Tom Shales, this newspaper's television critic, wrote a provocative column a couple of weeks ago in which he said openly the sort of thing that is usually only muttered in private: that the television news coverage of Sen. Edward Kennedy's campaign has been unfair.
The prime example Shales cited was the case of Phil Jones of CBS, who in reporting Kennedy's speech at Georgetown University went out of his way to note that Kennedy was using a teleprompter, thereby diminishing what the Massachusetts Democrat had to say. t
I did not see Jones' report and have not seen much of the television coverage of the Kennedy campaign. But I knew instinctively that Shales was right, at least in one sense. Of course the coverage of Kennedy has not been fair.
I also knew that Shales had missed or overlooked an important point. I asked Sam Donaldson, ABC's White House correspondent and one of the best television journalists I know, what HE THOUGHT OF shales' criticism.
"Oh, I saw Phil's piece with the teleprompter bit," Donaldson said. "It was perfectly fine. We all do that sort of thing. We all look for that little something extra to give our reports some life."
We all do it. The point Shales missed is that television isn't fair to any major political figure, particularly a front-running presidential candidate. George Bush may soon find this out.
What Jones has been doing to Kennedy for the last three months, Donaldson and his colleagues have been doing to President Carter for the last three years -- four if you count the 1976 campaign. We ought not to kid ourselves about this. It was not entirely through his own efforts that the president reached a historically low 19 percent approval rating, which in turn helped to lure Kennedy into the race.
Carter had some help, from Donaldson and the rest of us whose reporting deepened and spread the preception of him as a nice guy who wasn't quite up to the job. It is also hard to feel sorry for him. It was, after all, the television pictures of Gerald R. Ford bumping his head on the helicopter door that added to the portrait of him as an enept bumbler, much to the benefit of a former governor of Georgia who promised endlessly to give us "competent" government.
Before my friends in broadcasting send out the lynch mob for me, let me add that I include in this observation us print in this observation us print journalists, although in terms of impact on the national audience we're hardly in the same league. But there are print equivalents to Jones' "teleprompter bit." They are the little needles we place in even straight news stories to make a point or convey an impression.
"President Carter had a close call yesterday, averting a face-to-face encounter with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy by a mere 13 minutes." I wrote that last week, the lead sentence in a story about Carter's and Kennedy's back-to-back speeches to the Consumer Federation of America, where Kennedy railed against the president's refusal to debate him.
I didn't have to write it that way.I did it deliberately, hoping to mock the White House's sanctimonious justifications for the fact that the president is following the classic political strategy of the front-runner, staying low and out of the range of fire.
Does that make me a biased, "unfair" reporter? To some it does, just as Jones' use of the "teleprompter bit" struck Shales as so unfair. But fairness, when it comes to politics or journalism, is often in the eye of the beholder.
If I accepted at face value the White House explanations for why Carter refuses to campaign or debate -- the hostages and all that -- I would not have written that lead. But I believe the president's reclusiveness is also firmly grounded in a tactical political decision to avoid the pitfalls of open, personal campaigning for as long as that proves useful. Right off, that belief colored the story.
As a reporter, it is not my job to force the president out of the Rose Garden and onto the campaign trail. But it is my job to report, as I understand it and judge it, exactly the way he is campaigning for reelection.
If, at the end of this year, Jimmy Carter is back in the White House for four more years, I want to know I took every opportunity to report how he was doing it. That includes the rare opportunity to write a smart-aleck lead that tries to poke fun at a president who dashes out of a hotel ballroom a few minutes before his principal rival arrives.
Similarly, I don't know what Jones thinks of Kennedy or why he decided to mention the teleprompter. But I can guess. Here he was covering a guy reputed to be one of the great political orators of his time, who was giving the most critical speech of his presidential campaign. The pictures the CBS camera crew shot would show the Great Orator in action, flawlessly delivering a podium-pounding speech. Why shouldn't the viewing audience also know that the Great Orator had a crutch?
They are all judgment calls, these little needles we place in our news stories and evening news telecasts. Most of the time we can justify them, although seldom to the satisfaction of the people we cover.
The real problem, which is what I suspect most troubles Shales, is the cumulative effect. For a front-running presidential candidate, especially a nonincumbent who has no choice but to be out in the open campaigning, it can be withering.
The first vague inkling I had that Teddy Kennedy could be in real trouble was the day after his announcement in Boston, when I read that it took two airplanes to transport all the reporters and broadcast technicians who were covering him. No one stands up to that kind of pressure and scrutiny.
All those reporters and cameras did not produce the stumbling beginnings of the Kennedy campaign, the poor organization and lack of focus and phrases like "fam farmily." They just magnified them -- magnified them beyond the comprehension of anyone who has lived the relatively anonymous and sheltered life of Capitol Hill, even a Kennedy.
But because he is a Kennedy, once he stepped across the congressional moat and into the presidential arena, the senator was treated like the instant front-runner, almost as if he were already president. Only he didn't have the powers and defenses of a president, he didn't have a Rose Garden.
This is the sense in which Shales is right. Kennedy has had the worst of both worlds.
And that is why what we now call the "Rose Garden strategy" -- which incumbent presidents have been using almost since the dawn of the television age -- is so much in vogue and may become a permanent fixture of American politics. Carter, who had it used against him so effectively in the fall of 1976, learned the lesson well.
This is a man who for more than two years faithfully kept a campaign promise to hold two news conferences a month. Then last summer, about the time he hit the 19 percent level, he junked that promise without explanation or apology. He is now the front-runner.
For the reporter making his daily judgment calls, the question is how to operate inside a system as nutty as this. Do you ease off the critical scrutiny of Kennedy because the president has all the cards and is able to hide inside the White House? Or do you let what Carter is doing go unsaid because for a long time he was more accessible than his recent predecessors, while Kennedy was safe up on the Hill, reading the poll results?
I am waiting for someone to tell me there is a better way to do it. I am also waiting for Shales or someone to begin to take a serious look at how modern, high-intensity news coverage, especially by television, affects not just the fortunes of one candidate, but all the candidates, and the political process itself.
Until then, I hope that Jones -- or Jed Duvall, who this week replaced him for CBS on the Kennedy beat -- will keep a fair but critical eye cast on the senior senator from Massachusetts. I can assure him that Donaldson and I will be doing the best we can under the circumstances, back here in the Rose Garden.