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1992 Election Coverage Open to Debate : TV News Veterans Discuss How They Might Change the Process

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

There is general agreement that the presidential campaigns of 1988 were tightly controlled, lackluster, TV-attuned affairs that accentuated the negative and turned many voters off.

Were TV news veterans Ed Fouhy, Joe Angotti, Les Crystal and Ed Turner running things in 1992, though, it might be a different story.

They’d urge candidates to have more debates, at least one news conference a week and, in Turner’s case, to accept what campaign gurus might consider an extremely harsh rule on “sound bites.”

“I’d say they have to have an issue in there,” he said of the quick 30-second phrases that candidates tailor for the networks’ evening newscasts. “They’ve got to have something substantive to say.”

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And if not? Turner laughed. “We won’t carry it.”

Turner is executive vice president of Cable News Network. Angotti runs NBC News’ election unit. Crystal was once head of NBC News and now runs public TV’s “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.” Fouhy, who has worked as a top news executive at all three networks, produced this fall’s nationally televised presidential and vice-presidential debates.

The day before Election Day, all were asked to indulge in a campaign-coverage fantasy for 1992: If they had the power, what would they do in this era of TV campaigning to better inform and interest the public?

All four said they’d hold more debates. Only Turner would keep the ground rules used this year for the two presidential and one vice-presidential word wars.

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Crystal said he would require one debate a month for three months before Election Day, either without a panel of reporters or with a format structured to allow “longer time for answers and direct rebuttals.”

“The first thing I would do,” NBC’s Angotti said, “is not make any agreements to do any party-sponsored debates.” He would have the networks’ sponsor them, as NBC did with a Democratic debate last December.

Fouhy wasn’t certain how many more debates should be held, but enough, he said, “so that the stakes aren’t so high in any individual one.” He also said he would vary the formats, perhaps holding one debate with only a moderator present, then another with questions posed by a panel of journalists.

Fouhy suggested there is a way to impose more debates on presidential candidates in the future. Citing an idea that he said is now “floating around” in the wake of heavy criticism of this year’s negative campaign ads on TV, he said that the millions of federal tax dollars that are used to help finance presidential campaigns could come with strings attached.

“If the public is going to finance these campaigns . . . then we should tie the public money to a commitment by the candidates that they will debate more and they will debate in a less-constricted format,” he said.

(Such conditions were urged by John Chancellor on his “NBC Nightly News” commentary last Thursday. Citing what he called this year’s “junk-food campaigns,” he also said there should be some “rules of political conduct” for presidential candidates in return for federal funds.)

All four men said they would require weekly press conferences during the campaign, with CNN’s Turner half-jokingly saying he’d insist that the candidates “have a real ‘issue of the week’ for September and October.”

Fouhy also would require the candidates “to give enough notice (of their news conferences) so that correspondents who are specialists--in things like defense policy, tax policy and foreign policy--could get there, so that it wouldn’t be only generalists asking the questions.

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“And I’d carry those press conferences live.”

Crystal, whose “MacNeil/Lehrer” program is the only hourlong evening newscast on national TV, save for the broadcasts of all-news CNN, thinks a weekly news conference would be “terrific--on the (campaign) trail.”

But a one-hour prime-time interview with each candidate in the early weeks of the post-convention campaigns would be even better, said Crystal, who left NBC News in 1979 after two years as president.

Were he a network president in 1992, he said, he also “would like to clear time in prime time for reporting on the issues and the records of the candidates,” as has been done on “MacNeil/Lehrer” and other PBS programs.

However, few broadcast journalist think it likely that the commercial networks would clear an hour of prime time each week in the campaign’s last three months for such election-year specials.

“I don’t think that’s really realistic,” Angotti said. “To be perfectly frank with you, it would result in such a loss of revenues that I don’t think any network would be prepared to do that.”

Nor is it likely that the networks’ evening newscasts, now about 22 minutes each (plus commercials), would be expanded to allow for longer political stories toward the end of an election race, said Angotti’s CBS counterpart, Lane Venardos.

“It’d certainly be nice to do that,” Venardos said. “But the affiliates wouldn’t stand for it. So it’s a moot point.”

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What will TV coverage be like in the presidential campaigns of ’92 as a result of the one that ended Tuesday?

There’ll be a lot of pondering and talk, but “my feeling is that it won’t change a lot,” Crystal said. The technology will be better and “people will make even more sophisticated use of it.

“But you hope that next time around it won’t be such a negative campaign, that it won’t be so empty.”

“It really depends on the kind of campaign it is,” Angotti said when asked what effect he thought this year’s negative campaigns would have on the election wars four years from now.

“But I think you could assume from ’88 that negative advertising is going to be playing a major role in the next campaign because it was so effective (this year). I think that’s going to affect the way we cover things. . . .”

“There are going to be fewer local stations out there (with the candidates), because they found out how much (campaign coverage) cost,” Fouhy predicted.

There could also be a major change in the way the networks research, poll, analyze and eventually make election-night projections in 1992, Fouhy said, alluding to constant cost-cutting efforts at the networks.

“I would not be surprised to see the political units of the three networks’ news divisions abolished and one independent political unit set up, one that would sell its service to the three networks.”

Respected journalists probably would staff such a unit, he said, but “I think it (a single unit) is a bad idea, because the essence of American journalism is competition. It’s like having only one wire service--a bad idea.”


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