It’s a pleasure to be here tonight to talk about the interrelationship of two of my favorite subjects—politics and news, or rather the coverage of political news.
News and politics—the two words mean little unless you personalize them, unless you talk about politicians on the one hand and on the other hand about newsmen and women, or media persons, if you prefer—I don’t want to say “reporters” because many of the media persons or personalities mixed up in the business of reporting or analyzing or presenting politics, politicians, and elections are not reporters. They are columnists, editorial writers, anchor persons, TV cameramen, photographers and other politicians.
In addition, many of the reporters who cover elections, both major and minor, are not only not political reporters, but also they don’t understand politics, or the political selection processes or the way government works—and their reporting reflects it.
I don’t mean this to be a blanket indictment, although I will have some specific indictments as we go down the road here. But I do mean to indicate that the coverage of politics and political races is really a hodgepodge and ranges from the very professional to the very amateurish. I might add, at this time, and I’ll speak more about it later, that it also ranges from the very fair and objective to the opinionated and from there to the very slanted and biased.
I think that in a speech on this topic one must also talk about the methods of transmitting news and/or opinion to the public because that has a great deal to do with the politics of news as well as the news of politics.
In older and simpler days a reporter went out and covered a political speech and came back and wrote his story. The paper printed it, and the reader received it either at home or off the newsrack or from the paperboy. There really wasn’t much more to it.
Even the advent of radio didn’t change things all that much. You got an occasional speech from a major politician or office holder, live, and you got quicker, if briefer, reporting of major campaigns, but radio supplemented newspapers by titillating their readers. It did not supplant them.
But then came television which had a major impact on all news coverage and changed the way politics is covered and changed the way politicians campaign. In all honesty, however, TV came rather gradually to be a factor as far as covering major campaigns, candidates and office holders was concerned.
Initially, cameras, tripods, lights, camera crews were seen, both by writing press and candidates, as intrusions into the political process and the coverage of press conferences, rallies and political events of all kinds. Equipment was bulky, personnel was pushy. As recently as the Johnson-Goldwater campaign of 1964 there was a real antagonism between the writing press and the electronic media.
I recall one reporter, young then, but now a bureau chief and a very prestigious political reporter, telling other reporters with a vindictive satisfaction that he had cut the cable of one TV crew’s equipment—they used to run around with long cables strung like umbilical cords between the camera crews and the reporters. If you were a newspaper reporter, it was fun to step on them as a crew was hurrying from one place to another.
There was still, even at that relatively recent date, a tendency to segregate television reporters from the real reporters. Separate press conferences would be held, one for the writing press and one for the TV reporters. TV reporters would be permitted to cover some events, but their cameras would be excluded. What a difference from today when cameras are given the best locations at dinners, rallies and other events and when TV reporters with their camera crews—mostly video tape anymore— are avidly sought out by candidates. They are the means to take the candidate directly to the people, unfiltered through the one-dimensional limitations of the writing press. It just took a while for candidates to figure this out.
1964 was also the year that TV had its first real impact on a presidential election—an impact that, as I have indicated, has through the years grown increasingly strong and important.
Likewise, 1964 was the year that it was my misfortune to be assigned to cover Barry Goldwater’s half of the Johnson-Goldwater campaign exclusively. There were three things wrong with that. First, covering one candidate exclusively over a period of ten weeks will drive anyone nuts. Second, you cannot possibly get an objective feel for a campaign by covering only one side of it. Third, you have to be very careful lest you find yourself either becoming a house reporter, or to avoid that, writing stories that are antagonistic toward the candidate.
But back to the TV coverage. There is no doubt that Goldwater was a controversial candidate. There were few who were neutral toward him, including reporters. Indeed reporters that year, more than in most years, seemed to seek out statements and incidents that would justify their own viewpoints.
Because Goldwater was controversial, he was greeted almost everywhere by demonstrators, usually just a few, bearing anti-Goldwater signs. Many TV reporters, to prove that Goldwater was disliked by others besides themselves, day after day shot the sign carriers, ignoring the fact that most crowds were largely, even enthusiastically, friendly.
Now, I don’t say that television coverage cost Barry Goldwater the election. It did not. But television coverage did, at the very least, reinforce the opinion of most Americans that Goldwater was a radical and a bombthrower who could not be trusted with the awesome responsibilities of the presidency.
Of course there was more involved than just TV or just pictures of demonstrators. For example, an erroneous A.P. story out of New Hampshire early on accused Goldwater of wanting to resume above-ground nuclear testing. And just before the Goldwater-Rockefeller primary in California, a still well-known—but now more conservative—TV news reporter and analyst went a long way out of his way to get at Goldwater. First, he talked in glowing terms about California’s great progressive governor, Hiram Johnson, and then he talked negatively about the Birch Society. He followed by comparing Rockefeller to Johnson—Hiram, that is—and finally came to his point—the next day’s primary was really a contest between Hiram Johnson and the John Birch Society. That, my friends, is a clear example of the politics of news reporting.
Clearly the advent of television has changed public perceptions of politics and politicians as well as almost all other facets of world events. But it is doubtful that it has increased the accuracy of those perceptions since they involve input from fallible, often ignorant humans.
Ignorance, I guess, is the chief curse of the political reporter, who often thinks he’s writing from inside knowledge, or at least deludes himself that he is. The trouble is, most reporters really don’t understand how campaigns function, because they’ve never been in one.
They have no idea of either the logistics of a campaign or of the decision-making processes that go on in a campaign. They write from hearsay, from secondhand knowledge and from sources that have a vested interest in what is written. Put five persons in a room, and they come out with five different versions of what went on. That is true of politicians, too. It is seldom the reporter talks to all five. And even if he does, how does he decide which version or combination of versions is the truth?
I heard someone giving a speech the other day, and he used an anecdote to make a similar point. It went something like this. The first fellow says to the second fellow: “I hear you got a tip from your broker last Tuesday and made $100,000 on the stock-market.” The second fellow says, “You’ve got the basic story except that it wasn’t my broker, it was my brother-in-law, it wasn’t last Tuesday, it was a week ago Wednesday, it wasn’t on the stock market, it was a real estate deal, and I didn’t make $100,000, I lost it.”
Some political stories are about that accurate.
In no defense of reporters, it isn’t always that someone feeds them bad information, either; much of the misinformation fed by them to the public is due to lazy reporting or poor analysis.
I’m sure a lot of people here were watching NBC-TV the morning after the Iowa caucuses and heard Tom Petit declare flatly, “Ronald Reagan is dead.” What’s happened since might not be the quickest resurrection job on record, but it surely ranks among the top ten.
Again, going back to television, it isn’t necessarily what you see that leaves the wrong impression or conveys the wrong perceptions. It’s what you don’t see or how what you see is explained by the reporter.
The fault is not with the pictures. The fault is with television news producers, television’s self-imposed time limitations, and the ideas of TV reporters and news directors as to what constitutes news. Too often the word “balance” is foreign to those who decide what should go on TV. Thus you see the demonstrators at a Goldwater rally but not the friendly crowd.
Thus, you see the hassle at the debate between Reagan and George Bush, and you see and hear the anger of the four excluded candidates, but you don’t have the vaguest idea as to who won the debate.
Thus you see Reagan on “60 Minutes” with the closeup lens right on top of him, showing every wrinkle, every blemish, every enlarged pore, to the point where it is difficult to concentrate on what is being said, because you know the cameraman’s purpose, or the reporter’s purpose or the director’s purpose is to show every American watching that Ronald Reagan is an old man.
But why not show Ronald Reagan’s age? He is 69. People need to know that, don’t they? Of course they do, and I suspect every American interested in who our next president will be knows that. There are two points to make here: wrinkles and blemishes are physical defects having nothing to do with stamina or mental capacity or ability to govern. So the only reason to emphasize them is to leave a negative impression.
Secondly, you may have noticed how many news items, both on television and in print, mention Reagan’s age. Almost every one. This is not only because reporters think it is important, but also because they want the voter to think it’s important. Back in 1966 when Reagan first ran for governor, it wasn’t his age that bothered California’s McClatchy newspapers, it was his conservatism. Thus nearly every story began, “Ronald Reagan, the Goldwaterite candidate,” and went on from there.
One might think that the most important things about a candidate, assuming that he is healthy, honest and reasonably intelligent, are the things he stands for, the things he believes in, the philosophy he holds—and hopefully adheres to. Therefore, as he enunciates these things throughout the long campaign, you might think they would be reported again and again. Not so. In most reporters’ eyes, repetition dulls news value. What the candidate thinks is important is not important to them, unless what the candidate says is very controversial or opens up areas of controversy the candidate cannot easily or satisfactorily explain. Thus you will read or hear story after story about a 90-billion-dollar-rebate plan for the states—and properly so, but not to the exclusion of what else the candidate might stand for. The trouble is, now, reporters travel in packs and hunt in packs. Every reporter must ask his question and write his story whenever controversy arises. And each seeks to be the first to spot a blunder or area of controversy.
Thus you have the spectacle of the press eagerly waiting around for the candidate to blunder, to misstate himself, to goof up. And they all do. Muskie can weep in New Hampshire. Agnew can kiddingly refer to someone as a “fat Jap.” Carter can “lust” in his heart. Romney can be brainwashed, and Reagan can tell a duck joke. And these immediately sweep aside things of importance or meaning that the candidate might say or stand for. Such missteps can and have run candidates right out of presidential races—not because of the real importance of what was said or done, but because of what the media made of them.
Without a doubt, then, the media by what it reports, by what it doesn’t report, by what it shows or doesn’t show, by how much time or how little time it gives a candidate, or an office holder or an issue, can distort issues or affect the standing of candidates, can literally make them or break them. Not always, of course, but often enough. And, in my opinion, the impact of the press on national candidates is going to get stronger and stronger.
Why? One reason is that federal campaign laws now limit how much presidential candidates can raise and spend. There now is no way a candidate can reach all the people directly and effectively under these limits, especially with television and radio time, print media space and airplane charter costs sky-rocketing. This means that candidates more and more must depend on those covering their campaigns to filter their philosophies, their positions and their personalities through the public. The ratio between the ability of the candidate to get directly to the people and the need to depend on media coverage is rapidly getting out of balance.
Growing dependence on media coverage plus the growth of television as the medium with the most impact on the voter has brought about that phenomenon known as the media candidate. There are two varieties of media candidates. One is the candidate who looks good and sounds good on television. The other is the candidate the media—both print and electronic—decide they like and decide to push—decide, if you will, to elect.
Reagan—I’m sorry always to be going back to Reagan, but so much of my life has been wrapped up in his political endeavors that it is difficult not to—Reagan is clearly the best example of the first kind of media candidate. He looks good on television. He sounds good on television. He is good on television, and on the stump. Political reporters, who as I said, move, act and think as a herd, have labeled him the best political speaker in the country as well as the best politician on television. Reagan is very good as a speaker, but no objective observer could call him the best. But, when left to his own devices and his own style, he is undoubtedly the very best politician on television. His kind of candidate—the telegenic candidate—uses television to his own advantage. His kind of candidate should buy all the time he can to take his message directly to the people. He does not use television as a news medium but as a propaganda medium. That kind of candidate should also use what the TV news media has to offer in order to maximize his appearances on the tube. He should appear on interview shows—“Meet the Press” and the like. He should appear on shows like “60 Minutes.” Yes, I remember what I said about “60 Minutes” a few minutes ago, but let me make a point here. In two previous “60 Minutes” appearances, Reagan came out extremely well. His interviewer those two times was Mike Wallace. His interviewer last time was Dan Rather. Coincidence? Perhaps.
Finally, that kind of candidate should set up frequent, even daily media events during his campaign. Most candidates do that today, but they are especially effective with telegenic candidates.
One who wasn’t especially telegenic used media events to great advantage in 1972—no, not Richard Nixon—George McGovern. A media event is a staged event that is something more than a speech or a rally. It can be a visit to an old people’s home or a shipyard. It can be inspecting a construction site wearing a hard hat, it can be throwing a snowball, smoking a peacepipe with an old Indian, or even kissing a baby—God help us.
The strange thing is, television reporters are all aware that media events are set-ups. They all know they are being used. Yet, in the case of major candidates, at least, they fear not to use them, primarily because they know—or think they know—the opposition will. Bluntly, media events are phony news, and everyone involved is aware. But they give TV its daily dose of something different—which is, I guess, more important than something important—and they give the candidate nightly exposure.
A few months back I visited with the man who is the epitome of political politicians—Richard Nixon. “The tube is what it’s all about,” he said. “Ron should make only a couple of appearances a day, just to make sure he gets on the nightly news.”
Well, I don’t think the time has come when a candidate can quite do that, but I certainly agree with the general premise. By the way, I am confident that the first politician of national stature really to recognize the worth of the “ tube” to a campaign was Nixon.
Let me go now to the second kind of media candidate—the person the press wants to elect or at least make into a contender.
Four years ago that man was Jimmy Carter. I haven’t yet figured out why. But perhaps the reason is that Carter, regardless of what kind of a president you may think he is, is a very good politician. And, regardless of what you may think of Ham Jordon, Jody Powell and company, they, too, are very good politicians. And Pat Cadell is a very good political poll taker and analyst.
In any event, a few political reporters in late 1975 were wandering around Iowa—the first caucus state. Now nobody had ever paid much attention to the Iowa caucuses because convention delegates were not selected at them. Only delegates to other caucuses were picked, and these picked delegates to other caucuses until you finally came to the caucus that picked delegates to the national convention.
Carter and his people—he was running at about 3 percent in the polls—recognized that if they could dominate the first caucuses in Iowa, their people could dominate the succeeding ones, and they would wind up with the delegates to the convention. Which is what happened.
But what he was doing in Iowa brought Carter to the attention of the few national reporters who were there. And these brought him to the attention of the American people as the unknown who had, against all logic and long odds, won the Iowa caucuses. And suddenly he was no longer the ex-governor of Georgia—he was a national figure and a major candidate. And the more it seemed that he was a national figure, the more the media concentrated on him. And by the time the other eight or ten Democratic presidential candidates figured out what was happening, it was too late. In fact, you may recall, they were so unaware, they left the Florida primary to Carter, George Wallace and Henry Jackson—they were all afraid of Wallace—and when Carter beat Wallace and Jackson, there his campaign received another major boost.
To crib from George Will, this campaign year— which began last year, boiled down—and still boils down in the Republican Party at least—to two candidates—Reagan and “stop Reagan.”
Now face it, Ronald Reagan is a nice man, personally, and most of the press covering politics like him personally, but most of them also are Democrats, and they don’t like what he stands for. (They probably don’t like what Hillsdale College stands for, either, but that’s another matter.) And even beyond that, the press likes a contest, a confrontation, a fight.
So over the months they’ve been looking for a new face—any face, but preferably a new face—with which to stop Reagan. They’ve run through three so far but finally seem to have settled on a fourth. Early on they were looking at John Connally and Howard Baker. But neither really had that something different or unique that really made either of them preferable to Reagan.
Connally, it turned out, was really the candidate of big business, and Baker was just another member of the Washington establishment with no new ideas and no personal pizzaz.
George Bush was a likely choice until the media discovered he had no desire to outflank Reagan on the left. And then they also found that he was fuzzy on the issues and that he might not react well under pressure. I refer, of course, to his inept handling of the debate situation in New Hampshire when Reagan unexpectedly demanded that four other candidates be allowed to participate.
That left, almost by a process of elimination, a died-in-the-wool natural—Representative John Anderson of Illinois. He meets all the qualifications of a media candidate. In many ways he’s similar to another media candidate and demi-hero, Eugene McCarthy. Both are telegenic.
Both are openly and admittedly outside the mainstream of their party.
Both are regarded as intellectuals. Both are liberals.
Both would change their parties radically.
McCarthy was clearly the liberal alternative to Lyndon Johnson until Johnson dropped out. Anderson is clearly the liberal alternative to Reagan.
As soon as this was perceived, the media set out to build Anderson as the Reagan alternative. Now I do not mean there is a conspiracy among the press to support Anderson. But, as I said earlier, the herd instinct among the national press is unusually strong. All it takes is a couple of columns by nationally known columnists to start, at least, the remainder of the press to looking.
And the columns came—from writers like Scotty Reston of the New York Times, Mary McGrory of the Washington Star and others. Then, as Anderson complained on TV that he really hadn’t much TV coverage, that kind of coverage came—from “60 Minutes,” from the “Today Show” and suddenly there he was—a political star—invented, shaped and polished almost solely by the media.
But media stars are not always the people’s choice, even if Mary McGrory describes you as having “flaming common sense.” This is especially true in the Republican Party. The cartoonist, Paul Conrad, put it best—“right man, right time, wrong party.” At worst, Conrad was one-third right. Anderson is in the wrong party in the wrong year, and no amount of politicking by the media on his behalf is going to change that.
I don’t want to get into an analysis of why Anderson can’t win because it’s irrelevant to what we’re talking about. What is relevant, however, is that Anderson, without a victory to his name, with most of his votes—and support—coming from crossover Democrats and without the remotest chance of being the Republican nominee—has quickly become a household word—made so by the national media.
In a way it’s too bad. John Anderson’s face is now so well known he’ll probably never be selected for an American Express commercial.
Let me jump here to one other media phenomenon and its relationship to election results—I’m talking about polls.
Polls today are important political news, and at the same time they are believed by some to have a skewing effect on the outcome of elections at all levels. In fact, there have been abortive—and silly—efforts—by politicians naturally—to restrict the printing of polls because of their alleged relationship to the outcome of elections.
Frankly I don’t think polls are significant factors in election results—it can be argued that publication of results can either help win or help lose. One theory is that a poll showing a candidate ahead builds his momentum and discourages the supporters of the trailing candidate. The other theory is that the same poll builds complacency among the supporters of the front runner and exhorts the trailing candidate to greater effort. Take your pick.
But polls can do several things. A person doing well in early polls finds it easier to raise money and win support. A series of polls showing a candidate closing ground can spur enthusiasm and contributions.
Campaigns often leak private or even phony polls for their own purposes. I recall in 1972 the Democratic high command was involved in distributing polls that showed McGovern closing ground on Nixon, especially in California. They were phony figures. Unfortunately, too many reporters will take leaked polls and write them as if they were gospel, forgetting that they were leaked for a purpose not altogether altruistic. This, of course, is just another example of politicians attempting to manipulate the news.
I’m sure there are many facets of this fascinating interplay between politicians and newsmen that I haven’t covered—the fact that politicians have their favorite reporters and reporters have their favorite politicians; the fact that reporters from big papers and wires and networks are usually treated better by campaigns than reporters from small papers and independents; the difficulty little known candidates have in getting known regardless of their qualifications; the tendency the media has to write off some candidates. I could go on and on.
But, in summary, I think it’s fair to say that if our political system functions reasonably well, it does so in part because of this interplay. This is a situation where each side uses the other side for its own purposes, but where, over the long haul, the people benefit. Reporters use politicians to get news and also to exercise the “power of the press” in the selection process. Politicians use reporters and the media to present themselves to the voters, to get their points of view across and to manipulate public opinion. Without the press and modern means of mass communications, no national politician could take his message to 220 million persons across the millions of square miles that make up the United States.
In fact no politician could be known by them in the intimate way we know our national leaders today. The press, on the other hand, would certainly not operate freely as it does today in the U.S. without the politician, not only because the winning politician becomes the office holder but also because the success of our system depends on the involvement and interaction of the people with the politicians, and this cannot happen in a nation as large as ours without a free and widely available news media. Likewise, without politicians our republic would cease to function. Whatever government we had would not be what we have today. Some things would be missing, including probably, a free press. Reporters, sometimes in their zeal to prove that all politicians are fallible (which most of us take for granted), forget how the system really works or even that it must work. Politicians have the same failing.
And as long as men are mortal, there is really no cure for the situation. The most we can ask for is that reporters and all members of the media on the one hand, along with politicians and all the rest of us on the other hand, step back once in a while and look at the situation with an unjaundiced eye and recognize what Churchill once said—I must paraphrase—that ours is the worst system of government in the world, except for all the others.
We would better it if we could, but we must also protect it as it is.
The press and the politicians in their strange love-hate relationship are equally essential, it appears to me, to the processes both of thoughtful change and of careful conservation of our system.
They are indispensable parts of the machinery that keeps that system working and keeps us a free people.