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New Hampshire's Primary Station

Channel 9 emerges as new media player in Granite State

IT'S 9:45 a.m. Carl Cameron, political reporter for WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H., and cameraman Chris McDevitt are racing around the corner in their car.

They're trying to catch Sen. Richard Lugar, a Republican presidential candidate, whose automobile is just pulling away from his hotel to his next campaign stop.

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Mr. McDevitt pulls up behind and leans on his horn. Heads turn in Senator Lugar's car. Recognizing Mr. Cameron, the senator, his wife, and staff abruptly pull over. They do an interview.

When WMUR Channel 9 asks a presidential candidate for an interview, it gets one. In fact, tomorrow's would-be leaders often spend as much time buttonholing Mr. Cameron as he does them.

His - and the station's - unusual status illustrates the growing power and influence New Hampshire's only TV network affiliate enjoys in this small state with the big presidential primary.

Historically, the Manchester Union-Leader has been the press outlet to reckon with in the Granite State. It still is for conservatives. But increasingly WMUR is rearing its head as a potent force in the piney woods, too.

The competition between the two outlets mirrors what is going on between newspapers and TV stations nationwide. But the rivalry in New Hampshire, as with everything in the first primary state, carries larger implications for a nation preparing to choose its next leader.

"Anybody looking at the 'mediascape' in this state has to acknowledge how potent Channel 9 is," says Tom Rath, a New Hampshire strategist working for Lamar Alexander. "Candidates will kill to get 30 seconds of time on the 6 o'clock news. WMUR has become a really significant part of how political business is done up here."

This is not going unnoticed at the Union-Leader. Under its late publisher William Loeb, the paper was the dominant media voice. A staunch conservative, Loeb and his paper demanded that candidates, especially conservatives, pass its litmus tests against taxes and on other issues. "You can't run for significant office as a conservative and not have the support of the Union-Leader," Mr. Rath says.

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The Union-Leader ruled supreme for for several reasons. A large number of voters live in Manchester and points north, where the newspaper's circulation is strongest. The Union-Leader was the only statewide paper in New Hampshire, and, until recently, the sole major morning paper. It remains the state's unofficial newspaper of record.

While the paper is still a force, since around 1988 it has increasingly shared the press spotlight with Channel 9. Which outlet has more influence is difficult to say. "The Union-Leader's ability to impact elections is still a goal of theirs, but I don't know how much of a reality it is," says Jack Heath, WMUR's news director. "There's a healthy news rivalry that's grown over the last five years."

Joseph McQuaid, editor in chief of the Union-Leader, says "you would have to ask the voters" how much the newspaper or Channel 9 influences them. "I think they're certainly an influence in New Hampshire, but I think the market they have and we have is certainly different...."

"WMUR has certainly changed the dynamic," says Hugh Gregg, a former Republican governor. "They do a very good job of reporting, get around, and get out faster than the paper. They're definitely taking away from the Union-Leader to that extent."

Broadcasting from the third floor of the old Amoskeag mill along the Merrimack River in downtown Manchester, WMUR is the only major commercial TV station in New Hampshire.

Mr. Heath says the cumulative audience of the station's nine half-hours of news daily is more than 250,000 households. That's in a state of just over 1 million people. While many people in southern New Hampshire can receive Boston TV stations, only WMUR offers New Hampshire news.

This kind of reach in the small state that provides the first filtering of presidential candidates gives WMUR some unique coverage opportunities.

The station responds, Mr. Cameron says, not only with 4-1/2 hours of local news daily, but with a more in-depth approach to TV news. The Boston stations "can't do this kind of political coverage because they're each covering the same ambulance," he says. "We can make C-Span-type decisions because we're not facing the competition that drags down the intellectual content of news coverage."

The station's policy is to cover the candidates wherever and whenever it can. "We try to cover all the candidates, to get live access to them, and we try to get more beef or in-depth coverage," Heath says. "Then we try to hit them with something going on in the news and get them off message a bit and see how they dance in terms of public policy."

Their influence means Heath, Cameron, and colleagues must walk a fine line. "It's nice to be exclusive, but we get a fishbowl-like scrutiny," Cameron says. "Nobody is ever satisfied that they get maximum exposure." Senator and presidential hopeful Phil Gramm recently called Cameron at home to complain that Channel 9's report on him was "off message." "They sometimes forget we're not their hired people," Cameron says.

Such influence also has its advantages. At a recent meeting with realtors, Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania stopped 10 minutes into his presentation when Cameron walked in. "Carl Cameron has just arrived. Do you mind if I start over?" he joked.

The party not involved in a primary-election fight often complains that the station's coverage is biased toward the other party, the reporter says. "In 1990 we were criticized [by Democrats] for being 'WGOP.' In 1992 we got the opposite criticism [from Republicans]. Now the Democrats are complaining again."

State Democratic Party chair Joseph Keefe, who hosts a party program on WMUR's cable channel, says that although some people in both parties criticize the station, "It makes a real honest effort to try to be fair and unbiased and cover Democrats as well as Republicans."

"If Channel 9 does something you disagree with, you can talk to them about it," Mr. Keefe says.

While WMUR has become an alternative voice in New Hampshire, the Union-Leader remains strong. "Reports of the demise of the Union-Leader are overrated," Rath says. "It's still a potent player, especially as a validator of conservative candidacies.... Candidates need a two-pronged news-media attack. They have to do both; they can't ignore either."

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