A majority of U.S. journalists who followed the 1992 presidential campaign believe President Bush's candidacy was damaged by press coverage of his record and of the economy, according to a survey released Saturday.
Only a small percentage of print and broadcast journalists think the campaign of President-elect Bill Clinton was similarly harmed by media coverage. In fact, more than one in three said coverage benefited the Arkansas governor.
Most journalists interviewed believe the press treated Bush fairly. He was harmed, they said, not by media bias but by accurate reporting on his performance in office and on the nation's economy.
These are the principal findings of a special survey of more than 250 top- and middle-level journalists conducted by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press. The survey was conducted in the final weeks of the election campaign.
Four in five journalists surveyed rated press performance in the 1992 campaign as good or excellent, saying it generally was better than the coverage in 1988.
Public opinion surveys conducted throughout the campaign showed most Americans also gave positive ratings to media coverage, although by a smaller margin. Nearly six in 10 people surveyed gave the press good or excellent marks. More than one in three, however, judged the performance as fair or poor.
The Times Mirror survey found the media judging the impact of its coverage differently at the end of the campaign than it had in an initial survey last May, during the final stages of the presidential primary battles.
The earlier polling found most journalists--slightly more than 50%--believed campaign coverage was having a "neutral effect" on Bush's campaign as he turned back the challenge of conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan.
At that time, 64% thought Clinton was being hurt by media coverage during his struggle with the so-called "character" problems that beset his primary campaign.
The latest poll also found that journalists gave the industry high marks for specific aspects of campaign coverage. Overall, more than 70% gave ratings of good or excellent to coverage of Clinton's Vietnam draft status, the candidates' positions on issues and the economy.
The press gave itself a somewhat lower grade for coverage of independent candidate Ross Perot, with 63% rating it as good or excellent. The survey said one senior editor summed up the attitude of many by saying: "We were all on the verge of carrying very critical stories about his temperament and his personal life when he pulled out. Since he re-entered, we've treated him as an eccentric."
The coverage of Bush's role in the Iran-Contra scandal received the harshest judgment by journalists. More than 70% of respondents said the coverage was only fair or poor, with only 24% rating it as good. A television executive said only the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post had "done a good job of explaining this issue."
The survey said a large number of journalists cited the emergence of talk shows this year as a chastening sign that politics can work well "without the press as interlocutor."
However, critics of this new phenomenon "took aim at the cheerleading-like atmosphere" of some talk show political interviews, saying too many questions were soft, with no follow-up questions, the poll reported.