Jim Lehrer knows he's about as old-fashioned as a TV journalist can be these days.
In a TV news universe where some figures spout commentary one minute and news reports the next, Lehrer insists staffers on his NewsHour broadcast avoid opinionating. As one of the three anchors picked to moderate a presidential debate this year — his 11th — Lehrer vows to avoid the attention-getting questions from previous debates, saying "if people are talking about me or some question I have asked, then I have failed."
And when talk turns to the perennial question of whether so much journalism energy should be expended to cover the Democratic and Republican conventions with 15,000 journalists expected — Slate media columnist Jack Shafer is the latest to advocate a press boycott of the conventions this year as useless infomercials — Lehrer leaves no doubt about his own stance.
"It's the beginning of finalizing the sale, is what it really boils down to," said Lehrer, who will lead PBS's convention coverage throughout prime time, starting at 8 p.m. and running until events end each evening. "My guess is that the networks will regret the fact that they're not giving more coverage to it. Because people are going to be paying attention."
Indeed, these may be the most unsettled, settled political conventions in recent memory, with Democrat Barack Obama challenged to unify his supporters with those of former rival Hillary Clinton while Republican John McCain still struggles to energize the GOP's conservative base for his candidacy.
And if the nation's political parties are unsettled, so are the country's media outlets — straining to reconcile old-school journalism ethics with new demands for immediacy, passion and incisive reporting amid one of the most singular presidential races in history.
Coverage of the conventions will generally mirror the pattern set by the primary elections, with PBS, the Internet, National Public Radio and cable news channels providing the kind of continuous coverage political junkies might appreciate, while the big TV networks offer an hour of prime-time broadcasts at 10 p.m. each day with news breaks beforehand.
As the Democratic gathering kicks off Monday in Denver (with the GOP convention scheduled Sept. 1 to 4 in Minneapolis), it's worth noting two trends that have emerged so far in campaign coverage, especially on TV.
Trend 1: Obama gets more media coverage, but does it help him?
The numbers seem pretty straightforward, provided by a study of 48 different news outlets conducted each week by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. According to their figures, since Obama clinched the Democratic nomination in June, he has surfaced as a significant presence in 79 percent of stories, compared to 52 percent for McCain.
The Democrat's domination of the news cycle is so complete, the Pew Research Center announced poll results Aug. 6 showing 48 percent of respondents felt they were hearing too much about Obama.
Juan Williams, an analyst for Fox News Channel and National Public Radio, sees coverage distorted by an infatuation with a singular candidate.
"We've been making decisions which are not rooted in journalism," said Williams, who recalled seeing news executives and nonworking journalists attending Obama events early in his campaign, just to see him make history. "The main narrative has been: Barack Obama, superstar."
But other reporters say journalism is at the heart of the discrepancy, because Obama is a better story.
"There has never been a candidate quite like him," said Ron Elving, senior political editor for National Public Radio. "The big story from the journalism point of view was this new character — this would-be transformative figure who was more media-genic. I think it's just the nature of journalism to run around and pay a lot of attention to whatever is new and brings conflict."
CNN national correspondent John King was less sanguine about the disparity, theorizing that local coverage of the candidates may be helping equalize the two candidates' poll numbers, simply by focusing on what they are saying in speeches.
"I would argue that may be one reason why this campaign is closer than any historical data would indicate — McCain's local coverage has been about the arguments he wants to push forward," said King. "Obama has been doing more newsworthy things than McCain. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be asking 'Are we slicing the pie fairly enough?' And fairly doesn't mean even."
Some analysts say Obama's domination of news coverage may hurt him because much of the reporting is negative. A recent study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that on-air evaluations of Obama during evening news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News Channel in June and July were 72 percent negative, compared to 52 percent unfavorable for McCain.
(Tellingly, the only week McCain scored equal news coverage with Obama was when he unleashed a torrent of attacks, including an ad comparing the Democrat to Paris Hilton.)
Media analyst Andrew Tyndall calls it "reality game show-style journalism," in which Obama's dominance of the news cycle creates an environment where every little thing he does is treated as news, in an effort to see the man beneath the polished sound bites.
"Who gets coverage when they shake hands with their wife?" Tyndall said, referring to the flurry of stories about Obama's "fist bump" with wife Michelle. "As long as there is this imbalance, the take-home message is that the media is framing this election as a referendum on Obama. And many political observers say that's what McCain wants it to be."
Trend 2: Some of the biggest fights about media bias happen on the cable networks.
Blending emotional commentary with news reporting has helped every cable news channel develop popular prime time shows. But it has also increased grousing about bias, from carping about MSNBC's decision to allow pundits Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann to anchor their primary coverage to objections over insulting headlines about Obama broadcast on Fox News Channel.
"I think that MSNBC went so far over the line in terms of being in the tank to Barack Obama that it lost a lot of credibility," Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace told journalists during a July news conference. "You've got someone like Keith Olbermann, who was delivering 10-minute screeds against President Bush. … Our feeling is that opinionmakers should deliver their opinions and journalists should cover the news."
Olbermann countered by noting that pundits such as Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity appeared during Fox News' primary coverage, disputing the channel's definition of anchoring a segment.
"If you're any good at this, you know when to express your opinions and when not to," said Olbermann, who nevertheless admitted his opinionated stands have probably ensured he's not a serious contender for the late Tim Russert's role as host of NBC's flagship political show Meet the Press.
"I knew when I went off in my direction, that going back would be almost impossible," he said. "I think I could do it and I could do it fairly, and I think people would be stunned by it. ... But I don't think people would buy into it, no matter how well I did it."
These days, viewers must judge the impartiality of information based on the person delivering it to them, not the news outlet where it appears.
Which is why PBS's Lehrer insists that separating the roles of commentator and news reporter remains important, so the audience retains trust when you deliver an uncertain story.
"I think if they blur the lines too much they're going to lose some credibility when they really need it," he said. "They're going to need it when there's a breaking news event and there are some struggling facts. … I know I'm old-fashioned, but I think the route toward credibility and retaining credibility is to keep those separations there."
In the end, experts expect news coverage to become more evenly distributed after the conventions have ended, as the contest moves through the presidential and vice presidential debates into the final days before balloting.
"This is the beginning of the final act," said Lehrer. "We have the two people there, one of whom is going to be the president of the United States, and a lot of people haven't paid attention to any of this stuff before. ... It's a new curtain going up for a whole new audience. Everybody will be there for that."
Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.