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Media Bias and Candidate Bashing

THERE others see press bias in presidential-race coverage I often see something else: What I call the "piling-on" tendency.

Sure, the media is piling on George Bush these days. Almost with glee they report the latest Bush negative. Each indication of the sluggish economy is portrayed as the president's fault. And he's being thoroughly bashed for tardiness in responding to Hurricane Andrew even though there is strong evidence that he reacted rather quickly, certainly as soon as he was called upon to do so by the Florida governor.

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It's no secret that journalists covering presidential campaigns are mostly Democrats and liberals. This has been true for years, since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Studies that have confirmed this have also showed that Republican newspaper publishers outnumbered those with Democratic leanings. But no one has claimed that the TV networks are controlled by those with GOP or conservative points of view.

But my contention - from years of mingling with political reporters - is that most of them, particularly those who are selected to cover presidential candidates, are not only among the best and brightest in their newspaper's stable, but they lean over backward to try to guard against letting their convictions shape their stories. In my opinion, most seek to write impeccably honest accounts of what is going on.

Only shortly before the New York convention, Bill Clinton was getting the same kind of treatment in the press that the president is receiving today. He could do nothing right. He was almost destroyed by what might be called a kind of media feeding frenzy.

I see this as the "piling-on" tendency - and the press pile on a candidate who is in trouble whether he's a Republican or a Democrat. They jumped all over George McGovern in 1972, even though his feelings against the Vietnam War reflected those of most of the reporters who were writing about him. And they jumped all over Michael Dukakis, again almost with glee, when he began to falter after holding a commanding lead over Bush at convention time.

Why do good reporters jump on candidates who are down? Isn't this, of itself, irresponsible? Often the candidates bring this kind of treatment on themselves by bloopers. Sometimes it was nothing more than an unwise move, such as Mr. Dukakis looking absolutely ridiculous as he donned a helmet and rode a tank. Sometimes, of course, a disclosure about a candidate's private life has stirred up a flurry of unfavorable stories.

The candidates are the ones who provide the message and the reporters are only the messengers. But the messengers, particularly in a political campaign, are frequently presented with a message on which they can put a negative or a positive spin. And I've often seen the "piling-on" tendency then take over.

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And at times I've seen the ideological bent of reporters start to take over as well. It was particularly evident during the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy race when the traveling Washington press had clearly fallen in love with Jack Kennedy. It came through in their conversations and, particularly, in the contempt they showed for Mr. Nixon in the songs they made up and sang on the campaign planes.

In 1964 Barry Goldwater fell victim to reporters who didn't work hard enough to restrain their ideological opposition to a candidate who was so outspokenly conservative. They went beyond the "piling-on" approach, though that was there too. They acted not only with delight but with a vengeance.

Here I would like to mention another factor at work when in press coverage of candidates: the tendency of readers and viewers to see what they want to see. Even-handed reporting and placement of stories are often perceived by passionate partisans, on either the right or the left, as biased.

The Monitor always seeks to be fair in its treatment of the presidential candidates, and 1964 was no exception. Yet many readers expressed displeasure with what they saw as unfair treatment of Mr. Goldwater - until Goldwater sent an unsolicited letter, which this paper published, that lauded the Monitor for its fair coverage of him and his campaign.

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