CNN can lay claim to the Larry King-ification of contemporary presidential campaigning and its antidote, the “Democracy in America” series, both of which helped put the cable news web on the political map four years ago. “Democracy in America” returns, this time with seven hourlong weekly installments that began Sept. 15 and will wind up Oct. 27. With broadcast networks loath to give up a single hour, let alone seven, to in-depth reporting on campaign-related issues, “Democracy in America” represents an ambitious commitment, the kind you won’t see much outside public TV.
The first four segments explore specific issues, including the future for America’s children, economic changes requiring retraining of the work force, social issues including race and religion, and the mood of cynicism and mistrust that pervades so many of our public institutions. The final three hours will be devoted to profiles of the presidential candidates and their wives.
The third hour, subtitled “Us and Them,” is the biggest grab-bag of the series, attempting to pack into one very abbreviated hour (this is not commercial-free TV) segments on crime, immigration, religion and race the “fault lines of a nation,” as a somewhat schoolmarmish-looking Judy Woodruff describes them. The section on violent crime focuses on Boston and its Quincy suburb, revisiting the 1989 case of a man who murdered his wife and claimed the crime was committed by a black man who attacked them in their car provoking screaming headlines until the ruse was discovered and the husband committed suicide.
The statistics are pretty fuzzy and the incendiary role of local news outlets is, well, old news. So is the logic that the “perception” of crime “feeds suburban fears.”
A section on inner city Boston yields the very odd and unchallenged pronouncement by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. that, while whites may fear any physically imposing black man on the street, blacks themselves can innately differentiate between dangerous people and benign (“between Willie Horton and Cornel West”) on sight.
The hour shifts to Santa Ana, Calif., where illegal immigration is an explosive issue, and where scenes of sweatshops and menial laborers are countered with success stories.
Pensacola, Fla., with its 600 churches where it’s “my God against your God” is the setting for the segment about religion.
With all that headlining and bill-boarding, and all those issues roiling in a muddle, “Us and Them” is the weakest link in the “Democracy in America” series so far. The opening hour, by contrast, offered a comprehensive look at issues around child-rearing, including abandonment, violence and education, the most moving part of which was one Baltimore grade school principal’s appropriation of an elite school’s conservative curriculum, to spectacular result. Also compelling was the second week’s look at this country’s demoralized work force even in the face of new opportunities.
Despite my quibbles, I’ve found this series eminently watchable if only to be reminded that there are issues on all of our minds besides the latest revelations of scoundrels or the pronunciamentos of talking heads. Whatever its faults, “Democracy in America ’96” at least shows a consistent respect for viewers.