A poll on attitudes toward the news media shows that readers and viewers feel that journalists have gone "too far" in their coverage of personal matters such as Gary Hart's involvement with Donna Rice and revelations that Marion G. (Pat) Robertson's first child was conceived out of wedlock.
However, the poll, the latest in a series of surveys on press coverage sponsored by a major media organization, Times Mirror Corp., also shows that at least 62 percent of those polled think that the media have done an excellent or good job of political reporting and two-thirds said they have found no political bias in presidential campaign coverage so far.
The survey shows that the campaign coverage is not yet generating much interest among readers. About 15 percent of those polled said they are following the Democratic contest very closely, and 13 percent are avidly watching the Republican race.
Those levels of interest compare to 69 percent who followed the story of Jessica McClure, the child who fell into a well shaft in Texas, 40 percent who were very interested in the stock market's plunge and 37 percent who said they were closely following news about the U.S. Navy escorts of Kuwaiti oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.
"The fact that a lot of people aren't interested in political coverage at this point is par for the course," said ABC News political director Hal Bruno. "The average person has got more common sense than to walk around mulling over presidential choices at this stage of the game."
However, Bruno said that doesn't mean the television networks or newspapers should scale back coverage.
The Times Mirror poll also shows that among those who are noticing political coverage, there appears to be a gnawing sense that the news community has stepped over the bounds -- not so much in scrutinizing private lives of presidential candidates as in the amount of emphasis on those disclosures.
"The public is very angry and very dubious about the campaign coverage so far," said Andrew Kohut, president of The Gallup Organization, which conducted the poll for Times-Mirror.
Of the Hart and Robertson stories, Kohut said, "This coverage violates their sense of fair play."
Norman Ornstein, a political scientist with the American Enterprise Institute and a consultant for Times Mirror for these media polls, said the public "does not so much object to these stories being covered. It's the amount and placement of these stories that seems to concern people."
The poll found that 68 percent of the public said they think that the news media "went too far" in its coverage of the Hart incident and 65 percent on the subject of Robertson's premarital sex more than 30 years ago.
However, only 36 percent felt the media went too far in covering plagiarism by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), and only 32 percent criticized coverage of the way campaign aides of Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis had produced "attack videos" showing Biden borrowing from a British politician's speeches.
Although those polled seemed most concerned about personal character issues that they felt were not relevant the political race, they seemed to react more strongly when a real person, rather than an issue, was involved. For example, 55 percent said they would almost always favor disclosure if it was found that a presidential candidate was homosexual, and 41 percent said they would almost always want to know if a candidate is having an extramarital affair.
"You can't edit newspapers on the basis of polls," said James D. Squires, editor of The Chicago Tribune.
"If you did, you would show an incredible lack of consistency. The contradictions that surface in the poll are the kinds of contradictions we have to deal with on making news decisions," he said.