The University Record, December 5, 1995

Media wields significant influence on choice of presidential candidates, journalists, pollsters say

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

While their views may differ on the quality of media coverage of the presidential nomination process, a panel of pollsters and journalists agree that a great deal of change has taken place in campaign news reporting.

Speaking at a public panel discussion last week on "The Press and the Presidency: Who Picks the Candidates?" national political analysts Warren Mitofsky and Robert Teeter and journalists Richard Berke of the New York Times and Tom Hannon of CNN concurred that the media increasingly wields greater influence in how presidential nominees are chosen.

"The press not only plays a major role in what goes on, but is, in fact, part of the process," said Teeter, who chaired President Bush's 1992 campaign and is now president of a consulting and research firm. "The role of the press has changed dramatically. It has changed not only the nature and all the aspects of political campaigns and the way you organize and run a campaign, but it has changed the way we govern."

Teeter credited the change to advances in technology, especially ongoing, live television coverage of candidates, as well as changes in telecommunications tools such as telephones, faxes and computers that can deliver campaign messages and gauge public opinion.

"The whole use of alternative media, whether it is telecommunications technology or the development of different ways of using the conventional media, such as talk radio, has changed not only political campaigns, but the way we govern, the way the country reacts and pursues issues," he said.

The result, Teeter said, is that the magnitude of news coverage is greater, with more information delivered to the public much faster. He added, however, that along with this increased volume of news comes more "bad" coverage.

Because news operations are becoming increasingly competitive, more reporters who cover presidential campaigns lack the background to adequately do so, he said.

"Conventional wisdom becomes, then, very important," Teeter said. "The whole 'birds on a wire' or 'rat-pack' mentality gets to be very important when you have a lot of inexperienced reporters."

While CNN's political director Tom Hannon agreed that the media can be guilty of "herd" behavior, he blames the chaotic environment in which journalists operate.

"It's like coming out of a car accident," he said. "You know you have to do something, but it's not always clear what the right thing is. There are, in a lot of cases, no rules for how to proceed."

Although New York Times political correspondent and U-M alumnus Richard Berke doesn't buy the argument that reporters usually tend to cover the same stories in similar ways, he did caution that voters often get overlooked by the media.

"We need to be very aware of what's on the minds of voters and try to get out of the 'Inside-the-Beltway' fishbowl," said Berke, who makes a point of talking with "real people" on a regular basis.

Hannon agreed that journalists do ignore the public at times, thanks to an insularity surrounding coverage of campaign politics that isolates reporters with campaign personnel and media colleagues in a "hot house" environment.

"A lot of the new technology is aimed not at the voters so much, but at this relatively insular political community, all of which is a distraction from covering the voters, which should be the most important story in any election campaign, but are nonetheless the hardest to cover," he said.

For pollster Warren Mitofsky, founder and former director of the CBS News/New York Times Poll and now president of an election and public opinion survey research firm, voters are certainly the most important element in political campaign news stories.

"In a democracy, the voice of the people must be heard," said Mitofsky, the U-M's Marsh Visiting Professor in Communication Studies. "It is heard quite clearly at election time. I believe that voters are right even when my preferred candidates have lost, which is not a magnanimous gesture on my part, but a respect for the wisdom and collective insight of the voters."

Mitofsky believes that the use of objective, scientific polls---not "pseudo-polls," such as the media's "conventional wisdom" or the ever-popular use of focus groups---is the best way to gauge public opinion.

"We can make inferences about why something happened, we can let politicians spin their version of what happened or we can let members of the press pontificate," he said. "But the best way to know is to ask the people themselves, and that's what we do when we conduct polls."

The use of polls notwithstanding, Berke believes that chances are good that the nomination process could, for all intents and purposes, be over with by early spring 1996.

"The basic difference this year is the truncated nominating schedule, where states are leapfrogging over each other to move up their primary and caucus dates to have more influence over the process," he said. "This has left a very collapsed period of primaries. As a result, the process in 1995 started much earlier than we've seen in awhile."

Berke added that because of the earlier start, journalists have had more time to examine candidates than in years past. In addition, he said that due to the lengthened pre-primary period, minor events, such as straw polls, have taken on much greater significance than they otherwise would have in the past.

For Teeter, this is the most serious problem plaguing campaign coverage---stories given more media attention than is warranted.

"How do you have stories reported in proportion to their importance?" Teeter asked. "How do you keep some incident that may be newsworthy and probably ought to be written about in the New York Times or reported on CNN from absolutely taking over the national campaign for four or five days? How do you keep a Gennifer Flowers story in perspective?"

Berke said that technological changes in media coverage also subject candidates to greater scrutiny. While he thinks that a greater emphasis on "raw" coverage, such as talk shows, town-hall meetings and live television segments, has been a good change, he also believes there are dangers inherent in the process.

"Voters often ask substantive questions about how a certain issue will affect their lives and a candidate's position on that issue, but candidates often respond to voters' questions with their tired, old stump speeches without really answering the questions," he said. "So I think the role of reporters in the process is very important, but there has to be a mix."

Teeter agrees that the public, media and candidates all play a significant part in the presidential nomination process.

"They all have a very major role in setting the agenda," he said. "Is the question going to be 'Do you want four more years of Bill Clinton?' or is it going to be 'Do you want someone else in the White House?' How that question is phrased in the public's mind becomes very important.

"We sit around and talk about issues, but voters are smarter than that. Voters have always thought character was more important than issues. So they look at candidates and, based on their personal qualities and character and what they've said, decide which one of these two people they trust to go sit in the Oval Office and make value judgments for them in the next four years."

The panel discussion was sponsored by the Department of Communication Studies and the Howard R. Marsh Center for the Study of Journalistic Performance.