THE NATIONAL POLITICAL PRESS roared into the 1980 presidential campaign bigger, hungrier, and more fully imbued with a sense of its own importance than ever before. From the 1968 and 1972 campaigns (and in particular from the best books about those campaigns, Joe McGinniss' The Selling of the President and Timothy Crouse's The Boys on the Bus), reporters had drawn the easy-for-them-to-swallow lesson that the media make presidents. From Watergate, they had learned that if those who cover politics would only be tougher, they could topple governments just like Woodward and Bernstein. From the 1976 campaign, in which Jimmy Carter emerged out of nowhere by starting early, they had concluded that the 1980 coverage should begin a good year before election day and pay generous heed to every strategic master plan by every long-shot candidate.
Jeff Greenfield seems to have felt roughly that way when he undertook to write a 1980 campaign book that would examine how the media influenced the election. Then, after it was all over, he decided that "television and the media made almost no difference in the outcome of the 1980 presidential campaign," and the book became a devastating and completely convincing indictment of the coverage of the campaign. While the press concentrated relentlessly on the candidates' short-term ups and downs, the voters picked Ronald Reagan for substantive--in fact, ideological--reasons that the press refused to take seriously as motivators of the public. The press repeatedly canonized, then crucified, then canonized again, candidates who through it all hadn't changed a bit. After conceiving of the election as a horserace about which the only important question was who would win, the press was completely surprised by the election results.
Naturally, hindsight has been a good friend to Greenfield, and, as he points out every now and then, even he drew many a wrong conclusion in the heat of the campaign. But even so, going through it all again, he is persuasive on the point that what was wrong with the coverage wasn't a lapse in news judgment here and there (though there were those; remember what a big deal it was when Edward Kennedy said "fam farmily"?) but the whole approach. Collectively, the media believed that the American people made up a "volatile" electorate that constantly switched its preferences among candidates based on one or another gaining a momentary advantage and on that advantage being reported in the media. This, it now seems clear, was wrong. Voters didn't care what candidate had momentum; didn't care about the press' great obsession of the year, slips of the tongue by candidates; didn't care whether candidates got good press. The endless press attention to those questions, while it implicity justified the endless press attention to the events of the campaign, was in the end useless.
For his insight and candor, Greenfield has paid a price, which is that if you buy straightaway that the press coverage of the campaign was beside the point, then why do you want to read a 300-page book about the press coverage of the campaign? The main points are made very early on, and while there are nuggets of truth (like a perfect explanation of what was wrong with the George Bush campaign) and wonderfully embarrassing quotes from reporters ("I would like to suggest that Ronald Reagan is politically dead"--Tom Pettit, NBC News, January 22, 1980) sprinkled throughout, the chapters devoted mostly to recitation of the events of the campaign and how they were covered are pretty dull. Nothing seems less important after a year than the tempests of an election-year October.
William Rivers, a communications professor at Stanford, takes a view almost exactly opposite to Greenfield's in The Other Government, a tour d'horizon of the Washington press corps. "That Ronald Reagan is a consummate public performer--and the first professional performer to attain the White House--is an unmistakable indication that the news media, and television in particular, have become the most powerful force in American politics," he says. He also quotes approvingly James David Barber's opinion that "the media in the United States are the new political parties." Greenfield neatly demolishes this argument in his book by pointing out that by 1980, Reagan had been running for president for nearly 15 years and was the grand old man of the Grand Old Party, a former governor of the largest state, a regular on the Republican speech circuit, and in general a man of better party credentials than Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. More broadly, Greenfield is absolutely right to say that the media's "frantic energy" is perceived as power but isn't really.
In any event, Rivers' main point--that the press, by virtue of its influence, has become a quasi-governmental entity--is one of the hoariest around. A quick run through my book of quotations turns up the abolitionist Wendell Phillips complaining that "the penny-papers of New York do more to govern this country than the White House at Washington," and I wish I had a nickel for every time somebody has had the same thought since. Analysis is not Rivers' great gift, and thankfully its role in The Other Government is kept small. Mostly, the book is a series of bright, vivid, deftly written set-pieces describing various Washington journalists--the Houston Post's bureau chief; a UPI regulatory reporter; the ABC news director--in action. They make pleasant and interesting reading, and, since no large theme emerges from them, none should have been imposed.
Both books end badly. Rivers calls on the public to realize that the press is the Other Government and "to criticize it, to challenge it, and to require that it live up to its best possibilities." But the press is, as it should be, an unelected private business, and thus can't be challenged nearly as directly as the Real Government can be challenged in the voting booth; why should it be encouraged to become an Other Government in the first place? Greenfield, on the other hand, asks the press "to report on what is, in fact, happening in those places where the campaign is happening--not just on the campaign trail, but in the schools and supermakets, the factories and the churches, the offices and homes of the Republic." That isn't a bad idea in theory, but in practice it usually means a bunch of guys in a barroom in Ohio telling a reporter what they thought of the president's speech--an exercise that gets old very quickly. But contained in every excruciating example in Greenfield's book is the real lesson for the press: worry more about the ideas at stake next time out, and less about who seems to be ahead.