Media Politics : Gains and Setbacks Exaggerated : Psychology of Media Seen as Influencing Campaign
Just before midnight and just after deadline, reporters and political operatives with Michael S. Dukakis’ campaign began filing into the bar at the Bonaventure Hotel. The final presidential debate had ended a few hours earlier.
And the psychology of loss was already setting in, like plaster of Paris, around them.
“It will be the death march to Bataan,” bellowed one famous network correspondent a little too loudly.
“A wake,” said another, raising a glass of Scotch in agreement.
“There goes my chance to cover the White House,” said a correspondent for a prominent national paper.
Even though George Bush last week started bashing the press, blaming reporters for the negative tone of the campaign and the unpopularity of his running mate, it is Democrat Dukakis who has the most to fear now from the media. For Dukakis must contend with the hothouse psychology of the campaign press corps, a sometimes manic group around which rumors, wagers, fears and hopes all tend to grow to unusual proportions.
If the psychology now is, privately, that Dukakis has little chance to win next month’s election, will that make it harder for Dukakis to gain much-needed momentum? Is the psychology of losing like a snowball running down hill?
Or might the press’ attitude make things harder for Vice Presi dent George Bush, as reporters begin to press him harder now that he seems closer to victory?
Some even argue that, after a wave of negativism this weekend, the psychology of the Dukakis press corps could be changing already, sensing something of an energized campaign.
“Whichever direction we (the press) see things going, we are going to exaggerate and amplify it,” said Washington Post political writer David Broder. “We usually . . . build up what might be a temporary gain and make the problems greater for those having what actually might be temporary setbacks.”
Some of the coverage since the debate has indeed been harder on Dukakis.
Consider CBS on Saturday, less than two days after the debate. In a report on political advertising, Advertising Age reporter Barbara Lippert twice used the word genius to describe George Bush’s campaign but called a Dukakis campaign commercial “one of the most denounced ads in political history.” In the aftermath of the debate, black seemed blacker, white whiter.
The Political Hotline, a daily political report for reporters and campaign operatives, entitled its section on the debate the next day “Friday the 14th: Du-Carcass?”
And, on National Public Radio Tuesday, correspondent Jim Angle said that even Dukakis supporters were beginning to wonder angrily if Dukakis, not Bush, is the wimp.
“When you are losing, everything becomes a symbol,” said CBS correspondent Bruce Morton Monday as he described footage of Dukakis bowling in Ohio. “Will he throw a gutter ball or knock down a few pins?”
But coverage in Monday morning’s newspapers was more positive, after a strong day on the stump. The images Monday night on television were bleak again, but, on Tuesday, after one of Dukakis’ strongest days yet on the stump, the images were upbeat.
At the Washington Post, political editor Ann Devroy is wearing a pin this week with a picture of Harry S. Truman holding up the Chicago Tribune declaring Thomas E. Dewey the winner--a reminder to all that upsets happen and not to accept “the latest dollop of conventional wisdom,” as Robert Kaiser, assistant managing editor for national news, put it.
Readers Don’t Seek Predictions
“We have all been very consciously talking to one another (about) the fact that people are not paying 25 cents for a prediction,” Kaiser said. “They want to know what is happening.”
What effect does press psychology really have?
It seemed to make little difference back in August, when Dukakis was ahead, according to some polls, by double digits and many reporters went to the Republican convention thinking that the vice president’s campaign had the smell of death.
Nor did a doubting press stop Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968 from storming back to within a few hundred thousand votes.
Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Drogin told of interviewing voters as they watched Dukakis Monday. “When I asked them if they thought the race was over, they looked confused. They don’t pay as much attention to polls as we do,” he said.
Dukakis campaign spokesman Mark Gearan claims not to be worried.
Uninterested in ‘Wave of News’
“I think most Americans are still looking at issues” and are largely uninterested in “the prevailing wave of news.”
Yes, New York Times political editor Adam Clymer conceded: “There is a different situation now than there was 10 days ago, and we report it and deal with it.”
But “there are three weeks left (before Election Day), and we are not going to stop” covering the campaign.
Some, such as former NBC correspondent Marvin Kalb, are deeply disturbed.
“Does Dukakis have something to fear?” asked Kalb, now director of Harvard’s Barone Center on press, politics and public policy. “Yes. What he has to fear is (the) perception that gets propagated day after day that he is losing . . . . It almost says to the American people: ‘Why have an election?--We already know what is going to happen.’ ”
Kalb is particularly angry about the sudden and ephemeral basis for this latest swing in media perception.
Close Debate Seen as Blow
“Less than a week ago, the polls indicated a tightening race. Then we had a debate,” one most experts considered close. But, because of the conventional press view that Dukakis needed to win the debate decisively, a close debate was seen as a devastating blow.
“And, in 42 to 48 hours,” Kalb said, “the thought was out and propagated that Bush was dynamite and ‘Duke’ dreadful.”
Instant polls did suggest that a majority of Americans considered Bush the debate victor. But Kalb worries that, by the way it functions, the press can exaggerate the importance of individual events, and this debate was one example.
“Everybody watches the same news and reads the same newspaper and you get caught in this loop and there is no exit sign. There is a deepening perception based on what?” he said.
Some sign that the new psychology could be hard on Bush, too, emerged Sunday, when, in his first press conference after last week’s debate, reporters started asking him what he would do about certain national problems if he were President.
Bush refused to answer, contending questions about how he would govern “take me beyond where I want to go.”
Story Put on Page 1
The Washington Post played the story prominently on the front page the next day. “It makes it somehow a bigger story . . . when George Bush is sitting on something like a 17-point lead if he is still refusing to say what he would do,” Kaiser said.
How, indeed, can reporters ignore what they believe to be the shape of the race?
“You need to have a sufficient amount of humility and feeling that things can change,” said ABC’s Jeff Greenfield. “But you don’t have an obligation not to say what you think.”
The line of media responsibility is further than that, Greenfield speculated. “Let’s say Dukakis is sounding stronger,” Greenfield said. “What would be a mistake is not to report that because you think it won’t do him any good.”
Dukakis spokesman Gearan senses a change already. Although there was “somewhat of a journalistic bender” over the weekend, “I think it is now back onto a fairer track,” he said.
Other journalists agree there may already be a new turn in the psychology.
Some See Closer Race
“Some of our reporters privately hypothesize it will tighten up again,” Kaiser of the Post said. “It may be a forlorn hope, but I am glad to see it.”
“If you write him off this week, then what do you write next week?” Times reporter Drogin asked.
Perhaps. But in the hours after last week’s debate, some of American journalism’s most esteemed voices considered the 1988 presidential election over--except for the voting.
And the sense of closure was not restricted to the late hours in the Bonaventure bar.
On the morning after the debate, Broder, probably the most highly respected political journalist in America, said on NBC television: “The race is pretty close to a done deal now.”