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Campaign's lasting effect for media

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When CBS, NBC, and ABC declined to offer serious coverage of the national political conventions, it was a clear signal that their news divisions' corporate overseers had lost the will - that is, the financial incentive - to fulfill their obligation, as federal license holders, to operate in the public interest. In fact, the networks' only notable campaign moment was another sign of decline and fall: the humiliation suffered by "60 Minutes" and CBS News anchor Dan Rather, when they rushed onto the air with an anti-Bush exposé based on patently fraudulent documents.

This year, television's electoral coverage has been dominated by cable news, in ways both distinctive and disturbing. For all intents and purposes, we now have a Republican TV news network - Fox News - and a Democratic one, CNN. According to that Pew survey, 70 percent of voters who say they get most of their election news from Fox plan to vote for President Bush, while just 21 percent intend to support Sen. John Kerry. Among voters who rely on CNN for their news, 67 percent support Senator Kerry and 26 percent say they'll back Mr. Bush.

The partisan cast of Fox's audience is a consequence of the network's business model and its on-air structure as a kind of right-wing electronic op-ed page - a 24-hour cycle on which studio chat shows are strung like beads linked by snippets of news. Fair and balanced it may not be, but cheap and opinionated it surely is.

CNN, by contrast, has pursued a brand of journalism that attempts to observe the traditional mainstream ethical attachment to balance and dispassion. Whether it can maintain that stance as its audience drifts more solidly Democratic is an open question. The logic of broadcast management in which programming decisions are so intimately directed by viewer preferences would seem to argue against it. Clearly, perceived political bias doesn't bother many people; increasingly larger shares of the audience are tuning to cable stations for news.

The specter of TV journalism divided along partisan, ideological lines is disturbing enough, but it pales alongside the implications of the most serious media controversy to erupt in the campaign's closing weeks: the abortive attempt by Sinclair Broadcasting to order all its stations to air an anti-Kerry documentary in prime time.

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