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Running around the national media.

No presidential candidate ever exploited local television news better than Bill Clinton. Because he had so much success merchandising his campaign on local stations, Clinton is now trying the same strategy from the White House.

In the early months of his administration, Clinton has gained valuable air time on local newscasts with campaign-like blitzes across America promoting his economic program. He also has circumvented the frequently pugnacious national media by talking directly with local television news people.

This concerns some media critics and political observers. They wonder if those in local television news have the political expertise to avoid being manipulated. The harshest critics believe that with few exceptions local television reporters and anchors are simply too uninformed, inept or naive to ask rigorous questions.

"Sometimes local stations are so doggone delighted to have a personal interview with the president that they bend over backwards and throw softballs," says political consultant Mark Goodin, who held high level positions in George Bush's 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns. "I've seen it happen often."

However, a former local news director who helped implement Clinton's successful television strategy for the campaign says local anchors and reporters too often get a bum rap. "During the campaign they usually asked tougher questions and more focused questions about real issues that affected the people in their city or region," says Morrie Goodman, now an administration public affairs specialist.

Some critics suspect the main problem may be television news' insatiable demand for video. It may be jounalistically sound for a local station to accept an offer to interview the president or some other administration official. But what about the propriety of using "photo opportunities" at well-controlled public appearances when access is limited or when video of a staged political event is provided free via satellite?

"I think there are many local news people in the heartland who are capable of asking good questions," says Edward Fouhy, a former network and local television news executive who was executive producer of the 1992 presidential debates. "What I worry about is the breathless, |Here he comes, there he goes' that is so often the texture of coverage ... when Air Force One lands."

"Those photo opportunities are great for presidents and candidates," Goodin concedes. "The local stations are given a picture free of charge and the tone, temperament and dynamic ... is totally contrived and controlled on the other end."

Since Jimmy Carter, presidents have catered to local television in some manner, often inviting the out-of-towners to the White House for group or one-on-one interviews. Both Ronald Reagan--the master of the photo-op--and George Bush periodically sat down with local anchors during their presidential or political visits to the hinterlands.

Clinton has been able to perfect this fraternization with the locals by astutely using satellite technology. Clinton can converse with dozens of local anchors across the country without ever leaving the Oval Office. Any Clinton appearance inside or outside of Washington can be beamed to a satellite where it can be retrieved by any local station for use in its newscasts or special programming. The costs to the stations are minimal, since most of the expenses are assumed by the White House or the Democratic Party.

"I have no problem with the proliferation of coverage that gets the locals involved," says CBS' veteran White House correspondent Bill Plante. "The president should be accountable to everyone, not just the White House press corps. But local reporters and news directors must realize that the White House generally believes a president is going to get a free ride out of this type of coverage or they wouldn't do it."

Plante cites Clinton's nationally televised town meeting from Detroit in February as a good example of local stations fulfilling their responsibilities. "The format may not have been ideal for journalists," he says, "but those anchors in Detroit, Atlanta, Seattle and Miami asked some pretty good follow-up questions."

In fact, the host of that Detroit meeting, Bill Bonds of WXYZ, may be the toughest interviewer in local news. In 1991, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) angrily walked out in the middle of a live satellite interview when Bonds testily questioned his support for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. And Bonds sparked one of the most memorable moments of the 1992 campaign when his intense questioning of Clinton, Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown during a televised Democratic primary debate in Chicago prompted a vicious exchange among the candidates.

Not every local anchor or reporter is a Bill Bonds. But there may be more tough political interviewers in local television news than critics realize. Regardless, the responsibility of local news managers is to ensure independence and not be awed by any elected official, not even the president.

Lou Prato is director of broadcasting for the Medill News Service in Washington, D.C.
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Title Annotation:Bill Clinton and the press
Author:Prato, Lou
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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