WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — WHEN reporters have questions for Jesse Helms's campaign for the United State Senate, they don't telephone, and they don't ask in person. They write the questions down - and fax them. The answers come back quickly by the same route. The facsimile machine is Senator Helms's newest weapon against ``ultraliberal'' and ``biased'' reporters. Since Helms's staff isn't sure just who is biased, they include everyone.
Helms's fax system serves his political purposes, analysts say, by helping him control the flow of news.
Other politicians, including George Bush in 1988, also have developed methods of influencing news coverage over the years.
Beth Burrus, press secretary for Mr. Helms, explains the policy to a puzzled reporter:
``If you understood the problems in this state - we have a very liberal press,'' Ms. Burrus says. ``We have trouble with bias. So we have a press policy. The questions are to be written out. We will respond by fax. It's an umbrella policy that applies to everyone.''
Sure enough, questions submitted to Helms's campaign in Raleigh soon produce six pages of answers and clippings that churn out of the Monitor's fax machine.
The first question was: Why does the Helms campaign find this system necessary? Can you gives specific examples of bias?
Burrus faxes back a story from the Charlotte Observer. She explains in her faxed answer:
``The Charlotte Observer wrote a story about the campaign (Aug. 16, 1990) and used Abe Holtzman [a political scientist at North Carolina State University] as an unbiased expert. They failed to mention that he is actively opposed [to] Senator Helms and helped two of his opponents.''
Helms sees obsessed press
In a speech at Rocky Mount, the senator puts his media concerns bluntly. He charges that the larger newspapers of the state have an ``obsession'' to ``besmirch the reputation of anybody who does not agree with [their] ultraliberal views.''
Ted Arrington, chairman of the political science department at the University of North Carolina (Charlotte), says Helms didn't always hold the press at arm's length. In his first Senate race in 1972, he worked closely with the media. But the senator and his staff have been withdrawing ever since, the professor says.
``The senator ... really [does] not like the press, especially the Charlotte Observer, the [Raleigh] News and Observer, and the Washington Post,'' Dr. Arrington says. ``[He feels] those folks are out to get [him].''
Arrington continues: ``That paranoia ... has always been a point of his makeup, and has gotten stronger.'' But the professor views Helms's strategy as a realistic assessment of what he must do to make the media work to his advantage.
Communicating with ads
In the heat of a campaign, Helms cannot control ``media spin'' - that is, the way news writers handle stories. The only place Helms can be in full control of what the public sees and hears - both in the way he is presented, and the way his opponent is depicted - is on TV ads. So Helms wages his campaign, as much as possible, through those ads, Arrington says.
``The Helms campaign realizes that if Harvey Gantt [Helms's Democratic opponent] is the only one available to [talk to] the press, the media will print less about the race. [By making Helms and his people less available], they minimize the total news flow'' - at the same time, increasing the importance of TV advertising.
In 1988, George Bush used a similar media strategy. He held few press conferences, and for days gave reporters access only to his formal speeches.
That way, he controlled the headlines, not the reporters.
Paul Luebke, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina (Greensboro), says he's heard of Helms also using the fax to talk back to reporters.
``One of them I know got faxed by Helms's staff when he failed to identify the party affiliation of a pundit,'' Dr. Luebke notes. (For the record, Luebke is a Democrat, Arrington is a Republican.)
Some reporters chuckle about the fax system, but also grumble that faxed answer are too cryptic.
In her fax to the Monitor, Burrus showed she had, indeed, mastered the art of the laconic response:
Asked what Helms's top priorities will be in Washington on domestic affairs if he is reelected, she faxed:
``Cut wasteful spending and reduce the deficit.''
Asked what was the most important goal today for conservatives, she faxed:
``To keep liberals from reversing the low-tax policies of the Reagan years.''
Asked what a true conservative should do when torn between loyalty to President Bush and support for conservative policies, she faxed:
``Stick to their beliefs. Senator Helms has never been a `yes man' to any president. The most important thing to him is to stand by his principles.''
Short, indeed, but to the point.