If there was a thermometer to measure the political temperature of this country and its citizens, chances are it would show a sharp and possibly dangerous rise during the next 30 days.
The 1992 presidential campaign has been a long, tough, often mean political exercise. In fact, it started almost four years ago, soon after the election of George Bush and Dan Quayle, with Democratic challengers and detractors firing away at the Republican administration, particularly Quayle.
Now, with Ross Perot's last-minute re-entry into the race, the overall political scene is likely to become even more blurred as well as more intense. Unfortunately, the hard campaigning probably will carry with it more personal attacks on the candidates.
Perhaps because of the intensity of the campaign and the bitter attacks by those associated with the various candidates, there seems to be increased attention in the current campaign concerning the fairness or bias of the news media's coverage of the campaign. As might be expected, spokesmen for Bush and Clinton each think their candidate is not getting a fair shake from the media.
AT A RECENT gathering at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, a group of newsmen tried to assess media reporting on the campaign, and the general feeling was that the '92 campaign coverage had been unbalanced and unfair. A Nashville attorney and member of the Bush Finance Committee, Samuel Bartholomew Jr., said coverage has been unfair to Bush.
"I have thought that coverage of presidential candidates has been unfair in other years," Bartholomew said, "but I believe the bias against President Bush this year is the worst I have ever seen."
Jean Nelson, on leave from the Tennessee state attorney's office to serve as a consultant for Tipper Gore, wife of the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, said, "I think the general feeling of the Clinton-Gore campaign is that the reporting has been fairly balanced."
She added that she thinks members of the media are not being fair in the amount of coverage given to Clinton's avoidance of military service.
Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, called the 1992 presidential coverage, "the worst I have ever seen."
IT IS NATURAL for loyal supporters of Bush, Clinton and now Perot to think their man is not getting fair treatment by the media, but this year, there seems to be more than the normal concern about a "biased" media.
Aware of the public's concern, mistrust or dislike for the manner in which the "establishment" press or media reports political campaigns, Prior to the start of the formal campaign, the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University planned a thorough examination of the performance of the media.
"The Media and Campaign '92" is the title of the series of reports by the center. The first report was titled "Covering the Presidential Primaries," followed by "An Uncertain Season, Reporting in the Postprimary Period." The next report will focus attention on the degree of fairness, balance or bias by the media in reporting the presidential campaign.
THE FIRST two reports are excellent and present a thorough review of the subject matter. As stated in the introduction of the first report, which was written before the heated campaign got under way, "Never before in modern political history in America has the press entered a presidential campaign more self-consciously than in this election season. After years of critical appraisal that showed the media often to be out of touch with the public, the 1992 campaign provides a chance to redress public concerns with more responsive coverage.
"Few, if anyone, in the news media were not aware of the criticism of news coverage of the 1988 campaign. The image of a shallow press, especially television news, manipulated by political consultants, with reporters searching for sound bites and photo opportunities, was etched into virtually all critiques of recent presidential campaign coverage. At the same time, people within the press, as well as media critics, decried treatment of the campaign as a horse race with overemphasis on public opinion polls and particular primaries that had little connection to the larger context of the campaign and election. So, too, did the `character issues,' that preoccupation with the private lives of candidates, come under scrutiny. In addition, it was alleged that some stories, such as those on campaign support and political advertising, weren't covered at all by many media."
AGAIN, THIS was written last spring, before the Democratic and GOP nominating conventions and before the heated and personal attacks, reached the current level of meanness and bite.
One of those directly associated with the Media Center reports recently said he thinks there is more bias in this year's election than he has seen in any previous election. "Many of those in the media who did not like Reagan and who do not like Bush, are going for the jugular. It has been vicious, and there is no disguising the bias against Bush by many in both the print and television media. If Bush were leading in the polls, it wouldn't be so bad, but as long as he is seen to be trailing Clinton, they are having a field day in attacking Bush, with little effort made to hide the bias."
This was not said by a pro-Bush or pro-Clinton observer, but rather by one of this country's more respected media observers. And he was saddened by the situation, noting it hurts the media in the eyes of the public. Bias in what is supposed to be hard news coverage lessens the public's respect for the media, he added.
IT REALLY isn't too difficult to spot many cases of bias. For example, Clinton and his running mate Al Gore can be extremely strong in their attacks on Bush or Quayle, and the story is reported merely as a "tough" or "hard-hitting" attack. If Bush or Quayle engage in similar rhetoric, it often is reported as "mean," "vicious," "unfair," "unsubstantiated" or other such terms. This has gone on for months, and unfortunately it is likely to grow in intensity in the next 30 days.
"The media" has become a critical part of the campaign. Astute candidates, their advisers and their consultants know how to manipulate and use the media and how to have the media become a valuable asset and tool for their candidates. This situation is made worse by reporters, headline writers, those editing tape for television shows and television anchor people who are biased and allow their bias to play a role in how they report the presidential campaign.
It will be interesting to see how "The Media and Campaign '92" reports on bias, fairness and balance in the current campaign. It is not likely to be overly complimentary and will provide additional ammunition for those who claim the media spend more time slanting or making the news than in reporting it.