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TV's biggest mistakes in 2008 election coverage



One day before this nearly two-year presidential campaign ends, I thought it made sense to go back and look at some of the biggest mistakes TV outlets made while covering it all.

Depending on your perspective and stamina, this could be a really long list. But I tried to whittle it down to the most egregious sins, culled mostly from a look back at my own blog for the past year or so. Please feel free to throw up your own ideas, if you find my tally missed something.

Brokawdebate Debate moderators -- CBS's Bob Schieffer pulled it out at the end. But the three presidential debates (and one vice presidential contest) held in October mostly proved that the candidates control these interactions more than the hosts who ostensibly lead them. PBS's Jim Lehrer spent much of his time begging Barack Obama and John McCain to address each other, while Tom Brokaw had to corral a wandering McCain and give up much of his time to questions from the public. By the time McCain and Obama decided to take each other on more directly, Schieffer got the credit for shepherding the best throw-down. Time for a more diverse panel of questioners, publicizing of the full set of rules, and a firm hand from organizers to produce an actual debate.

MSNBC anchor squabbles -- Once it became obvious Hillary Clinton's supporters weren't going to revolt en masse during the Democratic National Convention, this became the second-biggest story of the event -- as MSNBC anchors Joe Scarborough, Chris Mathews and Keith Olbermann bounced off each other like petulant third-graders hyped on too much Halloween candy. It cemented MSNBC's reputation as a ego-driven boys club and  raised questions about its Olbermann-led turn to the left.

Obamafistjab Fox's 'terrorist fist-jab' and similar moments -- Fox News anchor E.D. Hill has since apologized, saying she was quoting other media outlets. But in introducing a segment dissecting how Barack Obama fist-bumped his wife just before a speech acknowledging his win of the Democratic nomination, she suggested the move could be viewed as a "terrorist fist jab." The comment was a perfect distillation of the fear tactics and alienation strategies often used by Fox in discussing Obama's candidacy -- from creating an army of working-class pundits to criticize the Democrat (Joe the Plumber begat Tito the Builder and at least one other guy) to featuring pundit Ann Coulter comparing Obama to Hitler. Seriously.

MSNBC's sexism problem -- When the Women's Media Center gathered together clips of sexist comment made during political coverage, MSNBC and Fox News owned most of the moments. Given Fox's long history of tough punditry on Hillary Clinton, their status wasn't a surprise (a previous version of this post said Fox opposed Clinton, but a channel spokesperson has pointed out Clinton has praised the channel's coverage).

But MSNBC's boys club managed some uncomfortable moments, too -- including Chris Matthews asserting Clinton wouldn't have even been a senator if her husband hadn't cheated with Monica Lewinsky, and anchor David Shuster wondering if the Clintons' hadn't "pimped out" daughter Chelsea Clinton in getting her to hit the campaign trail. 

Clintoncleavage Hillary Clinton's cleavage coverage and the focus on minutiae -- Some stories may seem simple, but are not. For example, coverage of Sarah Palin's $150,000 wardrobe seems more about assessing whether the candidate's actions match her humble words. But there is little doubt that some coverage, fueled in part by cable TV's need to fill news channels with fresh content every day, has focused on some seriously off-the-wall stuff. Hillary Clinton showing cleavage during a speech? Barack Obama wearing a flag pin (or not)? John McCain owning two foriegn cars? Is this really the stuff of which voting decisions are made? And how can we tell whether the foucs on this stuff by some outlets simply feeds public demand for more?

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:52pm]


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