How the US media lost the plot

America's voters just don't trust mainstream news coverage of the election, says Rageh Omaar
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The Independent Online

Kenny Piasecki and CJ Cheramie have both served as policemen in America for virtually all of their working lives. But that is one of the few things they have in common.

Another is that Piasecki, a bearded motorcycle fanatic from the industrial north of Wisconsin, and Cheramie, a jovial character from sleepy southern Louisiana, have both lost all faith in the ability of the mainstream America media to report the news.

Even though Piasecki is firmly committed to voting for President Bush, he doesn't rely on the large conservative news organisations. Referring to the openly right-wing cable news channel owned by Rupert Murdoch, he says: "I'm a Fox kind of guy, but if I want to find out about the reality of what our forces are experiencing in the war in Iraq, or the huge wealth that John Kerry and his family have, I look for it on the internet."

Hundreds of miles to the south, as I interview him on a new boat that was funded by the Department of Homeland Security to help patrol the oil facilities in Port Fourchon, CJ Cheramie expresses the same sentiment.

Travelling through the heartlands of the United States, one comes across many Americans like Piasecki and Cheramie, who rely on websites not just to find opinions that match their own, but also to uncover facts they believe bolster those views. It is a trend that reflects a deeply divided US electorate coming to the end of a bitterly contested presidential campaign. None of the people I interviewed for a half-hour BBC programme on the views of Americans were undecided voters. Whether Republican or Democrat, their views are deeply held, and argued fiercely. And much of their information, whether it concerns President Bush's arguments on the need for reforming tort law and extending tax cuts, or Senator Kerry's proposals for reducing the United States' reliance on Middle Eastern oil, has been obtained online.

Yet although the voters appear to have already made up their minds, media organisations have gone into overdrive, devoting every available resource to coverage of each development in the campaign.

In Iowa, I attended a speech in support of Senator Kerry by General Wesley Clark, one of the candidates defeated in the Democratic primaries. The conference room in the ornate hotel in downtown Des Moines, the state capital, was packed full. Barely two paces after entering the hall it became almost impossible to go any further. A line of camera crews stretched across the width of the room. Both local and national network television crews were represented.

Other journalists crowded around the cameras. Some of them crouched at the feet of the tripods, others tried to peer through any gaps in the tight pack of the TV crews. These were the print journalists, also representing their medium at the local level as well as at the US equivalent of national level, for broadsheets such as The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Also present, however, was a new media class: the bloggers. These individuals are part-diarists, part-polemicists, who publish their journals and accounts of the election campaign directly on the internet. If nothing else, the 2004 presidential election campaign will be noted as probably the first Western election where bloggers joined the ranks of journalists courted by the main candidates and parties, and were given similar kinds of privileges to travel with candidates and be afforded the same level of access at conferences and rallies. The autumn conventions of the Republicans and Democrats provided the definitive proof that this new brand of political election coverage is here to stay. In addition to the booths and floor space given to newspaper, radio and television correspondents, dozens of bloggers were to be seen in the convention halls, their faces lit up from the white glow of their laptop screens.

Some of the largest US television networks have moved beyond taking note of the fall-off in the public's trust of mainstream media outlets and are trying to respond directly. But it is the response of a medium that is under threat and playing catch-up. One of the latest, and most prominent, CNN national television adverts promoting its election coverage shows a series of sound bites from voters. They are diverse in political views, ethnicity and professions. They are also committed supporters of the rival candidates. The punch line at the end of each commercial is several of the voters saying that, even though they are Republican and Democrat, they turn to CNN's internet sites to get their information.

The web has also transformed the ability of political parties, pollsters, pressure groups - and voters themselves - to isolate not just the small handful of so-called "swing states", but the districts within these states where the election will be won or lost.

In 2000, Al Gore won Iowa with 49 per cent of the vote, compared with 48 per cent for Bush. Only 4,000 votes separated the two candidates in the entire state. It is the same scenario in 2004. However, this time the rival parties are ruthlessly focusing on the key districts that could make all the difference, and one of the tools that allows them to analyse the political, social and demographic make-ups of these areas is internet-based research. Little wonder that President Bush has visited Iowa at least 17 times in the campaign so far.

What has helped to spur this trend? It has to be about far more than the simple continued growth of the internet. Two factors seem to be central. When I was travelling through the United States making a series of reports for BBC News, many voters described how their faith in much of the mainstream media had been shattered by the flawed exit poll predictions in the tumultuous 2000 election, which saw President Bush elected after a tortuous recount that was finally decided by the Supreme Court. The second factor is a slowly growing unease within America about the current situation in Iraq. Here again, one detects a sense that many Americans are beginning to doubt what they are getting from much of the mainstream press. News organisations themselves have admitted to failures. The New York Times was one of the first to declare that it had failed to be robust enough in its coverage of the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. Some local newspapers have told their readers the same thing. In March this year, Rick Mercier, a columnist for The Free Lance-Star in Virginia wrote: "The media are finished with their big blow-outs on the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and there is one thing they forgot to say: We're sorry. Sorry we let unsubstantiated claims drive our coverage. Sorry we were dismissive of experts who disputed White House charges against Iraq. Sorry we let a band of self-serving Iraqi defectors make fools of us. Sorry we fell for Colin Powell's performance at the United Nations. Sorry we couldn't bring ourselves to hold the administration's feet to the fire before the war, when it really mattered. Maybe we'll do a better job next war."

But before any "next war" happens, the first and most important challenge that the mainstream US media faces is getting it right this election, one that many predict will be just as closely run as its predecessor. Whether it succeeds or not could determine just how many people decide to consult the mainstream media on defining national issues in the future.

Rageh Omaar is a BBC foreign correspondent. His series of reports will be shown on BBC1's news at six o'clock, starting today. His half-hour documentary, 'Pizza, Popcorn and the President', will be shown on BBC1 on Friday at 12.30pm