A Memo on Campaign Coverage From FAIR
POLLS, PERSONALITIES, AND PRIORITIES: The Sunday, Oct. 25, issue of the Washington Post is a good example of what’s been wrong with mainstream election coverage this year. The lead story is a typical horserace article: “Presidential Race Looks Narrower.” Next to that was an examination of Clinton’s personality: “What Kind of President? On Clinton’s Inner Steel, Candor and Conciliation, the Evidence is Conflicting.” And, below that, a story about Ross Perot’s campaign strategy: “Perot Card’s Wild in Game With New Rules.”
But a report of newly released documents showing that James Baker had pushed for loans to Iraq, despite warnings from the Justice Department that Iraq had used earlier loans for military purposes? No room for that on the front page–try page A4. This reflects the continuing emphasis on polls, tactics and “character” over real news.
WAFFLE JOURNALISM: Another piece of campaign news from the Washington Post (10/23)–buried in a chronology of a day on the campaign trail–shows that the bad old days of reliance on photo ops and soundbites are still here. Indeed, in this case, according to the Post, ABC News was prompting the Bush campaign to come up with a line-of-the-day to match the nifty visual. The Bush campaign, it seemed, staged an event at a restaurant called the Waffle House (get it?), but there was no mention in Bush’s speech about Clinton waffling. “Ann Compton of ABC News moves urgently from one staffer to another,” the Post reported. “She buttonholes Marlin Fitzwater, corners Torie Clarke, sidles up to Mary Matalin. She tells each one: If you want Waffle House, we need Bush to say something about waffling!”
Was Compton satisfied when this coaching produced a waffling allusion from Bush? “It’s still not quite right,” she complained to Clarke.
FOLLOW THE MONEY: PBS’s Frontline documentary (co-produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting) last night did something that few reports have done this year–connecting the enormous campaign contributions flowing to candidates to the policies the candidates want enacted. Thus, Cuban exiles gave $125,000 to Clinton when he promised to support tightening the Cuban embargo; Dwight Andreas of the Archer Daniels Midland grain company got a Clean Air Act waiver for ethanol after giving $400,000 to the Republicans; ARCO, which hopes to drill for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, has given about $1 million in total to the two major parties.
Also useful was USA Today’s full-page spread (10/23) on where the campaigns get their money.
NETWORKING HARDER?: There’s been talk about how the networks have improved their election coverage since 1988. FAIR decided to take a look at just how “issue-oriented” TV news coverage is this year.
The analysis, conducted by FAIR research associate Kimberly Phillips, found that from August 21–the day after the Republican convention–until October 1, ABC, CBS and NBC did 275 reports on the presidential election. Only 49, or 17 percent, mainly addressed policy issues. A further 31 (11 percent) addressed “character” issues.
ENDANGERED ISSUES: An analysis of the topics covered in this six-week period suggests how difficult it is to cover issues thoroughly when analysis of issues takes up such a small percentage of total stories. The federal deficit was the topic of only three reports; tax policy was featured in four. All stories on economic topics (including taxes, the deficit, jobs and general economic policy) accounted for 19 stories — 7 percent of total election coverage.
Foreign policy issues were covered in only seven stories — less than 3 percent of all reports. And these foreign policy stories had strikingly little to do with foreign countries: The rare reports dealt with whether overseas arms sales were being made for domestic political purposes (2 reports), or examined the Iran-contra (4 reports) or Iraqgate (1 story) stories.
Other stories were covered with similar infrequence. The healthcare crisis was covered in four segments, and family leave was the main topic in another three. “Family values,” promoted as an issue at the Republican convention, were explored in four reports.
No other policy issue was dealt with as often as three times in the six-week period–including such major topics as the environment (2 segments), abortion (1 segment), AIDS (1 segment) and welfare (1 segment). Several important topics, such as education, crime, the military budget, racism and the banking crisis, were not the subject of any campaign reports during the period studied.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lack of treatment of many serious subjects is striking in comparison to the coverage of the so-called character issue. The single topic covered most frequently was Clinton’s draft record–the focus of 18 segments, 7 percent of all campaign coverage. The networks devoted nearly as many reports to the draft controversy as to all economic-related topics put together.
Although the credibility issue raised by Clinton’s account of his draft record are often compared to the questions about Bush’s truthfulness about Iran/Contra, there was markedly more coverage–by greater than 4 to 1–of the draft than Iran/Contra.
Quayle’s draft record was examined in four segments. In the six weeks studied, as many reports dealt with the candidates’ alleged resemblances to Harry Truman (4 segments) as with AIDS, welfare and the environment combined.
Counterspin is written by Jim Naureckas and edited by Jeff Cohen.
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