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Bad news bearers.

The media really were mugging Bill Clinton. Here's the proof.

Back in the Democrats' glory fore they were elected), the Clinton image warriors figured out how to win the message crusade. Swallowing their pride--or what was left of it--the Democrats brilliantly plagiarized from the Reagan-Deaver-Gergen-Ailes gospel of media maintenance: a line of the day, a coordinated theme, populist images. And to their own surprise, it worked.

So when the new team of eager-Deavers took over America in January, it only made sense to stay on the same page. After all, if Reagan could pull the wheelchairs out from under the elderly and still, thanks to gushy photo ops and a pliant press, appear as the old folks' champion, smooth-talking Clinton-- with the fight communications plan--should also be able to have his way. Certainly the parallels between the Clinton and Reagan media strategies have limits, but the Carvillites made no secret of the fact they wanted to keep up the Deaver magic. That meant limiting national media access to the Boss; frowning on presidential news conferences (Reagan had only 21 in his first three years); giving preference to local media markets; catchy visuals; sell, sell, sell; and so on.

Given all that, why did the media--before moderately toning down its belligerence in late June--savage Clinton in his first four months in office? To hear the media tell it, the bad news is all the administration's doing. After all, they say, Clinton's bumbling decisions-from A(ir Clinton) to Z(oe)--would do in even the most popular of politicians, and if that explanation doesn't convince you, the media have offered a dozen or so alternatives, including: Clinton's communications team has been arrogant; the White House press office has gone over the heads of the White House press corps; George Stephanopoulos smirked too much; and so on.

It's hard to argue with all that. And, to a certain degree, they're right (except perhaps for the smirk). But as the press ruminates on the slapstick communications effort, the conventional wisdom tells only half the story. Could it possibly be that the negative tone and content of the coverage has something to do with the press itself?

Not to worry; this won't parrot the tired administration line (any administration, that is) that the media are biased against it. They're not. But unlike administrations from Nixon's to Bush's, the Clinton crowd may be onto something. After being Deaverized, then Hortonized, and then mulling it over for the past few years, the presidential press has at long last taken on a fiercer, less trusting tone--a tone not heard in these parts since the nastiness of Watergate. "The press has a learning curve. The '88 campaign seared them," says Larry Sabato, author of Feeding Frenzy and professor of government at the University of Virginia. "The barbs are sharper; the coverage is tighter. They're going for the jugular."

Although reporters and editors are loath to admit it, a day-by-day comparison of Clinton White House reporters' dispatches with those of the media that covered the past administration confirms Sabato's claim. But it's not just that the press is tougher on Clinton than on any recent administration, but tougher in a very specific way: Because it's constantly looking for the con, the press won't take the bait on the Rockwellian images or be soothed by promises or be bullied by press officers. And if the media sense that they are getting the Reagan/Deaver treatment, woe be it to the messenger--whether it's the president or his flacks.

That, of course, is a step in the fight direction. But like just about everything else that involves the press, it's turned into a caricature. In its zeal to expose presidential hooey, the media see--and report--slickness where

it may not exist. Almost nothing that comes out of the White House, the press seems to be saying, should be taken at face value; hypocrisy could lurk in any and every press release. For Beleaguered Bill, that means his message of the day, even the noblest ones, such as PAC reform, is portrayed as a deception; it means that compromise--any compromise-becomes at best a broken promise, at worst a ruse; presidential trips, even a summit with Yeltsin, are described as Hollywood-style sales campaigns; progress, like the announcement of a national service program, is presented as an unfulfilled pledge; and even pathetic gaffes and loose-lipped friends become "evidence" of slickness. It means, in short, that in the press' zeal to avoid being snookered, it has neglected a crucial part of its job: an objective rendering of the news.

Hard pressed

And just how unobjective have the media been? Consider, for example, that for

Bush, 74 percent of the evaluative comments made by TV reporters on evening news broadcasts during the first three months of his administration were positive, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs. (The only group more likely to comment favorably on Bush was Republicans, with an 80 percent rating.) For Clinton, just 21 percent of the comments made by reporters have been positive. In fact, all other groups except Republicans--and that includes interest groups and foreign sources--were more likely to make positive remarks about Clinton than journalists were.

But numbers tell only a small part of the story. For a better picture of the media's double-standard, we'll have to go to the videotape, starting with a comparison of the way the national media handled four similar issues for the new administrations in 1989 and 1993:

National Service: Like Clinton in 1992, Bush in 1988 campaigned aggressively for national service. Bush's ambitious campaign rhetoric called specifically for a full-blown domestic peace corps. Once elected, however, Bush announced that his plan was--to be kind--less comprehensive: In fact, it consisted merely of creating the "Points of Light" foundation, funded with a paltry $25 million federal outlay.

The program, which was unveiled with a splashy photo-op at a New York youth center, where the Bushes touchingly cradled babies and related to a once-stabbed teenager, was trumpeted with glowing reports on all three networks. In fact, ABC News devoted an entire American Agenda segment to a weepy piece on the youth center and the Bush plan. NBC's John Cochran opened his piece with the Bushes entering the center to a cheering crowd: "President Bush chose New York to finish what he started at the Republican convention last summer, when he said volunteer groups could be 'a thousand points of light,"' and closed it saying that if the program is "far from the Great Society, that's fine.... The last thing [Bush] wants is a federal bureaucracy."

Clinton's plan, like Bush's, fell short of his campaign promise--but it came a whole lot closer. In fact, Clinton's $7 billion proposal not only calls for real money, but is expected to involve 100,000 youths by 1997. (Keep in mind, by the way, that John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps enrolled fewer than 16,000 volunteers at its peak in 1966.) How did the press react to the Clinton announcement, which, like Bush's, was presented in a made-for-TV photo-op at a youth center? CBS's Dan Rather offered a two-line news-read drily announcing the plan and then led into the day's White House report: a feature detailing how Clinton had cunningly evaded his pledge to cut the White House staff by 25 percent through a bookeeping maneuver. NBC's Andrea Mitchell, on the other hand, did offer a national service feature--but focussed on the plan's drawbacks. "Five million students now have college loans and could have assumed they'd be eligible," she reported, "but Clinton's plan would cover only a fraction of them." She added that "some critics worry that Clinton's proposal, small as it is, could be a boondoggle." After a scholar slammed the program, Mitchell closed: "Once again, Clinton has proved that there is big difference between what he promised as a candidate and what he can deliver as president." The print press was even less generous: The Washington Post's front page story led not with the plan but by stating that Clinton had, in preparing the program, buckled to a special interest, watering it down from the original version. "Despite the grand words . . ." The Wall Street Journal reported, and "though smaller than the president had led audiences to expect, the program was introduced with a Clintonesque flair."

Education Reform: Clinton's campaign pledges for education reform, while ambitious, still did not match the scope of those made in 1988 by Bush, who had, after all, pledged to become our education president. What did Bush eventually present in April 1989? Not only was his "reform" package mostly a compendium of pilot programs, but he had reneged on his most basic promise: to increase the level of spending for education. In fact--in a move that would certainly be labeled a Slick Willie in 1993--the Bush plan, which was trumpeted as a 2 percent spending increase was, in reality, with inflation factored in, an education cut.

The coverage? Again, it was universally favorable. Not one of the networks and few of the major papers noted the gap between the plan and the promise. Even worse, all three networks fell for the funding level charade, parroting the administration line that spending was upped. ABC News' Brit Hume, for example, featured a Democratic governor--who the Bush people had conveniently offered up for this very occasion--who praised the plan as "a strong new commitment." In print, The Los Angeles Times' front page story led saying that the Bush plan "backs up his campaign pledge to become the 'education president'... [with] a program intended to 'make excellence in education not just a rallying cry but a classroom reality.'"

Four years later, almost to the day, Clinton proposed a plan that, while it fell short of his campaign pledge, was not only more comprehensive than Bush's, but also closer to the rhetoric of his campaign (such as promising increased funding, which he came through on). Even so, Tine labeled the plan "pallid," saying it "avoids all the toughest issues" and charged Clinton with break news organizations, such as The Boston Globe, stated falsely that Clinton was trying to fob off Bush's old plan as his own. And on TV, consider the negative tone of NBC's report, the thrust of which was that "some teachers today were skeptical," and which featured two teachers and an education expert, all of whom criticized the plan. "Probably just another level of paper that will have to come down," says one teacher. "We'll have to fill out something."

PAC and Labby Reform: In 1988 Bush not only campaigned for PAC reform--as did Clinton in 1992--but also came through with a plan in his first 100 days. Coverage of the Bush program was straightforward and positive. ABC News' Ann Compton, for example, said that the plan came as a "surprise" to Congress and labeled it a "PAC attack." The Washington Post's story led calling the Bush plan "a wide ranging package of ethics proposals for the three branches of government and... broad reform in campaign financing laws." Even the paper's editorial page labeled it "a workman-like and valuable job ."

Yet while Clinton's plan is without question bolder, more comprehensive, and more detailed, the press, from The New York Times to Newsweek, has focussed largely on the Clinton con--that is, how the president and the Democrats have continued, even as they have proposed reform, to take money from special interest donors. CBS News' Rather, for example, offered: "Candidate Clinton said he would deliver ... on election campaign reform. Today, President Clinton came out with his plan for what is called campaign reform ... Correspondent Eric Enberg looks past the photo op .... "Enberg's report jabbed at Clinton for hypocrisy and noted that while Clinton was proposing reform, he and other Democrats were still taking thousands of dollars from "fat cats" and "influence brokers." That's good reporting, of course, but where were Enberg and the rest of the probing pack in 1989 when Bush proposed his reforms? Hadn't Bush and the Republicans continued to take money from PACs and lobbyists too?

The Populist Con: For presidents, the populism dance comes with the job. So when horse-shoe-playing-Bush-who was about as elitist as presidents get these days--played the game, the press reacted about as expected. "No longer the Yale yuppie with a silver spoon in his mouth," NBC's Andrea Mitchell reported in April of 1989, "no longer the attack dog of the campaign. The new image: a guy who could live in your hometown." The same month, Newsday reported that in place of the "the Reagan glitz and glamour... have come a tumble of children, grand-children, and in-laws the likes of which the White House has not seen since the days of John F. Kennedy. There are newborn puppies in the parlor and a freshly dug horseshoe pit in the back yard." In the meantime, the press dutifully ignored, for example, Bush's Kennebunkport trips, which routinely caused traffic backups and even interfered with the livelihood of local lobstermen, just as they had looked the other way when Ronald Reagan spent $50,000 of taxpayer money on planes and helicopters for a weekend excursion to Rancho del Cielo.

But for Clinton (even before the hair-care fiasco), the media made an outright mockery of his man-of-the-peoplism (despite his far more humble roots), from the White House jogging track to The Washington Post's photo spreads whenever an administration biggie buys a pricey home.


It's not, however, just what the press has been reporting, but what it hasn't. Apparently in a feverish attempt to avoid becoming ventriloquist dummies for the Clintonites, the media have routinely glossed over and even taken pot-shots at the president's message in cases where a little Reagan-era flacking might have been entirely legitimate. A few examples:

* When Clinton took his act to California on May 18 to hype his jobs and defense conversion programs--neither of which had received air time on NBC--Andrea Mitchell's report not only ignored the Clinton proposals, but rambled through one negative image after another. After opening with a shot of presidential hecklers ("You broke your promise"), she reminded viewers of how Clinton said he had found himself "surprised" at the size of the deficit when he came into office. Mitchell then commented on his Hollywood connections ("To fix the president's image, the Hollywood producer who staged all those campaign bus trips showed up today"), before closing by saying that if Clinton has his way, we are all likely to face higher taxes.

* CBS took that same set of events and butchered the message even further. Also virtually ignoring Clinton's proposals (the jobs plan is mentioned only in reference to Clinton's troubled relationship with Congress), Susan Spencer's story covers: Clinton's ditching his middle class tax cut pledge; a soundbite from a woman who asks Clinton about his plan to convert defense industries to civilian projects ("What is it supposed to convert us into, except jobless, homeless, and hungry?"); high unemployment in California; and the "you broke your promise" hecklers.

* One of Clinton's fleeting moments of glory in May came when the House Ways and Means Committee passed his tax package. But NBC's Mitchell had other images in mind: "Today was mostly good news," she starts, and then explains why it was really a "black letter day." She proceeds to take us through a two minute tour of the dark side of the Clinton presidency.

Clinton's tax package, she explains, will hit small business owners hard; the president is being attacked by Ross Perot; "Many view [Clinton] as a tax-and-spend Democrat;" "the president's ratings in the business community have plummeted;" Clinton's deficit reduction fund is, according to Republicans, a "shell game," and according to an independent analyst, a "gimmick." She closes relatively mercifully, saying the "point of [the economic plan] is to make the President appear more accountable, more concerned about deficit reduction ."

* One of the President's few foreign policy highlights came on April 15, when he rallied seven nations to pledge $28 billion in new aid to Russia. CBS' Dan Rather granted this news a 10-second read before turning to correspondent Susan Spencer, who then proceeded with a full feature on the administration's ill-fated value-added tax trial balloon.

* Similarly, the administration's program to provide free vaccines for every child in America merited a short news read from NBC's Tom Brokaw, who provided neither an explanation of the plan nor any other detail. The feature report that followed, however, took viewers to New Haven to explain how "free vaccines won't alone solve the problem." On ABC, a story about the vaccine plan didn't take viewers that far. The network's report on the compromise that led to the final vaccine plan--a compromise that experts agreed made the plan more affordable and more closely targeted to the truly needy--focussed almost exclusively on Clinton's waffling; the piece ignored both the substance of the plan and its improvement. "The White House has now backed away from the one health care proposal the President has already made," reported correspondent Brit Hume. "On immunization, Mr. Clinton did more than just compromise--he agreed to a major overhaul of his plan. If this happens on health care, what emerges from Congress may not much resemble what Mr. Clinton sends up there ."

With friends like these ...

Obviously, something's bugging the media. Of course, the press is not monolithic. Even so, if you talk to enough reporters, a pattern emerges. For one, their prickliness towards the Clinton administration is, to a degree, personal. Most reporters are closer personally and politically to Democrats, which means that the press' standards with Democrats are generally higher. (Jimmy Carter was victimized by the double-standard problem as well .) At the same time, the natural reporter-Democrat bond means, ironically, that many reporters may be more willing to take liberties that offend their Democrat administration sources; some reporters admit (although not for attribution) that they feel more compelled to tread gently when dealing with Republican sources simply because they fear losing access.

Personalities aside, there's a more Clinton-specific reason why some reporters have been eager to paint the president as a con-man: They, rightly or wrongly, believe it. "He's not straightforward," explains Julia Malone, White House correspondent for Cox newspapers. "This feeling is not only of him, but his staff." Adds another White House reporter, who asked not to be quoted by name, "He's incredibly charming, but he lies. That's fight, Clinton lies. Reporters hate that. I sympathize with his efforts, but it's easy to find yourself being angry with him."

Of course, no White House reporter who wants to keep his job until the next photo-op would dare let such an assessment slip into copy. So some do the next best thing: They show it, or at least try to. This helps explain why the media made such a hoo-ha about the travel story, the hypocrisy on PAC and lobbying reform, and the ersatz populism. They show it in dozens of smaller, subtler ways as well. On June 1, for example, The New York Times devoted an entire article to explain that Clinton had stepped out the previous day to play three holes of golf. Why an entire story for three holes? "The White House," the piece notes a few paragraphs in, "concerned about Mr. Clinton's image these days, had spent much of the day trying to avoid any mention of a presidential golf outing." The piece then takes the unusual step of explaining how the story was reported: "Mr. Stephanopoulos said early in the day that the President was going to Quantico, Va. to present awards at a golf tournament, and he insisted that he did not actually play golf. 'He had too much work,' he said. But Mr. Stephanopoulos called back to say there had been some 'confusion' and that the President did play."

Rose-colored window

To truly understand the media's recent edginess, however, you have to go back to the seventies. Watergate and Vietnam made the media realize that they were being manipulated by the communications gurus, and that turned a previously fangless press nasty. Into this minefield stepped Ford and then Carter. But by the time Reagan was elected, the cynicism shtick had grown old; the press--perhaps reflecting the mood of the nation, or weary of being labelled unpatriotic--mellowed its tone.

The timing couldn't have been better for the Deaverites who were not only able to sell up-beat images of their man's ability where he was making progress (such as in dealing with the Soviets) but also in areas where he wasn't, such as officiating at the Special Olympics (he had proposed cutting the budget for the disabled), and dedicating senior citizens projects (he had proposed cutting federal housing subsidies for the elderly). The media, of course, eventually caught on to the Reagan video game and grew progressively more savvy about being manipulated. But old habits die hard, and as Willie Horton proved, by 1988 the press was still malleable. Media cynicism remained, more-over, at bay for the most part during the first two years of the Bush administration, thanks in part to Bush's unique communications strategy--government by press conference. Although the conferences gave the appearance of an open and active president, the reality (as pointed out in a Washington Monthly article in December 1991) was that the briefings, which rarely covered any ground Bush did not want covered, were merely a back-door method of making the president appear tough and active.

But by the third year of Bush's presidency, none of that seemed to matter. Coverage of the President turned decidedly sour. Part of the reason was, of course, the sinking economy. But it's also true that the untold numbers of seminars, articles, and books self-reflecting on the presidential cons of the past few years were beginning to sink in. The result was to throw the skepticism machine back into high gear.

That helps explain not only the press's prickly aversion to any form of phoniness--real or perceived--in the current administration, but the harsh treatment Bush received in his last year as president. (By Campaign 1992, the old tricks were no longer working: Bush's sudden incarnation as a "reformer" might have flown in 1989, but it drew only mockery in 1992. The press even dug up and hit him for his failure to meet those long-forgotten campaign promises.)

Clinton benefitted from a cheerleading media during the second half of the campaign, but when he moved into the White House, he faced what was for the most part a new set of reporters--a group that continued its work on Clinton where it had left off on Bush.

In one sense, we should be grateful for the media's tougher tone. "No one," says The New York Times's Andrew Rosenthal, who covered the Bush White House, "wants to be played for a chump." That's true, of course, but it's also true that avoiding the presidential hustle doesn't require leaving fair play behind.
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Title Annotation:Bill Clinton in the media
Author:Georges, Christopher
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Previous Article:Myth information.
Next Article:The shell game.

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