September 17, 2008

Survivor: The Road to the White House

by J. Max Robins

Look no further than Charlie Gibson's interview with Sarah Palin or the Olympian ratings for the big speeches at the Republican and Democratic conventions for proof of what I've believed for months—the race for the White House is by far the best reality show on TV.

Since the primaries, the major news outfits have borrowed the blueprint that's produced an endless stream of hits from Survivor to Moment of Truth. (And yes, I know that either of these series could easily be the moniker for the spectacle we've been watching in the perpetual presidential race.) Instead of covering these political smack-downs in the traditional horse race manner, they have wisely transformed their reporting on the ultimate contest in the political world into great human drama.

Predictably, political coverage played as reality TV has had critics railing against the cable news and talk radio rabble-from the pitched battle for the Democratic nomination between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton right up through the Sarah Palin saga. Some of those most vocal in their objections to "up close and personal" coverage are the candidates and their surrogates. Even McCain, who famously referred to the media as "his base," has joined the legions of politicians from both sides of the aisle who wantonly bash the Fourth Estate. The irony, of course, is that each party spends hundreds of millions of dollars pushing the respective dramatic arcs of their candidates.

Still, Palin's ascension to the No. 2 spot on the Republican side has driven partisan media bashing to a new level. So much "blah, blah, blah" about how alleged sexism has fueled press coverage of the "Thrilla from Wasilla" is but a sad repeat of how a Neanderthal male media establishment had nastily upended Hillary Clinton and been the deciding factor in Obama besting her for the nomination.

Everybody needs to grow up. There's plenty of media bias to go around, and that's a good thing.

Don't get me wrong. I know that especially in the DIY blogosphere, there are plenty of nasty "isms" behind stuff that purports to be independent reportage. But, in this digital age, there's so much opportunity for all to jab and parry that it doesn't strike me as some grave danger undermining truth, justice, and the American way.

Ultimately, despite the flowering of a zillion voices-good, bad and ugly-we are getting informed and entertained this election season. Crucial issues have been pushed to the fore, not pushed aside, thanks in no small part to the Surreal Life nature of the coverage. We're talking about race and class, energy and education, and our role in the world with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and beyond.

My fear is that the news organizations with the most clout get cowed into submission by the politicos and stop hammering away from all angles on this incredible political reality show. I understand that the NBC News establishment players like Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, and Andrea Mitchell didn't like the madmen of MSNBC stealing their thunder and tarnishing their brand. Still, it's chilling that NBC News gave Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann the hook from their political season anchor duties in the wake of being castigated at the Republican convention. Aren't we smart enough to delineate and choose which style of coverage we want on a convention or election night, whether wicked right, loony left, or down the supposed middle? Maybe NBCU corporate should take the suggestion of my former colleague at Broadcasting & Cable Ben Grossman and put MSNBC under the aegis of its suite of cable entertainment networks, such as Bravo and USA, to separate out the political bloviators from what the traditional folks at NBC News normally do. Joe Flint, the director of our industry programs here at The Paley Center, counters that's simply "an industry fix for a public problem that won't change the perception issues that NBC is worried about."

Charlie Gibson played it a touch tough but ultimately fair with Palin, and I don't think it hurt the ABC World News anchor's "Q Scores" one bit. He was criticized from both sides. Who was it that said life in the media spotlight is fair?

Political coverage is a rough game and of course operatives from both parties are going to play the "Blame the Media" card. But this brand of working the refs shouldn't throw anyone off anymore. Let's hope that major news organizations don't lose their scrappy reportorial mojo the same way the Obama campaign seems to have done since McCain selected Palin.

A few final words, specifically for my sisters and brothers covering this wild ride to the White House: Keep the roundhouse punches coming from every direction. Dig deep on the story of a lifetime. Don't turn the best reality show in modern political times into some bland sitcom. It's what a democracy is all about.

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