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Media: Fair or Foul?

THE media are now being charged with bias and inaccuracy in campaign 1992. The charges, aimed at voters' general distrust of the fourth estate and lacking specificity, have been made mainly by the Bush and Perot camps. "Annoy the media, Re-elect the President" reads the bumper sticker President Bush has been quoting.

The media's role in the unusual political year of 1992 will be discussed for years. This election has brought with it "voter anger," anti-incumbency fervor, and a more open and direct style of campaigning - one that often bypasses the traditional news media in favor of call-in talk shows and other "entertainment" venues. Voters are getting involved this year in record numbers; 90 million watched the final presidential debate.

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But since the race got serious over the summer the media, though conventional in their coverage, have been fair. Compared with 1988, the year of the "sound bite," the Donna Rice affair, the press feeding frenzy around Dan Quayle, and the infamous George Bush-Dan Rather showdown, 1992 has been responsible and sober. Sound bites have been fewer. Longer speeches have been aired, fuller texts published. News groups pioneered critiques of campaign "attack ads."

Since July a roughly equal number of news accounts have questioned Mr. Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton. The Clinton-Gore post-convention bus trip got enthusiastic coverage, but the public's interest in the energized Democrats warranted it. The GOP did not get as much press "bounce" out of its convention, partly because its "family values" articulation did not go over as well.

Unlike 1988, 1992 has been a year of pocketbook issues. "The economy, stupid" reads a sign in Mr. Clinton's headquarters, and Democrats have harped on it. Bush says he has been "taking hits" from the press. But the recession is not the media's fault. The press has skeptically questioned both Bush's and Clinton's economic prescriptions; it has reported on Bush's federal record and Clinton's Arkansas record.

The press may be too willing to let the parties define coverage. The $320 billion deficit and the $200 billion interest payment on the national debt were not issues until Ross Perot brought them up. Potential White House scandals have been relatively ignored by both Clinton and the press.

Three questions for debate:

* Does reporting on shifting polls wrongly direct voters?

* What is the legacy of the candidates' "talk-show" strategy? Does it give voters more access, or just an illusion of access?

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* Has Ross Perot's calculated maneuver away from press coverage been too lightly regarded?

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