Apr 1 1992

On the Campaign Trail

Public logic vs. press logic

The relatively low national stature of the “major” Democratic candidates might logically have led people to pay attention to alternative candidates. But when I spoke to journalists, many immediately adopted the perspective of their sources in the Democratic Party Leadership, which they told me was more concerned than ever about not giving the impression of putting forward “a field of unknowns.” Thus, the journalists seemed even more concerned about giving “undue” coverage to “fringe” candidates. (While journalists seemed very sensitive to the possibility that giving Larry Agran coverage might unduly boost his campaign, they were hesitant to admit that not covering him might unduly hurt his campaign.)

When even the New York Times (2/2/92) wrote that George Bush has no “blueprints for the future” of our country, and that he has little competition among the major presidential contenders or in Congress, many people I know saw this as evidence that the mainstream media should look beyond the typical political spotlight. But the national journalists I spoke with seemed to see this state of affairs as a reason to protect the “insiders” even more. One journalist told me: “One of the problems that people in D.C. see in the presidential primary season is that anyone can run. There’s a body of thought among insiders that this is not necessarily a good thing.” He noted that there is a “divisiveness” that comes from candidates attacking and running against “the institutions the run the country.”

When Gov. Wilder dropped out of the race, many people I spoke with felt that there was now an “empty chair” for another candidate. But journalists had the opposite reaction: “We can’t wait to winnow the race down even further,” said one. Another journalist complained that “every extra candidate means another reporter and another $150-a-day hotel room.”

Asked about the lack of media coverage of Democrats not supported by the party hierarchy, and of third-party candidates, a journalist told me, “That battle was lost 200 years ago, when we didn’t set up a parliamentary system. We have two parties and that’s it.”

Most of the voters I know are hungry for a candidate with new ideas, and they see a presidential primary campaign as fostering a national dialogue on key issues. But the national journalists I spoke with mostly saw the campaign as a horserace: “If we don’t think that you have at least some chance of being elected, you don’t get any coverage,” said a senior editor at Newsweek.

“An election is not a matter of who is the smartest, the most articulate, or who has the best ideas,” a reporter at the L.A. Times told me. “It’s much more complicated than that. What it really comes down to is who can win the most votes.”