Campaigns: Whose Agenda Is It?

WHEN President George Bush made his first l992 campaign visit to New Hampshire on the cold morning of Jan. 15, he displayed the full drawing power of an incumbent president.

The "media advisory," handed to the press the day before Air Force One touched down at Pease Air Force Base, stated: "Sensitive Information - For Planning Purposes Only - Not For Publication or Broadcast." The advisory listed the President's full schedule for the day with lots of detailed instruction to the press to ensure smooth and full coverage.

In addition to Air Force One, Mr. Bush's entourage that day included four black limousines, several vans loaded with United States Secret Service agents, other support cars, trained dogs for sniffing out potential explosive devices, an ambulance, and many other secret precautions necessary to rightfully ensure the President's security.

The prime objective on this singularly political day filled with banners, bunting, and cheers was for Bush to command the attention of the national press. The President's advisors knew how they wanted the day to play out. In a word often used by the press, this was the "horse race," and here was the big horse starting the biggest race of all.

It worked. The President got lead coverage on the three major networks that night including TV sound bites within the hour on CNN. Coverage in such newspapers as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times was equally prominent.

But some editors, media experts, critics, academics, and a few politicians are saying that the nature of the symbiosis between the press and political campaigning needs reform, particularly during a presidential election year.

Look at the l988 campaign, critics say. Genuine analysis and discussion of issues were often lost in the art of thunder and glitz, they charge. Events staged primarily for the press, like the President's New Hampshire trip, and secondarily for voters, dominated coverage during l988. TV "sound bites," so evident in l988, were not, and are not, nutritious mouthfuls, and television advertising like the Bush campaign's Willie Horton ads pandered to emotions.

Will l992 really be different?

Bush made seven campaign stops on his first day of campaigning. All were covered by dozens of press people. At the third stop at small Exeter City Hall around 10:30 in the morning, where 300 invited Republicans were allowed to hear the President, there were 23 professional video or television cameras trained on him.

Several dozen newspaper and magazine writers from all major publications were there. They circulated throughout the crowd along with several dozen more photographers and radio reporters before and after Bush's speech.

"This is really exciting," says Jeanne Kubiak, a homemaker and mother from Exeter who was part of the invited, all-Republican audience at the city hall.

I'm glad he came," she says, "because he's learning now that no one was watching the stove at home and the pots are starting to boil over." She says Bush would get her vote even though she's "disgruntled that he didn't do better with Congress over the last four years."

Outside, in 11-degree temperature, about 1,000 people gathered behind police barricades. Some carried posters and placards supporting or criticizing Bush. Most just wanted to see the President.

There was nothing out of the ordinary here as traditional political campaigns go. It is hard not to characterize such campaign stops for all candidates as anything but a pseudo-event. In his remarks the President was critical of the Congress, praised political leaders in New Hampshire, and answered a few questions from the largely Republican audience. Issues were addressed in a cursory fashion.

After his speech the President shook hands with dozens of people as a hired TV crew filmed the handshaking for a future campaign commercial.

Writing in a Harvard report about presidential campaign reporting, John Ellis of the Barone Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, says, "To many voters the whole [campaign] process seems not only disconnected from their day-to-day concerns but also deeply disturbing in what it seems to be saying about the political process."

The swift pace of campaigning, the accumulative disorderliness of it as all the candidates compete to be seen and heard, adds up to a kind of headlong chaos.

Roger Ailes, the Bush media consultant during the l988 campaign, thinks the press covers politics for three reasons, "pictures, mistakes, and attacks," which in itself is a catchy sound bite. Mr. Ailes says as campaigns evolve, they and the press often lose touch with people.

Hal Bruno, director of political coverage for ABC News says, "Do campaigns get removed from people? If they do, it's fatal. It's important that not only the news media stay in touch with people, but also campaigns. Smart campaigns do not disconnect from people."

At NBC News, political director Bill Wheatley thinks TV coverage of the campaign is already different from l988. "We have taken considerable pains to ensure that our coverage goes beyond the horse race," he says. "We meet regularly and define important stories to be done. For instance, during the first week of the Clinton story [on his alleged adultery], 'NBC Nightly News' used less than four minutes to cover it. Coverage on the issues [was] quadrupled. It's very interesting that no one noticed."

Just after the President's State of the Union address, CBS offered viewers an opportunity to call a toll-free number to express their reaction to the President's speech and the economy. The program drew a staggering number of responses: 24.6 million calls.

WE used a fairly heavy dose of technology that we hadn't used before," says Lane Vernardos, director of political coverage at CBS. "This represents a significant ratcheting up of the [attention] we're paying to the issues in l992 versus l988." The program was the first in a month-long discussion of issues on various CBS programs.

The other networks will offer various specials on issues between now and the general election. For instance, on Feb. 2, CNN offered two documentary films under the title of "The People's Agenda" and will present several more during the year. On cable stations, C-Span regularly offers complete speeches of the candidates and coverage of the campaigning.

"There's a fundamental difference so far this year as compared to l988," says Mr. Wheatley at NBC News. "It's what the candidates are talking about, and what the voters are interested in. The fact is, we're in a major recession, and the public is focused on issues. If you go through the [media] coverage already, I think you will have already seen an improvement."

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