The question is not whether the media were unfair to George Bush, or whether the media were unfair to Bill Clinton. The question the media have to ask themselves is whether they were fair to the American people.
After 1988, an election year dominated by non-issues, deceptive attacks, substanceless one-liners and photo opportunities, the media promised they would do better this time. Just how little has changed was illustrated by an anecdote reported by the Washington Post (10/23/92)—buried in a chronology of a day on the campaign trail.
The Bush campaign had staged an event at a restaurant called the Waffle House—an attempt to convey the message that Clinton was a “waffler.” The problem was, there was no reference to Clinton’s waffling in Bush’s speech that day; in the terminology of campaign spin doctors, there was no soundbite to go with the photo op.
This was apparently seen as a crisis by one of the reporters covering the Bush campaign: “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!”
Bush eventually came up with a waffling allusion, but it didn’t satisfy Compton, according to the Post account. “It’s still not quite right,” she complained to Clarke. Compton, who was helping Bush package an attack on Clinton, was one of the journalists selected to pose questions to the presidential candidates during the debates.
Does this blatant participation in the Bush campaign mean that Ann Compton or ABC News favored Bush? Probably not. Clinton got his share of photo opportunities, with all the shots of bus trips and hay bales. The Waffle House anecdote shows that the press is not just a passive victim of Lee Atwater-style manipulation, but at times an active participant in turning politics into show business.
Reporters who covered the 1992 campaign need to ask themselves a series of questions about how much coverage differed from 1988, and what can be changed for 1996.
Did Journalists Raise or Lower the Level of Debate?
The media’s hunger for staged minidramas led to an overemphasis on attack lines and “zingers”—politics that could be explained in a punchy two-minute segment or an attention-grabbing headline. Occasionally commentators would bemoan the fact that name-calling had become the building blocks of campaigns, but more often pundits seemed to approve of anything they saw as “good politics”: “‘Ozone’ is a wickedly effective nickname for Al Gore,” John Chancellor said in an election eve commentary (NBC, 11/2/92),
Political commentators also cheapened political discourse by substituting “beauty contest” judgments for discussions of what the candidates were saying. By the last presidential debate, the standards were embarrassingly low:
“The president really woke up tonight and I think came alive,” PBS‘s David Gergen said (10/19/92).
“It was the most spirited and aggressive performance he’s had in a debate so far,” was the evaluation of ABC‘s Brit Hume. “On the Iraqgate matter, he made a strong, I thought strongly worded defense of his policy, his actions toward Saddam Hussein.”
It is a mark of how removed pundits are from the substance of debates that Bush can face specific charges from two opposing candidates that he promoted a hated enemy, and this can be considered a plus for Bush—as long as he appears “strong.” Or “spirited.” Or “animated.”
These qualities did not seem to impress voters—in all three debates, polls ranked either Perot or Clinton as doing best—so Bush was not the “winner” because what he said swayed voters. He “won” the last debate because his soundbites, attacks and one-liners were what the network spin doctors identify as good debating—an indication of how media commentary can lower the quality of debate.
Was Political Reporting Focused on Issues?
To most voters, reports on campaign strategy and candidate trivia are not as important as discussions of how the election will impact the issues that affect their lives. A FAIR analysis of campaign coverage by the three broadcast networks (from 8/21/92—the day after the Republican convention—until 10/1/92), however, found that only 17 percent of their election stories focused on policy issues. 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 were wholly focused on domestic scandals or impacts. 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 six weeks studied. In that time, as many reports dealt with the candidates’ alleged resemblances to Harry Truman (4 segments) as with AIDS, welfare and the environment combined.
Did Media Get Sidetracked by Candidates’ Personal Lives?
Even more than in 1988, the media were absorbed by reports and rumors about candidate’s personal lives. In FAIR’s survey of network campaign reporting, the single topic covered most frequently was Clinton’s draft record—the focus of 18 segments, 7 percent of all campaign coverage. Although the credibility issue raised by Clinton’s account of his draft record was 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.
The fascination with the “character issue” disproves those who argue that journalists’ personal views determine what stories get covered. It’s likely that few reporters who focused attention on issues like the draft, marijuana, extramarital sex and cookie-baking thought these subjects were important in themselves. Yet they followed what was essentially a New Right agenda, largely because Republican strategists determined that they couldn’t win a campaign based around the economy (New York Times, 7/4/92).
Did Media Debunk Candidates’ False Claims?
Perhaps the most important role that the media can play in an election campaign is debunking candidates’ false claims. The media did more of this than four years ago, but it’s still something many journalists seem squeamish about. As Michael Kinsley noted in the Washington Post (9/3/92), “Eventually the press throws up its hands and declares wearily that both sides have called each other dishonest long enough and it’s time to move on.”
Often journalists were so reluctant to appear to be taking sides that attempts to correct the record were fudged. In the vice presidential debate, Dan Quayle charged that Al Gore’s book proposed that “the taxpayers of America spend $100 billion a year on environmental projects in foreign countries.” As the New York Times accurately pointed out the next day (10/14/92), what Gore said was that
But the Times, apparently afraid of seeming to say that the vice president was making up facts, included in its description of how Quayle distorted Gore’s book this inexplicable disclaimer: “There are elements of truth in the statements of both men.” The passage was labeled “Truth on Both Sides.”
CNN‘s Brooks Jackson did some of the most consistent and forthright work in setting the record straight “Judging it just on the basis of facts, Dan Quayle is the big loser here tonight,” Jackson asserted (10/13/92) in a post-debate report refuting several of Quayle’s claims. He also corrected some of Gore’s half-truths (like the line that 17,000 people had gone off welfare in Arkansas, when the total number on welfare had actually increased). But as with most news outlets, the isolated attempts to debunk political distortions did not prevent those claims from continuing to dominate the lead news items without being challenged.
There was more analysis of misleading commercials, but much of it was ineffective. Even a strongly worded rebuttal, if only shown once, does little to counteract the endless repetitions of political ads, and some coverage was merely free exposure for the ads’ messages. CBS (10/ 29/92) ran all of the Christian Coalition’s anti-gay ad, which claimed that “Bill Clinton’s vision of a better America includes job quotas for homosexuals.” Rather than correcting this false charge, CBS‘s Richard Threlkeld merely commented: “Some on the religious right are running a TV ad campaign targeting Clinton’s ties to the gay community.”
Did Politicians Determine How They Would Be Questioned?
To get Bush to do three live interviews on Good Morning America (9/28/92-10/2/92), ABC agreed to restrict questioning to three subjects: taxes, crime and healthcare. “We wanted to do the economy as well as health issues,” Good Morning America executive producer Jack Reilly told Cox News Service‘s Julia Malone (9/28/92), but the Bush campaign refused.
“Reilly said the agreement for the interviews also rules out questions on Bush’s role in the Iran/Contra arms-for-hostages scandal,” Malone wrote. Malone also reported that Good Morning America cut the deal after “hard bargianing” by Bush official Dorrance Smith. Before joining the White House, Smith had been a top ABC News executive.
When Dan Rather asked to interview Bush at the Republican convention, the Bush campaign replied that Connie Chung could talk to Bush instead. CBS responsibly declined to let the Bush camp decide how the network would cover the convention.
On the other hand, in order to get an interview with Bush just before the convention, ABC‘s This Week With David Brinkley agreed to campaign demands that Brinkley alone would interview the candidate, not the usual panel of Brinkley, Sam Donaldson and Will. According to Brinkley producer David Glodt, the White House “assured us the interview with Brinkley is all we’re going to get.” When Al Gore was interviewed by the show, by contrast, he faced Brinkley, Will and Bush tennis partner Brit Hume (Newsday, 9/29/92).
Did Reporters Follow the Money?
Commentators treated the failure of the predicted anti-incumbent backlash to materialize—for the third election in a row—as a puzzle: Senate incumbents “somehow managed to survive” is how the New York Times (11/5/92) put it The obvious explanation for the mysterious ability of incumbents to be reelected—that they generally have far more money than challengers—went mostly unstated.
The fact that U.S. politics are shaped to a great degree by candidates’ dependence on wealthy funders is the open secret of election reporting. One media forum that violated this taboo was PBS Frontline, which ran a documentary (co-produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting) in the last week of the campaign (10/27/92) that connected the enormous contributions flowing to candidates to the policies the candidates followed—from Cuban exiles, who gave $125,000 to Clinton when he promised to support tightening the Cuban embargo, to ARCO, which gave about $1 million in total to the two major parties, in hopes of drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
One case study Frontline examined was Dwight Andreas of the Archer Daniels Midland grain company, which got a Clean Air Act waiver for ethanol after giving $400,000 to the Republicans; Frontline also noted that This Week With David Brinkley is sponsored by ADM, and that Brinkley and sidekick Sam Donaldson are friends with many of the politicians who benefit from ADM’s largess—connections that begin to suggest why examinations like Frontline‘s are so rare.