Public distrust of the press is cultivated by politicians


March 16, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

CHICAGO -- Moments after the debate ended and the hot white lights in the television studio clicked off, Bill Clinton rose from his chair and walked over to his aide.

The press, which had been kept out of the studio at the request of Clinton and his chief rival, Paul E. Tsongas, was lined up in the hall outside, waiting to rush in and question these men who would be president.

Clinton, his face still glowing from the heated debate, conferred briefly with the aide and then was heard to say: "You mean you don't want me to stay for the press conference?"

"Hell, no!" the aide replied. 'You just hit a home run!"

Translation: Having just given a good TV performance, there was no reason for Clinton to risk screwing up by going before the press and answering questions.

Clinton nodded, turned, and left the studio. As did Paul Tsongas, operating under the same theory. And when the reporters were allowed in, all they could find was Jerry Brown.

The front-runners did not care. Let Brown have the press. They would take the performance.

To a presidential campaign there are two ways of getting your message across: paid media and free media.

Paid media are TV and radio commercials. Free media are the news outlets: TV, radio and print.

In the old days (i.e. pre-Ronald Reagan), it was largely assumed that while you could absolutely control the paid media, you could not control the free media.

But those were the old days. And the campaigns have since learned that if you can't exactly control the free media, you can manipulate them.

Take what Bill Clinton did after his debate last Friday.

During the debate, he had delivered his carefully prepared, carefully rehearsed message. And once that performance was over, he avoided reporters.

In a political sense, this is smart: If you give the press only the pictures and sound bites you want (in this case the pictures and sound bites from the debate) then that is what the press must print and broadcast.

It is not a flawless strategy, however. Because what do you do when the press comes up with its own stories? Stories like Gennifer Flowers? Or evading the draft?

Well, Clinton thought of that one, too. What you do is make the press the enemy.

"Cash-for-trash journalism!" is what Clinton called the Flowers story.

And, because the story surfaced in a supermarket tabloid that hadpaid for it, Clinton became an object of sympathy.

The draft story surfaced in the Wall Street Journal, which did not pay for it. But Clinton dismissed that story as being planted by Republicans.

"I spend all my time being forced to talk about women I didn't sleep with and drafts I didn't dodge," Clinton said.

It was a good line and, once again, Clinton dodged the bullet. Clinton knew there exists a certain amount of irritation with the press in this country, and he also knew how to tap into it.

A few weeks ago, C-Span did a live talk show with Maryland high school students, exploring what concerns them about politics.

And student after student stood up and said they were concerned about the press.

"The press is getting in the way of the story," one student said.

"Instead of bringing us stories about issues, they are bringing us stories about sex lives. The press is getting between us and the story."

I understand why the student felt that way. But it is important to keep in mind that very clever, very high-powered campaigns are adept at exploiting that feeling.

Last week, Clinton went to a factory on Chicago's northwest side to stage an event.

His campaign had "advanced" it carefully. Carefully selected employees were carefully arrayed around Clinton. And the campaign knew in advance what everybody was going to say.

And when, after a few minutes of watching this stage show, a reporter tried to ask a question, Clinton, in the words of the New York Times, "waved it away."

"This is about something real," he said, gesturing to the workers. "I'll talk about politics in a moment -- which is increasingly unreal."

Politics is increasingly unreal. But it is the candidates who want it that way.

And that's because unreality is so much easier to control.

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