Retooling Presidential Election Coverage

Article excerpt

Ever since news organizations laid their collective egg in the 1988 presidential election, the second-guessers have had a field day lecturing the press on how it should retool their political coverage.

The latest batch of ideas comes from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, more specifically the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Its report, "Campaign Lessons for '92", has grand academic-media-foundation trappings, crafted by working and former journalists and funded by the Markle Foundation and the National Education Association.

The document is a little preachy but deserves attention because coverage of the 1992 election campaign has begun, and because almost all the suggestions are solid and doable, if not exactly brand new ideas.

The Harvard folks give credit to Sissela Bok, the eloquent ethnicist, for the concept on which this three-year project was based.

The Bok thesis: "There are three 'vicious cicles' at play in any political campaign; the people, the politicians, and the press . . . . If any of these thre systems could be changed for the better, the other two would be similarly affected," explains Marvin Kalb, Barone Center chief. Bok's ultimate motive: Who knows, a press more attuned to the voting public just might entice more people to the polls.

The report is primarily the work of Ellen Hume, former Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal reporter and executive director of the Shorenstein Center; John Ellis, former NBC political analyst and nephew of the president; Carter Wilkie, researcher and writer, with an editing assist from Marvin Kalb. The fingerprints of David Broder, the industry's high priest of political reporting, are also all over this research.

The theme: "If a single overriding theme emerges from this work, it is a concern that campaigns have become distant from the conerns of voters; that a 'disconnect' has developed between the electorate and their prospective leaders, and that journalism, rather than bridging that gap, has helped create and sustain it. The belief that voters are in some ways alienated from the campaign process is a profoundly serious charge in a democracy."

Change comes so hard in our business and the stakes are so vital to us and to the electoral process that the study's recommendation deserves repeating again and again. News organizations should:

* Establish a baseline agenda to monitor relevance and balance in the news coverage. This agenda would be based on ideas, values and concerns not so much of the press but those of voters. This initial agenda could help discourage overattention to the "manufactured" news as the campaign moves along.

* Take senior reporters off the campaign plane, leaving the day-to-day spot coverage to "pools," photos and audio from the traveling campaign. …