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Minding Our Business

 
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Politics and Journalism 202

For decades at CBS, Dan Rather has informed us with the news, amused us with his Texas aphorisms, exhorted us with his curious benediction of "courage" and, on occasion, puzzled us — "what is the frequency, Kenneth?" But now Rather has disappointed us.

In heralding and reporting the discovery of documents that purportedly confirmed that George W. Bush shirked his Air National Guard responsibilities, Rather and CBS have failed at a basic journalistic task. They did not connect the dots. The CBS producers and, ultimately, Rather could not authenticate the documents.

CBS News might have asked how CBS's top-rated entertainment show "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" would have handled the case. Those investigators would have spotted the non-1970's vintage type font and paper faster than Dan can say, "This just in…"

Rather, after first standing by the CBS report, acknowledged the error in judgment in airing the story. That, at least, is what he should have done. Yet lurking behind the admission is the question, might CBS have been too eager to leap to a conclusion? To those who, in their estimation, already had Rather pegged as a liberal Bush basher, this was just added evidence. A connection between a CBS producer and the Democratic party did not help. The fumble on CBS' part also does not help other journalists assert their impartiality.

Perception is paramount. We tell politicians that all the time. It's our nature to believe what we want to believe, and journalists are not held in the highest esteem these days. But journalism educators may thank Dan, anyhow, for a teachable moment.

Connect the dots. Are there gaps in the story? Can you fill them in? Is what you don't know essential to the report? To paraphrase O. J. Simpson's attorney Johnny Cochran: If the dots don't connect, you must reject!

It's a curious political season. We're caught in a time warp where the country is fighting a war in Iraq, yet still politically fighting over Vietnam. The focus on where George Bush and John Kerry were thirty years ago has eclipsed the prospect of where each might lead the country in 2005. Historical perspective is not unimportant, but the campaign has been hijacked by vociferous peripheral elements—the 527 advocacy groups. The campaigns, the media and the public are distracted, some perhaps willingly.

In 2004, I'm watching the presidential campaign from a different—and distant—perspective. From 1984 through 2000, I saw the campaigns up close as a CNN political correspondent. From the primaries to the conventions to election day, I was on the trail with the candidates. In 2000, I had the added and unique perspective of covering the U.S. Supreme Court when its split decision in Bush v. Gore effectively ended the Florida recount, leaving Bush the winner.

I was one of those court correspondents running out into the bitter cold night of December 12, with the red-hot 65-page court opinion. "Let's go through this carefully, Bernie," I said to CNN anchor Bernard Shaw. And for the next two-and-a-half hours we dissected the opinion live on the air.

In contrast, the broadcast networks provided only three hours live coverage to each of the party conventions this summer. True, these conventions are more highly choreographed coronations than the Miss America pageant. It's been decades since the conventions held much drama—multiple ballots, a floor fight over credentials or the party platform. But the networks had predetermined one night of each four-day convention would be worth no coverage whatsoever.

The conventions seen at home are not as I used to see them from my podium reporting position. There I could hear all the speeches, or at least the ones I chose to hear. The party leaders were within arm's reach or earshot. I could bat the balloons with the nominees.

You could barely get that breadth at home. Only C-Span provided gavel-to-gavel coverage. Even my former colleagues at CNN have swapped gavel-to-gavel for babble-to-babble. Still, there were more journalists than delegates at the conventions. Despite the shortcomings of television coverage, there were innovative approaches to bring political perspective to the electorate.

We had a hand in one such, the Cingular Wireless Election Connection. USC journalism students used camera phones provided by our Newsplex technology partner Cingular and text messaging to transmit hundreds of vignettes of events in and out of the Boston and New York convention sites. Back at Newsplex in Columbia, faculty and grad students transformed those reports to a mobile web log—a "moblog"—and produced a mosaic of what the student reporters from USC and other communications programs had observed.

You'll find the Wireless Election Connection at http://wec.textamerica.com. Our new director of the Ifra Newsplex Randy Covington led this project. Our students and Newsplex team will produce another edition of the moblog for election day in November.

As the relationship of media and politics evolves, the challenge is to have meaningful communication that enlightens the electorate. And as Dan Rather has reminded us, in journalism the challenge is always to get it right.

 
|   The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.


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