If Campaign's a Horserace, What Happens to the Issues?
Herbers, John, Nieman Reports
Among my most vivid, and painful, memories of life at The New York Times were the long, unproductive meetings on how to cover the issues that preceded every political season. Year after year, decade after decade, both voters and politicians complained that the press spent too much time and space on personality and character of the candidates and too little on how they would deal with the forces that impact people's lives, once elected.
Political reporters with few exceptions do not like to write about issues. They fear being bogged down in dull copy. Even when they consider issues important to the election, they usually find some other aspect of the campaign more compelling and the issues fade into the background. The 1992 presidential election provides a good example. Bill Clinton actually won because voters perceived the economy to be lagging under President Bush's policies and actions.
But that subject was obscured in the avalanche of negative copy that questioned the record and fitness of the candidates. Clinton managed to break through with his message on the economy by going on talk shows and pounding the issue at every campaign stop. But the traditional press, by missing the importance of the issue, missed an opportunity to enlighten the public on the limited, though important, role the president has in regulating the economy.
Certainly many news organizations have tried to elevate the importance of issues in campaign coverage. Many have assigned reporters to spend their full time on one or more issues. Newspapers have devoted considerable space to discussions of the issues. And even the evening news broadcasts have allocated time to important issues. But it is the stuff of the tabloids and gossip columns - which in the end hold candidates to higher personal moral codes than is the norm in our society - which catch the headlines and dominate the coverage.
The 1996 elections may provide an excellent chance of breaking out of this mode. While sensationalism in the press was making a comeback in recent years, the American system of government remained relatively stable with an underlying understanding of what levels of regulation, redistribution of wealth and public assistance should be maintained. Disagreements among the parties and candidates concerned the margins, not the central substance in these matters.
Now all that has changed with the agenda of the Republican right spreading through the political system. The character and fitness of candidates, while still important, could, and perhaps should, take a back seat to defining what landmark changes may be ahead for the country. Those changes, only now beginning to take place in law and policy, will still be in the making all through 1996.
Will the press allow its coverage to be dominated again by the horserace and personality aspects of the campaigns? Or will it focus more on where the positions and promises of the candidates may be taking the country? This is a critical question because some of the emerging positions in politics promise a whole new order of American life. Will continued deregulation of business and lessening of governance bring the kind of prosperity and renewal of public morality that are promised? Or will they threaten advances made in the environment and public safety, fuel the growing division between incomes of the poor and the rich and endanger the social safety net which, in the opinion of many, has maintained at least a measure of domestic peace?
In the past, reporting of political issues has been far too restrictive. Take, for example, the almost universal cry for tax cuts. Most stories about a candidate proposing a cut does nothing to put the proposal into perspective. It is doubtful that many Americans who demand tax cuts knowthat United States taxes are among the lowest in industrialized countries, because most news accounts of this issue are so narrowly focused. Of course, some tax cuts can be justified, but nevertheless not many news reports look down the road for the long-term effects - cutting funds for prenatal care, for example, when doing so may mean more birth defects that require a lifetime burden of public payments. …