New Hampshire's Primary Station Channel 9 Emerges as New Media Player in Granite State

Article excerpt

IT'S 9:45 a.m. Carl Cameron, political reporter for WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H., and cameraman Chris McDevitt are racing around the corner in their car.

They're trying to catch Sen. Richard Lugar, a Republican presidential candidate, whose automobile is just pulling away from his hotel to his next campaign stop.

Mr. McDevitt pulls up behind and leans on his horn. Heads turn in Senator Lugar's car. Recognizing Mr. Cameron, the senator, his wife, and staff abruptly pull over. They do an interview.

When WMUR Channel 9 asks a presidential candidate for an interview, it gets one. In fact, tomorrow's would-be leaders often spend as much time buttonholing Mr. Cameron as he does them.

His - and the station's - unusual status illustrates the growing power and influence New Hampshire's only TV network affiliate enjoys in this small state with the big presidential primary.

Historically, the Manchester Union-Leader has been the press outlet to reckon with in the Granite State. It still is for conservatives. But increasingly WMUR is rearing its head as a potent force in the piney woods, too.

The competition between the two outlets mirrors what is going on between newspapers and TV stations nationwide. But the rivalry in New Hampshire, as with everything in the first primary state, carries larger implications for a nation preparing to choose its next leader.

"Anybody looking at the 'mediascape' in this state has to acknowledge how potent Channel 9 is," says Tom Rath, a New Hampshire strategist working for Lamar Alexander. "Candidates will kill to get 30 seconds of time on the 6 o'clock news. WMUR has become a really significant part of how political business is done up here."

This is not going unnoticed at the Union-Leader. Under its late publisher William Loeb, the paper was the dominant media voice. A staunch conservative, Loeb and his paper demanded that candidates, especially conservatives, pass its litmus tests against taxes and on other issues. "You can't run for significant office as a conservative and not have the support of the Union-Leader," Mr. Rath says.

The Union-Leader ruled supreme for for several reasons. A large number of voters live in Manchester and points north, where the newspaper's circulation is strongest. The Union-Leader was the only statewide paper in New Hampshire, and, until recently, the sole major morning paper. It remains the state's unofficial newspaper of record.

While the paper is still a force, since around 1988 it has increasingly shared the press spotlight with Channel 9. Which outlet has more influence is difficult to say. "The Union-Leader's ability to impact elections is still a goal of theirs, but I don't know how much of a reality it is," says Jack Heath, WMUR's news director. "There's a healthy news rivalry that's grown over the last five years."

Joseph McQuaid, editor in chief of the Union-Leader, says "you would have to ask the voters" how much the newspaper or Channel 9 influences them. "I think they're certainly an influence in New Hampshire, but I think the market they have and we have is certainly different...."

"WMUR has certainly changed the dynamic," says Hugh Gregg, a former Republican governor. "They do a very good job of reporting, get around, and get out faster than the paper. …