Public broadcasting's election triumph

BILL KOVACH

December 23, 1992|By Bill Kovach

THE presidential campaign has seen the emergence of unexpectedly diverse and democratic media that have vastly expanded public choices for political information. Many political analysts and observers credit this rich menu for the first increase voter turnout in 30 years.

Beginning with the primary campaign, thousands of hours of radio and television programming described the process, issues and candidates in the race. The venues for this news reached far beyond the usual network news. Hungry and loyal audiences for political information were found by talk shows hosted by Larry King, Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey. Cable television's C-Span found that people would sit still for an uninterrupted and unnarrated hour of cameras fixed on a candidate walking through town shaking hands and chatting. Even MTV took time out from music videos to "Rock the Vote" with political coverage, including appearances by all candidates.

All these new commercial players became a part of the political coverage during the campaign, as the talk shows and cable television channels themselves became stories. But one important new element in the 1992 presidential campaign has been overlooked: the extraordinary package of political and public interest programming produced by the public broadcast system. It began with public television's collaboration with NBC, which produced, for the first time, the only non-cable source of continuous prime-time coverage of both national political conventions.

And the momentum coming out of the conventions was maintained by the system through daily productions of the textured and in-depth issues, candidate and campaign coverage the "MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour." Overall, PBS provided more than 60 hours of special election programming.

The context of the 1992 presidential election was made graphically clear to the public through a riveting trilogy of political-historical biographies on "The American Experience": "The Kennedys," "LBJ" and "Nixon."

Issues were examined on PBS' "Frontline." Candidates were questioned by David Frost. Bill Moyers invited the American people into the process with his series, "Listening to America," which looked at public attitudes on the issues, the candidates and our life and times. And many watched: The election-related programs on PBS drew viewers in numbers ranging up to 173 percent above average.

Meanwhile, National Public Radio was pumping out the richest, most diverse, in-depth public-interest information ever heard on radio. Twenty to 25 minutes of morning and evening news broadcasts were devoted to the election each day from September to November. In addition, the newly created "Talk of the Nation" involved listeners directly through telephone call-ins.

Like public television, NPR covered both conventions and all debates live. In each case the system provided post-event analysis and involved the public directly through call-in programming.

Issues coverage throughout the campaign on NPR was based on those issues that the voters themselves had identified as important to them -- the economy, health care, education, the environment and urban policy. It was the only place where you could hear the candidates themselves, often and in depth. Several times at key points in the campaign NPR devoted 20 minutes to each candidate's stump speech.

With newscasts that avoided the "inside baseball" focus on tactics and strategy and provided regular analysis of the accuracy of political advertisements, the NPR daily newscast offered the most consistent and useful political coverage to be found anywhere on the radio dial. Not only has the coverage helped expand the system's audience, it may help expand the future of the system.

After a decade of repelling attacks by free-market conservatives who didn't like a publicly supported broadcast system, that system began this year fighting for its survival against critics in Congress. But response to the programming coming through local affiliate stations coupled with a more liberal atmosphere created by the election of Bill Clinton may help shift the system out of its defensive crouch and encourage outreach.

Programmers have been encouraged to consider plans for 1996. With the help of local affiliates, NPR news is exploring a range of options.

One model is that pioneered in North Carolina by the Charlotte Observer and the Poynter Institute of St. Petersburg, Fla. This experiment combined public surveys (to isolate issues of most concern to local residents) with cooperation between the newspaper and the local public broadcast media.

In the future, a combination of public and commercial systems in the form of NPR, local public radio and television affiliates and local newspapers could cooperate with the newspaper in coverage on the issues that mattered to the local citizens, providing in-depth coverage of issues in wide context; these could be broadcast to provide a forum for public debate and interaction.

The 1992 presidential election has already made clear that the media have begun to sort themselves out and to find ways to make themselves and their content more useful and relevant to the public. Their performance should argue strongly not merely to continue -- perhaps even to expand -- their funding, but also to strengthen their defenses against moves to control them politically.

Bill Kovach is curator of the Nieman Foundation of Journalists at Harvard and a member of the board of National Public Radio.

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