Look closely at reporting as well as at candidates, panel says
''The only people less happy than Glenn in Iowa were the reporters covering his campaign . . . a professional (journalist's) career sometimes follows the campaign.''Skip to next paragraph
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The implications of that observation from a veteran of the campaign trail, former Newsweek correspondent Gerald Lubenow, cut right to the heart of a subtle but critical fact that Americans face. The press may give voters everything they have always wanted to know about a campaign and more, but voters need to analyze the news media as much as they do the candidates themselves.
While the New Hampshire primary campaign and media blitz were in full swing last week, a panel of newsmen here swapped stories and insights suggesting that a knowledge of the press helps voters interpret campaign coverage better.
The panel was part of a public-policy conference offered by the Institute of Contemporary Studies, a conservative San Francisco think tank. Panel members were Elie Abel, a Pulitzer Prize winner who now is professor of communications at Stanford University; Francis Dale, publisher of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner; and Mr. Lubenow, who covered political campaigns for Newsweek from 1966 until last fall when he became assistant editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Their observations were underscored by the fact that most voters never see or hear a candidate except in newspaper and television accounts.
The examples Lubenow offered about John Glenn's defeat in Iowa illustrate how members of the press ''become characters in the drama.''
''The media (become) almost the primary audience. . . . It's more important to appear before the press than voters,'' he said, noting that much of a candidate's time and money go to media campaigns.
''If a television station decides a race is boring, and the only way for a candidate to get time is to pay for it (in commercials), it can create some interesting conflicts,'' Lubenow said, illustrating the pressure both reporters and candidates are under to offer fresh and interesting views.
A reader or viewer may be unaware of what life is like on the campaign trail where media and politics become intertwined, the panelists agreed.
For example, it costs a paper $1,000 a day to keep a reporter on the road with a candidate, Mr. Lubenow said. The results must justify the cost. A candidate similarly aware of the limits of his purse strings finds that ''what's said to a local audience is far less important than what's said on the evening news,'' which reaches millions, Mr. Abel said.
''One of the miseries of the campaign is listening to 'The Speech' . . . the same speech three, four, five times a day. Naturally, a candidate can't come up with a fresh speech at every whistle stop,'' Abel explained.
Reporters, Abel said, are trying to make every day's events ''important, interesting, and illuminating.''
When ''The Speech'' is all they have to work with day in and day out, Lubenow concurred, ''a candidate may slip and fall going upstairs and that becomes a couple of minutes on the evening news.''
Abel noted that the duty of ''fixing the perceptions of the public is in the hands of 40 to 50 political writers and major papers.''
Both Lubenow and Abel stressed the professional integrity of their colleagues. But the nature of the business means that reporters ''are obsessed with doping out a race. There's tremendous pressure to give your public a picture of how (a candidate is) going to do,'' Lubenow said. Often, he continued , ''(the reporter) doesn't care what (the candidate) said that afternoon or what policies his staff comes up with, but who is going to win.''
Abel said this obsession with predictions is how Jimmy Carter was discovered in the early Iowa caucuses. ''Based on his perception'' of Carter's early lead over Birch Bayh, a New York Times writer labeled Mr. Carter the front-runner of the Democratic race, ''and 20 other political writers rushed in and picked it up.''
Similarly today, he warned, projections of Democratic primary results are often offered too early and can be ''quite shallow-rooted.'' The same shallow focus comes from exit polls, he said. The polling of voters just outside voting booths led to the controversy over how it might affect the outcome of a race.
This practice of extrapolating on such polls ''tends to rob people of their right to vote,'' Abel said. Though he does not advocate taking away the right to poll voters, he said, ''I'm waiting for one network to come forward and forswear that kind of reporting and be a good citizen.''
Asked how voters could compensate for the problems intrinsic to campaign coverage, Lubenow suggested reading a wide range of material. ''The (press) is a huge thing,'' he explained, and voters can get their hands on a lot of information. Once voters have an idea of the wide spectrum, rather than just the hometown paper or evening news, they can then choose sources whose approach to coverage satisfies them.