Albeit cautiously, the media seemed to creep toward a consensus Monday that Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis got the best of the first presidential debate and that the race is now tightening.
After a mixed first reaction by analysts on television Sunday night, several of the nation's most important newspapers on Monday morning rated Dukakis the marginal winner.
Despite mixed early poll results, the sense of Dukakis gaining was borne out Monday in the all-important first nightly accounts.
The only tape excerpt from the debate used on all three networks, for instance, was one in which Bush suggested that he would favor criminal sanctions against women who have abortions if abortion were made illegal--a statement the Bush campaign rushed to clarify Monday morning. Footage of this damage-control effort also was featured on all three networks.
Political experts consider the selection of post-debate news clips to be very important, because they are repeatedly used and tend to become fixed in the public memory as an emblem of the debate. And because debates are complex and subjective in nature, this secondary echo, and the spin the media give it, are considered by political experts perhaps as important as the debate itself.
In the first 24 hours following the debate, that echo seemed to be turning toward Dukakis, as did the seemingly irresistible tendency to pick a winner. The morning papers described the contest as close. The New York Times in particular was neutral. But several other important papers and analysts leaned toward Dukakis. And in the inevitable group-think that occurs as the media must offer quick wisdom, that may have in turn influenced the evening news programs.
Washington Post analyst David S. Broder, for example, one of the nation's most respected political journalists, wrote: "The Democratic governor of Massachusetts, who came into the debate a step behind the Republican vice president in most polls, gave millions who knew little about him a number of reasons to take his candidacy seriously."
On the network news Monday, the anchormen were careful to call it a split: "Today each of the candidates is doing a little crowing and eating a little crow," said ABC's Peter Jennings.
Use Abortion Statements
But then all three used the Bush abortion statements and clarifications. All three networks also stated that Dukakis was feeling heat for his membership in the American Civil Liberties Union, pressed by Bush on Sunday, and that the Dukakis campaign had issued a statement Monday noting that the governor not only differed with the group on several issues but had been sued by the ACLU.
But coverage of Dukakis' day was generally upbeat. Dukakis "now had George Bush on equal footing, which gives Dukakis a chance to start pulling away," ABC's Sam Donaldson said.
CBS' Bruce Morton was more cautious. "Dukakis people said their man did well, but things haven't turned around for them overnight."
Bush's campaign appearance, however, seemed less euphoric. All three networks showed a news clip of Bush praising running mate Dan Quayle, with whom he had not appeared in five weeks. And all three networks used a clip of Quayle criticizing Dukakis.
ABC's Jim Wooten did a report noting all the factual errors on both sides, which seemed to come to a draw.
But probably the most devastating report of the evening was the debate clarification on NBC, which noted that when defending the Administration's relationship with Panamanian leader Manuel A. Noriega, Bush "didn't tell the whole story."
While Bush gave the Reagan Administration credit for Noriega's indictment on drug charges earlier this year, NBC quoted on camera the Miami prosecutor who actually handled the case as saying that the Administration had tried to block the indictment. The report noted that the indictment was "watered down" under State Department pressure, and then contradicted Bush's statements saying he did not know of Noriega's drug involvement until this year.