ABOUT 70 reporters were crowded together, their faces pressed up against the glass of a Dunkin' Donuts. Inside, a pool camera rolled as Lamar Alexander, clad in plaid, ate donuts with his children.
"There were relatively few citizens in the area," says Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC News, and they were "looking totally bewildered. I said, 'This is too much.' "
It was another typical day during the runup to the New Hampshire primary, the nation's first and, usually, most intense primary. As dozens of politicians, pundits, pollsters, and hordes of press descended on the tiny state, the media focused with an intensity rivaled only by the frenzy of the last weeks leading up to the November election.
Now that the campaign has quieted, analysts are taking a look back and assessing the news media's performance.
The reviews are mixed. They reveal an electorate that's now more positive about the press, but also a persistent negativity within the news media that, some analysts charge, damages the electoral process.
"The media distorted the campaign to make it seem more negative and less substantive than it really was," says Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington-based media think-tank.
Too much 'horse race'
Dr. Lichter and his colleagues recently did a study for the Markle Foundation in New York, which specializes in how people use media and communications technologies. They analyzed the three leading TV networks' evening-news programs for the six weeks leading up to the New Hampshire primary Feb. 19 and found the amount of "horse-race coverage" - stories about who's up and who's down - was triple that of four years ago.
"Even when [the networks] cover the issues," Lichter says, "they do so from the point of view of how it affects the race. We found only one out of 20 [references to issues] had a reasonable amount of context, while a majority of discussions mentioned the political significance."
But other analysts question the study's methodology. They charge that by looking only at ABC, CBS, and NBC's evening news programs, the Markle study made the media's coverage appear more negative and less issue-oriented than it really was.
"To judge the networks' coverage simply by what's on the evening news is a mistake," Mr. Wheatley says. "The evening news programs operate under severe time constraints and are by definition more news-oriented than background-oriented."
Wheatley notes that all three networks' morning and magazine programs also covered the campaign, often doing in-depth reports. ABC's "Nightline" doubled the length of its program on the night of the New Hampshire primary. CBS had an hour-long prime-time special that night.
"We also did a series on the evening news that was essentially stump speeches, all the major candidates in their own words on ... the major issues," says Sandy Genelius, director of communication for CBS News.
TV news's responsibility
But Lichter and other media critics are not impressed. They say the evening-news programs have a special responsibility to provide even more issue-oriented coverage because they are still the primary source of news for most Americans.
"There is an obligation to give people information they're not immediately interested in," says the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato, a political analyst.
Other media critics say the networks did a competent job in covering the nation's first primary, and they question some of the Markle study's conclusions.
"It's not necessarily a journalistic error to concentrate on the 'horse race' when you're at the height of the primary season," says Andrew Tyndall, publisher of "Campaign Countdown," a weekly report on how the networks are covering the '96 campaign.
Mr. Tyndall argues that the whole point of the primary season is to vet the candidates to determine which are best at mobilizing the forces within the party to challenge the front-runner, in this case, Senate majority leader Bob Dole of Kansas.
"I'd challenge their methodology if they're claiming that Dole and [Lamar] Alexander each ran substantive, issue-oriented campaigns," Tyndall says. "Both were the quintessential horse-race candidates running on their ability to win."
Others argue there wasn't much of a race until Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan began to break out of the pack in early January. Then, they contend, the media had a responsibility to cover it.
"One of the big questions was whether Dole would be disappointed again in New Hampshire and, if so, would he survive until November," says ABC reporter and anchor Morton Dean. "New Hampshire became more a race about survival than it was about issues or philosophy."
But Marvin Kalb, director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics, and Public Policy says there was an over-reliance on the horse race. So much so that, when Pat Buchanan won "by a whisker," he attracted much more attention than the victory warranted, in Mr. Kalb's mind.
"And because there were so many cameras there, so huge an echo chamber," Kalb continues, "his narrow victory was projected across national politics as if he were a far more powerful force than in fact he was."
Better marks from public
A poll done by the Pew Research Center for the People and Press in Washington immediately after the New Hampshire primary found that the public gave the press better marks for its coverage, learned more about the candidates and their positions, and paid more attention to the New Hampshire primary than they had in 1992.
"I don't know if the media were doing a better job, but the public was more fulfilled," says Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "It wasn't discouraged by the horse-race coverage because it, too, was interested in whether someone would unseat Bob Dole."
The Markle analysis also found that 63 percent of the television coverage was negative, compared with 25 percent of the candidates' speeches and ads. To Lichter, that is hard evidence that the TV news media distorted and misrepresented the campaign, doing a disservice to the candidates and the country. But his critics say the analysis of the candidates' speeches and ads was simplistic because it didn't include the rash of negative ads in Iowa that influenced the candidates in New Hampshire.
"I suspect those figures reflect the reporting on the negative advertisements," says NBC's Wheatley. But he also concedes that the news media generally deal less with positive judgments than with finding faults and inconsistencies. "That is something that we all ought to look at carefully," he says.
Lichter also extends an olive branch, of sorts, to the media. He says the "nub" of much of the problem can be traced to the fact that the political parties no longer play a primary role in educating citizens about their candidates.
"We're asking [journalists] to do what the parties used to do," Lichter says. "Even the best intended and most skilled journalists can't fill that gap in our public discourse, because journalism was never intended to do that. It was intended to be a supplement to it."