Media grade: B to B+ Coverage shifted from politicians to voters' views

Campaign 1996

November 03, 1996|By LEWIS WOLFSON

ALTHOUGH THE nation's journalists did not exactly win the hearts of voters, give the press a B to B-plus for its 1996 campaign coverage. Of course, Bob Dole would make them stay after school to write, "I must be fair to Republicans" a hundred times on the blackboard.

The media kept us better informed than ever about the candidates' background, and the issues on Americans' minds. Horse coverage shrank, but mostly because there wasn't a horse race. Instead, the press blanketed campaign funding and TV ad campaigns.

While news of politics fell off sharply compared to 1992 on NBC, CBS and ABC, and the conventions came close to disappearing, television in some ways was more diversified and more solid than the flashy new media of the last election.

There were commentaries by the candidates on the networks and news and documentaries on public TV and C-SPAN. All-news TV channels with more politics were added, and there was a burst of political talk on the Internet. Newspapers and news magazines poured resources into providing much of what we knew about the campaign.

But the biggest change in reporting was a gradual shift from the politicians' to the voters' view of the election.

At truck stops in Ohio, malls in Southern California and in America's living rooms, journalists were listening not just to the sound of their own opinions, but to what likely voters had to say -- about the candidates, government and what the American Dream might still mean to the voters' children and grandchildren. Through interviews, surveys and focus groups, the press transformed the voter from spectator to the principal player in the election game.

How press raised its grade

There were press shortcomings, most of all a failure to push the candidates beyond superficial rhetoric and cliches to talk about larger issues worrying voters about America's direction and the quality of the voters' lives.

But how did a press that had been repeatedly faulted for not telling voters what they needed to know and for some enormous reporting fumbles -- such as the surprise Perot vote in 1992 and the Republican resurgence in 1994 -- turn its grade around?

Voters sometimes overlook the obvious: Most of what they know about politics comes from the media. The national press' response to cries of a lack of information about the candidates was to do front-page and magazine cover profiles and in-depth reporting as the fall election progressed and more voters were paying attention.

We learned what we wanted to know about the candidates. Bob Dole was a genuine war hero who had had a brilliant political career. But he was often uninspiring on the stump and ran a campaign full of gaffes and fumbles. If he started as the underdog, he was made to look even worse by a stream of headline-grabbing advice from Republican Party leaders, and back-channel whispers to the press from his own campaign staff.

Was there anything we didn't learn from the press about Bill Clinton?

He was one of the most artful campaigners and political strategists of this century. He was obsessed with co-opting the Republicans' issues. He skated from one favorable economic report to another, even making the bad ones sound good. And all the while he played it safe. In contrast to Dole's stiffness, Clinton was the plastic candidate, talking out of all sides of his mouth, morally and legally lax, winking at corruption in his own White House.

As for the criticism that the press was more interested in the horse race than the issues, this year, there was hardly an issue of note that we did not read or hear about -- whether it was the budget and taxes, jobs, health care or crime and drugs.

Most important, attention focused on the everyday issues voters were concerned about. But what disturbed Paul West, The Sun's Washington bureau chief, was the fact that the candidates did not necessarily listen to the voters, and especially not to their concern about things like government reform, the quality of the voters' lives, and "where the country was heading."

But the press ran into one Campaign '96 issue it had not bargained for: itself. "Dole is Imploring Voters to 'Rise Up' Against the Press," said one front page newspaper headline. "Dole Slams Clinton, the 'Liberal Media'," said another.

As Dole searched for attention-getting issues, he spoke of how he and citizens were victimized by "left-wing" press bias and favoritism to Clinton. The campaign used a survey showing that 89 percent of journalists had voted for Clinton in 1992.

Partisan crowds roared approval. But the voters learned about Dole's attacks because the press reported them. It was evidence of a tradition of balanced reporting on the candidates that had followed an era of blatant partisanship in newspapers' columns. The "liberal" New York Times and Washington Post both highlighted Dole's denunciation of them. The TV networks similarly ran the story.

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