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For better or worse, news programs canvass the candidates' every move

Sunday, February 01, 2004

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

HOLLYWOOD -- And ... they're off! Not just the Democratic presidential candidates, but the reporters who chase after them.

Last month's coverage of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary marked the start of the 11-month campaign season. For TV news crews, there's plenty to ponder and plan for in the months ahead.

How early is too early?

Already, some media observers have wondered whether coverage of the Democratic primaries has been excessive or leading, especially when covered as a horse race with an emphasis on the polls: Dean's ahead! Now Kerry has taken the lead!

NBC's "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert said the early campaigns need to be put in context but that they are important.

"It is the first playoff game," he said. To ignore it would be to say, "they're having a playoff game with the six cities in the NFL. Don't watch it because it doesn't really matter. But the fact is, one of those teams may get to the Super Bowl."

Russert said the political parties chose Iowa and New Hampshire and compacted the time between caucuses and primaries.

"It doesn't reflect the cosmopolitan makeup of America, and yet the parties and the candidates have bought into this process," he said. "We're simply covering their decision."

Sometimes the question is how politics is covered. Why concentrate on polls and who's ahead and who's behind? Why not spend more time on the issues? "CBS Evening News" anchor Dan Rather concedes that the undertow is strong when it comes to polling stories, in part due to competition from other outlets that concentrate on the horse-race aspects of campaigning.

"We have rededicated ourselves this year to trying to break that cycle, to try to be more interested in the issues than the polls," Rather said. "But I can't kid you, this habit is so deeply ingrained in everybody in journalism that I'm not overly optimistic about this year for journalism as a whole."

Brit Hume, Fox News Channel anchor, said the horse-race aspect of the campaign is a worthwhile human interest story.

"It is natural that we would tend to organize our coverage and to focus on the horse race," Hume said. But he added that on his hourly nightly broadcast, he has "abundant opportunity to explore the issues that emerge in the course of a campaign and to give them quite a bit of coverage."

A politically polarized nation

Forget the idea of "red and blue" states. Some viewers see political leanings in networks and news anchors.

"Fox News Channel is conservative!" liberals moan.

"Dan Rather and Peter Jennings are liberal!" conservatives cry.

That leaves a minefield for the rest of the broadcast journalists to tiptoe through in an effort to espouse no bias whatsoever.

"You ask important, tough questions, the kind of questions that candidate's opponents would be asking, and you try to get some semblance where that candidate is coming from," said CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer. "If you're equally tough on Democrats and the Republicans and everyone else in between, but fair and responsible and not misleading or distorting, then I think the viewer [will accept you]."

If they don't, they'll click away quickly.

"The audience has the ultimate power," Russert said. "If they believe that someone is biased and someone is not playing it straight and not being fair to Democrats or Republicans, they're going to turn you off."

Russert, who once worked for Democrats before getting into TV news but is generally viewed as one of the most unbiased broadcasters, said his aim on "Meet the Press" is to learn as much about his guest and his or her position on the issues and then take the other side aggressively but civilly.

CNN's Judy Woodruff said no matter how hard journalists try to play fair, someone will cry foul.

"You know you're going to be criticized no matter what you do, but we didn't get into this to be popular," she said. "We want people to watch, yes, because we have credibility, but not necessarily because they love us."

FNC's Hume said journalists are best advised to announce their biases to themselves as a way of warding off displaying bias to viewers. He believes all journalists have biases; it's human nature.

"If you acknowledge to yourself that you like a certain politician or a set of views that this politician expressed and you don't like another and start out with that right up front, you have a very good chance as a professional screening that bias out of that coverage because you know you have to be careful," Hume said. "Bias is not something that's attempted. Bias is insidious. It's what creeps into coverage. It is unexamined assumptions about the issues and how they ought to be regarded."

Conventions and debates

It used to be that the Democratic and Republican national conventions produced news: A candidate was selected. But that's no longer the case, and television networks have reacted by curtailing their live prime-time coverage of the events.

"The conventions have changed dramatically and that's the parties' doing, not our doing," Russert said. "We would die to cover a broker convention going to the 103rd ballot. But it's the parties' decision to have primaries and caucuses and the conventions are coronations. And yet they happen only every four years. ... This is serious business. This is the president of the United States, and I believe the networks have an obligation to cover that."

NBC will air at minimum the keynote addresses and acceptance speeches by the presidential and vice presidential candidates, Russert said, while cable outlets MSNBC and CNBC will offer more coverage.

CBS's Rather said he was one of the last hold-outs at his network calling for covering the conventions in as close to their entirety as possible, but even he has given up the call for that.

"These conventions now, I'm sorry to say, are basically infomercials for the parties," Rather said. " I do expect the nominations to be settled long before you get to the convention."

The networks have not announced their complete coverage plans for the conventions or the debates that are expected to occur. If debates are part of the campaign, as expected, Russert said he favors a single moderator rather than a panel of inquisitors.

"Jim Lehrer did a very good job in terms of focusing issues," Russert said of the 2000 debates. "I do think it's very helpful to allow follow-ups because that's how you peel away and get beyond the spin. I don't think you can make tough decisions as a president unless you can answer tough questions. And debates are a pretty good way to find out."

Fox News Channel's Chris Wallace said debates also give the public a better idea of the person lurking behind the candidate's facade.

"A campaign and a debate are ways in which people get a rough measurement of someone," Wallace said. "Is he presidential? Is he someone that I feel knows and care about my problems? ... I think debates have actually played a very large role in people finally making up their mind who they want to see be president."

But what gets better ratings?

With all the high-profile trials going on or scheduled for this year -- Michael Jackson, Scott Peterson, Martha Stewart, Kobe Bryant -- finding time to cover politics, which isn't as sexy or promotable a subject, could be tricky for some broadcast news organizations.

"Our plan is to cover the election and then refer people to cable for coverage of the celebrity trials," said CBS News president Andrew Heyward. "I'm being facetious."

CBS's Rather acknowledged it's a battle to keep that news in its place because he said "fear rules almost every newsroom in the country" -- fear about getting left behind on a story and fear of covering anything politically controversial.

"When we feel we have to, that we absolutely positively have to succumb to the proverbial siren song of 'Let's cover some celebrityhood,' we try not to lead with it. We try to put it down in the broadcast."

CBS's "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer was more succinct: "I don't want to see or hear anything else about Michael Jackson. I think he's a creep. Call me when it's over. I'm glad other people are covering it." He said "Face the Nation" will "stick to some old dull stuff like politics."

Princell Hair, executive vice president and general manager of CNN's American broadcast operations, said there will be no gavel-to-gavel coverage of any of the sensational trials shaping up in 2004.

"Opening statements, key testimony, closing arguments, verdicts -- of course we're going to cover key moments of the trial," Hair said. "But there are too many things going on in the world for us to dedicate that much air time to any one particular trial."

Avoiding another debacle

After the long national nightmare that followed the 2000 election as networks declared Al Gore the winner in Florida, then took it back, then declared George Bush the next president and then took that back too, the networks scrapped their previous joint polling service in favor of a new service that will track data and allow the networks to project winners.

Marty Ryan, executive producer of political coverage for Fox News Channel, said the new system, National Election Pool, is being tested during the primaries and caucuses over the next month.

"We're going to be very, very cautious about what we do and how we report the results," Ryan said.

CNN's Blitzer said if his network is not confident in the polling numbers on election night, they'll "do it the old-fashioned way and let the vote be tabulated the way it used to be: We're going to wait and wait and wait. Only when we have every reason to believe that this is a done deal will we go on and make that exit-poll projection."

CBS's Heyward also suggested a careful approach.

"Given those problems, there would be a far greater penalty to us if we made a mistake, let alone as serious a mistake as was made on more than one occasion that night [in 2000], than being second or third on a call," Heyward said. "Whatever competitive pressure there is, there's even greater pressure not to make a mistake. We're very mindful that giving people information that turns out to be incorrect, just because you're a few seconds ahead of your competitor, is a disservice to the public."


TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582.

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