Esquire - November 1992
How the Politicians and the Public Learned to Loathe the Media
An election-year anatomy of an institution in decline
THE SWARM OF REPORTERS hovered outside Blake’s coffee shop in Manchester, New Hampshire, waiting for the candidate to appear. Suddenly Bill Clinton stepped out into the New England cold—not that you could see him, of course. What you could see were the boom microphones and TV cameras and tape recorders, all diving toward the dense center, reporters frantic to capture the moment—that gotcha! question, that gaffe—that would kill one candidate’s quest for the presidency. What you felt was the competitive panic, the terror of missing the fatal moment. What you heard was the buzz of mindless questions shouted indolently, idiotically, at the dazed candidate: “Will you stay in the race if you lose the New Hampshire primary?” “Are you angry?” “Are you encouraged by the polls?” “Do you expect your opponents to pick on you in tomorrow’s debate?”
It was mid-February, near the tail end of the Gennifer Flowers hysteria, and the questions had actually improved. Weeks earlier, usually-serious reporters were apologizing and then asking: “Did you ever sleep with Gennifer Flowers?” Clinton felt he needed to escape the incessant questions. To win, he realized he had to break away from the press gang and reach voters directly.
Leaving Blake’s, Clinton sat in the front seat of a gray Chevy van, with his wife, Hillary, and an aide in the back. The entourage soon came to a halt a few blocks east, where the candidate was scheduled to talk to New Hampshire residents on the front porch of 83 Boyton Street. Instead, he ran into no fewer than 150 reporters camped on the lawn, their cameras and boom microphones and tape recorders poised to ambush him. Bemused, Clinton rolled down his window to see if he could spot some actual voters. When he finally spied a few, Clinton sighed, “These poor people don’t have a chance.”
AS THIS TAWDRY CAMPAIGN SEASON nears its end, it’s worth savoring the absurdity of that February day in New Hampshire and then rethinking why the electorate is so angry this year. It’s a given that they’re angry at politicians, but less noticed is why they’re just as enraged at the press. Only two decades ago, when the two parties allowed primaries and caucuses to replace the party elders in choosing candidates, the media was set to become the handmaiden to a new and exciting era of direct democracy. It was entrusted with screening the candidates, telling us about their character, their charisma, their competence, their skills, their electability.
But as election day approaches, one thing is certain: The media is now significantly less pivotal a player in presidential politics than it was four years ago, less important even than it was on that February day in New Hampshire. This election may be remembered as one in which the much-heralded “boys on the bus” lost control of the political debate.
In retrospect, we reporters were ill-equipped to substitute for political parties. For all our power to select front-runners, we had too little shared history with the office seekers we chronicled. We were interested in probing their character but didn’t know how to distinguish between what the public needed to know and what was best left private. We usually did not dwell on policy or on what candidates might actually do as president. We lacked the knowledge to do this, or were terrified of boring our readers and viewers. Maybe we didn’t want to bore ourselves.
Too often, we feasted on politics as an end in itself. We defined news as what was fresh, which meant that we did not mine the candidates’ basic themes because we had heard them a zillion times before. Instead, says the University of Pennsylvania’s Kathleen Hall Jamieson, we treated the candidates “as performers, reporters as theatrical critics, the audience as spectators.” We announced who staged the best events, who looked smooth, who sounded good, who was winning, who gave the best performance. So focused on form and entertainment value had we become that candidates spent more time devising ways to capture our attention than articulating a plan of presidential action. Days before the New Hampshire primary, Michael McCurry, senior adviser to Senator Bob Kerrey, described preparations for a debate: “We just spent two and one-half hours preparing for the debate tonight, and one-half hour of it was on substance and two hours was spent on coming up with snappy one-liners.”
The result of all this positioning and counterpositioning, Joan Didion noted in 1988, is a political process “seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals ... to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.”
The decline of the media’s status in the public’s eye has been more or less inversely proportional to our sense of self-importance. The rise of the talk-show media celebrity, who often tends to adopt an air of omniscience, further estranges the press from the public because reporters are supposed to ask questions, not make pronouncements. David Broder of The Washington Post, for one, believes that the chat- or shout-show phenomenon “cheapens journalism. It gives people the impression that what political reporters do is stand around and holler at each other.”
Hollering is also at the center of another dubious institution: the media stampede that follows any whiff of scandal. Reporters have always succumbed to frenzies, of course. But this year’s were different. They were not occasioned by the reputable Wall Street Journal, which pursued Geraldine Ferraro’s family finances in 1984, or by the Miami Herald, which staked out Gary Hart’s home in 1987. No, this year the Star, shows like A Current Affair and Hard Copy, tabloid newspapers, and local TV news jostled to the forefront and were able to pressure the established media to follow their dubious lead.
The media’s mistakes led to a startling transformation in the role of the press. One can divide the campaign into two acts: pre-Perot and post-Perot. In Act One, the media largely maintained its role as a filter between candidate and public. After Perot appeared on Larry King Live in mid-February, Act Two began; soon George Bush and Bill Clinton aggressively began to bypass the media and reach voters directly.
This transformation did not occur in a vacuum. The diminution of the media’s importance is linked to a broader trend toward the elimination of elites and middlemen, including decentralized government, more responsive corporations, and direct access. It happened in Eastern Europe. It’s happened with TV clickers and multiple channel choices that permit viewers to avoid the big three networks and program for themselves. It’s happened with mail-order catalogues and computers that allow customers to shop and bank at home. It’s happened with chain stores like Wal-Mart and the Gap. It’s happened with corporations that shed layers of management so that workers are closer to their product. And so this year it happened when candidates and citizens alike rebelled against the media middleman. This year they decoded—perhaps forever—the insider game once dominated by the boys on the bus.
THE PRESS HAD PROMISED to behave this year, to be less reactive, more thoughtful and substantive than it was in 1988. This time most news organizations began planning their campaign coverage early, determined to downplay the too-familiar horse race and play up the real issues.
In 1988 the Bush campaign skillfully captured the agenda with clever photo opportunities and almost daily assaults on Dukakis. This year, says The Washington Post’s Dan Balz, the newspaper tried to stray more from the campaign bus, to supply readers with more context and a more in-depth look at the candidates. “Motion and thought tend to be enemies,” says Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, explaining why he often stayed off the bus and broadened his bank of sources to include academics and “people of thought.”
But other factors intruded, at least initially. Partly because of the recession, partly because of the ascendancy of the accountants, and partly because politics smells like fish to most consumers, less time and space was devoted to the campaign this year—the networks earmarked 58 percent less coverage from Labor Day 1991 through January 1992 than they did four years earlier, according to one report. The networks often relied instead on pictures from the increasingly influential local stations.
The emergence of local television opened a door for the candidates. Starting with President Bush in January, the candidates used satellites to conduct live interviews with local stations around the country. During the 1992 primary season, the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University found that twice as many local stations used satellite interviews as they did in 1988; and partly to save money, one in ten local stations now accepted video news releases produced by candidates—a threefold increase over 1988—with half failing “to reveal the source of this material to viewers.”
Still, pre-Perot, the media continued to dominate the dissemination of the candidates’ messages. By November 1991, the insiders of the press had decided that Bob Kerrey was probably too unfocused, too existential a character to be president. So in mid-November, when Kerrey whispered what he thought was a private (if lame) joke about Jerry Brown into a live microphone, the established media pounced on this gaffe as a metaphor for the “aimless” Kerrey campaign.
While reporters limned Kerrey’s joke for all its news potential, they virtually ignored a major Clinton economic-policy speech, proving what Bush adviser Roger Ailes has called his orchestra-pit theory of politics: “If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?”
Still, the tone of the pre-New Hampshire campaign this year was surprisingly elevated, thanks in no small measure to the substantive questions asked by actual voters when they encountered the candidates. But with a month to go before the February 18 New Hampshire primary, the boys on the bus were restless. They had heard the set speeches of the candidates so many times that they no longer took notes.
To them, news was what was new, and from the candidates they heard little that qualified as fresh. Under the pressure of deadlines, constant worries about getting beat, and too little time to reflect, and with cellular telephones allowing reporters to file stories instantly, reporters are easily seduced by a flap or, better, the prospect of a scandal, no matter how flimsy its provenance.
Something new finally happened on January 23. That’s the day the Star, a racy supermarket tabloid, paid an undetermined sum of cash to publish Gennifer Flowers’s claim that she had carried on a twelve-year affair with Bill Clinton. Although Flowers had a year earlier denied the allegation and even threatened to sue a Little Rock, Arkansas, radio station if it broadcast the story, the Star said it had tapes of conversations between Clinton and Flowers.
Clinton was confronted by the same type of media hysteria that drove Gary Hart to abandon his campaign in 1987. With one big difference: The Hart story was based on an actual sighting and a picture of Hart and Donna Rice together, as well as on a pattern of undisciplined behavior on the part of a presidential candidate; the Flowers story was still just an allegation. At first, says Gwen Ifill, who covers Clinton for The New York Times, “I thought it was a tabloid story. Yet when we arrived in Nashua for a candidates’ forum, there were one hundred reporters there. There was an amazing frenzy.”
Ifill remembers how she and the other reporters on the bus “compared notes” that Thursday. “We had done no independent reporting,” says Ifill, assuming this sensible journalistic test was adequate. Even if it were true that Clinton had had an affair with Flowers, as many reporters suspected, since Clinton was not pretending his had been a perfect marriage, why was it important? Dan Balz bumped into the candidate late Thursday night and remembers how he and Clinton silently looked at each other for a long moment before a pensive Clinton said, “This is not why you or I got into this business.”
For the first three days of the scandal, the traditional news outlets, to their credit, tried to resist the story. In effect, they were telling the public: Eat your spinach! But the story attracted such “critical mass,” says the Baltimore Sun’s Jack Germond, “that it became a spectacle that you could no more ignore than a huge purple elephant standing in a room.” An estimated 21 million viewers, for instance, watched Flowers sing “Stand by Your Man” on A Current Affair, where the reporter thought to ask: “On a scale of one to ten, how was Clinton as a lover?”
The once-marginal tabloid press was now in the saddle, and the establishment press was partly to blame. Not without reason, the public tends to confuse the trash news programs with the ostensibly serious ones. Programs like Hard Copy or Geraldo are, after all, broadcast on network-owned stations; Diane Sawyer did ask Marla Maples, “Was it the best sex you ever had?” People magazine and the newsweeklies have relied on mere hearsay to peek into, say, the marriage of Princess Di and Prince Charles. Docudramas now appear regularly on television, mixing fact and fiction. As the editor of the Star had noted gleefully, it was the Times and NBC News, not the Star, that identified William Kennedy Smith’s alleged rape victim.
The editor of the Star was being disingenuous, of course. The Times and NBC do not regularly descend to tabloid level. But too few reporters bothered to follow Newsweek’s lead in probing Flowers’s credibility. “The press just reported what the Star said she said,” says Everette Dennis of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center.
Clinton made a fateful decision to appear with Hillary on 60 Minutes three days after the revelation—Super Bowl Sunday—which licensed even mainstream reporters to treat the Gennifer Flowers press conference the next day as a momentous event. Hillary Clinton remembers watching CNN that day and thinking, when the regular newscast was interrupted, “I thought it would be a story like we were invading Iraq!”
Hundreds of reporters packed the Jade Room at the Waldorf Astoria to inspect the bleached blonde in the fire-engine-red jacket who sat beside her attorney and the editor of the Star, just beneath a large poster reproduction of the Star’s front page: MY TWELVE-YEAR AFFAIR WITH BILL CLINTON. Those who watched this event live on CNN, or saw large chunks of it as it led that evening’s newscasts on all three networks, had their stereotypes of reporters comically confirmed. They saw Dick Kaplan, editor of the Star, suddenly transformed into Mr. Responsibility—“Please, please, please!”—as he tried to calm the hive of photographers pushing forward to get a better shot. They heard the question from Stuttering John of The Howard Stern Show, who wanted to know: “Gennifer, do you plan to sleep with any other presidential candidates?”
“January 27 ought to be a black day in American journalism,” Paul Begala of the Clinton campaign says of the Flowers press conference. “They ought to fly the flag at half-staff at all journalism schools.”
But the story was out there, and it did affect Clinton’s standing in the polls. Clinton did, stupidly, violate his own stricture not to discuss his marriage. Flowers had been placed on the state payroll, she did have tape-recorded conversations with Clinton, which suggested a certain intimacy, and he did acknowledge that it was his voice when he later apologized to Governor Cuomo for something he had said on the tapes.
Nevertheless, despite the seminars and critiques of sometimes sensationalist and mindless press coverage of prior campaigns, despite the media’s desire to focus on issues, ABC executive producer Paul Friedman admits, “With the best of intentions, we got swept up.” An astonishing 46 percent of more than four hundred journalists surveyed by the Times Mirror poll in May 1992 concluded that Clinton’s character was the most important issue of the contest, and 20 percent said Gennifer Flowers’s press conference was the most significant event of the campaign to date.
The Flowers incident was significant not only in itself but also for the less-than-salutary civics lesson it taught: Conflict sells. By February, the Democratic contenders were pummeling one another, and Republican contender Patrick Buchanan was flailing away at Bush. And before this campaign would end, the Bush team would savage Democrats as godless supporters of homosexuality, and Hillary Clinton as favoring the right of all children to sue their parents. Clinton’s team would pummel Republicans as crypto-Nazis and boast that campaign aides like James Carville were every bit as mad-dog mean as Lee Atwater or James Baker. The voters, apparently, found all of this “hardball” tedious and off-putting, perhaps sensing that their political system was being hijacked by a bunch of political and media insiders. Throughout the first eighteen primaries, only 30 percent of those who were eligible actually bothered to go to the polls.
WHICH BRINGS US TO Act Two of the 1992 campaign: the citizens’ revolt. The date the public first froze the attention of the press and the candidates was February 20, the night H. Ross Perot appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live and pledged that he would run for president if citizens in the fifty states put him on the ballot. In return, he vowed he would “not sell out to anybody but the American people” (an ironic statement in retrospect).
Perot was treating citizens as participants, not spectators, much as FDR did with his fireside radio chats in the Thirties. Perot had recognized that he could use the power of technology to bypass the networks and the boys on the bus. One day, Perot knew, citizens would be able to vote at home. If he were elected president, Perot said, the first thing he would do is create a direct democracy through electronic town halls.
In the rush of excitement over his scoop, Larry King did not ask how such a direct democracy squared with the concept of representative government embedded in our constitution. Wasn’t our system of checks and balances intended to allow elected officials or appointed judges to resist the momentary demands of a majority? Wasn’t it meant to frustrate the accretion of power in any one branch of government? Wasn’t the Bill of Rights designed to protect individuals from any plebiscite? King did not ask whether, if there were no press filter, candidates might not misstate facts to voters and get away with it, as happened when David Duke appeared on King’s show while running for governor of Louisiana and falsely claimed he possessed letters from huge corporations professing eagerness to relocate to Louisiana if he were elected. King did not ask whether an electronic town hall would actually make our sound-bite politics worse, eradicating ambiguity by reducing complicated questions to yes or no responses. He did not ask whether the combination of money and technology might produce a Robo-candidate who lives in his own control room.
Despite the tidal wave of support generated by Perot’s appearance, reporters continued to intrude with pointless personal questions, believing they were searching for clues to character. ABC’s Sam Donaldson put on his sheriff s badge during a March 2 interview with Bob Kerrey on This Week with David Brinkley. “Did you ever use drugs?” he asked Kerrey.
“No,” responded Kerrey.
“Ever use marijuana?”
“Ever use cocaine?”
Donaldson thanked Kerrey for his “candid” responses, yet one wishes Kerrey had told him: None of your business! You’re just fishing for a headline. You’ve done no reporting. You’re imitating Joe McCarthy asking, ‘Are you now or were you ever a communist?’
Had Kerrey refused to answer, however, a press hive might have formed, buzzing about what he was hiding. Gotcha! may be a game, but it’s one a candidate can’t win. He either gets hurt for being candid or hurt for covering up. Even more ridiculous, candidates were now expected to respond not only to questions about their private lives but also to rumors that could be printed with the excuse that their mere existence had an impact on the campaign. As George Stephanopoulos, Clinton’s communications director, told Vanity Fair, “It’s not enough to dispute the rumor—you have to disprove it.”
In New York, a local TV reporter made headlines when she asked Clinton whether he had smoked, but not inhaled, marijuana while a student at Oxford. It was the same media mindlessness that prompted USA Today to think it had a scoop when it revealed that former tennis star Arthur Ashe has AIDS; the same mindlessness that whipped up a local and national press frenzy about a House banking “scandal” in March, even though no public funds had been stolen; the same conformity one witnesses every time a Clinton or Bush handler stops to chat with a couple of reporters. Within seconds a hive surrounds them, fearful of missing some vital spin from the candidate. Once, after a Clinton/Brown debate in New York, Dan Balz played for a colleague in the NBC lobby a tape of what Clinton had said to reporters that morning about the military draft. Although they could barely hear it, dozens of reporters stuck their tape recorders out without knowing what it was they were listening to.
It wasn’t just the mindlessness, it was the impression of arrogance that proved offensive to voters. Bob Kerrey recalls one New Hampshire debate in which some questions asked by moderator Cokie Roberts were designed more, he felt, to snare a good story than to gather useful information. This was particularly so, Kerrey says, when she asked: “As president, would you sign New Jersey’s welfare-reform bill?” ‘That’s not a question people care a damn about,” says Kerrey. The question was asked incorrectly. It wasn’t asked in a way to allow us to debate welfare. The right question is: ‘What’s wrong with welfare?’ Or: ‘Why are so many black children born out of wedlock?’”
By the time Clinton made an appearance on Donahue on April 1, it was clear that public sentiment had turned against the media. Donahue prowled the stage with a microphone, asking Clinton: “Have you ever had an affair?” “Have you and Hillary ever separated?” Then the sheepish host had his microphone gently taken by a female member of the audience who exclaimed, “Given the pathetic state of the United States at this point—Medicare, education, everything else—I can’t believe you spent half an hour of airtime attacking this man’s character. I’m not even a Bill Clinton supporter, but I think this is ridiculous!”
Donahue was humbled by a ferocious burst of applause. He was smart and gracious enough to allow the show to be taken out of his hands. So he allowed his audience to pose questions, none of which concerned Clinton’s marriage.
When Clinton won the New York primary six days later, he had managed to transform his victory over Brown into a victory over the media as well. The entire establishment media structure “is coming unglued,” wrote Jonathan Alter in Washington Monthly. “We are witnessing the dawning of a new media order.”
Although Jerry Brown’s 800-number had already netted $5 million from a whopping 250,000 contributors, no one was better at manipulating this new order than Ross Perot. Through Perot’s success, the other candidates gleaned a better appreciation of how political communication had become decentralized. Clinton wore bebop sunglasses and played his saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show, fielded questions from young viewers on MTV, and, demonstrating that he was not averse to baring his private life if it helped, posed with his wife for the cover of People in July. The morning network shows gave over one or two hours for live call-ins between voters and Clinton or Perot, actually enlarging the regular viewing audience. Although Bush pointedly said it was unpresidential to appear on MTV or Donahue, he did belatedly consent to an interview with Barbara Walters on ABC’s 20/20, to CBS This Morning, and to CNN and public television’s MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour. Vice-President Dan Quayle sat for an hour with public television’s Charlie Rose. Quayle also appeared on the daily Rush Limbaugh national call-in radio show, which reaches nearly 12 million listeners.
By the end of July, the usually accessible Clinton had gone a full three weeks without talking to the boys on the bus. “The new communication works,” he told me in Dallas. “Real voters don’t ask me—as you journalists always do—about the political process and polls. They ask how their lives are going to be changed.”
The media was getting the message. By June, ABC executive producer Paul Friedman was telling Variety, “I don’t know why, but we really missed the amount of frustration and anger out there.” He scheduled a week-long series of reports on voter alienation. Erik Sorenson, executive producer of CBS Evening News, announced in early July that except in special circumstances, all quotes from candidates must be at least thirty seconds. This would allow CBS to meet “what seems to be a real yearning for information” from the voters (the network ended its experiment in September, however, terming it “a success”). By the first week of July, NBC News was running two-minute snippets of the candidates’ speeches, an innovation soon adopted by CBS. The idea, Connie Chung explained on air, was to give viewers “an unfiltered sense” of the candidates.
When candidates did go through the traditional press, their gaffes seemed to wound them less. Perot appeared on Meet the Press in May, where moderator Timothy J. Russert pressed him to explain exactly how he would balance the federal budget, as he had vaguely promised to do. Perot sounded uninformed and ridiculously accused Russert of trying to trap him. Yet the appearance was deemed a success, because Perot had presumably stood down the media goons. “Anytime there’s confrontation, the phone circuits blow away,” Perot told The New Yorker.
The Perot technique of bypassing reporters was taken a step further in California, where candidates were ignoring voters as well. Congressman Mel Levine, who sought the Democratic Senate nod, shunned bumper stickers and buttons and shook few hands as he made only about twelve public appearances between March and the June 2 primary. Instead, Levine spent his days “dialing for dollars,” with the $5 million he collected earmarked for TV ads. Levine explained to The New York Times, ‘Talking to people is just spinning our wheels.” Levine may well be a harbinger of the future of political discourse, but it is by no means certain that this Brave New World has arrived. After all, media criticism of Levine’s arrogant campaign led to his defeat.
THE MEDIA’S ABILITY to frame the news, or gather into a powerful pack, was not yet history. In May, when Quayle made a thirty-three-minute speech on the importance of family values, the media latched on to a single sentence in that speech in which he criticized the television show Murphy Brown. The resulting press tumult prompted President Bush to turn to Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, who was visiting the White House, and mock the reporters by whispering to his fellow government head during a press conference, “I told you what the issue was. You thought I was kidding.”
President Bush in late July and August would suffer from the media mind-set that he was a loser—as Bill Clinton had in June when the press hive was convinced that he could never overcome the character issue and was persuaded that Perot’s presence in the race would devastate the Democrat. As happened to Clinton earlier—or Dukakis in 1988 or Ford in 1976—Bush was overwhelmed by the media’s sense that his candidacy was terminal. We had our narrative. One negative story fed another. Then, as happened to Clinton in January, a tabloid story (in this case, in the New York Post) alleging a Bush extramarital affair unleashed a new insect attack.
The August front-page headline was triggered by a thirty-one-line footnote in a new book, The Power House, by Susan B. Trento. The footnote leans on an interview (by someone else) with a former American arms-control negotiator (now dead) who shared his (non-tape-recorded) impression that vice-president Bush had had a 1986 tryst in Geneva (the source admitted he couldn’t be sure). The author also couldn’t be sure, which is why she buried this on page 413.
The Post seized on the footnote as a welcome excuse to be first in print with a decade-old rumor about which there have been no direct witnesses or facts. The insects were sent into a higher state of excitement by CNN White House reporter Mary Tillotson, who startled Bush at a press conference by asking about the Post story. Bush called the question “sleazy.”
When Tillotson was telephoned later so she could be asked why a serious journalist would heave such a live grenade, this lion of the fourth estate meekly had her calls intercepted by a CNN spokesman, who said, “Mary’s not doing interviews.”
By forcing Bush to respond in public, Tillotson had made the rumor a media fact. So, that night Stone Phillips asked Bush on Dateline NBC if he had ever had an affair. Bush responded, “You’re perpetuating the sleaze by even asking the question.” Phillips coolly defended himself, insisting that the question “goes to the point of character.”
Phillips never returned my calls either, but an NBC spokeswoman, Tory Beilinson, did say it was “a double standard” for Bush to promote “family values and then say it is sleazy when you are asked about one of those values, which is marital fidelity.” A nice rationalization, but not very convincing given the flimsy factual basis for the story. And even if the facts were true, is this value crucial to being a good president? And if it is crucial, don’t we have to learn more about all public marriages? Where do we stop?
SO HOW’D THE PRESS do overall? “Campaign coverage is better and worse this year,” concludes David Maraniss of The Washington Post. Through mid-September, the press could boast of having paid more attention to substance and to monitoring the misleading TV ads of the candidates; reporters did probe the implications of, say, the federal deficit. (It was the candidates who ducked the issue.) There was, said Republican operative Roger Ailes before the Republicans began attacking the media, “more evenhanded coverage—they are picking on Democrats as well as Republicans.”
The public was treated to some fine reportage. This year no media organization fielded a better first team than The Washington Post. “God, do they have a bench,” says the Baltimore Suns Germond. Captained by David Broder and Dan Balz, the bench included E.J. Dionne and Thomas B. Edsall, both of whom wrote books that this year were required political reading. Also notable was the sparkling writing or digging of Maraniss, Anne Devroy, David Von Drehle, Maralee Schwartz, and Lloyd Grove.
The feeling was widespread among the candidates’ handlers and the scribes that The Wall Street Journal also had a good year, largely on the strength of its series on the issues and David Shribman’s luminous profiles. Joe Klein of New York magazine (now of Newsweek) writes with verve and spotted Clinton early, though there was some snickering that he was too much of a booster. Still, “his columns drove the coverage,” says Stephanopoulos. Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times is singled out for focusing on government and substance and not just on politics, and Tom Rosensteil’s media reporting turned heads. Because they weren’t afraid to bore viewers, CNN and the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour and C-SPAN often enthralled them; NBC anchor Tom Brokaw fielded the conventions like a Gold Glove shortstop. Charlie Rose did extraordinary interviews with the candidates on public television. The Boston Globe, particularly Curtis Wilkie, was dazzling in New Hampshire. John King of the Associated Press and Matthew Cooper of U.S. News & World Report were singled out as two younger and much-respected reporters. And even as they tended to disparage the campaign coverage of The New York Times as sluggish and slow off the mark, colleagues eagerly awaited Maureen Dowd’s vivid profiles.
Another plus this year was the democratization of media; the public received more information from more sources than ever before. “That’s an improvement over 1988 and 1984,” says David Broder, “when the only thing the public saw from the winning candidate was what the candidate chose to put on the air himself.” Of course, as Broder shared his thoughts in the lobby of New York’s Intercontinental Hotel during July’s Democratic convention, candidate Bill Clinton entered the lobby and was immediately ambushed by shouted questions about some abortion protesters who had tried to hand him a dead fetus that morning. “Governor, what did you think of that fetus?”
In a way, this scene captures the essential weakness of the press hive. As smart and as much fun as the press is to pal around with, its protean nature is often at war with reality’s complexity. We offer saturation coverage, say, of the L.A. riots, but not sustained coverage of inner cities. What coverage we get tends to squeeze reality into a Left/Right continuum—either racism or the breakdown of order is the villain. Liberals blame a lack of resources, conservatives an absence of values. In fact, both can be true.
Yet the form of journalism—gimme a headline, gimme a sharp lead, gimme a vivid picture or sound bite, and do it fast—too often shapes the content. “Sometimes I stand in a pack of reporters and I’m embarrassed that my relatives might see meon C-SPAN,” says one reporter.
Although we reporters like to think of ourselves as individualists, the process often imposes conformity. We love to harp, say, on the “political impact” of the latest Clinton draft “scandal.” We shy away from ambiguity. We too rarely report on each other. We adopt an all-knowing posture, which creates a conventional wisdom that has been so wrong this year—from Bush is a shoo-in (September 1991) to Cuomo is the one (November) to No third-party candidate stands a chance (winter) to Clinton cannot win (spring) to Perot may win (June) to Bush is dead (preconvention) to Baker may save Bush (September).
As in any gang, peer pressure plays a role. “When the press goes after you is when they think you have a chance to be president,” observes Clinton strategist James Carville. The press’s desire to demonstrate independence sometimes leads us to adopt an in-your-face, antiestablishment pose. Roger Ailes, the master of the negative campaign, who chose to play a much smaller role in Bush’s campaign in 1992 than he did in 1988, told me earlier this year that “if my primary time is spent trying to keep a guy from falling down the stairs or saying something stupid because that’s going to be a headline, then we are getting nowhere.... I can’t do it anymore. I mean, it’s just bullshit! It becomes a game of trying to swing the pictures and make the other guys make mistakes and you stay on offense. I mean, that’s the game. Meanwhile, the political consultants and the media are intertwined in a conspiracy to avoid issues, and the candidates … don’t have to make a statement that they have to defend later.”
Our political coverage is often either personality driven, like a soap opera with an ongoing narrative, or ephemeral, like “the beam of a searchlight,” as Walter Lippmann once wrote. Following the success of Theodore H. White’s pioneering The Making of the President series, which began in 1960, the press has been largely preoccupied with drama and personalities. We ask: Who’s winning? Or: Is it new? We should ask: Is it important? Reporters pursue surface questions for many reasons, not the least being that it is easier to maintain objectivity by reporting who wins or loses than by reporting who’s right or wrong. By judging the quality of a candidate’s ideas, we risk being seen as partisans, a view that would drain the press of what credibility it retains.
No doubt we will learn from some of the mistakes we made in 1992. But while we learn, so have voters and the candidates. One day history may say of this contest that it represents the end of the power of the boys on the bus and the start of something new.
That something new may be the opportunity to campaign for president in a wholly different, and perhaps dangerous, way. In the future, a candidate could ignore not just the press but his own party, as Bob Kerrey predicted over breakfast the day before his party nominated Bill Clinton. If he were masterminding a campaign, Kerrey says, “I would advise my candidate: ‘Don’t seek the nomination of the Democratic party, because what you must do to get the nomination denies you the ability to get a consensus.’”
Instead, Kerrey would follow Jerry Brown’s example and raise money through an 800-number and then “use the Ross Perot method and get on the ballot” as an independent. He would ignore all the questionnaires from public-spirited organizations and special interests and reporters, all the questions that reduce choices to checklists. Unlike Ross Perot, who was driven from the race partly because of good and tough reporting, a candidate like Senator Bill Bradley—or Bob Kerrey—would be able to hedge on details because he already has a public record to run on. “The reason Ross Perot couldn’t get away with it,” he says, “is that he didn’t know the answers. But if you’re Bill Bradley, they know you know the answer.” And in the end, such an independent candidate would have a mandate to seek change, a mandate that would compel the Democrats and Republicans to cooperate.
The future? “Another Ross Perot will come along, and the next time he’ll have a sense of history and be informed,” says Kerrey, leaving the impression he just might want to be that man, the one who finally learns how to bypass the political insiders and the insects of the press.•
Four Reasons Why the Voters Are Disgusted with the Media
1. FASCINATION WITH THE WRONG THINGS. Try as it might, the “independent" press fell prey yet again to blatant image manipulation.
2. MINDLESS REPORTAGE. Pack campaign journalism is the enemy of real thought.
3. BLOODLUST ON THE HUSTINGS. There’s nothing so enticing as the smell of a candidate cut and bleeding.
4. OBSESSION WITH THE CHARACTER ISSUE. The press has no idea how to handle the dicey questions of public image and what’s behind the mask.