- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2000


The party poopers have been at work. In the last 24 hours, there has been much carping about the Republican convention from journalists who billed it as an infomercial a prepackaged love-in unworthy of serious coverage.
But the media may be guilty of a few crimes of their own.
"It does not appear that attention to news media, particularly the networks, is boosting the electorate's knowledge of the candidates," states an Annenberg Public Policy Center study released yesterday. "News exposure is doing little to help improve knowledge."
Many Americans, apparently, are clueless about George W. Bush and Al Gore, their issues and even their backgrounds ironic in an age of touchy-feely programming.
The problem may be the messenger specifically the "big three" networks, which balk at covering conventions, which don't guarantee ratings or revenues.
"This is a troubling commentary on the networks and their dereliction of duty to the American public," Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee, told The Washington Times yesterday.
"We don't just have a digital divide, we have a cable chasm," he said. "A third of American homes are not wired for cable TV. They are dependent on the generosity of the network news executives for their political information."
The GOP chairman and the networks took potshots at one another earlier this week.
CBS, NBC and ABC claimed the "feel good" convention is neither relevant, engaging nor meaningful. CBS suggested yesterday that Barney the Dinosaur should be included in the nightly proceedings.
All three cut coverage. According to C-SPAN, ABC offered 36 minutes of coverage Monday, CBS 16 minutes, and NBC nothing, leaving that to sister channel MSNBC.
The GOP, meanwhile, defended itself. The networks, Mr. Nicholson contended, have a "moral obligation" to cover the convention.
He has a point. Original networks were given access to the airwaves by the 1934 Communications Act in exchange for programming in "the public good."
Mr. Nicholson also questioned network tendencies to dramatize broadcasts. Coverage need not be controversial or dramatic to be news.
"Some of it can be simply information," he noted.
And information is exactly what the public needs.
The Annenberg survey of 48,000 people the largest of its kind found that 55 percent did not know enough about the candidates to make "an informed choice" in the election.
Respondents did not understand Mr. Bush's position on "school vouchers, soft money, HMO lawsuits, health insurance for children and gun licenses" or Mr. Gore's take on "the death penalty, gays in the military, Social Security and the stock market, school vouchers, soft money and HMO lawsuits."
Less than half knew much about the candidates' personal particulars like religion or education.
The survey noted that newspaper readers and talk-radio listeners, however, have shown "improvements in their knowledge."
PBS, meanwhile, has emerged on top. The network's three hours of straightforward programming Monday got more viewers than CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel combined.
"We're convinced that the convention is important and that televising it is important," said spokesman Rob Flynn. "And we're convinced people care."
Jennifer Harper can be reached at 202/636-3085 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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