In one of my favorite cartoons, a businessman greets a salesman by saying: "Let's cut through the small talk and get down to the real mumbo-jumbo." That's the approach most of the news media are taking with coverage of the presidential election. It's like watching an episode of Survivor, but without any intriguing plot elements. We see the Republicans take the Willie Loman approach with a shoeshine and a smile, and the Democrats reinvent themselves on a weekly basis. The voters could care less. This should be journalism, not voyeurism.
Oddly, the media deviated from this "Let's watch what happens next" scheme during the conventions. Instead, we got endless P&G (that's pundits and gossip). In one surreal instance, the same people were chatting with Judy Woodruff on CNN in my living room and with Scott Simon on NPR in my kitchen, but had nothing to say in either conversation. Tom Brokaw got to schmooze The Rock and Chyna, professional wrestlers who showed up at both venues, promoting their millions of fans as the voters who will elect the next president. That beats discussing campaign strategy with Leon Panetta.
Surprisingly, the conventions had some memorable moments. The polite but muted response that the delegates gave Colin Powell's speech stands out. If the Republicans have changed as much as they claim, he should be their candidate. Then there was Gore's speech, or rather what happened immediately afterwards. In an uncharacteristic display of enthusiasm and passion, Al put the lip lock on Tipper, visibly separating himself from the Bill and Hillary show while pushing the hot buttons of female voters. But there weren't many of them, or anyone else, watching. ABC, CBS, and NBC were actually being honest by not paying much attention. Perhaps the cable news networks will make the same decision and leave the conventions to C-Span, who does the best job at it anyway.
Now we have reached the depths of absurdity. Currently, newscasts are telling us when to tune in and see new campaign ads on TV. Maybe next, they will dissect the media plans, delving into the fascinating world of GRP's, DMA's, and adspeak. Excuse me, but I don't care. What I want the news media to do is identify the topics on voters' minds, isolate the key issues, and tell me where these guys stand. Here are three examples.
The Federal Budget. All of a sudden, Washington is awash in black ink. The politicians want to use this windfall to buy votes, either with tax cuts or free drugs. But the US has a larger debt than any nation in history. If most of us were in this situation, we'd pay off the credit cards, the furniture and the car, retire the second mortgage and maybe the first, then decide what to do next. Our government should take the same action. Specifically, what are the plans to retire the debt?
Education. We can pour all the money into vouchers, more teachers, web access, and buildings, but without measurable national standards we'll never know if students are getting smarter. What standards are Bush and Gore planning to adopt?
Campaign Finance Reform. If people don't believe that a half a billion bucks in donations equal a half a billion bucks in IOU's, maybe education is worse than we think. Despite Senator McConnell's insistence that it's our First Amendment right to pay off politicians, it's still a disgraceful practice. What are the candidates going to do about it?
Until the news media start asking questions like these and demanding answers, they're only describing the sizzle, not the steak.