A call for better media coverage; The Pulse of Politics: Presidents in the Media Age, by James David Barber. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. $14.95.

Journalists have been telling each other for at least two decades that they are covering presidential elections in the wrong way. As the media role in political campaigns has grown, with "the press" actually making or breaking candidacies in some instances, this problem in becoming a caused celebre.

James David Barber, a political science professor at Duke University, joins the clamor for reform in "The Pulse of Politics." Many journalists, aware of Professor Barber's reputation as a student of both the presidency and presidential politics, will take note: Many consider his last book, "The Presidential Character" (1977), required reading.

The pulse of politics, according to the author, beats in three-quarter time: three themes -- conflict, conscience, and conciliation -- dominating in turn the story of the quadrennial presidential dance.

Accounts of selected presidential elections from 1900 to 1976 are used to illustrate that -- among them Truman-Dewey in 1948 as the "politics of conflict, " Roosevelt-Wilkie in 1940 as the "politics of conscience," and Nixon- Humphrey in 1968 as the "politics of conciliation."

None of the examples could be called perfect fits, but they serve well enough to make the author's points. Less defensible is the superficiality of the accounts of these campaigns. Talk about journalistic haste!

Mr. Barber's final section, title "Proposal" advises journalists to start doing what they already know th emedia shouldm be doing. Less acceptable is the rather sweeping assumption that journalists, if they would take their eyes off the "horse race" for a bit, could put some issues to rest by presenting the "facts." True, no doubt, in some cases. But what are the "facts" -- the bedrock facts --about nuclear power? and who, in 1960, had the "facts" about the "missile gap" that turned out not to exist?

Other of his proposals, however, do merit careful consideration by anyone interested in imppoving the lurching process of presidential selection. Mr. Barber may well be more interested in getting us to think more deeply and clearly than in telling us just what we should do in practical terms.

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