With Sen. John Kerry’s big victory in last week’s Super Tuesday primaries, the battle lines for the general election in November appear to be clearly drawn. Now television news faces the daunting task of finding meaningful story lines for the next eight months of election coverage.
The temptation might be to relax after a busy primary season marked by a heated fight among the Democratic candidates. Historically, the lull after the heat of primaries but before the national political conventions has been a less-than-stellar period for TV news. Too often it is a time when news operations trot out marginal so-called experts and end up filling airtime with questionable opinions.
But the post-primary election period is also an opportunity to prove that television news is capable of more. For the cable news nets, which often present something more akin to talk shows than news shows as they scramble to fill time, one of the biggest challenges will be finding a steady supply of credible political experts and coming up with meaningful questions. Producers, bookers, moderators and journalists of all stripes will be stretched to the limit.
The task at hand is not easy by any means, but it may help to be reminded of its importance. Democracy only works when the people are engaged. Television news, done right, has the ability to keep them interested. It requires a focus on presenting the news responsibly and professionally while embracing the reality of competing for viewers in an ever more cluttered TV news environment.
As always, the lines between news and entertainment and between news and opinion must be maintained. And even in the race to be the first and to attract the largest audience, accuracy must remain paramount.
With Sen. Kerry’s nomination in the bag, and all indications pointing to a close election, now is the time to broaden the dialogue to encompass the range of vital issues on which the nation’s decision will hinge. The network news and cable news operations that succeed between now and Election Day will be those that reflect the issues of the most importance to voters while maintaining their credibility with viewers.
The landscape has changed since November 2000, when the fiasco of election night cast TV news in a decidedly bad light. Now, with new voting systems and a new exit-polling service in place, television has a chance to help erase that regrettable episode from the national memory.
And the time to start is now, by claiming the high ground for the next phase of the election and proving once again that television can be a responsible partner in the democratic process.