more critical,” Andrews declared in his opening statement.
Jay Ambrose, former editor for the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News, challenged the speakers to address “context” within the news.
“Sometimes it isn’t until you’re deep into the story that you found out the context,” charged Ambrose. He offered examples from the current GOP presidential primary scrum, as well as historical examples from his career.
“There’s frustration, sometimes, both from the right and from the left, in the way that news gets covered today,” said Ryan Call, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. “I think that the media needs to take responsibility with respect to helping educate and inform.”
In a panel seeking what voters should demand from the media this election year, Call referred to the media by one of its traditional names and philosophical positions as the “fourth estate,” arguing for a return to “journalistic principles.”
“It’s not the role of media to pronounce judgment, but instead to report and allow us to decide,” Call said with a nod to the Fox News motto. “To cover both sides of the story fairly, to get the story right, not always be so worried about getting it first. Get the story right and get that story in context.”
Former State Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon, D-Lakewood, found some fault with voters themselves.
“The American people are surprisingly ignorant about almost everything involved in their government,” said Gordon. Gordon offered an anecdote about confusion between the Colorado state legislature and Congress, and a lack of name recognition for most elected officials.
“This is a failure of democracy,” Gordon conceded. Without citizen oversight, Gordon argued, the elected officials work for those who are paying attention, pointing to lobbyists and special interests.
“I think the press can do a lot of good and actually does a fair amount of good in this area,” but Gordon stressed that media can do harm when it focuses on the “sensational.”
Gordon disagreed with the notion that the media is “too liberal.”
“It doesn’t look like a liberal media to me,” said Gordon.
Colorado Associated Press reporter Kristen Wyatt noted that there is often a stark contrast between what political wonks, including reporters, think is interesting and what turns the heads of average news consumers.
“It’s really an old conversation about what people ‘should’ be interested in, and how they should educate themselves before they go to the polls and what they are interested in, which is sometimes isn’t what we would think should be,” said Wyatt.
Wyatt pointed to several political news stories cycling on the televisions at she observed earlier in the day in a visit to her gym. According to Wyatt, only a story on a possible Justin Bieber engagement seemed to draw much attention.
Fox 31 Denver and Channel 2 political news reporter Eli Stokols agreed that news goes where the business can be found.
“In terms of covering politics in local TV, it’s not something that is done regularly, on a daily basis, by too many of our competitors,” said Stokols.
There’s a reason for that, Stokols argued,
“News is a business,” Stokols stated. “We have to make money.”
Stokols agreed with Call’s proposition seeking a reliable “fourth estate,” but acknowledged the inherent problems facing news media, especially television. Some of the difficulty in presenting substantive political coverage comes directly from the consumers themselves.
“It’s broadcasting in the broadest sense. I sit at meetings a lot of days, and I pitch stories about bills down at the state Capitol, and I get a lot of eye rolls from people who are TV producers who are trying to figure out what is going to hold an audience that’s been watching American Idol for an hour, and that Justin Bieber story, that’s a slam dunk,” Stokols said, echoing Wyatt’s observations.
“That’s a challenge,” said Stokols. “If I tried to offer any more [substance], I think I’d just get fired,” joked Stokols. “I just think that’s the reality of the situation.”
Gordon disagreed, maintaining that the media should shoulder at least some of the responsibility for providing substantive news coverage.
“The media should say to the American people, ‘You have to eat your vegetables before you get your desert,’” Gordon said, lamenting the emphasis “horse race” and “soap opera” aspects of political coverage. Sensational and substantive should be juxtaposed on the first page, Gordon asserted.
But much of the narrowing of focus on political news has occurred during a rapid expansion of news offerings on radio, cable television, and the Internet.
Consumers may not choose political news every day, but when they do, they often seek it from ideologically similar news outlets, according to the panelists.
“I think it certainly increases the polarization of the country,” Gordon said. “They don’t think the other side is wrong, they think the other side is evil.”
Stokols worried about an erosion of the “firewall” between news production and who is paying for the news. “I don’t think people look at their news when they take news in, and really think about ‘who is funding this website’ or ‘who owns this TV station or this newspaper.’ What’s the publisher’s interest? There is a blurring of the lines,” said Stokols.
“When you have so many voices out there, what breaks through is who is talking the loudest,” Stokols continued. Fox News and MSNBC have become rivals due to profitability—catering to their core audiences, diminishing more traditional, “objective” news stories, according to Stokols.
Wyatt also recognized a “trend back toward partisan news gathering” that has occurred recently. “Who is bankrolling this news you’re consuming,” Wyatt told the audience to inquire when evaluating their chosen news sources.
Both Call and Gordon agreed that both sides of the political aisle engaged in what some have called “advocacy” journalism, citing examples like the Huffington Post and the late Andrew Breitbart’s series of “Big” online news sites.
C-SPAN recorded the panel discussions for replay in the coming weeks. Check C-SPAN.org for playlists and schedules.