By: DEBRA GERSH HERNANDEZ
ALOT HAS been said about improving media coverage of campaigns but, judging by the criticism, little may have been accomplished.
“So far . . . in capsulizing the coverage, I guess I’d have to recall Ronald Reagan and say, ‘There they go again,’ ” commented S. Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
“What we’re finding is: heavy emphasis on the horse race; superficial, bumper-sticker coverage of issues ? mentioning the issues, mentioning the slogans, not providing much information or context about them; and generally negative coverage of all the candidates,” Lichter said during a Washington media briefing and panel discussion of the CMPA’s latest report.
During the 1996 presidential campaign, CMPA plans to put out weekly reports called ElectionWatch, that analyze news coverage of the candidates. While its first bulletin looked solely at the three major network evening news shows, future reports will include the print media and other broadcast outlets.
Lichter noted that on the three network evening news shows, “So far in this campaign, there have been five times as many stories on the horse race ? who’s up, who’s down; who’s likely to win, who’s likely to lose ? as there were four years ago.
“Overall, the entire Republican field has gotten about 70% negative sound bites, 30% positive sound bites. President Clinton, in election stories of candidate Clinton, has done a little better, 45% positive, still a little more negative than positive,” Lichter said.
“The only candidate to get good press, as often occurs, was in fact a non-candidate. Colin Powell virtually reversed the proportions of the Republican announced candidates. He had 75% positive press,” Lichter continued.
“The bottom line is, all the complaints we hear every four years seem to get repeated, because the coverage doesn’t seem to get better,” he said. “This wasn’t supposed to be the case. Four years ago, the media very publicly promised to clean up their act.”
Lichter and CMPA’s political studies director Richard E. Noyes, have published a study of the promises of 1988 and what happened in 1992 called “Good Intentions Make Bad News,” whose subhead, “How the media are destroying election news in order to save it,” pretty well sums up its conclusion.
The study notes, for example, that while many reporters are proud of the “ad watches” developed after the 1988 campaign, “these pieces rarely corrected factual misrepresentations. All too frequently, they simply replaced the campaigns’ interpretations of ambiguous facts with their own. Further, they had the unintended effect of portraying the candidates’ overall advertising campaigns as more negative than they really were.”
“We found that the candidates in their speeches, and the talk show hosts, who became a kind of supplement to the campaign discourse, both provided more positive and more substantive coverage than the journalists who covered the campaign,” Lichter said.
“So, what we’ve seen is journalism trying to move front and center to take over the campaign from the candidates, I think, at a time when the public is calling for exactly the opposite,” he commented.
USA Today and Detroit News syndicated columnist Tony Snow, who worked in the Bush White House, pointed out that politicians, and especially presidents, have an ability to manipulate news coverage.
“The president can schedule something at any point in the day and have the power and the ability to drive news coverage, simply by having an event that draws attention,” he said, adding that in 1992, President Bush “did an absolutely miserable job of making use of that power.”
Snow noted that there also is a certain amount of pandering that goes on.
“On the inside of any White House, and in any Senate office, you’ve got people thinking about ‘What is our line in this speech? What is the one sentence we want on the evening news?’ ” said the former speech writer. “So in many cases, politicians invite that sort of coverage. Furthermore, in the campaign of 1992, we did the same thing that Clinton did.
“Clinton came out with all these white papers that sounded as if they meant something and didn’t,” Snow commented, using health care as an example.
“Quite often, journalists didn’t get it,” he said, noting, for example, media would report that Bush had a health care plan and the details of the plan, but they never probed beneath the surface.
“There was a lot of laziness, I think, and a lot of suspension of disbelief on behalf of the press corps,” Snow said.
In addition, Snow said he believes there was a certain amount of media self-censorship during the 1992 campaign, where issues like race, affirmative action, abortion and other sensitive topics, were not discussed.
As a result of this superficial coverage, people are looking to other sources, such as online services and talk shows such as Rush Limbaugh.
While conceding that “a lot of press criticism is warranted . . . you’ve got to understand that politicians also bear some of the responsibility,” Snow added. “When the politicians only spoon out pap, which happens, and then they complain about the lack of substantive coverage . . . you’ve got to blame the politicians, as well.”
Newsweek contributing editor Eleanor Clift believes the issue is one of how reporters do their jobs, not dueling ideologies.
“I think reporters, whatever their particular ideological bent, basically are drawn to conflict,” she said. “The way we present issues, in this sort of black versus white format, and the country is much more able than we in the media to see issues as more complex than right versus wrong . . . . They would prefer a dialogue, and they would prefer a dialogue that they are a part of.”
Clift pointed to numerous experiments by media trying to figure out how they can better include the public, and said, “The media is struggling with how to do this better.
“So, I think when a Bob Dole suggests that he got bad coverage because of the liberal media, that is just nonsense,” she said. “Most of the criticism was coming from Republican conservatives who want dearly to believe in Bob Dole. When you pull out tired, old critiques like that, I don’t think it does anything to advance the discussion.”
In addition, she said, “Reporting is fact-based. It’s not like there’s a conspiracy and we decide that somebody’s going to get bad coverage now and good coverage later.
“But there does tend to be a kind of a cycle aspect to this. There’s an up and there’s a down for most candidates,” Clift said. “Colin Powell got his up. He never declared, so he didn’t get the down part. Steve Forbes has had his up, and I would expect within the next couple of weeks he’s going to get some pretty heavy going over.”
The press, as an institution, has “the attention span of a two-year-old” and “we love novelty,” she said, citing Forbes and Ross Perot as beneficiaries of this because they make the campaign more exciting for the media.
“How do we do better?” Clift asked. “We need to figure out ways to present issues in a way that doesn’t put people to sleep,” and the voters need to be involved, as well.
Former Washington Post ombudsman and editor Richard Harwood agreed that the discussion has to start with the electorate, whom a recent Post series showed do not trust the government and are cynical about politics and politicians.
One of the reasons for that, he said, is that “a picture of the federal government has been created, and of government and politics in general, that is extremely negative and critical over the past 30 years . . . . All of our presidents in recent years have been trashed, one way or another, and all of our institutions.”
Harwood said, “This litany of error, of criminality, of inefficiency has been going on for 30 years.”
While all of these criticisms were not necessarily in error, he noted that “it is possible that we have lost our perspective, that we do not put things in context.”
As far as campaign coverage, Harwood said he thinks it is generally negative, but that, “One of the big problems, especially with television, is that the campaign is not about the candidates as much as it is about the journalists.
“We know more about what journalists think about the campaign and what they think about candidates, and even to a certain small extent what they think about issues, than we know what the candidates think about it,” he said.
“The role of the media in our society has become that of a constant scold and we also feel that . . . it is our function in life to straighten this all out and to set people right about politicians and politics,” Harwood added.
In later comments, Harwood noted that people also assume one role of the press is to educate people and to give them enough information to make informed political judgments.
However, “People tend to be abysmally ignorant about the most basic aspects of our political life,” he said, pointing to studies that highlight people’s misconceptions about basic political facts.
“Now, we have to ask ourselves as journalists, ‘What kind of an educational job have we done when people lack these basic facts?’ ” Harwood said.
Harwood also criticized journalists for not discussing issues, maintaining that they do not understand the subjects any better than the general public. They write about what they saw today, not what it means.
CMPA’s Lichter, however, disagreed, commenting that, “A lot of journalists today think that they’re pretty smart and that it’s their job to tell the public what all this stuff means that’s going on.”
What is happening, he said, is that “journalists used to think it was just their job to tell the public what was happening and what the politicians said, to get the facts right, and also to protect the public when they were being fooled.”
“I think these days, the priorities have been reversed, and journalists think their main job is to tell the public that the politicians are fooling them and explain how.
“And, secondarily, to tell the public what’s going on,” Lichter said. “They’re educating the public in terms of educating them to be cynical.”
?(So far…in capsulizing the coverage, I guess I’d have to recall Ronald Reagan (above with wife Nancy) and say, ‘There they go again,'” commented S. Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs) [Photo & Caption]
?(The only candidate to get good press, as aften occurs, was in fact a non-candidate. Colin Powell (below) virtually reverse the proportions of the Republican announced candidates. He had 75% positive press, ” according to Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affaris) [Photo & Caption]