Oct 1 1992

Democracy Vs. Punditocracy

The handful of insiders who shape campaign news

Two years ago, NBC News senior vice president Timothy Russert penned a widely read op-ed (New York Times, 3/4/90) criticizing broadcast coverage of the 1988 presidential campaign. According to Russert, “the public felt cheated by the emphasis on flag-waiving and furloughs rather than on deficits and defense.” Russert insisted that in the future, the networks needed to avoid photo ops, while providing coverage of the issues and candidates records.

Despite Timothy Russert’s lofty suggestions, network television coverage of the 1992 presidential campaign has looked eerily like 1988, complete with liberal-bating, stories of marital infidelity, an overemphasis on strategy and “horserace” coverage, and soundbites from the same small group of political pundits—nearly all white and male—who monopolized discourse during the 1988 campaign.

Off-Track Reporting

Horserace stories, which focus on predicting who will win, have always been broadcast media’s main fare, and 1992 has been no exception. Campaign strategy, polls and discussion of advertising tactics predominate; if issues are discussed at all in horserace stories, they are merely fodder for color commentary down the backstretch.

A CBS evening newscast (7/23/92) that used abortion as the backdrop for a story on campaign strategy illustrates this kind of coverage. Paula Zahn’s lead-in stated: “It’s just what the Bush-Quayle campaign didn’t need. Another election year controversy involving the vice president. It began with a statement that Dan Quayle made about abortion that appeared to put him at odds with the President.” The impact of the vice president’s comment on the campaign was discussed; the implications of the president’s proposed abortion ban were not probed.

Two of the most important sources in horserace stories are spin doctors and political analysts. Spin doctors are the hired guns of candidates, who typically insulate their candidate from probing questions. Political analysts are retired spin doctors or spin doctors whose candidates have already dropped out of the race.

According to Burrelle’s Broadcast Database, which contains transcripts of news broadcasts from ABC, CBS, NBC and National Public Radio (NPR), the three leading spin doctors of President Bush’s re-election campaign–Robert Teeter, Fred Malek and Charles Black—made more than 129 broadcast news appearances between August 1991, the month that Bill Clinton decided to establish a presidential campaign committee, and July 15, 1992.

The three leading advisers to Bill Clinton—James Carville, Frank Greer and Mickey Kantor—made 82 appearances since August 1, 1991. Ross Perot’s troika of spin doctors—James Squires, Thomas Luce and Morton Meyerson—made the news on 80 occasions.

Many other political analysts from both parties appeared during the primary season. Between August 1, 1991 and June 3, 1992, when he was named co-manager of the Perot campaign, Republican Ed Rollins made 20 appearances. On the Democratic side, Bob Beckel (53 appearances), Robert Squier (53) and Ann Lewis (17) were the most featured strategists. Other Republican consultants who appeared included Eddie Mahe (15) and Douglas Bailey (14).

Typically, such sources contribute a partisan spin to a horserace or strategy story, as when William McInturff, identified as a Republican strategist, told CBS Evening News (3/12/92): “Sooner or later you’ve got to remind people of what it is that you’re proud you have done as president and what you’re going to do in the future. And I just don’t know that that’s coming across right now.” McInturff’s suggestion that Bush has a record to be proud of went unquestioned in the report.

Pollsters also play an important role in horserace stories, pontificating about the meaning of the previous day’s survey. In addition to frequently appearing pollsters Harrison Hickman (30 appearances), Linda DiVall (28) and Peter Hart (21), other pollsters who appeared in 1991-1992 included Republican Neil Newhouse (12 appearances) and Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg (9).

Beltway Savants

Rounding out the horserace and strategy stories are Washington pundits, who claim to know what voters in the rest of the country are thinking. As pundit Thomas Mann noted on the CBS evening newscast of April 18, 1992, “The public is unhappy. It’s anxious, believes that the country’s on the wrong track. It’s hard to get excited about a race when the constant refrain is the inadequacy of the people seeking office.” (Mann didn’t note that many voters may also be tired of hearing from Beltway-based savants.)

Unlike the horserace analysts, who rarely say anything not related to winning elections, the Washington pundits frequently speak about policy issues. During 1987-1988, a small group of former Republican officials and representatives of Beltway think tanks had a virtual lock on these discussions on network television. In the two years preceeding George Bush’s election, Washington punditry was dominated by for Republican officials like Kevin Phillips (43 appearances), Stephen Hess (19) and David Gergen (24), and by William Schneider(58) and Norman Ornstein (42) of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank.

According to Burrelle’s Broadcast Database, the Washington pundits who monopolized discourse during the 1988 campaign are doing so again in 1992. Between August 1, 1991 and July 15, 1992, Kevin Phillips was quoted 97 times by the three television networks and NPR—that’s about twice each week. David Gergen appeared 32 times, and this doesn’t count his weekly appearances on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.

Norman Ornstein appeared 30 times, not counting appearances on CNN, where William Schneider is currently employed as a news analyst. Other AEI representatives who shaped the news during the 1991-1992 campaign period included Suzanne Garment (10 appearances ) and Ben Wattenberg (5).

Aside from Schneider, who is now under contract with CNN, the only top political pundit to make fewer appearances during 1992 than 1988 was Stephen Hess, now at the Brookings Institution. He appeared only eight times between August 1, 1991 and July 15, 1992. During his limited appearances, Hess managed to explain why Bush’s popularity had plummeted (“I think what’s happened was the president was up so high that he almost forgot what it’s like to be down”), and why marital fidelity had remained a campaign issue (“Jefferson was accused of having a black woman as a mistress. Andrew Jackson was accused of being an adulterer. Grover Cleveland was accused of siring an illegitimate child.”)

Although Hess’ appearances declined, appearances by his Brookings colleague, Thomas Mann, were up. Mann only appeared three times in 1987 and 1988, but has popped up 32 so far during the 1992 campaign. Because Mann is considered a “congressional expert” by the media, he is used to commenting on Capitol Hill in addition to news about the presidential race.

From TV to Print

The pundits who dominate discourse in broadcast news also provide analysis for much of what appears in print. CBS “news consultant” Joe Klein writes for Newsweek, David Gergen is with U.S. News and World Report, Kevin Phillips is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and William Schneider is a columnist for the National Journal and a contributing editor of Atlantic magazine and the Los Angeles Times.

Not only do the oft-quoted pundits write for print media, but they are a constant source of quotes for newspaper reporters. Their thoughts appear repeatedly in newspapers such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. Even regional newspapers are filled with their analyses. Between January 1991 and March 31, 1992, the Minneapolis Star Tribune quoted sages from the Brookings Institution 94 times. Kevin Phillips was quoted 10 times, and the newspaper carried three of his op-eds. William Schneider, or “Bill” as he is called by Star Tribune reporters, was quoted 10 times.

When Chicago Tribune media critic James Warren asked about the repeated use of the same pundits on network newscasts (2/25/90), NBC’s Timothy Russert said, “People doing a TV piece say, ‘All I need is somebody saying X.’ And you know the familiar people who’ll say that and can speak in 8- to 10-second soundbites.” Although Russert described this as “incestuous,” he insisted that “there is nothing conspiratorial.” Nevertheless, NBC was making a “deliberate effort” to expand contacts with lower-profile academics and others, he said.

Two years later, it appears that NBC has been as successful in expanding its list of pundits as it has in moving away from soundbites, photo ops and horserace stories…which is why 1992 campaign coverage has been nearly identical to that of 1988.