Climbing on the Clinton bandwagon


March 18, 1992|By Steven Stark

IT HAS ALREADY become conventional wisdom that the Washington punditry corps may have gone a bit soft on Pat Buchanan because he was one of their own.

A similar case of campaign press bias, however, has cropped up virtually undetected. Simply put, a significant number of reporters and pundits have gone South for Bill Clinton.

There are other media-watchers who share these views, such as Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard; Ralph Whitehead, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts, and Christopher Lydon, who is assessing campaign coverage for the Columbia Journalism Review.

Though their emphases and analyses may differ, these media reviewers agree Mr. Clinton has been the beneficiary of a major dose of celebratory "journalism" -- particularly among baby-boom reporters -- that has damaged the credibility of the political press corps.

In general, much of the mainstream coverage of Mr. Clinton has tended to magnify his strengths, overlook his faults and downplay some of the character allegations. Among other things, a critic can cite the hagiography that has passed for reporting in profiles about Mr. Clinton in mainstream papers and magazines; the fawning coverage in some of the newsweeklies (including a sought-after Time cover profile a month before New Hampshire); the belittling by various mainstream publications of the Gennifer Flowers' story, the draft controversy and the Arkansas execution of Rickey Ray Rector; and the ultra-positive spin that much of the press placed on Mr. Clinton's mediocre showings in early contests such as New Hampshire.

To be sure, these charges are painted with a broad brush. Publications such as the New Republic and New York magazine are more in the business of interpretation than reporting, so their cheerleading may be somewhat more excusable. Moreover, many reporters may truly believe a Clinton victory is essential for the good of the country.

Still, the question is whether the coverage, as a whole, has become so one-sided that the mainstream press is not giving the public the whole truth. That has clearly happened.

Why have so many baby-boom reporters boosted Mr. Clinton? In part, it's because they identify strongly with a liberal, semi-hip contemporary who seems to share their values. (The chic professional wife doesn't hurt either.)

Political journalists tend to admire politicians like Mr. Clinton who treat the traditional game of politics as seriously as they do. Moreover, as Mr. Whitehead stresses, reporters tend to prize candidates (like JFK) who remind them of themselves, and Mr. Clinton's attributes of curiosity and verbal facility -- not to mention his somewhat checkered personal life -- are reminiscent of many a journalist's.

For male baby-boom reporters, the identification may have been magnified by Mr. Clinton's behavior during Vietnam. Failure to serve is a disqualification in much of the country, but it may have resonated in a press bus populated with upscale reporters who either took or venerate the Clinton approach to military service.

It's no secret either that Mr. Clinton has spent years cultivating the press, no crime to be sure. The problem, according to Mr. Kovach, is that some journalists seemed to climb aboard the Clinton bandwagon early in the hopes of becoming Washington's next official pundit-in-residence.

To a male liberal journalist, pushing middle age and out of favor for decades, the Arkansas governor may look like the last best hope for him to play George Will to a Democratic Ronald Reagan. That may be why the elusive concept of "electability" has played such an important role in the analysis of so many commentators.

There are other factors at work, too. The press's attempts to make campaign coverage more substantive this year have caused it to downplay character stories, perhaps to the public's detriment. The mainstream media's struggles to wrest control of the campaign agenda from the tabloids have also indirectly led some papers to discount the scandal stories that are the bread and butter of less elite journalism.

There is an element of sexism here, too. In the rush to anoint Mr. Clinton, the few women on the bus have often been noticeably absent, a pattern that was repeated when the press stood by its man against Gennifer Flowers. In the press, as in the electorate, Mr. Clinton has a gender gap.

When Mr. Clinton thanked his supporters last night, maybe he should have mentioned his good friends in the media. So far, a number of them seem to have lost their moorings when it comes to his candidacy.

Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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