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Media pass muster in campaign '96.

They like what we do but they're not so keen about the way we do it.

That seems to be the verdict of voters on the performance of the media in the 1996 campaign.

The all-too-predictable Clinton/Dole contest was not riveting, to put it charitably. In a Freedom Forum Media Studies Center survey, a majority of voters wisely put most of the blame for the lackluster affair on the candidates (35%) and themselves (31%) for selecting the standard-bearers. Only 25% named journalists as chief culprits.

Overall, the majority of survey respondents gave the media an A or a B. John Mashek of The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, whose piece opens this issue's symposium on election coverage, thinks reporters and editorial writers did better as the campaign wore on - though campaign finance remained the most-overlooked stow of the election.

Mashek's colleague Larry McGill, noting that other surveys were less charitable toward the media, stresses that The Freedom Forum focused on the "news product" rather than "press conduct." Mashek suggests that editorial writers might earn even better "grades" from readers if they, too, focused more on the "product" of the election - ethics and issues and how they connect to the voters - rather than yielding to the traditional herd instinct to cover polls and the conflict of the week, and indulge in "predictionitis."

As for the quadrennial claim that the "liberal media elite" call the shots, Editor and Publisher's survey of political endorsements may supply a timely corrective. It recorded many more papers endorsing Dole than Clinton, 121 to 81 in its latest count - though the total circulation favored Clinton. Interestingly, a Masthead online solicitation of endorsement editorials for excerpting in the symposium produced mostly Clinton pieces we had to beg for Dole contributions. Is this evidence that editorial writers hate to lose?

E&P's survey turned up a total of 166 papers that were skipping presidential endorsements. The author's claim that this represents a trend was unpersuasive, since the number is not appreciably higher than in past years, and the article originally lumped in papers that had not endorsed by the October 26 issue's publication deadline which left out hundreds of papers, including mine, that had simply not gotten around to it yet.

Still, the arguments used by editors who chose not to endorse were chilling to this editorial writer. An endorsement "belies the paper's purpose to serve as an unbiased fountain of information," said one. "We would have been perceived as being unfair in how we covered the issue," said another. "Major metro papers should be dealing with that issue," said a third.

If picking presidents were the prerogative only of big-city dwellers, I suspect we'd have a revolt in the heartland! And if editorial pages were suddenly obligated to be "unbiased," we would lose our jobs nearly as fast as the commentary pages would lose readers.

While my paper's presidential endorsement may swing a few votes - one way or the other it's the local endorsements that make a unique contribution. The symposium's transcript of NCEW-L's online exchanges chronicles the remarkable nationwide dedication to good local governance through which editorial writers more than earn their pay.

In another piece, Barb Drake in Peoria tells of The Journal Star's campaigns on a couple of local referenda. Quit running election endorsements? She just doesn't get it. "Having been handed the power of the press, I've always figured it was our job to use it." Right on, Barb!
COPYRIGHT 1997 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Fiske, Fred
Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 22, 1997
Words:576
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