Election coverage reform -- Mark Harris calls for a TV news overhaul before the debates begin

Election coverage reform

Since the fall TV season is under way, I thought I’d use this space to offer my nuanced thoughts on some new series. Here they are. True Blood: Ehh. Fringe: Hmm. 90210: Zzz.

Now let’s move on to the show everyone is really talking about, TV’s most popular series — the presidential campaign. Don’t groan: You’re the ones who made it a hit. John McCain’s, Barack Obama’s, and Sarah Palin’s convention speeches each drew more than 40 million viewers, and when ABC’s Charles Gibson scored the first major Palin interview last week, ratings for World News, Nightline, and 20/20 shot past the competition.

In short, TV news coverage of the impending election is bigger than American Idol. Sadly, it’s also dumber. Television has told this story largely by dodging in-depth coverage of the issues while focusing obsessively on either campaign strategy or ”compelling personal narratives.” That approach warps the news into two genres television understands — a reality-show competition and a prime-time soap — while avoiding real substance. This year’s election is gripping people along the entire political spectrum. But it’s easier to cover the contest than to cover what the contest is about. And on that front, so far, TV journalism has let us down.

Let’s immediately write off Fox News, that nonstop foghorn of strident right-wing inanities. And for its pathetic (and short-lived) attempt to become the just-as-noisy-and-dumb left-wing version of Fox, let’s also consider MSNBC benched until November. That leaves ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and PBS, which have four big opportunities to redeem themselves — the presidential and vice presidential debates, which will air between Sept. 26 and Oct. 15. Presumably, everyone who watches will be hoping to learn something. Here’s how TV can help:

1 Make the candidates talk to each other. If they start to go into monologue autopilot, push them harder with follow-up questions, but if they’re arguing with each other, stay out of the way. We’re tuning in to see real debates, not joint interviews. As for the ”town meeting”-style debate scheduled for Oct. 7, audience members awed by their moment with a candidate may feel it’s rude to say their question wasn’t answered clearly. But it’s not rude for moderator Tom Brokaw to say exactly that, and when necessary, he should.

2 Refuse to send any reporters to any candidate’s ”spin room” after the debate ends. I would rather watch an hour of Larry King trying to lick his own elbow than see a network surrender its airtime to professional surrogates for Senator McCain or Senator Obama who — unless their candidate fires a gun or falls asleep during the debate — will automatically claim victory. It’s called spin for a reason. To repackage it as ”news” isn’t just inept, it’s irresponsible. Tell the spinners to buy an ad (they’ve got the money), and instead give us smart analysis from commentators with a history of honesty and perspective, and an ability to admit when the person they’re supporting has screwed up. That should narrow the field pretty quickly.

3 While you’re at it, please spare us those instant post-debate focus groups in which you corral the last 20 people in America who apparently didn’t know this was an election year and try to extract coherent reactions from them. Yes, undecided voters are important, but seeing someone’s dimwit-in-the-headlights expression as he mutters ”I couldn’t follow them” or ”I didn’t like when they yelled” is painful and unilluminating.

4 Devote the following evening’s newscast to telling us exactly who lied, and about what. Don’t wait until each campaign hands you its talking points to chase the information down. Do your own legwork. You’ve got large staffs, lots of phone numbers, and access to Google. It’s not that hard. And if you do identify an outright, no-gray-area falsehood, tell us — and don’t give the person who lied equal time to tell the same lie again. That’s not ”fairness,” it’s just laziness.

5 If you think the candidates and campaigns are skimming over important issues, take the lead and generate your own material — an hour on education, or health care, or national security, or the economy. This is your one chance to go deep, and it runs out in six weeks. So do it. And do it in prime time. We can live without The Biggest Loser, Wife Swap, or Ghost Whisperer for a week or two. And judging by the ratings, you can too.