Interpretation Games: The News Media in New Hampshire
Good evening America. Here we are in the Granite State. . . . Don't we look quaint?
- Natham Cobb, "Reporting for Duty," The Boston Globe, February 27, 1984, p. 10
The tense coexistence between candidate organizations, elected officials and what can loosely be termed the media establishment has long been an accepted fact of American political life. Modern campaigns for elective office are structured around minutely detailed strategies drawn up by teams of advisers who work ceaselessly to shape public perceptions of their champion, his or her challengers and the relative importance or irrelevance of the issues and arenas in which they fight. At one and the same time, media tacticians seek to impress on reporters the strengths and agendas of their candidate, attempt to feed them favorable news items or to offer carefully staged campaign events, while complaining bitterly of bias and pack journalism when subsequent interpretations do not break their way. As F. Christopher Arterton notes, an "irreconcilable conflict" exists between the worlds of the journalist and the politician. 1
This conflict, of course, predates the reformed presidential nominating process. President John Adams declared, toward the end of his turbulent eighteenth-century administration, that the question of press regulation was the most difficult and portentous issue confronting the nation, noting that "Mankind cannot now be governed without it, nor at present with it."2 This jaundiced view of political journalism continued through the era of the muckrakers and the rise of yellow journalism and entered on open conflict during the late 1960s over press reporting of the war in Southeast Asia. By 1970, Vice-President Spiro Agnew was openly attributing a perceived decline in American societal values and behavior to liberal cynicism transmitted through the organs of a mainly liberal media. In Des Moines, Iowa, on November 13, 1970, Agnew lashed out at "the unelected elite" who were gathering "more and more power over public opinion in fewer and fewer hands." 3
The clash between politicians and journalists is exacerbated by schizophrenic divisions within the media establishment itself as it veers unsteadily between broad policy analysis and the far more appealing allure of trivial campaign events. Presidential elections tend only to intensify this dilemma since they constitute both