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Congressional Quarterly







Are The Media Biased?
Political Junkie
Send your questions about campaigns and elections.

By Ken Rudin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, December 17, 1999

Question: Why do the TV networks insist on including in the debates candidates who have absolutely no chance of winning the Republican nomination? Do the networks have any discretion at all, or must they give time to any publicity-seeking buffoon who announces his candidacy? Wouldn't it be much more meaningful if George W. Bush could debate John McCain one-on-one? I suppose Steve Forbes would have to be included if only because of his seemingly unlimited resources, but the others are simply wasting everybody's time, including theirs. – Alan S. Jacobs, Overland Park, Kan.

Question: Directly following the second Republican "debate," CNN political analyst Tucker Carlson stated that Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes and Orrin Hatch "should drop out now because they're basically distracting voters from the candidates who actually have a chance." Shouldn't this analyst, and ALL analysts, analyze the candidates and their responses but keep to themselves their opinions about who should drop out and when? That's pretty much between the electorate and the candidates. – Frank B. Williams, Laurel, Md.

Keyes Button
Bauer Button
Should they be part of the debates? (Collection of Ken Rudin)

Answer: The above two questions sum up what has become the debate about the debate: whether to include all the candidates or just the so-called front runners. Some argue that when you look at who is endorsing the candidates, the depth of their field operations, the money raised and the polls – all legitimate criteria – the case could be made that Bauer, Keyes and Hatch all have no real shot at the nomination.

But that is precisely why we have these debates, to allow voters to see who these candidates are, what they're made of, what they stand for. Voters – not the media – should make the call as to which Republican hopefuls sit on the stage. They may ultimately decide that it's Bush, McCain and Forbes. But let them decide. Wait for Iowa on Jan. 24, or New Hampshire on Feb. 1, or South Carolina, Arizona, and the other states in the weeks that follow. Determining now who goes on stage solely on polls and money and organization would be elitist.

Don't forget: at this point in the 1972 campaign, the Gallup Poll showed George McGovern pulling in just 6 percent among Democratic voters. And he went on to win the nomination.

Question: Can you tell me more about the dinner that was given for Al Gore last week by ABC News? Isn't this the most blatant partisan act possible with a supposed news-reporting agency? – Catherine Forester, New Smyrna Beach, Fla.

Answer: ABC News correspondent John Cochran and his wife Barbara (a former CBS News Washington bureau chief) hosted a dinner party for the Gores at their home that was attended by reporters from the Washington Post, N.Y. Times and CNN. Given the fact that some conservatives are convinced the media are in bed with the Democrats, one wonders why ABC would allow this to happen, especially since Cochran is expected to cover Gore for the network. For his part, Cochran said that if he were assigned to cover Steve Forbes, he’d have hosted a Steve Forbes dinner. This leads to . . .

Question: I've heard and read quite a lot about the media's so-called "left-wing bias." If this is true, why the love fest with Bush and the delight in amplifying the minor blunders of the Gore campaign? – Mandel McDonald, Toronto, Canada

Liberal Media Button
ABC party for Gore was more fodder for conservative media critics. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

Answer: My sense is that the media are not so much ideologically biased as they look to create a race by trumpeting the underdog. There's a history to this. Reporters, dreading a Walter Mondale uncontested sweep to the Democratic nomination in 1984, jumped on the Gary Hart bandwagon following the Iowa caucuses that year. Hart finished well behind Mondale in Iowa, getting just 15 percent to Mondale’s 45 percent. But because the media were starved for a contest, they awarded Hart the role of "the challenger," and the Coloradan rode the wave to victory eight days later in New Hampshire.

Yes, the press has amplified the blunders of the Gore campaign, though everyone may not agree with your characterization of them as "minor." But they've been harsh on Bush as well, carrying on with the "cocaine" story for weeks though there was nothing to support the rumor, presenting him as a dimwit following his first two debate performances, and getting to the point where they even endlessly write about whether he "smiles" or "smirks."

Question: There you go again. In your answer to a question about what happens with the Republican "establishment" and soft money if McCain wins the nomination (see Dec. 10 column), you use the opportunity to dump on Bush again. You insinuate that before the real campaigning began, only the Republican "establishment" supported Bush. Well, most of the money Bush has raised came from individual donors in contributions of $1,000 or less. The "establishment" did not contribute 60 million dollars to the Bush campaign, the voters did. To the uninitiated, it must seem that McCain is now running even with Bush for the GOP nomination. Reading that answer of yours would only fortify that impression. It isn't true, but when you are shilling for a particular candidate, as the media now is for McCain, the truth really doesn't matter. – James Sample, Villa Rica, Ga.

Answer: I was not dismissing Bush's widespread appeal among Republican voters, especially in light of the fact that, as you say, he has pulled in a record amount of contributions from a record amount of people. And I was not shilling for McCain; I was writing about the conventional wisdom following Bush's desultory performance in the first two debates. Bush's own people were not especially impressed by his showings in the New Hampshire and Arizona forums, in which he basically repeated excerpts from his stump speeches. There is, however, no question that Bush came alive at the Iowa debate, dishing out better than he took, appearing more relaxed and in control. And had last week's column been written after the third GOP forum, I would have presented a different picture.

There is also no question that what the media finds attractive in McCain is his tendency to run a damn-the-torpedoes style campaign in which the perception is that he says what he thinks, regardless of the consequences. I don't know if his refusal to bow to the almighty ethanol in Iowa will ultimately be seen as courageous or foolhardy. But I disagree with your point that I was claiming or implying McCain is running even with Bush. There is absolutely no evidence to arrive at that conclusion. For McCain to have a legitimate shot at the nomination he's going to have to win some contests early, such as New Hampshire (2/1), South Carolina (2/19) and Arizona (2/22). Failing that, it's hard to see how he can pull it off, as Bush is well organized in many of the big states that follow, including California, New York, Texas and Florida.

Still, a word of caution. The endorsements and contributions flowed for Bush because he had the look of a winner. He may indeed wind up as the nominee as well as the 43rd President. But Ed Muskie looked like a winner too, in 1971, when the Maine senator was leading President Nixon in the polls and was collecting endorsements from every Democratic poo-bah around.

When all is said and done, you should know that I would never shill for any candidate, especially one who wants to cut back on campaign spending, a move which, after all, would lead to even fewer campaign buttons.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: junkie@washingtonpost.com

Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of washingtonpost.com's ScuttleButton contest.

© Copyright 1999 Ken Rudin

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