And the Candidates Are in the Backstretch . . .

August 07, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

You can't blame Maryland voters for their uncertainty regarding this year's election for governor.

The field is crowded. Some top candidates are unknown to much of the electorate. And little has been written or broadcast about the detailed stances of the candidates.

In fact, one political operative strongly believes the media are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Michael F. Ford used to be campaign manager for Lt. Gov. Mickey Steinberg until they had a falling-out over strategy. After his departure last month, Mr. Ford composed a commentary that was never published. Yet his thoughts on the media and this year's election campaign deserve airing:

''Mickey Steinberg isn't much of a campaign manager but he would be a great governor.

''The average Maryland newspaper reader and viewer have no clue about the latter because the issue in the governor's race has become who has the best 'campaign,' not who would be the best governor or who has the best ideas about running this state. Coverage focuses on personalities and the technique of campaigns rather than the substance.

''Many of the newspaper reporters, from whom we expect more, are falling into the tabloidization routine. . . . Political reporters are into process and analysis of process, not ideas or substance other than their own. These are the ones who set the standard for what makes a good or a bad campaign, like handicappers of the Racing Form.''

Sadly, Mr. Ford is on the mark. The media were transfixed earlier this summer as Mr. Steinberg's campaign imploded. Then focus shifted to who would be picked as running mates. Next came the flap over how many forums Helen Bentley did or did not attend. And now the emphasis is on American Joe Miedusiewski's hokey humor ads.

What ever happened to real issues? This columnist has been as guilty as others. The focus is on who's ahead, as though it were a horse race. There's a term for this type of coverage -- ''horse-race journalism.''

Prof. Doris Graber of the University of Illinois agrees that journalists don't usually waste valuable news space on the details of policy matters raised by candidates. ''[T]hese issues are hard to explain and dramatize and rarely produce exciting pictures,'' she wrote in ''Mass Media and American Politics.''

''Although these are issues of personal concern to the average voter, most people are unwilling to wrestle with a difficult subject that newspeople have not yet learned to simplify and dramatize. Rather than write complex campaign stories that most of the audience probably would ignore, newspeople prefer to feature the horse-race glamour of campaign developments.''

In the current gubernatorial campaign, Mr. Ford says that reporters are hot to track down insider campaign developments but reluctant to plunge into the issues side of things:

''A Sun reporter came to my home and woke up my 6-year-old son at 10 p.m. for an interview the night The Sun found out I resigned from the Steinberg campaign.

''But when Mickey Steinberg announced his health-care plan that would cut $84 million per annum from the encroaching structural budget deficit, not one newspaper wrote about it. This was in spite of a substantial briefing, copious background material, constant hawking and the media pretense that issues matter.''

Other candidates have similar tales to tell.

William S. Shepard can't get reporters to take his campaign statements seriously, though he's had a detailed issues booklet out since early spring. Helen Bentley complains that journalists only write about her when there's something bad to say, not when she's done something of substance that is positive. Ellen Sauerbrey can't figure out how to get reporters to write in depth about the fiscal restructuring of government she preaches.

Polls are what captivate reporters and many readers. These polls, in turn, tell reporters who are the most legitimate candidates. They are the ones who get coverage in a crowded field. The others are largely ignored.

Yet even if The Sun were to devote endless inches of news space to policy issues affecting the governance of Maryland, most readers would barely glance at them.

Professor Graber noted, ''Overall, three out of four answers people give when asked what they have learned about candidates and issues or why they would vote or refrain from voting for a certain candidate concern personality traits. People are interested in the human qualities of their elected leaders, particularly their trustworthiness, principled character, strength and compassion.''

Reporters zero in on these sorts of things. Is Parris Glendening trustworthy? Is Helen Bentley principled? Does Mary Boergers have strength? Does Ellen Sauerbrey have compassion?

The ramifications of the Sauerbrey budget-cutting plan may escape notice; or the specifics of the Glendening economic stimulus proposal; or the Shepard agenda. But by the end of this primary campaign, newspaper readers should have a pretty good idea about the character and overall approach of the major candidates.

It's not an ideal method, but it beats trying to figure out whom to vote for on the basis of infrequent 15-second TV sound-bites.

It still raises the troubling question that Mr. Ford posed: If the media don't pay detailed attention to candidates' stances on issues, how can voters be expected to figure out who is truly best? He admits ''it's a problem that both sides'' -- the media and candidates -- ''are struggling with.''

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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