It's trailing candidates who find fault with press ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- One thing President Bush did most effectively during the 1992 campaign was persuade many of his followers that he was being treated with egregious unfairness by the news media. Politicians running behind always make that complaint but not always so successfully.

The president was certainly right in arguing that there were flaws in the performance of newspapers and television networks during the campaign. But the mistakes were not the ones Bush identified. The same could be true of independent Ross Perot's whining about the press, which was almost equally effective with his followers.

Ever since he surfaced on the national political stage before the 1980 campaign, Bush has had one song to sing when things go sour for him -- that the news media are presenting the picture as more bleak than it really is. When he was running for the Republican nomination against Ronald Reagan in 1980 and began to fall behind, candidate Bush used to complain about "the mournful pundits" -- apparently a group including anyone reporting that he was falling behind.

This fall the theme was similar, as Bush railed at those "talking heads" on the Sunday morning television shows who don't seem to understand that the economy is doing swimmingly and continue to preach "gloom and doom." But his real complaint has been with the reporting that picks apart his claims to have a domestic program and to have told the truth on the Iran-contra affair. The Republican view is that the reporters were so enamored of Bill Clinton they gave the Arkansas governor a free ride.

The problem with that argument is that it defies logic. It is true that the press has hounded Bush on Iran-contra and, as that memorandum in the Caspar Weinberger indictment demonstrates, with valid reason.

But the president seemed to forget during the campaign that almost all of the things he was using as the basis for attacking Clinton were disclosed by the press. It was newspaper reporters, for example, who provided the raw material about the weaknesses in Clinton's environmental record and who unearthed and pursued the stories about his history of evading the draft during the Vietnam War.

Clinton's ludicrous admission that he didn't inhale when he smoked marijuana as a Rhodes scholar in England resulted from a question posed by a television reporter in New York during the primary last spring. If the press was so taken with Clinton, why did it pursue him with such single-minded fury during the primaries?

The fundamental flaw in the complaints about the press made by both Bush and Perot is that they are based on a total lack of understanding of how the press operates. The notion that there is some conspiracy or cabal among reporters designed to advance some special agenda of their own is laughable. They are not efficient enough to carry out such plots even if they were so inclined.

Nor is there some grand strategy at the level of editors and publishers or television network news directors. Again, there may be cases where newspapers and networks perform poorly on a story, but those failures are the result of time pressures or, sometimes, simple ineptitude rather than any dark strategy. You do not sell more newspapers or improve the TV ratings by electing a Democrat rather than a Republican.

Perot's complaints are particularly bizarre. If there has been a failure by the press in covering the Perot campaign, it has been the willingness of the media -- and especially the networks -- to allow him simply to command free time for endless exposure on "Larry King Live" or the "Today" show or whatever.

Since his return to the campaign, Perot may have been treated more critically than was the case earlier. But the major newspapers and networks have continued to accord him essentially equal attention with the major party candidates, attention hardly justified by the level of support he enjoys in the opinion polls.

No one who covers an election campaign would argue that news organizations do their jobs flawlessly. Nor would they argue that reporters and editors don't have personal preferences among the candidates. But the fact is that it is always the people running behind who do the most complaining. When the news is bad, shoot the messenger.

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