In the waning days of Al Gore’s presidential end game, his lawyers might well have to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to show due deference to the legal ruling of the Florida Supreme Court if it were to overrule the decision of the Leon County Circuit Court, which refused to challenge the discretion of local canvassing boards because it did not find any evidence that they abused their discretion when they followed state and municipal laws governing manual recount procedures. Simple enough.
OK, I don’t know chad about law and obviously can’t explain it with any lucidity. But how about many of the media hot shots reporting on the Florida vote and the competing legal efforts to claim itwhat kind of job are they doing? We asked some of Nashville’s top legal eagles, and surprisingly, they seem to think the media have done a fair and accurate job covering the dizzying legal maneuvers of both parties.
“From what I’ve seen on CNN, they’ve done a good and responsible job of explaining a complicated legal situation,” says attorney Byron Trauger, whose wife Aleta is a federal court judge and has enjoyed her share of media coverage. “You’re talking about burdens of proof and deference to administrative bodies and questions of federalism. These are not concepts that people ordinarily deal with in their daily lives, and I think the media has done a pretty good job in helping people to understand them.”
Davidson County District Attorney Torry Johnson more or less agrees with Trauger, even if he questions the value of various talking heads. “Considering how confusing it has been, they’ve done a credible job of giving the American people some concept of what’s going on,” Johnson says. “But there has been a proliferation of so-called experts, and in a way, that’s increased the clutter out there.”
Attorney Dick Lodge, who heads the litigation section at Bass Berry & Sims and is a former chairman of the state Democratic Party, says the media have been able to explain complicated legal issues in an accessible way. But for that he gives at least part of the credit to attorneys for Bush and Gore. “Part of it too is that the real lawyers involved are very good, and they make it very plain what they’re trying to achieve and why. What could be plainer than David Boies’ comment yesterday: ‘They won. We lost. Now we’re going to the Florida Supreme Court’?”
Attorney Tom Lee, a former television reporter, says the media have done a better job explaining the political issues than the legal ones. “They do a fine job describing the contours of a controversy. But when it comes to helping viewers understand why a judge ruled a certain way, I don’t think they’re as helpful.”
What about the performance of some of the media superstars? Media attorney John Williams prefers NBC’s straightforward Tim Russert, for example, over MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who tends to focus more on political issues. Williams doesn’t think much of Fox News (who does?), but he holds anchor Paula Zahn in high regard for restraint against interjecting her opinion during interviews.
Interestingly, The Tennessean, which offered a lackluster performance during the presidential campaign, has been doing better in its reporting from Florida, according to many local attorneys. “I am a harsh critic of The Tennessean, but this is its finest effort in some time,” says attorney Forrest Shoaf, who was general counsel for Republican Lamar Alexander’s 1996 presidential run. “If you had not told me I was reading The Tennessean, I would have thought I was reading some other newspaper.”
Now that the dust has settled on the November sweeps, a few things are becoming clear:
♦ WKRN-Channel 2 is the only station in town actually gaining viewers in all major time slots. The station is still in third place, but so long as it sticks to a game plan of providing meat-and-potatoes reporting without tabloid television, Channel 2 may soon vie for the ratings lead.
♦ WTVF-Channel 5 may have at long last toppled ratings giant WSMV-Channel 4. Sure, Channel 4 still wins during the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts. But Channel 5 wins at 10 p.m. and at 6 a.mperhaps the most popular newscasts among younger, professional viewers.
♦ Channel 4 officials are adept at making excuses. The station is losing viewers and offering some of the most embarrassing news stories in the market. But over the past year, station officials have attributed the slide to a variety of odd suspectsfrom the success of ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to CBS’s Survivor. Last week, news director J.T. Thompson even blamed slumping November ratings on the idea that the station had nowhere to go but down after last year’s exclusive interview with John and Patsy Ramsey. (Too bad Juan Gonzalez wasn’t available.)
We figured we’d give the station’s general manager, Frank Detillio, a call to see if Channel 4 has looked inward to help find the source of its woes. But before we could ask the question, Detillio said, “I would prefer not to comment. I would not like to discuss anything with you.” Maybe he’s running out of excuses.