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Press bashing is for naught: Republican campaign slogan 'Annoy the media, re-elect President Bush' fails to win a voter (reader/viewer) majority.

AS OFTEN HAPPENS during election years, those "nattering nabobs of negativism" took a bashing from the presidential candidates and their supporters.

The disparagement even got to the point where the slogan "Annoy the media, re-elect President Bush" became a familiar Republican rallying cry.

This is nothing new. The battle between the press and politicians is as old as our political system itself.

What was innovative this time around, however, was the way the candidates used alternative media to their advantage, while at the same time belittling more mainstream outlets.

Independent candidate H. Ross Perot, who warned supporters before the election, "You gotta stop letting these people in the press tell you who to vote for," spent millions of dollars taking his unfiltered message directly to the public through television infomercials that aired during prime time.

Perot, nevertheless, publicly launched his first shot at the White House on the Larry King Live talk show.

Further, after he had re-entered the race, Perot was quick enough to tell the press about the alleged Republican dirty tricks that had led him to quit the first time. But as soon as he was asked to provide proof for his accusations, Perot called reporters "teen-age boys" and "jerks" and said he was fed up with their questioning his integrity.

Some of the most vitriolic attacks on the media, however, were delivered by the incumbents, from the vice president's jousting with a fictional tv newswoman and his criticism of the "cultural elite" to the president himself, who charged this was "the most biased year in the history of presidential politics."

The day before the election, the president told a crowd in Ohio, "Every one of you knows that there has not been objectivity in the coverage."

As Election Day neared, crowds for the Republicans got into such an anti-press frenzy they began kicking and physically abusing journalists to the point where the president had to ask them to stop.

Lest he allow the watchdogs from the Fourth Estate go completely unscathed, however, while he urged the crowd not to abuse the joumalists at the rally, who were only doing their jobs, he still called on them to "Take it out on the talking heads in the national press that come on and tell us everything that's bad about America."

Following the election, however, Bush campaign manager Robert Teeter on the Today show conceded that the "sluggish economy," not the press, was to blame for Bill Clinton's victory.

Newsday Washington bureau chief Gaylord Shaw, who remembered the media bashing from the Nixon administration, said he found this campaign's rhetoric had "a little bit different pitch and tone," which he found "troubling in some respects."

"What people need to understand is that we're not doing this to get the candidate. We are there to represent the people," Shaw noted. "The stories are intended to be read by many of the people who seem very eager and anxious to bash us. We have to do a better job of educating the people on the street as to what our job is."

Shaw, who knows a photographer who "got clobbered" from behind while trying to take pictures at a Republican rally, said the word media is "a very big umbrella. It runs from me and you and the beat reporters to Geraldo Rivera and Phil Donahue."

American Society of Newspaper Editors president Seymour Topping said that he deplored the bashing of the media, but added, "From the point of view of tactics, it was understandable. The press was reflecting quite accurately what the trends were among the electorate. These trends that were being reported were unfavorable to the Bush administration.

"There was a fear that the reporting of these trends, no matter how accurate would prejudice the opportunities, or the results of the election, and tilt it in the favor of Clinton," said Topping, who is editorial development director for the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group.

"As a consequence of that fear, and to offset any influence that the reporting of those trends would have on the electorate, the tactic was to discredit the reporting so that people would not be influenced by it."

He pointed out, however, that the election returns showed that the polls and the reporting did accurately reflect the trends among the electorate.

"That takes us kack to the tactics employed by Vice President Agnew," Topping said. "It was an attempt to discredit the press in the reporting of the corruption that was discovered in some segments of the Nixon administration. There was no convincing denial of the facts, so the next thing to be done was to try to kill the messenger before the messenger had an opportunity to deliver the bad news.

"And I think that the tactic used in this campaign differed only in the sense that it was more generalized and carried out more broadly, and in this case the point person was the president of the United States," he said.

"Vice President Quayle had been out front questioning the media, but as the trends ran more and more counter to the Republican party, there was the feeling that the president himself had to engage in the press bashing.

"To begin to run down the media with the kind of abusive that was used made no sense, and I don't think it made an impression on the electorate."

Topping said he thinks the president got a fair shake from the press in any case.

While "there were many reporters and editors in the media who might very well have been leaning toward Clinton in a personal sense, in general, the discipline was such that any kind of personal inclinations were held to a minimum and there was an attempt to do truly objective reporting."

Not all media watchers agreed.

"The liberal bias of the mainstream press almost goes without saying," wrote L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of the Media Research Center, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. "Despite some early hammering at Bill Clinton's character flaws, the press grew increasingly warm and forgiving toward him as the campaign rolled along. At the same time, it grew nasty toward George Bush, regularly repeating as truth the Democrats' wild exaggerations about the economy, adding a few of their own."

Not surprisingly, though, there were few complaints from the Republican camp when the media were proclaiming a post-Gulf war George Bush unbeatable, or when Gennifer Flowers received national media exposure for alleging she had an affair with Clinton while he was govemor of Arkansas.

Likewise, as the Democrats began to find themselves in the lead, the coverage of that position in the polls must not have seemed so bad.

A real comeuppance for the mainstream press this election season was the ease with which the three candidates went around them. From Larry King to MTV to infomercials and even an unprecedented debate format that allowed citizens to ask questions directly of the three candidates, there was much that was new.

Judging by ratings, readership and returns to the voting booth, people were paying attention.

"From the time in New Hampshire when we seemed to be blockaded from getting our message out, [Clinton] went around the mainstream media. He kept doing it all the way to the end," Clinton political strategist Paul Begala was quoted in USA Today.

"The print media need to do some more serious assessing about the impact of the way the campaigns shifted to the talk-show circuit and other forums where candidates said they were able to operate without the filter of the media," commented Newsday's Shaw. "When we're talking about filter, we're talking about print. We make assessments and judgments about what they say, and we don't print what they say word for word.

"We have to find how best to cope with that," Shaw noted, adding that the truth checks on political ads and more in-depth coverage were two places to begin.

Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, said, "I happen to think that it's fine to see those candidates out there unfittered. In the end, I think the public was served by that. They can see these candidates on all sorts of programs, in all different situations. People can make up their minds for themselves. The more the candidates are exposed to the public, the better."

He added, however, the talk shows should not take the place of candidates answering questions from reporters assigned to them. Those reporters are usually better versed on the issues and have the experience to put issues, and answers, in perspective.

Topping said he believes that the use of talk shows in particular shows a "recognition by the candidates that there is a mounting desire on the part of the people to be more directly involved in the political process rather than being lectured to by either the press or political parties.

"The talk shows offered a medium in which people could actually address questions to the candidates or, if they cannot individually because of the volume of questions be directly involved, at least they felt that other people like themselves could question the candidates rather than have reporters question" the candidates.

"That desire of the people to become more involved in the political process is here to stay," Topping continued. "It will have increasing influence on newspapers as well as the electronic media. People will want to be in a position to have their views recorded more often and at greater length in newspapers. This can be done through letters to the editor, it can be done through op-ed pages and in news columns in the sense that reporters are drawn more to talk to the people themselves, rather than addressing all their questions to politicians or to the leaders in business and the professions."

As former Washington Post ombudsman Richard Harwood noted in an op-ed column, "There is a tendency within the political class, journalists sometimes included, to regard The People as empty vessels who require guidance. They are thought to be ripe for manipulation by clever characters at Washington or Madison Avenue. This is the P.T. Barnum view of the world: a place inhabited by suckers. The political industry, to a considerable extent, is built around that cynical assumption.

"Nothing in the political history of this country, however, validates the assumption," Harwood wrote. "The record of American voters in making rational political choices is tmpressive. We have had no Hitlers. That should be noted aftei the election when the post-mortems begin on how the media did or did not tum the tide in '92."

Gene Gibbons, a White House correspondent for Reuters, was a panelist in the third presidential debate. Already, the first two presidential and the vice presidential forums had attracted millions of viewers.

"It was, needless to say, a very interesting experience. It was also very stressful at times, because we wanted to try and reflect the issues the American people were interested in," Gibbons told E&P. "Sometimes we felt a tremendous responsibility. The numbers of people that watched them were just incredible. That was part of the reason we felt such tremendous responsibility. We felt like we were agents of the American public."

While Gibbons shared the concern of others that the talk show interviews so favored by the candidates this year would be too soft, he noted that increased voter participation this year must mean those programs got through to people in a way mainstream media have not in the past few years.

All in all, however, many media watchers agree that the coverage of this election was much better than that in 1988.
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Author:Gersh, Debra
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Nov 14, 1992
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