Politics: more media than message

One noticeable difference in the presidential campaign this year is that the press is not only covering the news but is making itself part of the news. Some of the early primaries appeared to be as much media events as voting events.

It strikes me that the press, print and electronic, is often far busier in predicting how the next primary will come out and then explaining why it didn't follow their predictions than in covering the candidates themselves.

Polling has now become a full-time occupation. Some survey of voter sentinent comes out almost daily and newspapers have reporters devoting full-time to the polling beat. The quality of the polls is quite uneven, and it is almost impossible for readers and viewers to know which are more reliable.

The candidates seemed to be agreed on at least one thing, that the continuous flow of polls distracts public attention from the substance of the campaign which is supposed to be the mechanism for measuring the fitness of the candidates and shaping the national party conventions.

The pervasive spread of the presidential primaries from a mere handful 12 years ago to 37 this season makes campaign 1980 like a political Super Bowl. It is a near Utopia for political reporters and commentators who do not hesitate to constitute themselves coaches, referees, and Monday morning quarterbacks. And in this game of politics Monday morning comes nearly every day somewhere on the national political landscape, with the writers telling the spectators perpetually who is winning and why, who is losing and why, who is faltering and why, and who is heading to the showers.

My observation is that political commentators are being read more closely and heeded more attentively than at any time in the past. It struck me as quite revealing that Charles Seib, until recently the ombudsman of the Washington Post , had a piece citing a poll which showed that about 65 percent of newspaper subscribers do not rely on the daily press as the principal source of the day's spot news but on television, radio, and the newsmagazines.

This doesn't mean that there are fewer newspaper readers but that they read their papers for other than immediate news -- for editorials, for comment, for background analysis, and for other features.

In fairness and objectivity the press has come a long way from the vices it committed in the 1952 presidential campaign when Adlai Stevenson lodged his powerful and valid complaint against what he called the "one-party press," which , I noticed as I was covering that campaign, was often using its front pages as a propaganda engine for General Eisenhower. Not today. There is no one-party press any more. If anything, I would say there is an anti-party press, the analysts taking out with equal relish against all the candidates. Carter, Reagan, Kennedy, and Connally, all feel they have been unfairly treated in major pieces.

U.S. News & World Report in its special edition dedicated to the Overseas Press club, asked two columnists -- conservative Pat Buchanan of the Chicago Tribune-New York News sundicate and liberal Tom Braden of the Los Angeles Times syndicate -- this question: "Do you think there is a liberal bias in the press?"

Buchanan said yes; Branden said no.

Buchanan added: "There is a liberal bias in the national press, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, Time, and Newsweek. It is not a liberal conspiracy. It's just that talented liberals go into journalism."

Braden explained: "If anything, the press has a conservative bias. Many journalists today are upper-middle class and worry about such things as their tax shelters. Columnists in particular have a very conservative slant."

Are they saying anything other than that liberal columnists are usually liberal and conservative columnists are usually conservative? Agreed, but as one who reads a lot of newspapers I find that they about equal each other in number and displacement.

I cite this comment from William Small, president of NBC News: "People get a good flavor of the campaign from the press as a whole. But they cannot learn what is happening from any single source. they have to watch television and read magazines and newspapers to find out what the candidates have to say."

For myself, in order to make sure that my opinions get continuously challenged, I always try to read at least one newspaper and one magazine whose editorial views are likely to run counter to my own.

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