Without question there is more political coverage in the media today than ever before—but is that coverage of any meaningful substance, or is it essentially a gallery of talking heads shouting back and forth across the airwaves?
That question was addressed Friday afternoon at a panel at the National Conference for Media Reform. The panel, moderated by Santita Jackson of Chicago’s WVON-AM, was titled “Media and Elections: Uncovering 2008.” Panelists included Robert “Biko” Baker of the League of Young Voters; John Nichols, co-author of Tragedy and Farce; and David Sirota, author of The Uprising. Hundreds of conference attendees from across the country packed a conference room at the Minneapolis Convention Center to hear the panelists’ remarks.
“Our media is under assault,” declared Jackson in her opening remarks, suggesting that corporate media have stifled meaningful discourse. “Entertainers,” she said, rather than substantive political and economic issues, “are at the center of our national debate.”
Nichols, speaking next, took the podium with a battle cry. “We want a media that makes democracy function, rather than a media that makes us run away from democracy!” Addressing his “brothers and sisters” with the cadence and gestures of a preacher, he voiced approval of increasing diversity among political reporters but described his frustration at what he described as “a media that diminishes [the] accomplishments” of women and racial minorities in politics. Nichols earned groans of agreement when he recounted mainstream pundits’ derogatory, often sexist or racist comments about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and described the comments as “ignorant.” Concluding his remarks, he described “big media” coverage of politics as “at odds with our best instincts and best goals…Never again should media insult us the way that it has so far during the 2008 campaign.”
“Never again should media insult us the way that it has so far during the 2008 campaign.” -John Nichols
Following Nichols, Baker jumped down from the panelists’ dais and paced before the audience to perform a short poem. “The friends who I haven’t lost to hollow-tips,” he declared somberly, “I’ve lost to the post-industrial plague of hopelessness.” Returning to the podium, he described his work with the League of Young Voters. Pointing out that John Kerry had won Baker’s native state of Wisconsin by a mere 11,000 votes, Baker said proudly that his colleagues had mobilized 14,000 Wisconsin voters. “We’re facing sort of a historic election this year,” continued Baker, “though you wouldn’t know it by watching CNN. Last night they had a spy camera turned on Hillary Clinton’s house the whole night.” Citing Gandhi and urging his listeners to “be the change,” and emphasized his point by leading the audience in a collective recital of that phrase.
Sirota, speaking last, described what he called the “freelance-izing” of the media. The mainstream media, he noted, have been devoting fewer resources to investigating news stories. Pointing out that “we are living in an era when we have more opportunities to be our own media than we have had in the past,” he implored audience members to take matters into their own hands. “In this country now,” he said, “we are on the precipice of something big that could be very good, or it could be very bad.” Americans, argued Sirota, must “seize this opportunity” to channel what he describes as an angry “uprising” into positive channels through the use of media to appropriately communicate grievances and share important news.
After the panelists’ remarks, audience members were invited to submit questions. In response to a question about undercoverage of the problem of defective voting machines, Nichols summarized the panelists’ views on the importance of fair and substantive media coverage of American politics. “This,” he said, “is about making democracy work.”
Jay Gabler is assistant editor of the Daily Planet.