Jun
01
1992

Sex, Polls and Campaign Strategy

How the Press Misses the Issues of the '92 Election

This sort of thing was not supposed to happen in 1992," the New York Times' John Tierney wrote. After the 1988 presidential campaign, the press had been accused, not least by itself, of "obsessive coverage of supposed character issues, [and] endless analysis of strategies and polls instead of who stood for what." Voters wanted substance, it was said, and reporters pledged to do better. But, Tierney says of his fellow journalists in this election season, "It didn't take them long to be distracted by questions of sex, polls and campaign strategy."

Self-conscious articles like Tierney's ("Now, Journalists Renege on Election Promises," New York Times, 1/31/92) are a prominent feature of this year's election coverage, often running alongside stories which exhibit the very characteristics they decry. To see how papers were following through on their promise of more substantive reporting, FAIR surveyed all news articles on the presidential election in three national papers—the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times—from January 14, 1992, when the New York Times began its special campaign section, through February 19, the day after the New Hampshire primary.

Articles were put in several general categories according to their main content: Issues, Campaign Analysis, Personal Biography, "Hard" News, Polls/Voter Mood, Human Interest/Local Color and Media Commentary. Headlines and leads helped determine a few ambiguous cases; stories that clearly belonged in two categories were credited as one-half in each. The results produce a picture of how the "papers of record" divided their attention—and their readers'.

Coverage in the early, pre-New Hampshire phase of the campaign is critical. Candidates need to receive attention in order to recruit supporters and raise money. Voters need a full and balanced presentation of each candidate's proposals and record in this early stage of the process; after the field has been "winnowed," it may be too late.

Campaign Analysis

The largest category of campaign stories (38 percent) focused on "campaign analysis"—articles that told us which candidate was "breaking from the pack" (New York Times, 1/14/92), which was "feeling the heat" (L.A. Times, 2/14/92) or which might "fade in the stretch" (New York Times, 1/28/92).

Such "horse race" articles are characterized by an emphasis on the packaging and selling of a candidate's "message" or image, rather than a critical examination of the content of that message. They reduce candidates' positions to snappy phrases (i.e., Harkin is an "old-fashioned Democrat") and tend to rely heavily on the opinions and speculations of assorted "experts," "strategists" and "political professionals," who often go unnamed.

Typical of this approach was Robin Toner's January 14 New York Times piece, which reported that, according to "the buzz inside the Capital Beltway," Clinton is "the hot candidate of the post-Cuomo period," who might "wrap up the nomination early." This was because polls showed Clinton "at the head of the pack in New Hampshire, neck and neck" with Tsongas. Kerrey, meanwhile, is "clearly—perhaps desperately—looking for an opening" and "can ill afford another week of underachieving," while Brown is "running more of a crusade than a campaign."

Although a later New York Times story by R.W. Apple (2/18/92) cautioned that "there can't really be a front-runner until a vote is cast"—Toner had laid odds, decisively labeling the candidates and "framing" the race itself as practically a done deal, three weeks before the Iowa caucuses and a month before New Hampshire. This article and many others like it contained no information at all about any of the candidates' proposals, their history of policy-making or their ideas, so readers learned nothing more than who the pundits think is ahead. The closest the piece came to discussing an issue was mentioning that Kerrey's latest TV ad has a "trade-oriented message."

The flimsiness of most horse race stories is highlighted by their empty language. Tsongas "ran against politics-as-usual" (New York Times, 2/19/92)— which candidate ran in favor of it? And Clinton's position papers, according to the L.A. Times (1/31/92), gave his candidacy "an image of substance." There were also "insights" of dubious acuity, such as Apple's assessment (New York Times, 1/21/92) that "for Mr. Kerrey, the challenge is to make himself seem the logical alternative to Mr. Clinton for those who find the Arkansan unsatisfactory for one reason or another."

For the New York Times' Elizabeth Kolbert (2/8/92), on the other hand, "probably the most important thing for Mr. Kerrey to do...is to persuade voters that he could convincingly play the lead." This because "analysts say Mr. Kerrey must show that he has the elusive but seemingly all-important quality: electability." It is hard to see what readers were meant to gain by such surface-skimming "analysis."

When strategy pieces do touch on issues, it is often to portray them as merely political brokering "chits," as when the Washington Post's David Broder (2/7/92) reported Democratic criticism of President Bush's health care plan as "evidence of the opposition party's determination to keep the health care issue for itself." Likewise, a January 26 Toner piece in the New York Times on candidates' stands on abortion rights turns out to be not about principles but "electoral consequences": "Many analysts say that the Republican Party's anti-abortion stance can hurt among moderate suburban voters." The piece concludes that Bush must maintain his hard anti-choice line because "changing again could turn into a 'character' issue."

Kolbert's January 25 New York Times story on the publication by some candidates of position papers focuses on these pamphlets as marketing tools or "props." It is not the content of their economic plans, but simply which candidates are printing them and which are not, that is, in Kolbert's view, one of the "hot new issues of the primary campaign." Kolbert even quotes a Kerrey aide who explains that their campaign has no plans to publish a pamphlet but that "if it did," it would be "40 to 45 pages."

Of course, stories that focus on campaign strategies, rather than on the issues, need not be shallow and lingo-ridden. "Insider" political pieces that go beyond the latest tracking poll and campaign stop can give readers something to think about. A February 13 Post article by Frank Swoboda and Charles Babcock on President Bush's campaign tactics questioned whether Bush's use of sub-Cabinet members to promote his reelection violated the Hatch Act. And Ann Devroy (Washington Post, 1/15/92) used a story about Bush's campaign strategy to contrast words and actions, pointing out Bush's "pattern of substantive shifts on issues" over the years.

At the New York Times, Andrew Rosenthal wrote critical pieces on the financing of Bush's campaign trips and the "White House power struggle" (1/18/92, 1/21/92), and Maureen Dowd (1/17/92) skewered Bush and Buchanan's tactical self-portrayals as "outsiders," warning readers that "these two old Washington hands believe that they can give the impression of being fiery populists with their rhetoric."

The president appeared to be the most popular subject for critical analyses. But Ronald Brownstein's February 8 article in the L.A. Times thoughtfully analyzed the changing tactics of Brown's campaign, indicating both possible weaknesses and signs of success for Brown's "'guerrilla' approach," and noting that most "pundits have refused to take his White House bid seriously." And Thomas B. Edsall's February 11 piece in the Washington Post was an interesting discussion of Clinton's Southern support network that used interviews with party leaders, officials and voters with a number of different perspectives.

A few informative articles dealt not with the strategies of individual candidates, but with the campaign process itself: A January 21 New York Times piece gave readers a peek at the process of gathering endorsements, "an elaborate courtship ritual" between candidates and backers. In a February 6 story in the New York Times, reporter Peter Applebome used the case of David Duke to explain some of the intricacies of state ballot laws and to point out "unresolved legal issues about the roles that parties play in elections."

A quarter of the analysis stories were about candidate's media strategies, with the New York Times and L.A. Times running special series devoted to candidates' TV ads ("The Ad Campaign" and "Ad Watch"). The L.A. Times' Thomas Rosenstiel occasionally used the feature to examine the claims made in commercials; he spotted the inaccuracy in a Bush ad, for example, indicating (2/8/92) that while the ad "implies that all Democrats opposed him on the Persian Gulf War, in fact many sided with him." The Post's Howard Kurtz pointed out that the "economic emergency" Tsongas' ads said he would declare would have no legal force, and showed how a Harkin ad attacking other candidates' tax plans was misleading (2/14/92).

But those articles that inserted a little information into the rhetoric were exceptional; the majority of the "eye on media" stories didn't get past the stylistic level, confining themselves to describing candidates' ads, and often simply parroting their transcripts verbatim. The impression created is that there's nothing more to know: The presidential race really is little more than a show, and recognizing spin is just the same as penetrating it.

Polls

If there was one thing we were not supposed to see a lot of this time around, it was small-scale tracking polls, those "most volatile indicators of public moods" (L.A. Times, 2/12/92) whose margins of error often exceed the trumpeted daily "surges" and "slippages" they purportedly register. The New York Times's Michael Kagay, quoted in the Washington Post (2/15/92), called them "the riskiest and least substantial use of the polling technique that exists." The 9 percent of coverage categorized in FAIR's survey as "Polls" represents only those articles that focused entirely on poll results, and does not begin to represent the number of stories that cited polls.

Opinion poll stories almost never provided readers with a complete picture of the questions as asked. For example, the day after the New Hampshire primary, the New York Times' Robin Toner reported that polls indicated much of Tsongas' support was "from people who wanted a candidate with specific ideas, as well as one who has shown strength and courage." Was this as opposed to those who would have preferred a weak, cowardly nincompoop?

In the attempt to deflate Harkin's claims that polls showed him rallying, the L.A. Times' David Lauter (2/16/92) explained, "tracking polls taken in the final days of New Hampshire campaigns are notoriously unreliable." Why, then, did 17 percent of all L.A. Times campaign stories in the final days of the New Hampshire race (February 14-18) cite these "notoriously unreliable" polls? (For the Washington Post in the same period, the figure is 23 percent; for the New York Times, 29 percent.)

Despite protestations, then, the 1992 election season started off just as poll-laden as any other. In the period we looked at, for example, L.A. Times readers were favored with up-to-the-minute "data" ranging from the merely confusing—"Clinton and Tsongas lead as the fall-back choice for voters who may reconsider their votes" (L.A. Times, 2/9/92)—to downright brain-teasers (L.A. Times, 2/5/92):

Moreover, nine in 10 of those polled believe that the nation remains stuck in recession, and most do not see any immediate prospects for improvement. About one-fifth of those surveyed believe that the economy will improve in the next three months, but about one-fourth expect continued decline and half forecast little change.

"Character" and Personal Biography

The release by the Star of Gennifer Flowers' allegations of an extramarital affair with Bill Clinton occasioned a great deal of soul-searching in the mainstream press. All three papers ran stories with headlines like "Reports on Clinton Pose Quandary for Journalists" (Washington Post, 1/30/92). But the papers' real quandary appeared to be deciding how many stories they could print about the charges while still claiming to be unsure whether to cover them.

The popular solution appeared to be to claim to write not about the allegations themselves (which were acknowledged to be "unsubstantiated") but about the possible, or expected, or imagined effect of the reporting of the allegations on Clinton's candidacy. Papers divided against themselves, printing stories headlined "Clinton Lied in Denying Affair, Woman Insists" (L.A. Times, 1/28/92) alongside breast-beating columns denouncing such coverage, while "voter mood" pieces illustrated how unhappy the public was about the turn coverage had taken.

The story, and all the stories about the story, added up to an at times dizzying display of journalistic self-reflexiveness. "Is it all right to report a supermarket tabloid's allegation of adultery? And if not, why did we just do it, and why can't we stop talking about it?" agonized Tierney in January 31's New York Times. (The Star was so ubiquitously derided as a "supermarket tabloid" that it began to sound like a disclaimer, as if, having shared the gossip, the dignified dailies winked to the reader, "but you didn't hear it from us.")

If John Tierney was the New York Times' appointed conscience, the Post's Howard Kurtz adopted a similarly "distanced" and strangely passive tone (1/30/92), wondering abstractly "whether the mainstream press will pursue the allegations, regardless of whether they ultimately prove to be true or relevant to voters." At that point Kurtz's paper had already run five articles in as many days devoted to the Star's story.

A January 29 L.A. Times article by Rosenstiel explained that editors, while expressing "distaste" for the Flowers story, felt they "had little choice but to follow" it. The "key reason" the allegations were newsworthy, the article said, was the fact that Clinton answered reporters' questions about them. Editors conceded that there was "a certain circularity" to this reasoning: "Reporters raise the issue by asking questions, and then say it is news because the candidate answered." The Washington Post's managing editor, Robert Kaiser, admitted that this was "sort of a cop-out answer" to the question of why the story no one wanted to run wound up as the story of the week.

Rosenstiel's piece describes the New York Times as the "most circumspect" of the major dailies, and quotes executive editor Max Frankel as saying that "in the only language we have, where we play a story, how big we play it, we are telling the reader what we think of this stuff and whether we can vouch for it or not" With this in mind, FAIR noted that the New York Times mentioned the "unsubstantiated allegations" in their campaign coverage at least once a day, every day, from January 24 through February 7.

For a story it disdained, the New York Times certainly drummed an awareness of the allegations into their readers' heads. For instance, a February 7 article on TV ads comments that, in his commercial, Clinton is surrounded by flags and family, "symbols of American virtue," while "in news reports, Mr. Clinton has been forced to battle charges that he had a 12-year extramarital affair."

A striking expression of the New York Times' contradictory stance came on January 28, when it ran an 850-word story on the accusations ("Clinton Attempts to Ignore Rumors") alongside results of a national poll indicating that 80 percent of the public thought the matter had no place in election news. (The story next to that, a "horserace" piece, also devoted six of 14 paragraphs to the accusations of the "former nightclub singer.")

From January 14 through February 19, the New York Times produced 10 stories wholly concerned with Flowers' allegations, Clinton's denunciations, and assessments of the political fallout. The Post ran six and the L.A. Times 11. A similar pattern was followed with the subsequent charges of draft-dodging. Allegations that Clinton had avoided the draft received 10 stories in the New York Times, including a 21-column inch box (2/14/92) detailing Clinton's draft status from 1964 to 1969. The Washington Post ran 11 draft stories; the L.A. Times three. The total of 51 stories about Flowers and the draft in all three papers represented 10 percent of total campaign coverage in the period studied.

Journalists did acknowledge that the coverage was out of sync with voters' interests. As Robin Toner reported (New York Times, 2/14/92) on a Clinton campaign stop: "Throughout the day, the voters asked Mr. Clinton about Medicare, AIDS, the deficit and the future of the Haitian refugees; but the reporters who swarmed around him at every stop asked about the draft." And there were plenty of interviews demonstrating the public's (not to mention the candidates') dissatisfaction. "I know the press is in the business of selling newspapers and getting ratings, but I don't think it's right," the New York Times (1/31/92) quoted a young woman complaining. "I want to hear about the issues."

Missing Issues

The papers of record may defend their decision to print all those stories about and references to alleged affairs, about Tsongas' "sad-eyed expression" and Kerrey's Vietnam experience. But can they defend as easily their decisions not to ask other questions? Not to balance the fluff with serious discussions of social problems and the candidate's specific policies? In the end, the biggest problem with election coverage is not what's in it but what is missing.

From the papers of record we learned that Hillary Clinton likes "medium-hot" chili (L.A. Times, 1/29/92), that, as a boy, Jerry Brown "once refused to wear a funny hat" to a parade (Washington Post, 2/6/92) and that, according to an old Tsongas friend, "no one sat around the pool when Paul was on duty" as a lifeguard, whatever that means (Washington Post, 2/4/92). But did we learn enough about the candidates' proposals and their public records to make an informed choice on election day?

Only 12 percent of the campaign stories could be deemed substantive, in that they provided information on candidates' ideas more concrete than Harkin's pledge to be a "true Democrat" or Buchanan's call to "send a message" to the president. Many of the articles that were counted as issue stories only recited a few facts out of context, or buried them near the end of the piece.

Among the notably informative stories, some were single-candidate "spotlight" features, like David Maraniss' February 3 Post article, which detailed Clinton's policy record as governor of Arkansas, or the Paul Richter and Ronald J. Ostrow piece in February 14's L.A. Times, examining Tsongas' lobbying history. The Post's Dan Balz (1/24/92) reported on the specific points made in a speech by Harkin on military spending cuts without once mentioning Harkin's "craggy face" or his poll standings. The L.A. Times ran a version of the Post's story, also sticking to Harkin's ideas (1/24/92). (The New York Times didn't cover the speech at all; perhaps its space was taken up that day by "Clinton Denounces New Report of Affair.")

There were only a handful of campaign stories that addressed a particular social or economic issue, and compared two or more candidates' ideas about it A February 15 article in the Washington Post by Mary Jordan outlined Democratic candidates' proposals for education re form and contrasted them with Republicans'. And a February 1 Post story by Michael Weisskopf discussed candidates' environmental records, but also pointed out that environmental concerns appear to be "far down on the agenda."

The thrust of both stories, in fact, was the virtual absence of these and other issues from the campaign. The focus of coverage would seem to indicate that, as some of Weisskopf's sources suggest, voters "are so preoccupied with the economy that other issues seem irrelevant." But perhaps reporters just aren't asking the right questions.

If issues like education, reproductive rights and the environment have been pushed to the background, haven't we at least seen some serious attention given to questions of economic policy in this election? Not exactly. While it's true economic issues were often mentioned, the press' explanations usually didn't get beyond the "short form." FAIR'S survey found a total of 12 stories containing sustained critical examination of candidates' economic proposals; five of these were about President Bush.

Anyone who picked up a paper knew that Kerrey had a "healthcare plan." But how exactly was it supposed to work, how would it be funded, what services would it include? A Kenneth J. Cooper article in the February 6 Washington Post was the only one in the period studied to answer these questions with more than a couple of sentences, and to substantively compare Kerrey's approach with that of other candidates. Most stories on healthcare were content to repeat candidates' stump speeches on the matter.

And certainly readers will have heard that Tsongas was "pro-business," or that he was "no Santa Claus." But did they know that he agreed with Bush on the line-item veto, that he opposed legislation barring employers from permanently replacing striking workers, that he called for loosening anti-trust legislation? If they didn't read David Broder's February 16 article in the Post, chances are they didn't know these facts before the New Hampshire primary.

Perhaps no phrase has been bandied about more in discussions of candidates' economic proposals than the call for (or against) a "middle-class tax cut." But only an article by James Risen in the February 2 L.A. Times cleared away the smoke around the phrase, noting that the "nation's median household income...stands at $35,353. But that kind of income no longer represents the middle class as it is defined by political Washington." Risen also illustrated how parts of Bush's tax package that "appear to provide broad-based relief to the entire middle class...actually target their benefits at a much narrower group: the suburban professional class."

A January 19 New York Times story by Gwen Ifill echoed Risen's themes. Its subject is the "invisibility" of the poor and their concerns in the '92 race, as candidates from both parties fall over themselves to "woo the middle class." Ifill questioned whether Democrats are "abandon[ing] their traditional role as champions of the disenfranchised" and cited spokespeople from the Institute for Policy Studies and other "antipoverty" advocacy groups.

Richard Brownstein's February 15 L.A. Times article was a careful comparison of Clinton and Tsongas' "intellectual lineage," their differences and agreements on economic renewal, tax reform, labor-management relations, some social issues and foreign policy. The article was a model in its reliance on real data as opposed to stock phrases, and in contrasting what the candidates said with what they have done. It's unfortunate, though, that Clinton and Tsongas were the only candidates deemed worthy of such thoughtful attention. We could find no such stories comparing the other Democratic candidates.

Reports of debates would seem like natural opportunities for the press to compare (Democratic) candidates' ideas. But while they did repeat snippets of dialogue, these "day after" articles were more interested in fights—who had raised his voice, who had insulted whom—than with what was said or not said. The February 16 debate was "bland," according to the New York Times's Apple (2/17/92), because only when "his rivals ganged up on...Senator Tsongas" were there any "fireworks." Apparently, the candidates merely discussing their ideas made for "less-than-gripping television viewing."

The other preferred angle on debates was who looked best on television: Kerrey was "mostly distinguished for energy of expression," while Tsongas' "hangdog look conforms to his sober message" (Walter Goodman, New York Times, 1/20/92).

The New York Times (1/19) facetiously endorsed telegenicness as a criterion for electing a president: After all, "with candidates so well-trained to avoid the specific or the unpopular, voters can't be sure what presidential policies they will have to suffer through, but they know they'll have to endure the President's talking head every night on television."

But we might ask, more seriously, whose fault is it that candidates, who speak to reporters every day, can so easily avoid the specific and the unpopular? And don't readers, and voters, deserve more than ironic commentary on such a state of affairs?

Conclusion

The media's tendency to neglect the discussion of issues in favor of more "colorful" but less important campaign fare is distressing, not only because readers don't get to learn enough, early enough, about the candidates. Presidential elections should be about more than who wins the White House—they should put issues on the national agenda, begin dialogues and create coalitions among different constituencies, define national priorities and focus public attention on the democratic process. The primary and caucus season is a chance to generate awareness and discussion of questions that matter. The reduction of this process to a winner-take-all horserace represents a lost opportunity for public education and for the discourse and debate vital to democracy.

The press is not responsible for voter apathy or cynicism. Still, journalists might do something to combat that apathy by providing election coverage that critically investigates candidates' proposals and records, and links their ideas to the issues that affect readers' lives. A look at the coverage of the first few weeks of the '92 campaign suggests that while the papers of record acknowledge the challenge, they are not living up to it.