Return to:

CJRColumbia Journalism Review

January/February 2001 | Contents



Okay, so it really was a horse race: hooves thundered, steam blew from nostrils, and we sat at the edges of our seats, hearts pounding. But as pulse rates return to normal, as the crowds disperse, we have the opportunity to ponder the spectacle and to shovel through the muck that remains on the track.

On the surface at least, it ended up being not that bad a campaign after all. Although both major-party nominees shunned controversy and struggled mightily for the middle ground, they did articulate some differences on a number of issues, from Social Security to foreign intervention. The media as a whole did a reasonable job of scrutinizing candidates' tactics, positions, and psyches.

But by and large, what the public heard was what the candidates chose to talk about. Both Gore and Bush controlled the "dialogue," avoiding press conferences for great stretches (Gore hid out for a stunning five months) and adhering tightly to a script throughout. And thus political discussion was generally limited to the areas they believed most marketable (Social Security, taxes, public education, and the high cost of prescription drugs), and by their narrow framing of solutions. No one doubts the parlous state of public education, for example, but would funding a handful of additional teachers or supporting opt-out-of-the-system vouchers get at the root of the problem? Prescription drug prices are important, but by limiting our attention to this, are we skirting the more fundamental health-care questions? How plausible are the stated solutions, and how likely are they to be enacted anyway?

We know that the candidates stayed with their script. But did the media do the same thing? If so, were we complicit in limiting the quadrennial national debate?

In conversations with a range of journalists, political figures, and academics, CJR found broad disagreement about the responsibility of the press. On one end of the discussion is Deborah Orin, Washington bureau chief for the New York Post, who states flatly: "We don't run the campaign, we report it. We try to ask questions, but it's arrogant for us to presume we set the agenda." On the other is Morton Mintz, the respected Washington Post alumnus and former chairman of the Fund for Investigative Journalism, who advocates raising subjects neither candidate cares to address. On the Web site, Mintz posted a series of thirty different articles, each suggesting a fresh topic (from child hunger to the drug wars) on which to press the nominees.

Mintz expresses disbelief, for example, that the enormous number of nuclear missiles still poised for hairtrigger launch can be seen as extraneous to a presidential campaign. "What the hell is more important?" he asks. He points out that Bush declared in a speech back in May that the number of nuclear warheads ought to be reduced, and that the GOP platform echoed this sentiment. But reporters didn't ask about this and therefore it never entered the campaign conversation.

It does seem clear that, unprodded, many candidates will talk only about what serves them best, leaving the choice of issues in the gentle hands of consultants, pollsters, and focus groups. Yet, the focus groups often reflect what people have already heard in the media, not necessarily the connection of government to their own lives -- a connection we in the media rarely make. There is a deadening circularity to the process. "It's a tactic of presidential campaigns to get on TV and get covered," says David Dreyer, a former deputy communications director for the Clinton administration. "As a staffer, you look at what the media are discussing, and you get your candidate in the middle of that discussion. If the media are focused on undecided voters, and that fraction is not interested in globalization but in prescription drugs, then you don't talk about NAFTA. So excessive polling by the media contributes to a narrowing of the campaign. There is a shared complicity."

The nature of campaign coverage contributes to this. "It's hard to remember to ask broader questions and think about how normal human beings think about these things," says Jena Heath, who worked her first presidential campaign this year, covering the Bush campaign for the Austin American-Statesman. "You really are trapped by the campaign and what they want you to hear.

"Covering Bush, I thought we were drowning in policy," she says. "Of course, it was policy the campaign wanted to put out, a number of issues that Americans, when polled, say are important to them, like education. In the bubble, you see it the way the campaign wants to present it. They're driving the presentation of the material, and you're transmitting."

Some journalists do make an effort to break free. For example, the Chicago Tribune has raised doubts about the guilt of some death row inmates and provoked a national debate, but both nominees tried to steer well clear of the matter. Nightline tried to get around that problem. Based on Governor Bush's championing of executions, the program took the topic to his home turf for five straight nights in September. Governor Bush and his staff declined to participate. Still, Nightline refused to be controlled by the campaign's stonewall.

The highly determined reader and viewer, of course, can find at least some discussion of most issues. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter points out that copious position papers put out by the 2000 campaigns often went beyond the "issue of the day," and policy advisers were readily available to answer additional questions. Ted Koppel agrees: "We have more information available to us now than we have ever had in the history of humanity." Still, not all Americans have the time or inclination to read opinion journals and long magazine articles, to watch public affairs programming and listen to public radio. Most look to network anchors and local reporters to make some intelligent choices on their behalf.

The always-blunt Charles Peters, founding editor of The Washington Monthly, sees that as unfortunate. "The most severe problem is the intellectual shallowness of the average reporter," he says. "They're extremely bright people, but unfortunately they don't pride themselves on getting into issues deeply, so their understanding and their efforts are limited. That's why they love the sex scandals and the horse race and 'Is Gore lying?' and 'Is Bush a bumbler?' That's the depth of their knowledge." Peters blames the success of The McLaughlin Group in the '80s and of the Maureen Dowd model in the '90s for creating an atmosphere inimical to issues discussions. "Everyone wants to be clever; everyone wants get on TV," he says. "They've elevated the superficial to a kind of religion in Washington journalism."

Clarence Page, the Chicago Tribune syndicated columnist, argues that journalists could have helped broaden a truncated health care debate back in 1992 by drawing more attention not just to the Democratic and Republican plans, but also to the Canadian model that was being widely discussed in policy circles. In 2000, he says, reporters could have forced far greater substance and specificity into the education debate.

Yet even Page warns: "We can only beat the drum so far. Unless the public picks up on an issue, it dies. We are diverse, we're not a monolith or a conspiracy that decides together." Indeed, the most successful effort in recent years to broaden the debate did not come from the media at all. The year was 1992 and the issue, deficit reduction and balancing the budget, sounded dry and dull to the media, and potentially thorny to candidates Clinton and Bush. Then Ross Perot pumped his bottomless resources into TV time, and voila! The issue became a campaign centerpiece.

Other third-party candidates don't have Perot's money -- or goofy on-screen appeal -- but there's one thing they do have: issues and arguments. Paying more attention to these candidates automatically widens the dialogue.

The Green Party nominee, Ralph Nader, says he got only about 1 percent of the total presidential-race coverage, but his stronger complaint is not about that, but about the nature of the coverage he did get. He says that 95 percent of it focused on his potential effect on the outcome -- the horse race -- not on why he was able to affect the outcome, which ultimately revolved around his issues, some of which Bush and Gore preferred to avoid.

When Nader held a press conference at Washington's Madison Hotel, 200 feet from The Washington Post's offices, to declare that the so-called Social Security crisis was fabricated, the Post did not send a reporter, instead only mentioning Nader in a campaign roundup piece as "not having much impact on the presidential race." Nader says that a number of reporters on the campaign trail told him that their editors were only pressing them "on the issues where Bush and Gore went at each other." There is a "quarantine," Nader complains, on matters that the major candidates won't discuss.

Quarantine or no quarantine, one wonders why the press would spend three years covering everything from race to privacy to a growing wealth gap, then forget it all in the heat of the campaign?

Russ Baker is a contributing editor to CJR.

Return to: