Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Cheerleaders on the Bus: A Survey of Recent Articles

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Cheerleaders on the Bus: A Survey of Recent Articles

Article excerpt

Never before had a presidential candidate donned shades and played the saxophone on a late-night television talk show. And never before had a serious contender for the nation's highest office announced his candidacy on a television call-in show. No doubt about it: The Making of the President 1992 was different. But if TV chat shows assumed unprecedented political importance last year, most Americans, according to the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, still got their news about the presidential contest from the traditional sources: TV news programs and daily newspapers.

Many journalists thought the press had done badly in covering the 1988 presidential contest, in which visual images--of Willie Horton, of George Bush at a flag factory, of Michael Dukakis in a tank--seemed to predominate. "This time, there was a real determination to keep the candidates from controlling our agenda," Newsday campaign correspondent Susan Page comments in a survey in The Finish Line: Covering the Campaign's Final Days (Jan. 1993), a special report from the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center. "The best example," she says, "may be the tough coverage ... of television ads for distortion and lack of context."

Yet if the press in 1992 succeeded in correcting its worst failures of '88, and tried hard to give thoughtful coverage to economic and other issues, it still managed to stumble badly, in the view of some media veterans. "No one denies the press tilted toward Clinton during the campaign and was hostile to Bush," the New Republic's (Nov. 30, 1992) Fred Barnes writes. (Robert and Linda Lichter's Media Monitor |Nov. 1992~ lends some statistical support: TV news' negative evaluations of Bush exceeded those of Bill Clinton by 23 percentage points.) "Egregious as that was," Barnes continues, "there was something worse. The press was unashamedly pro-Clinton. I think an important line was crossed." While journalists in previous presidential campaigns at least kept up "the pretense of fairness," Barnes says, that restraint was thrown off in 1992.

Although there was no "orchestrated, partisan press assault" on Bush and the Republicans, Christopher Hanson, Washington correspondent for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, observes in Columbia Journalism Review (Nov.-Dec. 1992), some of the coverage did indeed have a fan-magazine quality to it. "There was, for instance, the breezy, 1,700-word, July 22 Washington Post piece about Bill Clinton and Al Gore's post-convention |Midwest~ bus tour, whose headline, ... NEW HEARTTHROBS OF THE HEARTLAND, drew understandable groans of disgust from GOP operatives."

Still, readers were able to recognize "the gushing copy about Clinton" for what it was, New Republic (Nov. 23, 1992) Deputy Editor Jacob Weisberg asserts: "The real unfairness occurs in the stories that aren't covered, or |aren't~ covered aggressively." A case in point, he says, was an allegation made by Gennifer Flowers, whose claim to have been Clinton's mistress made its controversial way early in the year from the disreputable supermarket tabloid Star to the reluctant New York Times. Charges of infidelity may be none of the public's business, but "Flowers's charge that Clinton put her on the state payroll, at least, bore looking into." The press, however, "didn't want to spoil Clinton's party. …

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