The Frightening Failure Of U.S. Television Media

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump is surrounded by TV technicians and cameras at the conclusion of the deba
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump is surrounded by TV technicians and cameras at the conclusion of the debate sponsored by CNN for the 2016 Republican U.S. presidential candidates in Houston, Texas, February 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Stone

Truth is often to be found in contrasts. I was fortunate enough to attend the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in July. Aside from all the normal bunting and hoopla, the event was genuinely interesting: well-organised and informative. There was plenty of opportunity for a wide range of speakers to contribute. Some of the speeches were outstanding, notably Michelle Obama's and Hillary Clinton's.

Now compare the cacophonous drivel that has been offered by U.S. television in its coverage of this all-important presidential election. It would be risible, were it not so frightening.

In this round-the-clock confederacy of dunces, the standard of debate is strikingly low. Worse, there is no real fairness. And to compound the problem, the discussions -- if one can call them that -- are arbitrarily disrupted by advertising breaks.

In other countries, producers make an effort to insert such interruptions at natural moments in the give-and-take of a debate. But in America the advertiser is king. Good for the stations' bottom line, no doubt. Not so good for U.S. democracy, and the prospective leadership of the free world.
Try watching, say, CNN or Fox in these final days of the campaign. You will see a parade of so-called "commentators," mostly hacks, jaded pundits and lobbyists masquerading as analysts. Some are, frankly, too young or too old to make a meaningful contribution: their principal qualification is availability, a willingness to sit in a studio for long stretches, uttering platitudes or propaganda. In their partisan clashes, these rent-a-quotes generate much heat, but pathetically little light.

I was dismayed -- for example -- to see a debate on CNN about Donald Trump's alleged payments to the Ukraine. The quality of discussion was woeful, to the point where one wondered if the well-groomed presenters, with their perfect teeth, even knew where the Ukraine was on the map.

In practice, there is little genuine discussion of policy, beyond soundbites and weary rebuttals. Two-way sniping across the political divide is confused with balance. How often have we heard ill-informed sniping at the Clinton Foundation -- an organisation that has incontestably done much good around the world? It is simply not good enough to offer insinuation and scuttlebutt masquerading as fair comment. In this respect, the networks have been no better than the cable companies. On NBC's Meet the Press on September 1, one of the contributors baldly described the Foundation as a slush fund. This is nonsense, not to mention defamatory.

One of the glories of the U.S. is the First Amendment: free speech matters to Americans to an extent that is not matched anywhere else in the West. However, freedom of expression is a necessary but not sufficient basis for a healthy democracy. Context, fairness and impartiality matter too.

Part of the problem may be traced back to the notorious Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984. Though this legislation has been amended in the last three decades, the imbalance between commercial gain and public interest which it entrenched has never been fully corrected. The consequence is a cable TV culture which pays lip service to the pieties of public service television but -- in practice -- seeks to squeeze every last dollar out of its coverage by putting entertainment rather than information first.

Am I alone in feeling that, precisely when the stakes are giddily high, when U.S. voters (and interested observers elsewhere) need more accurate data and impartial analysis than ever, they are in desperately short supply? True, there is no shortage of opinion polls. But how often do the stations really explain the demographic, regional and numerical scale of these surveys?

Immediately after the FBI director's extraordinary intervention in the election it was routinely claimed that the polls were narrowing in Trump's favour. In fact, the shifts were well within the margin of error. But I suppose that makes less of a "story."

On Tuesday, America must make its mind up. The outcome will affect the entire planet. I only wish those going to the polling stations had been better prepared by those charged with informing them.