As Pa. primary heats up, more in the media invest in race

The Baltimore Sun

Despite concerns that downsizing has left the news media diminished in their ability to report big stories, news outlets have rarely been more ambitious than they are today covering one of the biggest in decades -- the race for the White House.

Much has been written this year about 24/7 cable news channels and their wall-to-wall coverage of the candidates. But CNN, MSNBC and Fox are not the only news operations that are committing more resources than ever to politics -- and offering voters more information than during any other election in American history.

As Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama head into the home stretch of their Democratic primary showdown in Pennsylvania on April 22, a wide range of outlets -- from national to regional and local, in new and old media -- are going further than ever to bring viewers, listeners and readers the story.

PBS' The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer is moving its newscast to Pittsburgh during primary week to provide a fuller sense of the contest and voter concerns -- the first time it has made such an out-of-town, election move in its 32-year history. Last week, C-SPAN, the nation's public affairs channel, brought its signature program, Washington Journal, to Pennsylvania for a series of shows that will continue until the primary.

At the regional level, Comcast's news channel CN8 has added on-air, online and On Demand components -- such as election-night analysis by Sen. Arlen Specter and a gallery of candidate interviews and speeches -- to complement its daily diet of Pennsylvania-based political coverage.

Meanwhile, new political blogs seem to be springing up on an almost daily basis in the state.

"My professional biased and unbiased opinion, depending on how anyone wants to label it, is that there is no one in this country who can honestly say, 'Oh, they didn't cover this election,'" says Lehrer, the dean of national anchormen. "More information than ever is available -- for everyone in any kind of format you could want. This is the press doing its job in a democracy the way it's supposed to be."

Russ Eshleman, a Penn State University professor of journalism, says it's the sheer range of the coverage that he finds impressive -- particularly from new media.

"In addition to the old-school newspapers and television news reports, we have more cable channels than ever involved in this election -- plus all the Web sites and blogs. There are definitely more outlets and sources of political information than ever before," he says.

Eshleman, a former political reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, is himself representative of the constantly expanding body of online coverage: Two weeks ago, he started blogging about the election at WPSU.org., the Web site of the public radio and TV stations at Penn State. A one-time Harrisburg bureau chief, he brings 15 years of experience in writing about state politics to his new Web duties.

From the audience of 7 million watching NewsHour each week on PBS, to the new readers discovering blogs like Eshleman's, the media story that has been largely overlooked in focusing on CNN, MSNBC and Fox is the way in which the media are offering layer upon layer of coverage and information targeted to different audiences in this political season.

Having learned the lessons of niche programming, executives at Comcast's CN8, a cable channel founded on politics in 1996, are very clear about what they see as their role in the realm of cable TV news and talk.

"The three major cable networks have devoted 24/7 to this year's presidential election, and if people are looking for the absolute latest information on where a candidate is or what he or she said, that's accessible to them at CNN, MSNBC of Fox," says Lynn Doyle, political director of CN8 and host of the nightly call-in show It's Your Call With Lynn Doyle.

"But what we offer is the chance for the voters to interact and tell us what they are thinking about the candidates and the election every night. They can interact and express themselves on CN8, and that's what makes us unique. We're not just talking to them -- providing pundits who speak at them -- we're listening to the voters and what they are observing and have to say about the campaign."

Doyle, a Towson University graduate who grew up steeped in politics as the daughter of longtime Baltimore County councilman Norman Lauenstein, says CN8 encourages viewers of its political talk shows to call in, e-mail, send text messages, post blog responses, vote in nightly polls and participate in live "road show" cablecasts from the state's 67 counties. (Overall, the channel reaches more than 9 million viewers in 12 East Coast states including Maryland.)

"We're on-air, online, On Demand -- we're on it, baby," says Doyle.

Counting viewers

The most widely accepted explanation for the heightened commitment to political coverage this season is the most cynical one: It's all about ratings.

In January, when CNN, in particular, started to see dramatic audience growth for debate and election-night coverage, everyone from the broadcast networks, to the other cable channels, tried to get in on the action by raising their political games.

"Look, these networks are in business to make money, so they are not giving this wall-to-wall coverage because they suddenly got religion about the civic importance of covering a political campaign," said Mark Feldstein, a two-time Peabody-Award-winner and professor of journalism at George Washington University. "They're doing it because they think they're going to make money."

And he's right to a certain extent, at least in term of CBS, NBC and ABC, which used to own presidential politics on the airwaves, but now find themselves chasing the story and most of the competition.

But the full picture is a more nuanced one.

Linda Winslow, executive producer of the NewsHour, says, "We never have made this big a commitment to covering an election."

But to do so in the world of Public Television meant writing a proposal more than a year ago seeking funds from PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that would allow NewsHour executives to hire more personnel, such as political editor Judy Woodruff, and to travel to states like Pennsylvania where key primaries would be held.

Multiple choices

A year ago when that proposal was drawn up, no one knew presidential politics would be such ratings catnip.

"We didn't know what form the final race would take, but we certainly knew that without an incumbent running in either party, it would be hard to predict," Winslow says. "And that meant there would be a need to follow it more actively than we might have otherwise -- given our limited resources."

Nor did CNN know in late December when it launched its wall-to-wall political coverage that it would be such a hit -- but the commitment of producers, full-time campaign-trail reporters and airtime was made.

Of course, more coverage does not automatically make for better coverage.

Penn State's Eshleman voices serious concerns about fellow bloggers whom he describes as "people sitting on couches punching out columns about presidential campaigns using reporting done by someone else."

Still, he grades "many, many of the blogs" as "very good" -- praising such politically savvy efforts as that of Allentown Morning Call State House reporter John Micek at www.mcallcom.

"What's also different from even four years ago is now you have all these individual media outlets that are crossing platforms," Eshleman says, pointing to another thread in the mosaic of election coverage. "Newspapers are doing video of campaign visits -- and then the political reporters are blogging about them. So, you get the story, the video and the blog with a lot of different sources of opinion on it," he says.

In the final analysis, PBS' Lehrer contends that there is no need for complicated explanations of the heightened coverage this year.

"What we are seeing is the natural journalistic result of one hell of an important national event in the life of the United States of America," Lehrer says. "And I give the American public the real credit here: They understand that this election really, really matters to their lives. And, for once, we in the press haven't had to sell an important story. The story was bought before we sold it -- by the American people."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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