Attentive Voters, Biased Reporters

THE November presidential election raised some questions about how people voted and how journalists performed.

Whatever happened to people who, when voting for president, would say: "I'm voting for the best man"?

There were some responses like this, particularly among the faithful who stuck with Ross Perot through thick and thin. But more often than I can remember in years of election-watching, I was hearing voters say that they had struggled mightily but finally had to settle on the less-objectionable of the three candidates.

Fortunately, there was a great deal of thinking going on among the electorate. A third-party candidate simply cannot arise and flourish unless a lot of voters are willing to forsake old party ties. And that calls upon them to make some very difficult and thought-demanding decisions.

Indeed, one of the truly bright results from what was for the most part a contentious, gabby election process was that there may well have been a significant reduction of what are sometimes termed "mindless voters" - those who say, "I'm a Republican (or a Democrat) and hence I am voting for a Republican (or a Democrat) for president." And this coincided with an overall increase in presidential voting.

It seemed to me that before voting time arrived the public was tuning in and listening to what the candidates were saying. A serious, attentive populace went to the polls. This, together with the increased turnout, was a significant plus.

How helpful was the press in this process? How fair was it? Or did the media provide some distortions that, of themselves, affected how people voted? These are important questions.

During the campaign, all three candidates, at one time or another, were castigating the press for what they called "bias." Mr. Perot avoided the print media for this reason, appearing instead on TV talk shows where he could speak directly to the public.

And President Bush is showing his ire over some press coverage by not inviting several top journalists to his Christmas party this year.

Totally objective writing is probably not possible. But editors I have learned from (Erwin D. Canham, for one, and also Saville Davis), called on reporters and correspondents to make the effort to be fair in their writing. They stressed what they called a "balanced" approach to campaign coverage and the need for journalists to keep their own political views to themselves and out of their writing.

Compare this advice with that of "New Republic" columnist Michael Kinsley, who argues strongly against a position which he says is held by some media critics and "... some journalists themselves, [who] think the press ought to function as a sort of sacred priesthood of political celibates, purged of the ideological longings that inflame ordinary folks." He describes himself as being "more or less liberal" and adds that "the mystery to me is not why journalists tend to be liberals but why so many other r easonable, intelligent people are not."

Mr. Kinsley was responding to a survey which showed that 44.1 percent of journalists around the United States consider themselves Democrats and only 16.3 percent Republicans.

He also cited a study which, in measuring hundreds of newspaper stories during the election campaign, found considerably more "negative" articles about Mr. Bush than President-elect Clinton. This he explains by asserting that events like the recession accounted for the disparity - not "biased" reporting.

Well, maybe. Frankly I saw a lot of what I firmly believe to be pro-Democratic, Clinton bias creeping into the media coverage. For example, in the last couple of weeks of the campaign some economic numbers provided persuasive evidence that the president's contention that the recession was ending had credibility.

I made a point of watching the TV nightly news shows and many others, too, to see what was done with this "pro-Bush" development.

It was fully reported. But economists were immediately brought on camera to discount the story - along with on-the-street interviews from those who were homeless or jobless.

Then what happens immediately after the election? Surprise! Suddenly we find in all the same media - with some of the same economists talking - that the economy is, indeed, getting better.

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