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A Return to the Poll Tax?

08.10.2000 | POLITICS

This much we've learned: Barney politics doesn't sell. At this week's Republican convention, it seems the elephant party has been trying to pass itself off as the purple dinosaur party, with all the speakers proudly proclaiming "We're a great big family." As kindler and gentler devolve into warmer and fuzzier, we're seeing the ratings slip deeper and deeper.

We could see this coming, however, as the conventions became less political and more pep rally in nature. Contentment has replaced contention, making political conventions—long considered the ultimate news event—a non-story. Millions of young Americans are being denied the opportunity to see the political process in action. Not too long ago the conventions were a quadrennial snapshot of where the parties' priorities stood in opposition to each other. Far from today's robotic routines, the internecine squabbles over major issues of the time provided the country with a unique insight: here were humans disagreeing with each other in a spirited, human way. The ethereal theory of rhetoric was transformed into the tangible reality of the American condition. Souls were changed and minds were opened.

Conventions now exist not as the peek behind the scenes, but as the forum we give to our political wizards, imploring us 'don't look behind that curtain.' The parties have redecorated, the curtain has been removed and there is nothing remotely political to be seen. Cynical citizens would rather watch reality television than the parties' surreal TV. No one gets voted from the party. (Jordan for Vice President!)

These issues of conventions and their coverage are underscored by a more alarming trend. In a study released this week by The Center for Media and Public Affairs, we found that not only are the networks mostly refusing to air the conventions/infomercials, but coverage of this year's campaign on the network nightly news is down 33 percent—a little more than one minute a night per network—when compared to 1996. Despite the presence of two contested primary races, the networks have given far less attention to this year's election than to Bill Clinton's foregone reelection campaign four years ago.

The networks' reasoning behind this dramatic cut? The presence of cable television programming and Internet news sites has lifted the burden of political coverage from their news agendas. With a multitude of cable networks and websites being devoted solely to the political campaigns and conventions, the networks have decided to become supporting players. Network executives point out that these new media outlets are doing a more thorough job of covering the campaign and they quickly note that their anchors regularly direct viewers to cable or the web for more information.

They are wrong in doing so.

Though it may seem difficult to believe, there is a significant portion of Americans who don't have cable television. Whether they simply don't have access to cable TV or they don't—as is their right—subscribe to the monthly service, such people do exist. There is an even greater number of Americans without access to the Internet for the same reasons as above. What about them?

Until these technologies become universal, it is harmful to America to require a monthly fee to become fully active in the democratic process, wherein one gathers sufficient information to vote his or her conscience. It is unfair and against the principles of our country to make such requests of the citizenry. We are on the verge of becoming a subscriber democracy, with only those 'connected' Americans being adequately informed.

It also borders on discriminatory to demand to make of voters that smacks of the poll taxes abolished by the 24th Amendment. In its past, America considered those citizens without a certain financial status or sufficient property unworthy of participating in the political process. The principles of this policy were exclusionary, elitist and, yes, racist. In the year 2000, we are denying Americans without the inclination or the means to spend money on monthly cable or Internet access their right to receiving vital and thorough information regarding the political candidates and the issues at stake. Today's unworthy are being, literally and figuratively, disconnected from democracy.

In the absence of these technologies becoming universal, the responsibility falls back on the networks for regularly providing all Americans with news that communicates the candidates' beliefs and stances, instead of video of handshakes and sound bites. Most days on the campaign trail find the candidates touting this or that aspect of their plan for the country. The networks could serve their viewers greatly by devoting more air- time to these stories. Perhaps they could tack on an extra ten seconds to whether such stances are consistent with the candidates' track record. Just one extra minute of campaign news—the same amount of time we've seen cut—would be more than enough to give America a much-improved evaluation of the presidential contenders.

It is cruelly ironic that in this week that the GOP is trumpeting the virtues of its 'big tent, covering all,' many Americans who would be most affected by the November elections are being cast out from true democracy. The closest they will get is voting for 'Big Brother' houseguests.

About the Author
Matthew T. Felling serves as Media Director at The Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, DC—a think tank exploring the intersection of media and society.
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