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Soundbites, endorsements leave little room for the issues

The press dutifully covers a Kerry rally -- but not what he was trying to communicate

Upstaged: John Kerry got less play than his endorser, Lee Iacocca.

Last Thursday presidential contender John Kerry spoke to an overflow crowd in the heart of Silicon Valley for more than an hour, laying out in some detail his agenda for reviving the economy by spurring investment in the Bay Area’s premiere industry -- high technology.

But unless you had taken the morning off to trek to San Jose State University to hear him in person, you wouldn't have gotten the whole story. Even if you saw the story in multiple Bay Area newspapers and TV broadcasts, you would not have heard only the briefest mention of most of Mr. Kerry's proposals.

This was a major policy address -- requiring the kind of issue reporting political scientists say the public needs to make informed ballot decisions. With the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll showing that 36 percent of voters "have no opinion" of the presumptive Democratic nominee, explanation of salient issues is all the more important.

Instead of stressing issues, the six local newsrooms that chose to cover the Kerry talk devoted so much attention to the endorsement from former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca that each neglected mention two or more of Mr. Kerry's technology proposals.

The news media boiled down John Kerry's talk.

Terry Christensen, a professor of political science at San Jose State, said reporting on everything but the issues -- things like endorsements and fund-raising -- "feeds voter apathy and cynicism that the candidates never talk about the issues. As we know, they do, but that's rarely what gets reported.

"If Kerry had left out Iacocca, and stuck more closely to his script, would the media have reflected the content more?" said Prof. Christensen, who attended the event. "I doubt it -- the story would have been just that Kerry was in town."

The television stations treated most of Mr. Kerry's policies not as issues, but a list, and an incomplete one at that. No station gave the talk more than two and a half minutes of airtime. The San Jose Mercury News took one plank seriously -- Mr. Kerry's plan to wire the country for broadband -- but not the others. The San Francisco Chronicle seems to have been attracted to the fund-raising "horserace," and mentioned but left most of the issues undeveloped. Neither newspaper found his platform worthy of the front page or the local front.

Barbara O'Connor, a professor of communications at Sacramento State University, has debated with reporters whether or not they have a duty to report in at least some detail the substance of what a candidate says on the stump.

Spectator Richard Thompson interviewed by KGO Channel 7 reporter Mark Matthews after the talk.

"They would argue that it's not their role to act as their scribes," Prof. O'Connor said. "Having said that, there have been studies that say the media really does cover it as a horserace, and inserts themselves into issues rather than act as arbiters of them. They argue that they're not paid media -- that the candidates can pay for whatever they want.

"I would like more of a summary, and then the analysis," she said. "Let me see for myself what was said and decide for myself what was important."

Studies have shown that most voters get their information on candidates through the local news media, and that what they focus on affects to voter turnout. Diana Stover, a professor of communication at San Jose State, said the discussion of policy ideas is what matters most to undecided voters.

"This is Silicon Valley, and the local readership takes a high interest in what candidates say about economic recovery," said Prof. Stover, who is also on the advisory board of Grade the News. "It's a missed opportunity."

Grade the News recorded the event, and assembled the top points -- all of which were mentioned in at least one news report. Mr. Kerry laid out his entire technology agenda, parts of which were announced for the first time. These included:

Below, how many points each news source mentioned, and what they left out:

San Francisco Chronicle: 5 out of 7. This story, on page 3, mentioned four of the proposals in one paragraph, and neglected to mention the alternative energy statement, posed in the context of reducing dependence on Middle East oil -- for which Mr. Kerry got a 30-second standing ovation. The Chronicle chose to concentrate on Mr. Kerry's fund-raising prowess in California, as well as that of President Bush.

San Jose Mercury News: 2 out of 7. Also on page 3, the Mercury News story was more than half about Mr. Kerry's broadband-access proposal. It mentioned the capital-gains cut in three sentences, but none of the other elements of his plan.

Contra Costa Times: 3 out of 7. The paper chose to run an abbreviated New York Times story instead of sending its own reporter.

KTVU Channel 2: 3 out of 7. This one-minute report was simple a voice-over by the anchor, focusing on Mr. Iacocca and summarizing that Mr. Kerry discussed investing in high-tech startups and cutting capital gains taxes.

KRON Channel 4: 5 of 7. Also a one-minute voice-over focusing on Mr. Iacocca. Mentioned "offshoring," alternative energy, research tax credits, broadband and stem cells. Neglected to mention education and capital gains cuts.

KPIX Channel 5: 0 out of 7. No coverage on prime evening newscast at 6:30 p.m.

KGO Channel 7: 4 out of 7. Mr. Kerry's speech was the third item, after an update on the Scott Peterson murder trial and the re-apprehension of a released sex offender. In the 2-minute-18-second piece, a minute was devoted to Mr. Iacocca and just six seconds (one sentence) to three of his main points. It neglected to mention stem-cell research, offshoring, but did discuss the foreign-oil angle by interviewing an audience member about the war.

KNTV Channel 11: 4 out of 7. This two-minute report focused on Mr. Iacocca, mentioning most of Mr. Kerry's planks in one sentence. Left out mention of his broadband and anti-"offshoring" proposals.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.


A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle


San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)


Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

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