Network snub

John McCaslin
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Posted: Aug 24, 2004 12:00 AM

Rather than continuing to pursue maximum profit at the expense of an informed citizenry, the major television networks, as a civic responsibility, should once again begin to cover more of the presidential-election process.

"In 2004, what formerly was gavel-to-gavel network coverage of national conventions was reduced to three hours and three speeches for each convention by ABC, CBS and NBC," says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

"In 2000, for the first time, two networks, Fox and NBC, failed to cover at least one presidential debate in favor of baseball and entertainment programming, respectively," notes Gans, who adds that the 2000 and 1996 elections had the smallest amount of political coverage on the nightly news of any since television became central in American life.

For those who argue that cable news channels pick up where networks leave off, the average prime-time viewing audience for all the cable news providers combined is about 6 million. The average prime-time audience for the major networks is upwards of 30 million viewers - five times as many Americans who tune into cable.

It's not any easier these days for the real "West Wing" to air in prime time. In fact, the office of the president seems to have lost its clout.

"Presidents can no longer command prime-time coverage for press conferences, save with respect to issues of war and terror, and must hold them in the afternoons to get three minutes on the nightly news - or risk getting no network coverage whatsoever," Gans says.

As for networks losing profits: "The networks can clearly afford to provide the public with the information they need. General Electric, the parent company of NBC, recorded a 2003 net profit of $15 billion. Disney, which owns ABC; Viacom, which owns CBS; and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which owns Fox, all netted between $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion.

"A few prime-time hours of convention, election night, debate, and presidential press conference coverage would not put even a scratch on their bottom lines," he says.

NEGATIVE BY NATURE

Turned off by the 2004 presidential campaign?

You might try turning off your television.

"If people believe campaigns are negative, it could well be due to the fact that the news coverage of political campaigns is more negative than the campaigns themselves," reveals William Benoit, a leading expert on presidential campaigns and communications professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

Benoit says as President Bush and Sen. John Kerry continue crisscrossing the country, and with one convention just ended and another one looming, the "media" have an abundance of political stories to cover.

Yet his new analysis shows that not only is press coverage more negative than the candidates' actual messages, but the majority of reporting is on the "horse race" and not on the candidates' policy or character.

ALTERNATIVE AIR

Minus major network coverage, President Bush's re-election campaign has recognized the importance of using alternative media to reach and strengthen its base of supporters.

That said, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in recent weeks have noticeably increased the frequency of interviews granted to talk radio and cable television news.

Richard Viguerie, a veteran Republican political strategist, argues in his new book "America's Right Turn" that effective use of new and alternative news outlets will determine the 2004 Election Day victor.

"Because this presidential race is so close, it is the candidate that caters to its base that will win in November," he says.

GREEN ENVIRONMENT

Wonder why they're called "green" groups?

Public Interest Watch is calling for the Internal Revenue Service to investigate some of the top environmental charities for paying "enormous" salaries to their executives.

"These groups literally beg for donations, giving the impression that they cannot accomplish their mission unless the average citizen pitches in," says Lewis Fein, the watchdog group's executive director. "At the same time, they are quietly paying their executives huge six-figure salaries."

How huge?

Fein says contributors, for instance, might be "shocked to learn that their financial sacrifice is - in part - funding an executive-compensation package for Environmental Defense President Fred Krupp that is in excess of $320,000 per year, as well as enormous six-figure compensation packages for other Environmental Defense executives."

MUSLIMS FOR BUSH

Muslims For Bush has announced $10,000 in prizes for the best artwork, op-ed articles and TV commercials "that can demonstrate why all Americans, especially American Muslims, should re-elect President Bush."

The top prize of $7,000 will go to the best 30- to 60-second commercial that could air a few weeks before the Nov. 2 election, says Muslims For Bush co-founder Muhammad Ali Hasan.

PATRIOTIC STRIP

Minimum number of Americans who registered to vote at strip clubs so far this summer: 4,000.

- Harper's Index, September 2004

MONITORING AFFRONT

Ralph Nader isn't alone in the presidential contender wings - or so we now hear.

We wrote earlier that a group of congressmen, led by Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, is outraged that the Bush administration has invited an international team of election monitors to observe the 2004 presidential election. Those lawmakers now have an ally.

"It is an affront to our sovereignty and independence as a nation to allow so-called 'international election monitors' to observe or in any way interfere with our constitutionally mandated election process," says Michael A. Peroutka, the Constitution Party candidate for president.

He says inviting members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe "to monitor our elections shows just how committed to an internationalist agenda are the candidates from the Democrat and Republican parties."

ANTI-WAR WING

There should be plenty of excitement outside Madison Square Garden during the upcoming Republican National Convention, as New York City gears up for anti-war protests unlike any seen in the Big Apple since the 1982 March for Nuclear Disarmament.

Activists with the Tucson Radical Activist Network and Food Not Bombs (some of their members say they were tagged by the FBI in recent weeks) are planning protests and "street theater" under the direction of Tucson, Ariz., resident Keith McHenry, co-founder of the latter bunch.

In fact, he is predicting one of the largest anti-war protests ever held in the United States.

IT'S A PARTY

Needless to say, people are easily bored by politics. So Republicans, as Democrats did in Boston, will jazz up their New York City convention with some first-class entertainment.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie says he's booked several musical acts to take center stage at Madison Square Garden - country to classical, blues to punk (hey, it's not your father's party anymore).

"These ... artists reflect the broad appeal of President George W. Bush," he says, speaking of singer Michael W. Smith, famous for the hit song "Friends," and Daniel Rodriquez, the former New York police officer nicknamed "America's Tenor" for his rendition of "God Bless America" in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Then there's Daize Shayne, model and ESPN anchor when not recording songs; Ron Silver, the popular actor who had stints on "The West Wing" and "Chicago Hope" (he was an outspoken liberal until throwing his support behind President Bush after 9/11); The Gatlin Brothers; Elisabeth Hasselbeck, co-host of the ABC daytime talk show "The View"; country singer Sara Evans; and Dana Glover of "Shrek" soundtrack fame.

THIS JUST IN. . .

Those two giant Madagascar hissing roaches we wrote about recently - one designated "Bush" and the other "Kerry" - ran their 6-foot long race the other day at the 12th annual Great New Jersey Cockroach Derby.

The winner was Kerry, which made an impressive dash to the finish line.

"We don't claim that these races can predict the outcome in November," says Len Douglen, executive director of the race-sponsoring New Jersey Pest Management Association, "but we have had about 80 percent accuracy in past years when we have raced roaches named for either presidential or gubernatorial candidates."

SAY 'CHEESE!'

"President Bush stopped for about 20 minutes at the Cady Cheese Factory and Shoppe . . . near Wilson, Wis. He toured the factory briefly, urging his host, Dale Marcott, to tell him what they do. Their conversation was hard to hear, but essentially Marcott told the president they make cheese."

- Official White House pool report