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The Media and the Mayor's Race: The Failure of Urban Political Reporting.

The Media and the Mayor's Race: The Failure of Urban Political Reporting. Phyllis Kaniss (Indiana University Press, 601 N. Morton St., Bloomington, Ind. 47404-4203), 400 pages, $39.95; paper, $16.95.

Everything you might want to know, and not want to know, about a specific big-city political campaign and the reporting that went with it in the 1990s is here, as a media academic administrator delves into the 1991 Philadelphia mayor's race.

The book is readable and entertaining, as Kaniss, assistant dean at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, creates a motley cast of politicos and media warriors, while she follows around the chief players in the campaign and remarkably pretends to enter the minds of the players.

The campaign seemed promising enough as entertainment in a city, where media found political scandal dating back to Lincoln Steffens' inclusion of Philadelphia in his series on "The Shame of the Cities" in the first decade of the century for McClure's magazine.

In 1991, feisty, shoot-from-the-hip, former two-term mayor Frank Rizzo, making a comeback as the Republican candidate, was to be up against the spirited, popular former district attorney, Edward Rendell. Rizzo won the Republican nomination, only to drop dead of a heart attack. His mantle passed to the colorless, untried Joseph Egan, a developer who had served at the helm of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC).

With no appreciation of media spin, sound bites or picture opportunities, Egan set out to have a principled, if boring, campaign, and firmly refused to latch onto surfacing rumors of a personal nature -- namely, hints that opponent Rendell, a square-jawed, athletically built man, had a history of womanizing." Egan moved out from the shadow of the always-controversial Rizzo and stood alone.

The campaign, instead of being a no-holds-barred, slug-fest revelry, produced few sparks. Rendell led the lackluster Egan in the polls by large margins all the way up to Rendell's landslide victory in November of 1991.

Kaniss faults the media for their lack of interest in the campaign and for ignoring almost completely any of the pertinent issues. She says that only nine stories about the mayoral election made the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer during the campaign. And she says further that 65% of the paper's coverage was devoted to the "horse race, information that had nothing to do with the candidate's plans or proposals or positions or qualifications."

Only 19% of the reports dealt with issues. Television, she says, when it was not engaged in copying or replaying the Inquirer stories was looking for an angle and also ignoring issues.

While the book's style breathes with reality, in the final estimation it really needs an appendix that would give a chance for the major characters to indicate if they were properly represented and to respond to negative comments assigned them.

Nevertheless, the book puts flesh on some of the often-heard criticisms of newspapers and television. Here are the people who press for the prurient or sexy angle, who pull back when dullsville issues start to emerge, who give rumors and the offbeat angles more due than they deserve.

Kaniss wrings a promise from an important Philadelphia newspaper executive at the end of the book, as he says he will try to make campaign reporting more issue-oriented in the future. Then, the author softens the barbs of her criticisms by noting the complexity of decision-making at a newspaper.

She suggests that the middle ranks of news executives who are running the show may merely be "unaware of the extent to which the horse race has dominated coverage" over issues.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Duncan McIntosh Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Ward, Hiley
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 11, 1995
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