How the press `distorts' the political process

Behind the Front Page, by David S. Broder. New York: Simon and Schuster. 393 pp. $18.95. An erstwhile Capitol Hill correspondent recently introduced David Broder as ``the pundit's pundit.'' It's not an opinion likely to provoke much dispute. Broder's columns and reports on politics in the Washington Post are an oasis of reason in the maelstrom of rumor and hyperbole that so often characterizes political journalism in the United States, particularly in the ever-lengthening presidential campaigns.

It is always apparent in Broder's writing that he cares very deeply about the political process. He cares just as deeply about how that process is reported. Not only has he read virtually every bit of important political reporting over the last 20 years, but he has also listened to both the champions and the critics of that reporting; and he proves himself as tireless and as well-sourced when it comes to analyzing the coverage as he is in sizing up the politicians and campaigns themselves. Like his newspaper work, his book is a combination of peerless reporting and keen commentary.

Criticism of the press is inevitable, says Broder. ``The more important a commodity or service becomes to people, the more critical they become about its quality.'' Much of the criticism is warranted, he insists. In an untiring effort to simplify and categorize the politicians they cover, reporters (and Broder does not spare himself) produce caricatures, just as surely as do editorial cartoonists. Here's Broder's summation of recent presidential elections in support:

``The Blah Liberal (Mondale) lost to the Great Communicator (Reagan), who when he was known as the Grade-B Actor had defeated the Fussy Moralizer (Carter), who had defeated the Awkward Lineman (Ford), who had succeeded Tricky Dick (Nixon), two years after Tricky Dick had swamped the Prairie Populist (McGovern). Four years before that, of course, the New Nixon (Tricky Dick in disguise) had gotten to the White House by edging out the Happy Warrior (Humphrey), in a contest in which the Fiery Segregationist (Wallace) had finished third.''

Broder feels that the press's rapture with personalities comes at the expense of the coverage of newsworthy institutions - Congress is unjustly given short shrift in the press, he claims - but he does not buy the argument that the fascination with personalities blinds reporters to the issues in a race.

The record shows that Broder and his colleagues do write about the issues; the problems stem from the fact that ``reporters' interest comes early; the public's, late.'' Therefore, early on - now, for example, a year before the 1988 primaries - reporters are inclined to give careful attention to the records and issues of the emerging candidates. ``But the attentive audience for such stories is small,'' Broder says.

By the time the attentive audience has swelled, the reporters are focusing on ``tiny shifts in position, or errors and mistakes, on hidden strategies or unplanned distractions,'' believing that the issues are old news. What is news, and fresh every day, is the horse race, for as NBC's Tom Brokaw has pointed out: ``The horse race changes all the time. ... The positions on the issues don't change that much.''

So does this distort the process? ``Absolutely,'' says Broder. ``It short-circuits the system, denies voters in the later primary states an equal voice, reduces the chances of detecting a fraud, and lessens the likelihood of pausing for second thoughts before the nomination.''

But that is beyond the press's control, Broder points out. The process is the product of the political parties, not the press, and ``reporters will cover the process any way the parties conduct it....''

What is within the press's control is a greater awareness of their audience's needs. The reluctance to recapitulate the issues for the late arrivers is symptomatic of what Broder calls ``clique journalism,'' or journalism ``of the insiders, by the insiders, for the insiders.'' For these insiders, Broder maintains, press coverage has never been fairer, sharper, or more thorough.

But servicing the insiders is a pernicious habit. ``It diverts us from our main function of serving the broad public and it alienates us from that public, whose support is ultimately the only safeguard of the professional freedom we require to do our jobs.''

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