PRESIDENT Clinton has been getting a "bum rap" from the media. No one expected it, least of all Mr. Clinton's media team. Moreover, conventional wisdom about the liberal sympathies of the media can't explain it. After all, if the media are as liberal as the critics claim, then they shouldn't be trashing a newly elected "liberal" president.
What happened to sour the media on Clinton? The answer may be found in the media's treatment of him during the 1992 campaign.
A Jan. 31 headline in the Los Angeles Times presaged the hostility to come: "The Runner Stumbles Instead of Leading, Clinton Fumbles on the Basics." No honeymoon coverage there.
Clinton fared even worse when it came to assessments of his "First 100 Days."
Magazines on the right (The National Review), in the center (The New Republic), and from the left (The Nation), to name only a handful, excoriated him for poor judgments, lost opportunities, and broken promises.
Newspapers were no kinder. "The Hundred Day's War," is how the Washington Post (April 29) characterized Clinton's first 100 days; "Clinton Needs Course Correction," headlined the Christian Science Monitor (May 18), and the Los Angeles Times (May 16) continued the barrage with this assessment: "When Nothing Goes Right, Clinton Faces Off Critics."
"Stunned" is probably the only word suitable to describe how the Clinton administration has reacted to its harsh reception.
To turn such media coverage around, David Gergen was brought on board as a presidential adviser. His experience at media management seems to be paying off. After a disastrous first six months, the administration may be on an "up cycle" in dealing with the media, as Tom Brokaw put it.
Why was Clinton denied the media honeymoon generally accorded his predecessors? A number of explanations have already been provided.
First, many members of the media dislike and distrust Clinton.
Second, the Clinton White House has angered the press corps by limiting access to the president and travel perks for reporters. It used alternative media outlets to end run the Washington media establishment.
Third, the media's hostility toward Clinton is a backlash precipitated by the view that the media were manipulated by the Bush administration.
Fourth, over the years the media have become increasingly cynical when it comes to the presidency.
Clinton does have credibility problems. The White House press office has changed how it deals with the Washington press corps. And there's little doubt that, since Vietnam and Watergate, the media have grown more skeptical of the presidency.
But how the media treat a new president may have less to do with personality, personnel, perks, or pessimism than it does with how the media treated that president as a candidate. Treatment of a new president may be inversely related to their coverage of the president as a candidate for office. The easier the media's treatment of a presidential candidate during the campaign, the harsher will be their treatment once the candidate has become president. Conversely, harsher treatment of a presidential candid ate during the campaign may precipitate a much longer media honeymoon for a new president.
Assorted studies have already documented the great disparity that occurred between the "favorable" and "unfavorable" coverage of major presidential candidates during the 1992 primary and general elections.
Our study of coverage by Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report during the 1992 campaign confirms the widespread charge of media bias. We found that 75 percent of the coverage received by Bush in these three news weeklies was "unfavorable," whereas 60 percent of Clinton's and 49 percent of Perot's was "favorable."
Bush was treated harshly by all three magazines. U.S. News published the largest number of negative pages on Bush at 135, while Newsweek printed 94 and Time published 88. By comparison, Clinton received favorable coverage from all three.
Ironically given its "shrinking president" cover of June 7, Time was the most supportive of Clinton at 56 positive pages, while U.S. News printed 49 and Newsweek printed 43. Conversely, Newsweek printed the most "unfavorable" pages on Clinton at 33, followed by U.S. News at 29 and Time at only 22 pages.
Now that the media have compensated for their favorable treatment of Clinton the candidate in 1992, perhaps both the administration and the public will receive more balanced reporting.