Washington — The voters have come to realize over the years that the outcome of a political contest often rests with the media and how the media interpret the results. There's plenty of public resentment that is expressed over this. But it doesn't help. Take the Maine caucuses:
First, by mid-afternoon CBS News was projecting a Carter win. How this may have distorted the final outcome no one knows.
Did it cause many Carter supporters, comforted by an assured victory, to stay at home rather than go to the caucuses which they planned to attend that evening? Did it cause Kennedy workers to work extra hard to get their backers out to caucus later in the day? Or, on the other hand, did it encourage Maine voters who were caucusing later to go with an expected winner and thus swell the Carter percentages?
Then came the media "interpretations" by early evening. The "line" was already set. Kennedy had put together a "surprisingly close" finish, the TV commentators told us. No one we heard was saying that the President was the clear winner, by some six percentage points, or that this was the third Carter win in a row over Kennedy (Florida, Iowa, and now Maine).
No, it was Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy. One could well conclude that Kennedy was, indeed, the winner -- simply by finishing fairly close.
Was this an expression of pro-Kennedy bias? Or, again, were the TV commentators leaning over backward to show that the critics who said they had been anti-Kennedy in the past were wrong?
Or were (and we think this is most likely) the TV people merely doing what they so often do -- looking for a "story line" with drama and entertainment? Kennedy suddenly was the "comeback kid." That was the interesting, even exciting , tale that could be told. And it was.
The rationale one now hears for Kennedy being given credit for pulling victory out of the jaws of defeat is this:
That the interpreters, on TV and later in the press, who hailed Kennedy's only fairly close second-place finish so much were measuring him against "expectations," based on one Maine poll which showed Carter far out in front.
But the truth of the matter is that the savvy reporters who were filing stories on the Maine contest weren't calling it a Carter runaway. Far from it. They were saying, on the eve of the caucuses, that Carter would probably win but that, because of the event taking place in "Kennedy territory" and because of the heavy influx of Kennedy workers, the Carter edge would not be too large this time.
In fact, some reporters even saw the possibility of Kennedy's all-out organizational effort bringing about a genuine Kennedy win.
Those were the real expectations. And measured against those, Kennedy did just about what was expected.
Actually, before the Iowa caucus the expectation was that Kennedy, on home turf, would overwhelm Carter, both in Maine and New Hampshire.
So a fair assessment -- a thoroughly detached one -- would have been that the President's Maine victory was impressive.
But it isn't being "played" that way in most of the media.
Instead, Kennedy now is being given a whole new political life because of Maine. And -- with the new guidelines coming from the various media interpreters -- it seems that Kennedy no longer has to win in New Hampshire to keep his campaign going. It seems that he merely has to finish close there in order to at least keep his candidacy alive.
What if Carter really thumps Kennedy in New Hampshire? Well, it would seem that it would take some very imaginative interpretation to conclude that Kennedy hasn't been knocked out of the race. But don't count on even a decided Kennedy loss in New Hampshire ending the Kennedy challenge -- or, rather, ending the interpretations that will say that Kennedy still can make it.
We remember well how media interpretations benefited Carter so much in the Iowa caucuses of four years ago -- where Carter was hailed as the victor when he racked up only a small percentage of support and actually finished second to the uncommitted bloc of caucusers. From that "victory" Carter moved on to a New Hampshire triumph which catapulted him toward the presidential nomination.
But, right now, Kennedy is getting the benefit of the interpreters. This could change. Or it may not. Keep an eye on New Hampshire. Not the voting result. But how the interpreters tell us it comes out.