Sep 22 1992

Counterspin No 13: September 22, 1992

A Memo on Campaign Coverage From FAIR

DEBATE EVASION: Bush’s debate-avoiding strategy extends to public television–and PBS is letting him get away with it. Last night, PBS ran the second part of an innovative two-part special called Voices of the Electorate, based on town meetings in black and Latino communities, where voters indicated the issues they wished candidates would address. The producers of the program then presented these concerns to the two major candidates, and offered them a chance to respond. Clinton took them up on the offer, and was taped in two segments totaling seven minutes; Bush declined the offer to participate.

From a journalistic perspective, Voices of the Electorate had done its job in trying to provide balance, and if Bush turned down the chance for exposure, that’s his misfortune and not the producers’. However, PBS has been under constant attack from the Republican Party for the past year, and is currently having its biases evaluated by a largely Bush-appointed Corporation for Public Broadcasting board, which funds PBS. So it’s unsurprising that PBS executives caved in, saying that it would be “inappropriate” for the program to “offer a platform for Gov. Clinton” when Bush had turned down a chance to have the same platform.

The same choice was announced by the producers of Word! Teens Speak Out, a PBS program that was to feature ethnically diverse teens discussing issues with the candidates. When Clinton and Gore said they’d participate, and Bush and Quayle said no, the program was canceled. Not only is PBS teaching politicians that they can avoid debate without cost, but in these two specific cases it is depriving minority communities of a rare opportunity to have their concerns addressed by national candidates.

THE HIGH ROAD: “You can say anything you want during a debate, and 80 million people hear it. [If newspapers later correct the record,] so what? Maybe 200 people read it or 2,000 or 20,000.”
–Peter Teeley, press secretary to then-Vice President Bush (New York Times, 10/19/84)

CREDIBILITY GAP: Some journalists seem to be offering excuses for why they haven’t covered George Bush’s credibility problem as aggressively as Bill Clinton’s. In a Time magazine essay (9/21), Michael Kramer writes that “Clinton’s obfuscations demand greater attention.” arguing that Bush “has a first-term record voters can consider,” while Clinton “has yet to serve.”

One problem with this argument is Kramer’s insistence that the main issues Bush and Clinton seem to be dishonest about–Iran/Contra for Bush, the draft for Clinton–are “less troublesome than the dissembling designed to conceal them.” Iran/Contra, of course, was a secret foreign policy conducted while Bush was the No. 2 U.S. official; lying about it would be a matter of covering up illegal or unconstitutional actions. Clinton’s Vietnam-era draft status has no such intrinsic importance.

But the larger problem is that if voters are to judge whether Clinton is honest, the media need to provide information on the question, “Compared to what?” Scrutinizing the credibility of one candidate and not the other doesn’t do the electorate any favors.

PLAGUE ON BOTH THEIR HOUSES: Other reporters have gone out of their way to equate the two campaigns–reminiscent of journalists in 1988 who couldn’t bring themselves to say which candidate was responsible for negative campaigning. The New York Times’ Michael Kelly (9/1/92) found moral equivalence between Bush’s blatant distortions about Clinton’s tax policies and Clinton’s charges that Bush would cut Medicare.

On Medicare, Kelly wrote, Clinton was “playing around with facts,” “pretty much the same kind of thing” Bush was doing, because he “made it sound as if these [Medicare cuts] were official figures” when they actually “were based on the administration’s mid-year budget review, a document that has not been approved by the administration as a formal proposal to Congress.” This hardly seems like outrageous dishonesty, particularly when Bush has said (AP, 9/7) that the budget document “tells exactly and specifically how to get this budget deficit down.”

MOCK SOPHISTICATION: Some commentators have pointed out how reluctant reporters are to charge a candidate with lying. Michael Kinsley, in a column debunking Bush’s tax claims (Washington Post, 9/3), noted: “Keep the phony dispute going long enough and eventually the press throws up its hands and declares wearily that both sides have called the other dishonest long enough and it’s time to move on.”
Even a conservative like George Will was disgusted with Bush’s campaign techniques, and with the media’s response (Washington Post, 8/26): “Bush operatives constantly whine about the media, but Bush is benefiting from the mock sophistication of journalists who, striking a world-weary stance, say of his campaign dishonesty, ‘It was ever thus in American politics.’ Even if that were true, it would be no excuse, and it isn’t true. This is extraordinary.”

WEDGING MINORITIES: While trumpeting 1992 as “the Year of the Woman,” commentators have generally underplayed the significance of districts being redrawn under the Voting Rights Act, which will bring minority representation much closer to parity in the next Congress. (African-Americans, for instance, are 12 percent of the U.S. population but less than 6 percent of the House; in the next Congress, it will be closer to 9 percent.)

Newsweek, however, didn’t ignore this phenomenon–it condemned it. In the Sept. 21 issue, Jay Mathews calls the Voting Rights Act a “racial gerrymandering machine” that tries to “wedge more minorities into Congress.” As proof of the unfairness of “color-coded congressmen,” Mathews notes that despite attacks on Steven Solarz for running in a Latino-majority district, “Solarz found some Hispanics rallying to him.” Not many, however–Solarz got 26 percent of the vote in a district that was 14 percent white, losing by a wide margin to Nydia Valasquez, who had a small fraction of Solarz’s funding.

Counterspin is written by Jim Naureckas and edited by Jeff Cohen.
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