A confused electorate rates the press' campaign coverage

April 10, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In the current lull between the decisive presidential primaries and the Democratic and Republican conventions in August, it seems to be reflection time on how the news media are covering the campaign.

Now comes a poll that says voters are just dying for more information about it but the press and television have let them down.

A telephone survey of 2,007 registered voters by the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut, taken over a three-week period just prior to the Iowa precinct caucuses, found that 95 percent of those polled said they were ''extremely,'' ''very'' or ''somewhat'' interested in the 1996 presidential election. Only 5 percent said they were ''not too'' or ''not at all'' interested.

In the next breath, however, a heavy majority said that the way the news media cover campaigns bends candidates out of shape, dictates which issues are discussed, gives too big an edge to front-runners, discourages good candidates from running and is often confusing and unclear.

''Pretty evenly balanced''

At the same time, the survey indicated that most of these same voters nevertheless think the news media coverage is ''pretty evenly balanced'' (48 percent) between having a liberal ''bias'' (29 percent) and a conservative one (13).

The poll also found that 49 percent thought the press and television were pretty evenly balanced in dealing with the two major parties, with 22 percent saying they thought the media favored the Democratic Party and 21 percent that they favored the Republican.

So the voters surveyed seemed to be saying that the problem is not that the press and television are unfair, but rather that their presence in the campaign, as observers and sometimes active players, has a deleterious impact on how the candidates behave and are perceived by the electorate.

This sentiment, according to this poll commissioned by the Freedom Forum Media Center, is overwhelming. It found, for example, that a whopping 83 percent felt that ''media coverage leads candidates to perform for cameras rather than focus on issues.'' Any reporter who has been out on the campaign trail can certainly vouch for the legitimacy of that complaint. But it's almost always the candidate who's doing the performing, willingly or grudgingly, to get the free television exposure.

Luring the cameras

As Kevin Costner was told in ''Field of Dreams,'' ''if you build it they will come.''

When candidates' handlers concoct an irresistible ''photo opportunity'' -- and it's the campaign strategists who dream them up -- the television cameras understandably show up. Who's leading whom when that happens?

Next, 77 percent said ''media have too much control in defining issues in the campaign.'' But Steve Forbes wasn't dragged kicking and screaming into elevating his proposal for a 17 percent flat tax into the centerpiece issue of the Republican primaries. He did it all by himself -- and his multimillions.

The wisdom of Morry

Other findings of the survey are not so easily refuted. The 76 percent who said ''media give undue advantage to front-runners'' have a point, although it would be hard for the press to explain repeated stories on the wisdom being dispensed by Morry Taylor and Bob Dornan while first Pat Buchanan, then Steve Forbes and Bob Dole were leading the pack in the polls and eventually in the primary and caucus results.

The poll also found that 70 percent believed the media coverage to be ''often confusing and unclear,'' which depends on what you read and see, but this gripe too certainly can't be dismissed out of hand.

Finally, the survey found that 67 percent of the voters surveyed felt that ''media coverage discourages good people from running.'' That's no doubt so too, but not always because everything that's disclosed about candidates is untrue. Wasn't it Harry Truman who said something about staying out of the kitchen if you can't stand the heat?

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 4/10/96

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