Include the Media in Post-Election Evaluations

HOW fair was the press during the presidential election campaign?

Or more properly, how fair were the media? Because newspapers no longer exclusively shape the public perception of the candidates. Add magazines, radio, network television, public television, CNN, cable TV, even small-budget individual television stations using crews and facilities provided by the political parties, and not least of all, in this election, the talk and entertainment shows from Donahue to Larry King. (Some playful pundit suggested that Ross Perot really owed it to Larry King to make him hi s vice presidential running mate).

Each of the candidates at times in the campaign lambasted the press for bias and unfairness. Each could point to examples confirming their charges.

Was there calculated ideological bias? Most reporters, we know, are inclined to be liberal, as publishers are inclined to be conservative. A Times Mirror survey of coverage in earlier elections claimed that the journalists' liberal leanings did not color the character of their reporting. Even as you read this, you can be sure that in journalism schools around the country, professors are preparing surveys of election coverage in 1992 to determine whether there was conscious journalistic bias this time aro und.

But as we wait for the definitive assessments, we can pinpoint a few deficiencies and raise a few questions.

Bridling under criticism of superficial campaign coverage in 1988, some news organizations vowed to do better in 1992, monitoring campaign claims and advertising for truthfulness and devoting more time to issues, less time to personality. But in the contest between depth and gloss this year, gloss often won out.

During the Vietnam War, I remember the Saigon bureau chief of a major US newspaper getting a cabled missive from New York. Its intent was admirable. New York wanted less superficial coverage from Saigon, more in-depth coverage from the countryside. "Everybody out into the rice paddies," was the essential message. "Find out what the peasants are thinking." The bureau staff responded enthusiastically, leaving Saigon leanly covered. But in a week or two there was some minor event in Saigon, and New York, af raid of being scooped, hastily recalled its reporters to concentrate on the breaking story in the capital.

So went worthy intentions in this campaign as news organizations often forsook their commitments to depth reporting and diverted space and resources to personality coverage that seemed consequential at the time. Sometimes newspapers, the traditional vehicle for the communication of serious ideas, were preoccupied by television, the vehicle for the transmission of transitory images.

Few voters, as they entered the polling booths, could have understood the complexities of the candidates' budget proposals, health plans, defense strategies, and other programs for management of an intricate society.

Instead, many voters relied on perceptions gleaned from superficial, 90-minute debates on television, and from smiling repartee on the infotainment shows.

Mr. Perot, with his on-again, off-again candidacy and his addiction to paid commercials rather than press conferences, certainly escaped the detailed scrutiny his background should have had. His account of his dog running off five armed assassins must be right up there with the Nixon White House's onetime suggestion that former President Richard Nixon's collie wiped out 18 crucial minutes of incriminating tape.

Perot's running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, was a political mystery man. Instead of analyzing who he was, the press merely critiqued his performance in the vice presidential TV debate.

Were reporters covering Gov. Bill Clinton consciously or subconsciously rooting for their man? The success of their candidate would carry many of them to new and glamorous jobs covering the White House.

Were they afflicted by the bandwagon syndrome, caught up in the euphoria of an apparently victorious campaign?

Were they influenced by the polls, which seemed to guarantee victory to Governor Clinton?

Were journalists covering President Bush jaded; bored by the prospect of four more Bush years, and desperate for change, any kind of change, to brighten their journalistic lives?

Intriguing questions in the aftermath of another campaign in which the media's function as chronicler and interpreter has become increasingly blurred by its role as participant and influencer.

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