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How the Press Plays Election-Finance Story

Amid charges of bias, the media struggle to make a complex issue compelling for their audiences.

Back in the heady days of Watergate, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reached movie-star fame. Every day, the major papers were a must read.

Today, in a nation increasingly inured to the whiff of scandal, some journalists covering the campaign-finance hearings and debate feel as if their stories are like the proverbial tree falling in the woods. Is the press failing in its duty to make the important interesting?

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In some ways, yes, say media observers.

Part of the problem is in the way the press operates, says Thomas Patterson, an expert on policy and the press at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. Coverage is event-based, driven by daily revelations, so journalists pay a lot of attention to the problem but not much to underlying themes or solutions, he says.

"If you divide coverage into problems and solutions, I think you'd get about 90 percent problem, 10 percent solution coverage," says Professor Patterson.

Part of the challenge for the press, he adds, is that the campaign-finance issue is complex, and "complexity is the enemy of any kind of substantial media-based leadership in getting us to an answer."

Television has paid even less attention than print to the issue - how, or whether, the way political campaigns are financed in America should be changed. Of the 115 stories aired by the three major television networks from the start of the Senate campaign-finance hearings on July 8 through Sept. 22, six have focused on reform, says Richard Noyes, an analyst at the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

Conservatives' complaints

Conservative groups argue that the media are biased in favor of the most prominent proposal for reform, the so-called McCain-Feingold bill, whose central provision would ban unlimited "soft money" donations to political parties. Some conservatives argue further that the media favor McCain-Feingold because it would limit the speech of groups producing "issue advertisements" - thus allowing the media to monopolize the public debate.

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Patterson says that the more conventional argument over the years has been that the media have a financial stake in keeping the cash from paid campaign advertisements flowing: Broadcasters and publishers make money from it.

Another complaint of conservatives is that the lexicon journalists have settled into favors liberals. "The word 'reform' has a positive connotation, and McCain-Feingold has become synonymous with reform," says Peggy Ellis of the libertarian Cato Institute, which opposes McCain-Feingold. "It's not right."

The missed story

But any media bias in favor of McCain-Feingold emerges not out of self-interest, but rather from inattention, say many academics who follow media coverage.

Bob Giles, executive director of the Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center in New York, says there are really two stories at play here - one on the hearings into campaign-finance practices of the 1996 elections (coffees, foreign money, etc.) and one on campaign-finance reform.

"The hearings have been fully covered, with considerable balance," says Mr. Giles, former publisher of the Detroit News. "On reform, the press has done less well. The whole context of the reporting has focused on the idea that reform equals placing more limits on campaign finance."

But, he adds, the press hasn't paid enough attention to the fact that campaign spending is protected as a form of free speech - under the Supreme Court's definition - and that perhaps McCain-Feingold would be found unconstitutional.

In the broadcast world, the Public Broadcasting System's "Democracy Project" has tried as hard as anyone to figure out a way to present the complete picture of the campaign-finance issue.

Last summer, just before the Senate hearings began, PBS laid out a plan for 24 weekly installments called "Follow the Money." But foundations weren't interested in kicking in any funds because there was no buzz in the country about the hearings, says Democracy Project executive director Ellen Hume.

PBS went ahead anyway and has developed a loyal following among viewers of the 210 public TV stations (out of 340) that carry the show. But she is concerned that by January, when hearings in the House will continue, "Follow the Money" will be, well, out of money.

Celebrity-driven TV programming means the public gets "an empty meal," says Hume. "Democracy may starve to death if we don't provide some serious information for people."

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