Saturation Reportage May Aid Bush Politically : Media Going All-Out on Drug Coverage

Times Staff Writer

He gazed into the camera and spoke as earnestly as he could:

"If this is a war," he said of the national drug crisis, "we're all soldiers. Not a war that can be won with more money alone, or just tougher laws, or better treatment . . . . This is a test of our national will."

The speaker was not President Bush giving his first prime-time address on Tuesday night.

It was NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw signing off his broadcast a few hours before.

The American news media have responded to the President's drug policy initiative, after a little prodding from the White House, with an extraordinary outpouring of coverage on the drug issue.

Much of it, the White House believes, may work to the President's political advantage.

Drugs Make Cover Story

Major newspapers, including this one, are filling whole pages with the subject. The major news weeklies all made drugs their cover stories. And, in an unprecedented move, all three major television networks are devoting most of an entire week's worth of news coverage to the drug issue.

ABC calls its coverage "Drugs: A Plague Upon the Land." NBC's is "Drug Watch." CBS, which will do its part next week, calls it "Drugs: One Nation, Under Siege."

Even ABC's weekend health and business programs will focus on drugs, as will each of the networks' morning, evening and weekend morning programs.

And, although not all the coverage so far has echoed the President's message nearly as closely as Brokaw's Tuesday sign-off, White House officials believe that saturation air time serves the President's purpose and will help them sell to Congress a policy that is still controversial in its details.

Although the coverage may quote critics, White House communications director David Demarest said, "the President is the only one with a plan. There may be people who want their program to have more funding . . . or across the board more money, but those kinds of comments are not a substitute for a strategy."

Video Obscures Audio

News executives disagree, even though they concede that predicting the effect of news coverage is often difficult. It is particularly hard to interpret the impact that television coverage has on viewers because the visual images generally overwhelm whatever spoken message the story might try to convey.

"If the discussion of the exact programs and their possible shortcomings . . . is done on an honest basis," said Richard C. Wald, senior vice president of ABC News, "the Administration doesn't get a free pass."

In fact, some of the coverage has been rough. Follow-up stories Wednesday on "The Today Show," for instance, generally characterized the President's proposals as offering little change from the status quo, as did the analysis stories in The Times, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

But, on Wednesday night, each of the three networks devoted half of their news broadcasts to drugs, and, although everyone covered the critics of the plan, most of the coverage concentrated on the evils of the drug problem.

Whoever is right about the nature of coverage, the White House is getting the amount of coverage it wanted despite far less advance selling of its political initiative than usually characterized the Ronald Reagan White House.

Didn't Release Key Lines

The Bush Administration did not even release key lines of the speech in advance for the Tuesday evening news, a regular technique of Reagan handlers to ensure additional coverage.

"In terms of drugs, they didn't have to do a sell," NBC White House correspondent Jim Miklaszewski said.

In the absence of any other presidential agenda, and with the economy stable and the Soviet threat apparently diminishing, the drug issue stands out, Wald said.

And, with children returning to school and public opinion polls showing drugs as the No. 1 concern of Americans, White House officials privately say that they expected the media to respond with generous coverage. The only thing the White House deliberately did was announce three weeks ahead of time that Bush would give the speech, so that the networks would have time to plan other stories related to drugs.

Within a week, two networks obliged. "We think we have an obligation, once again, to try and portray to the American public the enormity of this drug threat," CBS News President David Burke said in announcing CBS's plans.

To Reinforce Speech

The White House has learned the lessons laid out by Reagan communications adviser Michael Deaver about reinforcing a speech's impact by following it up with major events staged for the media.

On Wednesday, for instance, seven Cabinet members gave roughly 50 interviews with local TV stations in key cities nationwide via satellite.

The President also has a week's worth of follow-up events to reinforce his drug strategy in the public's mind, including Wednesday's supposedly spontaneous but thoroughly planned trip to a Washington hospital to visit children of drug abusers.

In addition, he conducted a briefing for 70 local crime reporters invited to the White House. And he had briefings with law enforcement officials and drug treatment professionals, in advance of which the White House public relations staff contacted media from the officials' home areas. Also, the White House allows the local officials to be interviewed on the White House lawn.

Drug czar William J. Bennett also appeared on all three network morning programs Wednesday and delivered a speech to the National Press Club that was carried live on CNN.

All this may make up for a speech that even some in the White House privately concede was disappointing, at least in presentation.

Inappropriate Smiles

The President seemed to smile inappropriately during the speech, officials conceded privately, suggesting that he was unexpectedly nervous during the address. He had not been so during rehearsals.

Deaver used to estimate that 25% of the audience will tune out after the first five minutes of a presidential address, and, by that standard, some thought Bush should have packed more into the beginning of his speech.

"If I would have been a casual observer, I wouldn't have been dragged into the tent by the first five (minutes)," Miklaszewski said.

In earlier drafts of the speech, White House officials had included more anecdotes early in the speech. They removed them, in part for length, and hoped that Bush's lifting of the packet of crack cocaine would be sufficiently dramatic. Some worried Wednesday that it had not been.

Yet, some early evidence suggests that, if the public is pleased that Bush is tackling the drug issue, the theatrics of his speech may be largely irrelevant.

Georgetown University government professor Michael Robinson, who specializes in political media, watched the speech with 25 college students, who came away impressed, even though they disdained Bush's presentation and actually laughed when the President said that the plan would not require higher taxes or an increased federal deficit.

'Right Speech' at 'Right Time'

They liked the speech for three reasons. First, a majority said "that this was the right speech at the right time about the right issue," Robinson said.

Second, they came away with the impression that Bush's proposal called for an $8-billion increase in spending to fight drugs, even though the actual amount of the increase is only about $1 billion, Robinson said, because the President kept repeating the $8-billion figure, which is the rough total amount to be spent.

And third, "They regard George Bush as a so-so rhetorician and public speaker, but they disdained the notion that presentation really matters," Robinson said.

The students criticized Bush's use of graphics and anecdotes as too imitative of Reagan. And they thought picking up the crack bag, a trump card in the White House planning, seemed hokey.

When one student in the group criticized Bush's speech overall because of his delivery, he was shouted down, Robinson said. Said one student defending the President: "He's not an anchorman, just President."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°