Perhaps there's a secret school somewhere in Manhattan where Time and Newsweek employes must go to learn to think alike. However it's done, the two major news magazines regularly manage to echo each other -- and this week it was an unfriendly echo for Jimmy Carter.
"Oh, I'll Take The Low Road" is the headline on Newsweek's lead story of the week.
And Time's story begins like this:
"'You take the high road and we'll take the low road,' is the advice a presidential candidate usually gets from his top aides and running mate.But in his recent campaigning, President Carter has reversed that pattern, slashing with sharp hyperbole at Ronald Reagan while Jody Powell and other aides anxiously try to dampen his rhetorical excesses."
Apart from the Anderson-Reagan debate in Baltimore Sunday night, the biggest story of the week was the one Time and Newsweek picked -- the public display of Jimmy Carter's political mean streak. (Time and Newsweek made this the number one story, because the debate occurred after both magazines had been sent to the printers.)
Although the newsmagazines picked it up, this was first of all a television story, one perfectly suited for the kind of oversimplification television does best. It came in two phases -- the "racist" phase, which is what the newsmagazines wrote about, and then the "warmonger" phase. Both phases made Jimmy Carter look small and mean on television.
This all began a week ago Tuesday, when President Carter ad-libbed remarks in a speech at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta suggesting that Ronald Reagan had injected hatred and racism into the campaign. This was six weeks after Reagan had gone to Philadelphia, Miss., a place where civil rights workers were killed in the 1960s, to declare, "I believe in states' rights," a code phrase that may have invited Carter's attack.
Two days later, when Carter gave his first press conference in six weeks, the president was visibly shaken by a series of four harsh questions about his campaign tactics, all of them suggesting that he had violated the accepted political proprieties. The questions were tough and they were unusual. The White House press corps rarely asks four questions on any subject in a single press conference, and more rarely still displays such aggressive tendencies toward the chief executive.
At the White House this display was probably taken as further proof of the press corps' unrelieved hostility for Carter. In fact it was probably something else. A number of White Houe reporters have felt for a long time that Carter has a mean streak and in the "racism" episode they saw a legitimate way to convey that side of the president to the public.
The Thursday press conference played terribly for Carter on the three networks' evening news programs that night. All three began their shows with the press conference, and all shoed Carter looking uncomfortable while trying to rewrite the remarks he made in Atlanta Tuesday. Carter himself had helped make this bad television possible by failing to make any real news at all in the press conference, using his opening statement instead as an advertisement for himself as president.
Over the weekend the story of Carter's mean streak died, supplanted by the Titan missile accident and the Anderson-Reagan debate. But Carter revived it Monday night in California by declaring that American voters faced a choice between peace and war in November. His timing gave the Reagan camp plenty of time to react colorfully and emotionally the next day, which suited the networks just fine.
In the major newspapers, the stories about the "warmongering" flap were complex. They reported Carter's remark, Jody Powell's admission that it was "an overstatement," but also the examples Powell provided of the many occasions on which Ronald Reagan has indeed proposed using American military might in far-flung corners of the world.
On television, the complexity disppeared, and the story became something of a continuation of the "racism" flap. On NBC, John Chancellor introduced the story by saying, "President Carter was having some trouble with his rhetoric today." Correspondent Chris Wallace, covering Reagan, turned the content of the dispute upside down, ending his report by observing that "one of the main reasons" Reagan seems to be doing better in the South now "is the very thing Mr. Carter was attacking -- Reagan's strong defense posture."
So on NBC, proposals to use U.S. troops abroad amounted to "a strong defense posture." Like ABC and CBS, NBC simply ignored the examples of Reagan rhetoric the Carter camp had released. All three networks devoted through coverage to Reagan's indignation at the suggestion that he favored war. They gave the Republican another great night on the evening news.
Carter, of course, provided the opening for this coverage with his original "overstatement." And Powell -- who is usually clever about such things -- released the old Reagan quotations in writing on an airplane, not the sort of drama that appeals to TV.
Both these flaps shared a common attribute: they occurred in virtual news vacuums. The "warmongering" episode was a one-day wonder, supplanted dramatically by the war between Iraq and Iran and other breaking news.
One of the great myths of modern American life is that a day's events fit naturally into a 24-minute evening newscast. Some days it takes all the producers' ingenuity to fill those 24 minutes with timely material; then a day or two later there is no way the evening news can accommodate a full account of even the day's headlines.
A war in the Mideast and a new decision on presidential debates by the League of Women Voters has gotten Jimmy Carter off this week's hook. Stay tuned.