More politics, less reporting

National | Why won't they just admit it? Journalists don't merely "cover" politics, they shape the political agenda

Issue: "Campaign 2000," July 29, 2000

Citizens trying to pick a presidential nominee in the primary season of 2000 would have been bewildered if the only goal were to vote for a winner. The conventional wisdom generated by media pundits seemed to shift with the seasons. Last summer, voters were told that Vice President Al Gore would have no serious opposition, while Texas Gov. George W. Bush faced a myriad of tough opponents. Then, by fall, the prognosticators said Vice President Gore would be lucky to beat Bill Bradley, while Gov. Bush would have a cakewalk. Then, in the winter, the wise apples said Mr. Bush would be lucky to beat Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and Mr. Gore's manhandling of Mr. Bradley only showed what a great candidate the vice president would be. Now, the conventional thinking has slid back to George W. Bush floating above the fray and Al Gore struggling to explain that a double-digit lead means nothing this early. Over the last 12 years, since reporters felt they allowed George Bush the Elder to crush Michael Dukakis, major media outlets have increasingly rebelled at the thought of simply telling where the candidates were each day and what they said. Instead, reporters have decided to tell candidates what stories and issues will dominate the election; as media theorists Robert Lichter and Richard Noyes wrote in 1996, journalists have chosen to be arbitrators instead of narrators. One of the dangers of this approach is that while it's hard to get wrong where a candidate was today and what he said, reporters regularly get egg on their faces by trying to project the campaign into the future. After all, campaigns are often decided not merely on the decisions of campaign managers (and campaign reporters), but by the intangible force of events. Political journalists: Turning reporting into wishful thinking
When reporters use their power as the people's eyes and ears to force a candidate to make decisions based on their impression of the story line, that story line often devolves into a quadrennial reflex of wishful thinking. The race becomes what the media want it to be, not what voters decide it will be. One perpetual story line has Republicans endangering their chances by soliciting the votes of conservatives, while the Democrats are somehow free of ideological baggage. For example, ABC political analyst George Stephanopoulos projected in January that Mr. Gore and Mr. Bradley were "both basically centrist Democrats." But five days later, he applauded Mr. Bush's cautious distancing from conservative stands: "Bush knows in the general election if he goes to the hard-right Republican platform ... on abortion, he's going to turn off a lot of voters, particularly women voters." In one weekend leading up to the Iowa caucuses in January, the CBS Evening News alone used the labels "conservative," "right," or "hard right" 19 times in campaign stories, but did not once issue a liberal label for the Democratic race. That "hard right" is often a synonym for conservative Christians. When George W. Bush suggested in early debates that Jesus Christ was a philosophical inspiration for him, the press wondered whether the Texas governor was hurting himself politically. On an MSNBC debate, moderator Tim Russert asked if Mr. Bush would alienate non-Christian voters. NBC's Brian Williams summarized that event with the notion that Republicans were "strident tonight: anti-gay, pro-Jesus, and anti-abortion, and no gray matter in between." Mr. Williams and Mr. Russert did not consult a CNN-USA Today Gallup poll in December showing that one out of two voters would be more likely to support a candidate who talked about his relationship with Christ. Only a quarter said they would be less likely. When the Iowa caucus results were in, Steve Forbes scored a surprising 31 percent finish in Iowa, and Alan Keyes stunned reporters with a strong 14 percent third-place showing. Both men were interviewed on cable outlets on caucus night. But neither of them appeared on a network morning or evening show to discuss their momentum. Mr. Forbes appeared on CBS's Early Show on the morning of the caucuses, where Bryant Gumbel suggested he was too conservative to have a chance of winning anything. What these men saw instead was ABC's Good Morning America interviewing John McCain for the 11th time in six months. The man skipped the caucuses and received 5 percent of the vote, but he scored the free air time. After the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Bush was portrayed as pinched between Mr. Forbes and Alan Keyes on the "hard right" and Mr. McCain on his left. But reporters wouldn't put "McCain" and "left" in the same sentence. So reporters like ABC's Linda Douglass explained that Mr. Bush faces "the religious conservatives on the right" (two labels) and Mr. McCain, who "has a lot of support from the independent voters here in New Hampshire." Many reporters tried to sell Sen. McCain as a conservative by dragging out his Senate votes during the 1980s. They ignored his recent Senate voting record. In Investor's Business Daily, reporter Daniel J. Murphy found only a few Senate Republicans had a more liberal voting record in recent years. Not every liberal downplayed Mr. McCain's promise to take on the Republican "Death Star." In a cover story in the liberal magazine The New Republic, Jonathan Chait argued: "What began as an isolated heresy on campaign finance is metastasizing into a full-scale assault on the principles that define what it means to be a Republican today." McCain's free ride: Political reporters as a "constituency"
While reporters either ignored Gov. Bush's challengers from the right or demanded they leave the field to serious candidates, they praised Mr. McCain for his talent at making them happy. "He has worked the press constituency just brilliantly. He really has," Newsweek's Howard Fineman announced on MSNBC. "And the Bush people keep waiting for the press to turn on John McCain and treat him rough, and I don't know when it's gonna happen, but if they keep waiting for that, they're gonna be in trouble." After Mr. McCain's dramatic thumping of Mr. Bush in New Hampshire, reporters cheered the idea that the Arizona senator might win in South Carolina and seriously cripple Mr. Bush's candidacy. They allowed Mr. McCain to make reckless negative charges against the Texas governor, but still gave Mr. Bush the lion's share of blame for negative campaigning. On February 10 at a McCain town meeting, Donna Duren claimed her teenage son was close to tears after receiving a phone call informing him that Mr. McCain was a "liar, cheat, and a fraud." Mr. McCain then turned around and charged that Mr. Bush had to stop these phone calls immediately, as if he'd ordered them. Did Mr. McCain have any evidence? He didn't produce any, but wasn't asked to produce it. NBC reported "this Republican race is getting uglier than anyone imagined." CBS said "it's reportedly a pro-Bush line of attack." When Gov. Bush won the state, the press saw only one factually challenged, hypernegative candidate. Newsweek declared Gov. Bush "had been forced to run to the far right and deep in mud." Time said his "slashing tactics" were "ferocious even by South Carolina's down-and-dirty standards." CBS reporter Bill Whitaker mourned: "The Bush campaign and groups that back him have made hundreds of thousands of mailings and calls, blasting McCain with language so tough it made one McCain supporter cry." Another sign of journalists' lack of skepticism toward the McCain crusade came in their descriptions of his campaign bus. A Lexis-Nexis search of national news outlets found only one news story that preceded Straight Talk Express with the word so-called-on the Fox News Channel in 1999. No reports used distancing words like self-described, self-titled, purported, or alleged. A handful of the hundreds of reports took the baby step of noting Mr. McCain called it the Straight Talk Express. Sen. McCain's reputation for "straight talk" took on a new dimension when he traveled to Virginia Beach, Va., and compared religious conservative activists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell to the racist and anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Later, he said they were an "evil influence" on the GOP. Dan Rather didn't find anything objectionable in reporting that "John McCain said George Bush is now aligned with, in McCain's view, peddlers of intolerance, division, and smears." Even those liberal-pleasing attacks didn't cause reporters to find Mr. McCain tilting "left." While evening news reporters or anchors referred to Mr. Bush tilting toward the right on 15 occasions (nine of those using extreme terms like far right) in the week after the South Carolina primary, not one evening news report described John McCain's attack on the religious right as "liberal" or "going to the left" in the week after his Virginia Beach remarks. While CNN clucked that Mr. Bush was listing "farther and farther to the right," the network suggested Mr. McCain "continues to aggressively court Democrats and independents." Reporters grew very close to Mr. McCain on the campaign trail. Weekly Standard political writer and McCain fan Tucker Carlson explained the phenomenon as the McCain campaign fizzled. "There are reporters who call McCain 'John,' sometimes even to his face and in public. And then there are the employees of major news organizations who, usually at night in the hotel bar, slip into the habit of referring to the McCain campaign as 'we'-as in, 'I hope we kill Bush.'"Political labels not slapped on Democrat contenders
While reporters tried to make the Republican race all about the Texas governor's "far right" ties, Bill Bradley was attacking Al Gore as too conservative. He used to favor gun rights, Mr. Bradley warned, and he used to think abortion was the taking of a life. But no reporters warned that the Democratic primaries threatened to tie Mr. Gore down to a "far left" party constituency. Instead, pro-abortion and gay-left groups gravitated to Mr. Gore to prevent the media from highlighting the party split. While reporters found it newsworthy that conservatives were willing to forgo rhetorical red meat from George Bush in the interests of victory, no one was exploring Mr. Gore's relationship with his at least equally extreme political base. Mr. Gore's easy victory over Mr. Bradley came at least in part from the media's affection for Mr. McCain. While Republicans butted heads in February primaries, the Democrats had no votes in between New Hampshire on February 8 and Super Tuesday on March 7. When it was over, Time's Eric Pooley proclaimed that Mr. Bradley's attempts to drag Mr. Gore left were beneficial: "Gore (unlike Bush) had managed to make it through the primary season without straying too far from the center. And now Gore will be more than happy to tuck the 'conservative Democrat' label under his belt and carry it with him into the fall, when it will be a handy way to parry GOP charges that he's a screaming liberal." When Gore aide Maria Hsia was convicted on five counts of campaign finance violations, most of the media whistled past. Newsweek devoted a whole story to how the Republicans want to capitalize on the Buddhist temple fundraiser Ms. Hsia organized, but somehow managed to leave out even a mention of Ms. Hsia's convictions. The magazine groused: "As they chow down on soft money, neither Gore nor Bush will pay more than lip service to confronting the dangers of money in politics." Later in March, Los Angeles Times reporters William Rempel and Alan Miller revealed that the Justice Department's appointed campaign finance prober, Charles LaBella, found an "intellectually dishonest double standard" in Attorney General Janet Reno's decision to appoint independent counsels for Clinton cabinet members, but not for higher-ups. Mr. LaBella cited Mr. Gore as a potential target getting special treatment. But ABC, CBS, and NBC didn't find this worth exploring. That same impulse followed through on lesser political embarrassments. In early June, a poor family living off government disability payments who rented a house from Al Gore within sight of Mr. Gore's Tennessee home received an eviction notice after complaining about the need for household repairs. Once they complained to the local CBS affiliate, the vice president promised to relocate the family and repair the house. When he did neither, and the family left for Ohio, the major media stayed silent. George W. Bush did not receive the same treatment. Once both nominees cemented their nominations, reporters made great noises about how Mr. Bush would placate Mr. McCain, and how much power Mr. McCain could threaten to wield at the convention, while ignoring on a daily basis Bill Bradley's refusal to endorse Mr. Gore until mid-July. And Mr. Bush's administration of the death penalty in Texas became a major subject of network hyperbole, while the Clinton administration's role in increasing the number of convicts on the federal government's Death Row went almost completely untouched.

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