Keep it quick and keep it clean

The US media could learn from British election coverage, says Mary Dejevsky
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The Independent US

Come election time, there is much to be said for two defining features of the British system: brevity (of the campaign) and strict rules (for the broadcast media). The United States, where the presidential election is 10 months away, is providing a graphic illustration of what happens when the campaign is protracted and the broadcast media are, if not quite unfettered, then subject to the rules of the market, not the rules of equal access - which, at election time, means almost no rules at all.

Come election time, there is much to be said for two defining features of the British system: brevity (of the campaign) and strict rules (for the broadcast media). The United States, where the presidential election is 10 months away, is providing a graphic illustration of what happens when the campaign is protracted and the broadcast media are, if not quite unfettered, then subject to the rules of the market, not the rules of equal access - which, at election time, means almost no rules at all.

No one denies the part played by big money in US politics, as in other areas of American life. Between elections, money buys lobbying power. In the run-up to elections, though, it also buys airtime in the form of commercials, and television advertising is the way in which candidates can reach the maximum number of voters in this vast country. And while there are restrictions on total campaign spending during the presidential campaign proper, these do not apply during the nomination process (which is now) or to candidates who choose not to take federal money to "match" the money they have raised themselves.

The result is a free for all whose deleterious effect on the electoral process is attracting criticism from within some sections of the media, though not, as yet, from television.

Some of the most trenchant criticism came in a recent editorial in Roll Call, one of the newspapers that specialises in covering the intricacies of life on Capitol Hill. Taking a highly unusual swipe at the television companies, it urged Congressmen to call on "at least two local and network television executives each and ask them to actually cover the 2000 elections and not just collect vast sums of money for running political ads".

Roll Call said that in half of all states in the US, viewers of the late local news - one of the most widely watched news broadcasts - were four times as likely to see a political advert as a political story.

The appeal for wider coverage, on the eve of the primary election season, was pertinent. For half of all voters - surveys find - have little idea what is going on. While lack of interest in national politics may be one reason, the lack of mainstream television coverage is another.

So far in the current, early presidential campaign, there have been almost a dozen "debates" among the candidates competing for their party's nomination. "Debate" is the term customarily used, but the definition is broad. It has encompassed "town hall meeting" style events, where members of an invited (or lottery chosen) audience question the candidates, talk shows in which the candidates are questioned by one interviewer, and variations on that format where one or two television presenters put questions of their own or questions submitted by the audience.

No one in the business - television or politics - conceals that the front-runners have a say in determining the format and even the areas of questioning; they can choose whether or not to appear.

These debates are valuable to the television companies because they attract lucrative political advertising. But the competition for advertising, and so for the rights to a particular debate, is having a perverse effect. It is restricting public access.

The extent to which commerce rules was graphically illustrated last month, when two presidential candidates, one Democrat - former Senator Bill Bradley - and one Republican - Senator John McCain, appeared together in public to pledge their commitment to reducing the role of money in the election system.

So which station covered their ceremonial signing of a reform pledge, an event described by the most seasoned commentators as "without precedent"? Not one network and not one cable news channel covered the press conference either live or in full.

Barring the election in November of one or other of these reformist insurgents, the long term is likely to be very long indeed.

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