The aftermath of the second presidential debate in mid-October seemed to produce a coast-to-coast journalistic consensus. A full two weeks before Americans voted, the news media declared Bill Clinton the winner.
"Little Time Left For Any October Surprise," read a St. Louis Post-Dispatch headline. "Stick a fork in George; he's done," said a column in the Denver Post. Newsweek made a big splash with its cover headline: "President Clinton? How He Would Govern."
Most journalists insist they were simply reflecting public sentiment, acknowledging the inevitability of Clinton's election and looking ahead to the consequences. To some supporters of George Bush and Ross Perot, though, the coverage then - and throughout the campaign - simply reflected the media's liberal bias.
Some of the complaints undoubtedly come from Republicans, still shell-shocked at having lost the presidency. But even some journalists suggest that the collective veil of objectivity was raised during the campaign's last two months.
"No one denies the press tilted toward Clinton during the campaign and was hostile to Bush," Fred Barnes wrote in the New Republic. "In pre-1992 days, journalists insisted they didn't really favor one candidate over another.... This year the restraint was gone. Instead of denials. reporters offered explanations for their cheer-leading for Clinton."
Added William A. Henry III in Time: "It is widely admitted in private that many journalists covering Bill Clinton feel generational affinity,and unusual warmth toward him-and that much of the White House press corps disdains President Bush and all his works."
Veteran Clinton critic Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, agrees that there used to be "a kind of formal objectivity exercised. This year, the press seemed to be not quite as concerned with the impressions that it made. It would just regurgitate Clinton's lines or defend Clinton before [the campaign] had to."
Studies seem to back up the charges. The conservative Center for Media and Public Affairs analyzed network evening newscasts during the fall campaign and characterized 71 percent of the comments about Bush on the network evening newscasts as "negative." That compared to 48 percent negative comments about Clinton and 55 percent about Perot.
The Washington Post's ombudsman, Joann Byrd, examined the newspaper's photos, stories and headlines during the last 73 days of the campaign and concluded they were very lopsided" in Clinton's favor. Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. says the newspaper should have run more stories toward the campaign's end summarizing earlier scrutiny of Clinton's gubernatorial record.
Many voters also sensed that there was favoritism. A November poll by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press found that 35 percent of voters surveyed nationwide felt that the press had been unfair to Bush. Another 27 percent felt Perot was treated unfairly while 19 percent thought Clinton was treated unfairly.
Other. surveys - the most recent released in November by the Freedom Forum - concluded that journalists are more likely to identify with the Democratic Party than the public at large does.
Regardless of whether or not journalists were rooting for Clinton, it was only natural that Bush received tougher coverage in 1992 than he had four years earlier. The economy was lagging. Voters were restive. Bush's campaign was in disarray.
Reporters, meanwhile, seemed to develop a certain attraction for Clinton, or at least for his campaign, interviews with journalists, political observers and media critics suggest. Perhaps it was his ideology, or a generational pull, or that a prospective Clinton administration was a better story. Some thought the media were misguided in declaring him the winner weeks before the election.
Nevertheless, only the most conservative and conspiratorial media critics would suggest that journalists threw the election. …