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Documentary on the N.H. primary says a lot – about all of us

  • This scene from “Democracy Through the Looking Glass” shows presidential candidate Carly Fiorina fielding questions from New Hampshire reporters while campaigning leading up to the New Hampshire primary. Courtesy of Kevin Bowe



Monitor columnist
Sunday, April 30, 2017

While watching a sneak preview of Democracy Through the Looking Glass – a dismal report card on the media’s primary coverage last year – I realized that we all need to share in the blame.

We, the media, sometimes missed the bigger issues, too often choosing to cover topics of little importance. You, the truth-seeking audience, drove TV ratings and posted stuff online, falsehoods that drove the narrative.

In the end, as filmmaker Kevin Bowe pointed out in his documentary, which runs through Thursday at Red River Theatres, “It became obvious the media system, not so much the reporters, was incapable of thoughtfully covering the national elections.”

Later, in a phone interview, Bowe told me that journalists “don’t tell stories anymore about people’s lives. They don’t frame issues through a person’s life. They cover the optics, the statistics.”

Here, I pointed a critical finger at Bowe, who lives in West Newbury, Mass. I read and heard plenty of stories, intimate stories, about voters, their troubles and dreams in relation to the first-in-the nation primary. Like the criticism directed at the press, Bowe cherry-picked examples of lazy, sensationalistic, ratings-driven coverage.

In the end, though, Bowe’s point was well-taken, because there was plenty of bad journalism going on here. Bowe spent nine months embedded in New Hampshire, attending rallies, listening to voters, questioning candidates, gauging moods, critiquing coverage.

His finished product reflected poorly on everyone. Bowe interviewed media heavyweights, editors like Brian McGrory of the Boston Globe and Jack Beatty of National Public Radio. He spoke to Bob Schieffer of CBS News, and political science and media professors from Harvard, Boston University, the JFK School of Government and the University of New Hampshire.

In a unified voice, all agreed that something was – and is – broken. They cited the rise of the digital age, which permits people to gravitate toward their own messages and philosophies, adding to a climate of divisiveness.

Bloggers blog and websites report, each looking for clicks to generate cash, leaving the mainstream media to change its philosophy in the name of online traffic.

“Racing to events that will get the most ad revenue,” Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School, notes in the film.

Added Charles Sennott, founder and director of The Ground Truth Project, “Because of the disruption of the digital age, the business models that sustained quality journalism that really paid for the good journalism, those are under attack or falling part, and it’s left new organizations scrounging for revenue ... and scrounging around for revenue often means chasing ratings or chasing traffic online.”

Donald Trump was chased. A lot. He had no filter, saying things no candidate had ever dared say American history. He was caught on tape degrading women, and he spoke publicly about Mexicans, Muslims and the New York Times in unflattering terms.

He was a 10-car pileup on I-93, thrilling his fans, horrifying his enemies and drawing the media. Trump got lots of free TV time, $2 billion worth by some estimates, because of the ratings he generated.

As Lessig said in Bowe’s documentary, “It’s a good way to sell soap, but not a good way to make a democracy.”

But Bowe took his message further, pointing out that the media were lazy, and he was right. He noted that we covered silly stuff, and he was right. He said stories often were driven by horse-race topics, who was ahead in the polls, not substantive issues, and he was right.

The opioid crisis narrowly centered on New Hampshire during the primary, which was fine. But, Bowe noted, no one bothered to dig for more. If they had, they would have learned that banking giant HSBC had been fined for laundering money for Mexican drug cartels, and Purdue Pharma had been sued for misleading the public on the addictive nature of Oxycontin, its own product.

“Voters never heard this background,” Bowe says in the film.

He describes other perceived media failures. He wanted the press to note and explore the fact that none of the candidates had served in the military.

And he wanted Chris Christie’s feet held to the fire, after the New Jersey governor had portrayed himself as a champion in the war on drugs, but had vetoed a bill that would have expanded access to prescription abuse-deterrent opioids.

Bowe, in fact, is shown at a town hall meeting asking Christie if his veto had reflected his partnership with special interests.

There are other segments detailing stories covered that Bowe said lacked impact and purpose, such as the sisters who aimed to have a selfie taken with every candidate, and Vermin Supreme, the clown who runs around every election seeking attention while wearing a boot on his head.

I suggested to Bowe that lighthearted stories like these had a place in the pages of newspapers and on TV, at least in a limited fashion. He agreed.

“Absolutely,” Bow answered. “Hopefully I showed the big canvas of what happens in the big picture. If you cannot have a sense of humor, you will go crazy. I am all with that.”

His theme, however, was far from funny. Bowe’s documentary holds a mirror up to everyone, me and you, the entity that presents the news and the one that receives it.

Maybe we’ll do better next time, in 2020. Too far off to think about? John Kasich, Joe Biden and Martin O’Malley have already visited the Granite State.

“When I am critical of the media, I’m critical of myself as well,” Bowe said. “Inherently I think we have met the enemy, and it is us.”