Election Coverage Narrowed Clinton's Lead—and Helped the GOP Keep Congress
Why do you need media critics when you’ve got Bob Dole?
In the final weeks of the campaign, as Dole groped for some theme that would prevent him from being buried under a Clinton landslide, the Republican candidate hit on his party’s favorite imaginary enemy: the “liberal” media.
At campaign stop after campaign stop, Dole blamed his dismal poll numbers on the failure of the liberal media to tell the truth about the president’s character: In particular, he accused the New York Times of covering up allegations that Democratic National Committee fundraiser John Huang had unethically or illegally raised money from Indonesians and other Asian nationals.
“They don’t put any anti-Clinton stories in the New York Times,” Dole complained after outlining his fundraising charges (New York Times, 10/31/96), “only anti-Dole stories in the New York Times.”
The only problem is that the press in general and the New York Times in particular have devoted vast amounts of space to the “Indogate” allegations. Far from burying the story, the Times did all it could to push it, assigning Jeff Gerth and Steven Labaton to cover it, two zealous reporters whose coverage of Whitewater, columnist Gene Lyons argued in his book Fools for Scandal, amounted to a vendetta against the president.
In the 14 days before Dole began making his complaints, the New York Times ran 11 news stories focused on the fundraising charges, three of them on the front page. They also ran two editorials criticizing the contributions; the pundit who did perhaps more than any other to push the story was William Safire, who is based on the Times‘ op-ed page.
Race and Casablanca
The Huang story was ostensibly about illegal contributions raised from foreigners and then returned. But what seemed to drive the outrage over the story were two points: that Clinton was accepting contributions from people or corporations who hoped to influence U.S. government policy. And that these people and corporations were Asian.
The first part is indeed a big story, perhaps the biggest in U.S. politics. It’s also in the Casablanca category: Pundits were shocked, shocked to find out that donations of money might be influencing a politician. The fact is that business gave hundreds of millions of dollars to parties and candidates in the last election cycle—all of it self-interested. To give the impression that the party mainly implicated in this corrupt system is the Democrats—who got a little more than half what the Republicans received from business in this election cycle—is disingenuous in the extreme.
As for the Asian angle: When the Dole campaign decided that xenophobia was the way to go in the final laps of the race, they may well have calculated that this is bait the media will almost always go for. Not all outlets were as blatantly racist as Newsweek (10/28/96), with its “Asia Connection” cover’s shadowy, grainy close-up of a thick-lensed, thin-moustached Huang. But few reports questioned the implication that there was something particularly sinister about Asians (or Asian-Americans, for that matter) trying to influence U.S. policy.
When the Republican National Committee was forced to return an illegal $15,000 contribution from a Canadian corporation, we didn’t see any “Canada Connection” headlines. Nor did the $1 million Rupert Murdoch donated to the California Republican Party last year generate any press speculation about whether those of Australian origin have gained undue influence over our politics. (Sure, he’s taken U.S. citizenship—but where do his loyalties really lie?)
While the “liberal” media were front-paging the allegations against the Clinton team, they were virtually ignoring serious campaign violations in the Dole camp. When Simon Fireman, one of the Dole campaign’s finance committee co-chairs, was accused of giving tens of thousands in cash to his employees, who would then write checks for an equal amount to the Dole campaign, the New York Times ran a short wire item in a news briefs column (4/28/96); when Fireman admitted wrongdoing in July and drew a record-breaking $6 million fine (against himself and his business), the Times ran a small piece on page B10 (7/11/96).
That’s it; that’s all the stories the “paper of record” ran on the largest fine in fundraising history. (It was mentioned in passing a few other times, including in a Frank Rich column—10/30/96—that credited FAIR’s efforts to get journalists to cover the story.)
And it’s not as though the Fireman case was an isolated example: The Kansas City Star (9/29/96) reported that DeLuca Liquor, a Las Vegas-based wholesaler, was also laundering illegal Dole contributions through its employees. (The Midwestern daily deserves credit for demonstrating the curiosity most mainstream papers lacked, as does Village Voice press critic Jim Ledbetter.) The Wall Street Journal reported (5/8/96) that Empire Sanitary Landfill was suspected of pulling the same trick (and Dole of introducing legislation on the company’s behalf); in 1988, Dole’s top fund-raiser resigned after Birdview Satellite Communications was caught reimbursing its executives for Dole contributions. Despite the pattern, none of these cases got the attention they merited from leading media outlets.
The scary chairs
If a pro-Clinton bias leads to a pursuit of stories that help Clinton while ignoring or downplaying stories that hurt him, then the press clearly did not show a pro-Clinton bias (and that’s without even going into the stories about Dole’s private life that the establishment media spiked—Village Voice, 10/29/96).
But was the press demonstrating a pro-Dole bias? Not really. It was showing a variety of biases: a bias toward the conventional wisdom, which believed Clinton to be sleazy while attributing to Dole an undeserved reputation for integrity. (See Senator for Sale, Stanley Hilton.) The press also showed a bias toward following the leads of the candidates rather than showing independent news judgment: Dole was making a big deal about Clinton’s tainted fundraising, whereas Clinton wasn’t saying much about Dole’s.
Some have claimed that the media were showing a bias toward the underdog—since Dole was so far behind, harping on corruption in his campaign would be kicking someone when he’s down. But the media love to kick people when they’re down; that’s the safest time to kick them. You don’t see a “bias toward the underdog” when the underdog is a progressive candidate like Jesse Jackson or Jerry Brown; you see piling on.
But corporate media institutions did have a powerful incentive to reduce the gap between Clinton and Dole. Late into the campaign, Clinton frequently led by as many as 20 percentage points in the polls; such a landslide would almost certainly bring in a Democratic Senate and House. (Despite the pundit truism that Americans like to vote for divided government, the fact is that voters, in 1996 as in other years, overwhelmingly cast their ballots for presidential and congressional candidates of the same party.)
This prospect caused extreme anxiety in the U.S. corporate elite, a class that includes the owners of virtually all major news outlets in this country. As a New York Times article a few weeks before the election noted (10/20/96), the CEOs that make up the Business Roundtable, a corporate lobbying group, were mainly for Dole, but they were sanguine about the re-election of Clinton, a president who had demonstrated his unwillingness to challenge corporate power or perquisites. What did make these corporate leaders uneasy was the specter of a Democratic take-back of Congress: “Democratic control could result in a less friendly environment for business,” the bosses worried,and “powerful committee heads would pursue social goals more ambitious than those of President Clinton.”
Not surprisingly, these worries were echoed in the media that corporate America owns. (Westinghouse CEO Michael H. Jordan, who controls CBS, told the Times that maintaining a Republican Congress was “important in terms of preventing any sort of super-regulatory zeal.”) Many news outlets did stories on the allegedly frightening prospect of a return to power of those ambitious Democratic committee chairs. The Washington Post‘s David Broder (9/16/96) warned that “their sights are set on broader and costlier goals than the rhetoric of the recent Democratic National Convention would suggest.” Time (9/30/96), giving the chairs the benefit of the doubt, thought the Democrats might possibly be “a chastened party with the discipline to keep its liberal, profligate instincts in check.”
The New Republic‘s editorial (11/11/96) is worth quoting at length because it captures—though in more lurid terms than most—the conventional wisdom of the Beltway punditocracy:
This torrent of venom is all the more remarkable in that it was part of an editorial endorsement of Bill Clinton’s re-election.
The status quo saved
But no media opinion-shaper believed, surely, that the vote for Congress could be shifted significantly by hand-wringing over the potential leadership of the Ways and Means Committee. What could shift the electorate, and did, was scandal—a steady drumbeat of stories about one party’s unsavory fundraising practices. “There’s no doubt about it, the race is tightening,” NBC‘s Tim Russert announced on the Today show the day before the election (11/4/96). The key issue? Campaign finance. “We asked our people who’s most at fault? And interestingly enough, by a margin of six to one, people said the Clinton campaign, in terms of fundraising difficulties.”
That is interesting—as is the repercussion of that perception: “Two weeks ago. . . the Democrats had a very good chance of winning the House and the Senate,” said Russert. “I don’t think that’s the case anymore, because people have gotten very uneasy about giving Democrats control of the White House and the Congress, in some measure [due] to this whole debate over campaign finance.”
A month after the election, big business was still celebrating its Election Day victory. When the Dow Jones broke 6,500 for the first time, New York Times business reporter Floyd Norris (11/26/96) noted that “the surge has come amid enthusiasm over the status quo election results, which Wall Street hopes offer more of the same.”
Media companies are businesses like any other business. Their stocks, too, were boosted by the failure of the Democrats to retake power in Congress. Three weeks after the election, the stocks of General Electric (NBC), Time Warner (CNN) and the Washington Post Co. were all up more than 6 percent; Westinghouse (CBS) was up 8 percent, Disney (ABC) gained 10 percent and Times Mirror, owner of the L.A. Times, saw its stock soar 14 percent in just 21 days. The re-election of the tested team of Clinton and Gingrich made the wealthy men (and a few women) who own the media—that much wealthier.
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Republican Candor on Media Bias
“There is some strategy to it [bashing the ‘liberal’ media]. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack next time.”
—Then-Republican Party chair Rich Bond (Washington Post, 8/20/92)
“I admit it. The liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures.”
—Republican strategist William Kristol (New Yorker, 5/22/95)
“I’ve gotten balanced coverage, broad coverage—all we could have asked. For heaven sakes, we kid about the liberal media, but every Republican on Earth does that.”
—Republican presidential hopeful Patrick Buchanan (Los Angeles Times, 3/14/96)