First, Bush has to over come bias of the press

Steven Stark

August 18, 1992|By Steven Stark

PERHAPS the return of James Baker and the Republican National Convention will finally bring President Bush some favorable media coverage. If so, it will reverse a trend. According to a number of observers who watch such things both formally and informally, the president has been on the receiving end of a sustained barrage of negative, one-sided press that shows no signs of abating.

The key development in campaign coverage this year has nothing to do with the well-publicized battle of "old news" vs. "new news" or the length of a sound bite. Instead, it's the way the press has assaulted the incumbent.

According to Robert Lichter, head of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which tracks every story on the evening news of the three major networks, such one-sidedness is unusual in recent elections. From 1980 to 1988, the three networks tended to treat the major candidates the same, whether they were Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush or Michael Dukakis.

Not so this time. Certainly Bill Clinton has had his share of negative press, particularly early on. But the center's studies show there have been only two two-week periods this year when Mr. Clinton's network news coverage was about as negative as the president's -- during the Gennifer Flowers episode and the weeks in June when Governor Clinton criticized Sister Souljah. Otherwise, it's been far more anti-Bush than anything else.

From April 7 to June 2, for example, Mr. Clinton received 53 percent favorable coverage from the evening newscasts, according to the center; Mr. Bush got 22 percent favorable. In June and July, Mr. Clinton got 60 percent positive coverage; Mr. Bush received 33 percent.

To be sure, it could be argued that the networks have been harder on President Bush than the print press. Maybe so, though an informal glance at major newspapers and magazines -- especially in the past two months -- indicates otherwise.

Others might say Bush deserves his bad press. There are many unbiased reporters. And much of Mr. Bush's bad press comes from bad news -- a floundering economy, the L.A. riots and the unclear "success" of his war against Iraq. Coverage tends to be poll-driven, and his numbers are dropping.

But the problem with blaming it all on polls and events is that the Lichter studies show Mr. Bush was getting hammered even when he was more popular in the polls and things looked better. In 1990 and 1991, his network coverage was still over 60 percent negative, despite the gulf war and 90 percent approval ratings.

In fact, looking at the evidence, it's hard for this non-Bush supporter to come to any conclusion other than this: Large segments of the press hate George Bush. And they think he should lose.

Such bias, though new perhaps to our era, is hardly unusual in presidential politics. Most newspapers never liked FDR, and their coverage reflected it. In 1948, following the misleading polls, a press mob led by Drew Pearson and others savaged Harry Truman.

There are a number of theories as to why the press dislikes the current incumbent so intensely. The recession hit journalism particularly hard, and press coverage of the economy has been more negative than warranted as a result. Part of it may be simple political bias. Because Reagan was such a media wizard, he received grudging admiration from the more liberal people who covered him. But the unflashy, often inarticulate George Bush is no journalist's dream: If he's bad for our business, he must be bad for America.

Others argue that as the Democratic Party has waned in influence, the press has taken up its role as adversary. Still others point to the coming of age of baby boomers in journalism and reason that it's only natural the boomers should be pushing one of their own, namely Bill Clinton, against the representative of the old order.

There may also be a psychological element. It's striking how the press attacks leveled at Mr. Bush in this campaign -- "He doesn't have any real ideas"; "He's too negative"; "He'll say anything"; "You can't believe him" -- are almost precisely the kinds of things people say about the press. Have the media projected their own shortcomings onto the man they follow?

Whatever the reasons, if objectivity and balance are the goal, press coverage of this campaign hasn't been a pretty sight. These may not be the best of times, but they are hardly the worst either.

Yet just because the press has given the president a hard time so far doesn't mean he can't win, as the FDR and Truman examples illustrate. In the end, things often tend to even out, so Mr. Bush may be the beneficiary of a wave of sympathetic coverage come the fall. If not, he should realize he not only has to run against his opponent to win; he has to run against the press as well.

Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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