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David Shapiro
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By David Shapiro

Saturday, January 13, 2001

Media can fix
what went wrong in
presidential election

GEORGE W. Bush will be sworn in as the least distinguished and least respected man to assume the presidency in modern times.

He's a relative political novice who accomplished little of note as the constitutionally weak governor of Texas. He's president because special interests with money wanted the White House back from the Democrats and decided that Bush could be packaged to deliver it.

Bush can remedy his lack of distinction by excelling as president and he deserves a fair chance to do so. But in our ugly climate of political incivility, it's virtually impossible for any politician to gain respect.

We in the media like to blame the bitterly divided electorate, the legal circus that followed the election and dull candidates.

We should blame ourselves, as well. Too often, we put entertainment value ahead of news value in covering public affairs. We've helped turn voters into disengaged spectators alienated from their political institutions.

Our pre-election polls aim to tell voters who's going to win before they cast their ballots. We seal the deal with exit polls that aim to declare a victor before their votes are counted.

We cover minor side issues such as Bush's verbal gaffes and Al Gore's exaggerations with greater gravity than the major issues of the campaign. Is it any surprise that so many voters are turned off and tuned out?

Some news organizations respond to the declining interest in public affairs that they helped create by reducing coverage. That's irresponsible. The First Amendment carries a duty to contribute to an informed electorate. Rather than give in to voter disinterest, it's our obligation to get voters interested again.

It will take dramatic rather than incremental change:

Bullet Get rid of horse-race polls to determine who's "winning." Polls peddle false excitement by keeping artificial score when there's no real score to be kept before Election Day.

We stopped allowing horse-race polls in the Star-Bulletin in 1996. I got angry calls from politicians who wanted validation of how well they thought their campaigns were doing, but not a single call of complaint from a reader.

Bullet Quit using exit polls to call elections before the votes are counted. Exit polls can shed valuable light on why people voted the way they did, but we can wait until the results are in to find out who won.

Bullet Give TV's army of flatulent analysts a fatal dose of Beano. With 24-hour competition, the pool of political analysts is so thin that legitimate journalists are joined by campaign shills, political functionaries and know-nothing loudmouths -- often without disclosure of their vested interests.

Bullet Rediscover the art of political reporting lost to our lazy reliance on polls and endless analysis. Constructive political debate used to be a national passion. It could be again if we would get out and talk to all kinds of voters, find out what issues they're passionate about and report in compelling ways how election choices affect their passions.

Bullet Put a diverse group of our brightest young reporters on the campaign trail early in their careers. They'll bring energy, idealism and new ideas to our coverage. The Beltway Boys aren't boys anymore and will never connect with the "Ally McBeal" generation.

As for George W. Bush, he won as fair and square as we were able to get it. Let's give the "Dumbya" jokes a rest, show him a little respect and judge him by the job he does.

David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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