Talk shows, MTV, infomercials altered news media's political battleground

November 05, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

Political reporters approached the 1992 election girded to fight the battle of the photo ops, to escape the spin doctors, to regain control of their coverage, taking it back from the candidates and campaigns.

They emerged essentially victorious in this fight, news media observers say. But these traditional filters of our political perceptions found themselves on a remarkably changed battlefield whose topography was shaped not by 30-second spots and media advisers, but by Larry King and Phil Donahue, Arsenio Hall and MTV.

Discovering that these new participants helped produce an electorate brimming with interest, the old news media -- print and broadcast -- has greeted the newcomers with enthusiasm, even as it is recognized that their presence creates a set of challenges that will have to be faced four years hence.

Four years ago, the problem was that every news program would include a daily report from the campaigns almost without fail. If the political message managers decided that America should see George Bush at a flag factory or Michael S. Dukakis driving a tank, those were the dominant images that night.

"We were mediocre in 1988," Tim Russert of NBC news says. "We deserved a grade of C. We were held too captive by the sound bites. We were not analytical enough of campaign ads. But we learned an awful lot."

For this election, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw says some changes were made in campaign coverage. "When you get into that cocoon, speaking as one who has been there, you can get seduced. So we tried to get off the bus or the plane as much as possible to help us keep our eyes fixed on the issues no matter what the campaigns were doing," he says.

"They were a lot better at not making every day's story whatever the road show's message-of-the-day was," says Richard Ben Cramer, author of "What It Takes," an in-depth study of the 1988 campaign that was highly critical of the news media.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication also praised the networks' efforts.

"The 'ad watches' that assessed political commercials were very good. There was more focus on issues. Every news had a segment -- American Agenda, Eye on America -- that was devoted to issues. That made a big difference," she says.

"This year, the media did a great job of fighting the last campaign," Mr. Cramer sums up. Not as successful, he contends, was its battle with the realities of the 1992 campaign, especially the inundation of polls.

Ms. Jamieson agrees. "After the first debate, Clinton remained far enough ahead in the polls that the news programs started trying to explain why that was," she says. "That caused them to focus disproportionately on the strategy stories."

Mr. Cramer complains that the overemphasis on polls distorted the coverage of the candidates' character. "When Bush was down in the polls, the press felt it had to explain why the guy was such an impossible shlump that no one could possibly like," he says. "Once he started rising, then they had to show how he was a dynamic, never-say-die figure who was now connecting with the American voter."

Covering the character issues remains a stubborn stumbling block, as nearly everyone interviewed pointed to the Gennifer Flowers story as one of the low points in the news media year.

"I don't think we've figured out how to handle stories like that," Jeff Greenfield of ABC says.

Indeed, it was the so-called "new media," the talk shows and phone-ins and town meetings and MTV interviews, that helped make evident the press' trouble with character stories.

When viewers called in questions or hosts wandered into studio audiences, rarely did the public ask about the scandal-of-the-week; instead they wanted to know about health care, the economy, the deficit.

"The press learned that the people were really interested in the issues," Ms. Jamieson says. "That proved that the excuse that we're just giving our readers or viewers what they want when we focus on some scandal or the horse race was wrong."

Many feel the proliferation of the new media also means that the traditional press will have to learn to cast a critical eye, not only on 30-second ads, but also on 30-minute "infomercials" and 90-minute talk show appearances.

"Some of these shows create the illusion of credibility without real credibility," Ms. Jamieson warns. "Larry King calls himself an entertainer and that's exactly what he is."

Mark Crispin Miller, a media critic at the Johns Hopkins University, laments the lack of analysis of Ross Perot's 30-minute programs.

Still, there was almost universal praise for what the new media brought to the process.

"I'm a fan of the new media," Mr. Brokaw says. "I learned a lot from it."

Mr. Miller calls what happened this political season, "the fragmentation of the spectacle."

"I think it makes it harder for a candidate to mount an effective propaganda campaign," he says. "In 1988, when the major source of information about the candidates was the network news programs, the Bush campaign could pound home its message night after night. It couldn't do that this time."

Mr. Cramer points to another advantage. "It's valuable that people see the candidates answer questions for an hour," he says. "Not to hear their answers, but to see their body language, to see how they act, how they think on their feet. That's where you really learn about them."

No one disagrees with the overall assessment of Reese Cleghorn, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland: "I do think that there was so much information out there this year that there was no way anyone could go to the polls and say that they did not have a chance to learn enough about these candidates."

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