Go ahead, blame the media, but whiners tend to be losers

Jonathan Alter

October 28, 1992|By Jonathan Alter

IN October, the vineyards of American politics traditionally yield a wide selection of fine whines. When polls showed weeks before the 1988 election that George Bush would thrash Michael Dukakis, the Democrats complained.

This time it's the Republicans who are in a lather over predictions of a Bill Clinton victory. And Ross Perot is barking that he should be taken more seriously.

They're all right: The voters feel stripped of their proper role. But at a certain point, reality must intrude. The main reason the president has received a bad press is that he's done badly.

Just try telling that to Bush voters. At the end of any campaign, when all of the other bogeymen have been flayed to the point of futility, there's always the media.

Almost any trailing candidates of any party at any level of politics eventually indulge in at least private press-bashing; it's a way of venting a bit of understandable -- even justifiable -- bitterness.

After all, losers have usually caught fewer breaks from the press. Their failure to handle the media is one of the reasons that they're failing in the first place.

But politicians don't seem to understand that the press is not a useful scapegoat. While railing against pundits may stir up anger and intensify support (especially among Republicans), it doesn't drive voting behavior.

Can anyone name a contest in which blaming the media has provided the winning margin? Everywhere he goes -- there he was again yesterday morning on NBC's "Today" -- Mr. Bush mentions his favorite bumper sticker: Annoy The Media: Re-elect Bush.

This red meat may be tasty for the faithful, but it's largely irrelevant to the issues of trust and change that are shaping the outcome.

If Mr. Bush wins, it won't be by tapping distrust of the media. Americans take the presidency too seriously to base their decision on whether they like Sam Donaldson.

Still, Mr. Bush's complaint falls into fertile soil. Let's face it: Reporters do tend to lean against the president. So do commentators, even though the majority of them -- contrary to popular impression -- are conservative. (William Safire and George Will are both deeply skeptical of Bush.)

Yes, it's preposterous for Bush supporters to claim that Bill Clinton is getting off easy; just look at how much more he has been hounded on the draft this fall than Mr. Bush has been over the Irangate story. And reporters will almost always choose a juicy story over some vague political preference.

But the tilt in the tone of the coverage is undeniable. A Bush victory, however terrific as a one-night upset story, would indeed annoy -- even depress -- many journalists, who overwhelmingly believe that he has not been a good president.

The explanation for this is less ideological than institutional: Change makes a much better narrative than the status quo. Think back to 1980, when the press gave Ronald Reagan better treatment than Jimmy Carter.

Then, too, the prospect of a second term seemed dull and enervating, devoid of much new (i.e., "news"). The only exception to this institutional impulse is when the challenger's chances look hopeless, in which case reporters don't want to appear naive and out of step with public opinion.

If Mr. Clinton were behind by 15 points this year, he would be pilloried in the press.

That's because the highest value of all is placed on staying "in step." This is the media's greatest blessing -- keeping current -- and its greatest curse.

The real fault of the press is not that it leads too much -- tells the public whom to vote for -- but that it follows too much; it wires itself to polls, then reverberates with an amplified impression of what it thinks the public already believes.

For all of the improvements this year in the coverage of issues, an institution designed to be an independent voice has too often become a huge echo chamber.

The irony is that in trying to be closer to the voters, the American news media have moved farther away from them. This year has seen two angry rebellions: one against politics-as-usual, the other against media-as-usual.

The rise of "talk-show democracy," where voters dispense with the journalistic middleman, has encouraged the public to believe that the press is more of a hindrance than a help in learning about the candidates.

This resentment has reached the point where Bush supporters see it as somehow presumptuous and premature to raise substantive questions about how Mr. Clinton would handle the office if he reaches it.

Perot supporters act as if it's unfair to ask their man any difficult questions, such as how he squares his lobbyist-bashing with his own history as a lobbyist.

While these angry voters are right to feel afflicted by too many polls and horse-race stories, they're mistaken to believe that they can draw all of the necessary conclusions just from watching the candidates directly.

Candidates -- all candidates -- distort the record in speeches and debates. The job of the press is to fill in the gaps with inconvenient facts and impertinent questions.

To be fully informed without the help of journalists requires watching C-Span five or six hours a day. If you do that, you'll see plenty of interviews with . . . journalists.

In other words, you can't escape us. We'll be around long after George Bush, Ross Perot and Bill Clinton have slunk offstage. No term limits, either.

Jonathan Alter is senior editor of Newsweek.

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