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MEDIA POLITICS : ‘Spin Doctors’ Can’t Cure Media Ennui

Times Staff Writer

Who will win the vice presidential debate tonight? What does Republican Dan Quayle need to do? Or Democrat Lloyd Bentsen? Who cares?

Something strange is going on. Even the political media right now, particularly network television, seem sick of the campaign--and the campaigners--for President.

Of late, both campaigns have had trouble making news on network TV, and when they have, the stories have been laced with a weary anger about the candidates’ negativism and lack of substance.

But while the criticism is equally doled out, this boredom may be helping Vice President George Bush.

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“Bush is the front-runner, and the less information out there about the front-runner the less likely the front-runner is to lose,” said political scientist Michael Robinson of Georgetown University. If the polls are right, “Americans have decided they need to be given a real reason to vote against Bush and for Michael Dukakis, and there is no way they are going to decide that if the campaign stays on Page A-12 or the bottom of a newscast.”

Tuesday’s newscasts bore out the trend. Neither presidential candidate got a story on NBC, which devoted its time to previewing the vice presidential debate. ABC’s two pieces talked about how Bush is still leaning heavily on negative one-liners and about how Dukakis now also has shifted campaign strategies, going hard negative.

“If they can’t help you like their man more, they believe they can help you like his opponent less,” concluded Sam Donaldson concerning Dukakis.

‘Split Campaign Personality’

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But one wonders if Bush indeed does not get the better of this. In a largely negative piece, for instance, CBS talked about Bush’s “split campaign personality,” noting that Bush uses “distinctly different messages,” depending on “where he goes and who he is wooing.”

But the sound bite and visual images seemed to reinforce the highlights of the Bush message--a kinder and gentler nation, but one tough on crime, favoring the death penalty, and talking tough about “the far-left liberals” in the American Civil Liberties Union.

If, as polls suggest, that message is selling, Bush operatives might be pleased with the piece.

The press’ weariness may also be thwarting to some extent the efforts of the two campaigns to control the spin or expectations concerning tonight’s debate.

“I’m not sure the public pays quite as much attention to all these efforts that campaigns make to set expectations,” said Adam Clymer, political editor at the New York Times.

Paul Friedman, executive producer of ABC’s “World News Tonight” is so wary now of the efforts of “spin doctors” to manipulate how the media view events, particularly debates, that he believes the Republicans “already have their spin-control line ready for after the debate and we know what it is.”

“They’re going to tell us, this is the end of the false portrayal of Dan Quayle as incompetent,” ABC correspondent Jeff Greenfield agreed in an interview.

Discounting Spin

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NBC executive producer Lloyd Siegel thinks the campaigns so overdid the spin control for last week’s first presidential debate, and that the media have become so wary of it, that their spin for tonight has “probably been discounted.”

Tuesday’s coverage tended to reinforce that notion. ABC skipped previewing the debate Tuesday, though it probably will do something tonight in its Eastern broadcast.

CBS did a story trying to counter the conventional view that Quayle might be terrible, quoting Bentsen and other Democrats praising Quayle, and showing Bensten press secretary Michael McCurry saying: “We would hope the high bar would be raised a little higher than being passably coherent for 90 minutes.”

More importantly, in the sound bites used Quayle seemed confident, calm and self-assured.

But NBC’s debate preview did a greatest hits of Quayle’s gaffes on the campaign trail--and some of them are not pretty. And the piece showed Quayle so wound up Tuesday that when asked innocuous questions about how he might do in today’s debate, he answered each time with the same programmed response.

So which spin is it? For those who get their news from TV, take your pick.


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