It's hard enough running against an incumbent for the presidental nomination. Sen. Edward M.Kennedy (D-Mass.) has also had to run against all three television networks. It would take a combination of FDR and Abraham Lincoln on the same ticket to defeat that kind of coalition.
For the past three months the network news department have had a field day playing Get Teddy. They have turned the election process into the Wide World of Politics and portrayed Kennedy as the creamed skier feasting on the agony of defeat. They supply the viewing electorate only with a daily fix on winners and losers, and they have all but declared Teddy the loser.
The latest sneak attack was committed by the exhibitionistically scrappy Phil Jones, who covers the candidate for CBS News. On Monday night's Evening News, Jones described Kennedy's appearance at Georgetown University and cracked, "and with that, Kennedy looked into the TelePrompTer and read a speech." CBS even included a shot of the TelePrompTer. THIS is news?
President Carter planned to use a TelePrompTer, too, for his State of the Union address; one was installed in the House of Representatives for him. But he changed his mind and relied on a typed text. No one at CBS, however, said, "and with that, President Carter looked down at his script and read a speech."
Even some network newsmen ackknowledged -- "privately," the way wee small voices at the White House are always being quoted on network newscasts these days -- that the anti-Kennedy bias is phenomenal. We turn on the nightly news to find out how badly Teddy is doing today.
"It's the new sociology of new," says one of the most respected TV newsmen in the business. "They forced Teddy to declare for the nomination, and then the minute he declared, they started saying, 'What good is he?"
Says another longtime newsman at another network: "I don't think it's all television's fault, but television probably thinks less than newspapers -- good newspapers -- do.
"And all the while TV has been beating up on Kennedy, there's been almost benign negelct of Carter. Here you have a guy who is really a disaster, but the networks have gone right along with his Rose Garden strategy. There is absolutely no innovation in their coverage."
The symbolism that goes with presidental regalia is passed along to viewers by television and rarely given a critical glance by TV newsmen. But the symbolism that goes with a Kennedy candidacy is subjected to repeated smart-aleckly scrutiny, partly because the Kennedy mystique has such historical resonance.
When Roger Mudd decided to prove his manhood on the air with the landmark Teddy Kennedy profile which CBS televised on Nov. 4, it looked as though Mudd might be opening the door to new, tougher, more rigorous political reporting on television. It's been tougher and more rigorous all right -- but only on Kennedy.
Jones followed up on Nov. 17 with a CBS Evening News report in which he deemed it terribly newsworthy that Kennedy had misidentified a railroad, that he was "using his family" to get votes -- surely an unheard of ploy in American politics -- and that he stammered in response to a question on racial issues.
"He often appears to be a man without a plan," said Jones.
More recently, Kennedy was subjected to further unprofessional indignities on the ABC News program "Issues and Answers," In the last minute of the show, reporter Bob Clark suddenly said, almost jokingly, "Senator, if I may interrupt, people are going to think we are derelict if we don't get one Chappaquiddick question into this show."
Kennedy has less than 40 seconds to respond to the question Clark asked. He tried to bring up what he thought were the actural "moral issues" of the campaign but was cut off in mid-sentence when time ran out.
"We felt very bad about it," said Peggy Whedon, producer of the program, later. "It was miscalculation, purely. The clock did it to us." Sen. Kennedy was "a little testey" about the incident, she said, and "his people were angry" as they left the studio. And with good reason.
Meanwhile on NBC's "Meet the Press," President Carter held forth with his big born-again grin as reporters pelted him with questions that, but for few exceptions, had the stinging power of rose petals.
Television loves to give its audences good news. It loves to give them winners. It loves to give them black-and-white comic strip versions of complex events. So the hair-spray crowd has put on the kid gloves for Carter, who is given great credit for withstanding all the crises he helped bring about, and saved all the knockout punches for Kennedy.
"It's really been savage against Kennedy," says one veteran political observer active in broadcasting. "I've been shocked by it, absolutely astounded by the coverage. And the double-standard is incredible. Carter is full of 'steely resolve' but Kennedy is 'hustling votes.'"
Why is this happening?
"I think partly because there's been so much garbage about how the press loves the Kennedys in recent years, that the reporters feel they all have to establish their neutral credentials by knocking him around. They're leaning way over backwards, that's for sure. They're preparing audition tapes so that nobody will look back someday and say, 'Oh, Phil Jones -- that Kennedy whore.'"
Former presidential adviser Bill Moyers, who couldn't stomach the network news circus and this week begins a new season on public television, feels the problem involves more than just the hostitily some correspondents feel toward Kennedy.
"Television is unfair to politicians generally, just as it is unfair to thinking people," Moyers says from New York. "Politicians deal in a world of complexity, and television deals in a world of simplicity. Television insists they play by the rules of television and not by the rules of politics.
"The rules of politics are negotiation, weaving, subtlety, nuance, trading, advancing, retreating, and so on; these are the things with which you sustain a political process. But television doesn't like nuance. And television doesn't like subtlety."
TV news melodramatizes events to make them good shows cast with cartoon personalities, and this streamlined version of what is happening in the world becomes the TV reality millions see on their screens. Principal offenders like Jones may stand out for their shamelessness, but the three network news departments are pretty much hewing to the same party line on Kennedy.
"A kind of group radar does take over," says Moyers. "One guy sees a blip and seizes on it, then another guy seizes on that, and so on. Teddy Kennedy hasn't been judged on whether he's been a good senator, on his grasp of the issues, on his views on Afghanistan, Iran, or anything else. Instead, it's been television deciding whether he's a good campaigner or not.
"At the same time, it's all biased in favor of Jimmy Carter. Inflation is not only as bad as it was, it's worse than ever. Americans are still being held hostage in Iran. And Russian troops are still in Afghanistan. But Jimmy Carter is high in the polls because he is able to communicate, through television, the symbols of leadership even when he is not in fact leading."
Broadcasters are continually demanding repeal of the Fairness Doctrine that is supposed to keep them in line on matters of public import.They say they don't need a Fairness Doctrine. They say it inhibits them. They say we should trust them to be fair.
Like hell we should trust them to be fair.