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Daniel Altman

Daniel Altman

Posted: October 29, 2008 01:52 PM

Is CNN Trying to Make This Race Closer?


To this viewer, it looks like they're doing their level best. And it makes sense; Fox News may be more sympathetic to John McCain, who is trailing in the polls, but CNN needs a tight contest just as badly.

A close race makes for a later night on Election Day, more viewers and more advertising revenue. Keeping people interested is essential for the business of television, much more than for newspapers or radio. People read newspapers for many different reasons, including movie listings and sports scores. People listen to the radio for weather, traffic and stock market updates. But for television news in the United States, the election is now the big draw.

Perhaps that's why the electoral maps shown are CNN are different from the maps in, say, The New York Times. On the Times's map, Obama can probably count on 286 electoral votes, enough to win the election without taking any of the toss-up states. Pollster.com says Obama could take over 300. On the online version of CNN's map, Obama probably wins 275 electoral votes. But early Wednesday morning on CNN's international broadcast, correspondents agreed that McCain could still upset Obama if he took all the undecided states. Which states were those?

Maybe one of them was Pennsylvania. Most polls taken in recent weeks - even those shown on CNN - have shown Obama with a double-digit lead in Pennsylvania, which is an important swing state. Yet a few days ago, CNN followed the McCain campaign to the state with the following logic: McCain is going to Pennsylvania, so he must think it's close... and we'll start saying it might be close. The polls said otherwise, before and after McCain's visit, but no matter.

It's true that nationwide polls are getting closer in these last days of the campaign, perhaps due in some part to CNN's cheerleading. But why do we care about nationwide polls, anyway? It's only the electoral college that matters. And the people who watch the electoral college the most closely - I'm talking about the bettors who are putting their money behind the candidates on the Iowa Electronic Markets and commercial websites - have given Obama an 80 percent or better probability of winning for weeks.

CNN's coverage of the campaign has tried exceedingly hard to be even-handed, always giving equal time to the candidates and to their own pundits, whose relentless spin has become tiresome and repetitive. But in their zeal to whip up a froth of interest in the election's final days, they have deserted their journalistic duty: checking facts to see who's right, who's wrong, what makes sense and what doesn't.

They have been especially soft on the Republicans in the closing days of the campaign. The Associated Press has found several examples of questionable dealings by Sarah Palin: Pipelinegate and Travelgate have joined Troopergate and Wardrobegate among her scandals. Yet Pipelinegate and Travelgate, arguably the most serious examples of malfeasance, have merited little more than a line on CNN's headline ticker.

Also, consider John McCain's new habit of equating redistribution to socialism. The nation already has a huge system of redistribution: a progressive income tax code and a wide array of entitlements for low-income citizens. Those parts of our government bring us much closer to socialism than letting the top marginal tax rate rise by a couple of percentage points, as Barack Obama has proposed. Yet CNN has not seen fit to provide the context Americans need to evaluate McCain's statements.

With its efforts, unconscious or not, to make the race closer, CNN is certainly tapping into a rich psychological vein. Americans love an underdog, and Americans like the suspense of a close contest as well. Perhaps, if they think the race is close, they will be more likely to come out and vote - not a bad result for a nation with perennially low participation at the polls. But they may also take CNN's coverage at face value, accepting a version of the campaign that serves corporate profits rather than the national interest.