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In Campaign Disharmony, Press Chorus Sings Dirges for Dole

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pity the Republican presidential front-runner, Sen. Bob Dole. The other candidates have long been after him, and now the media seem to be too.

Being ahead is like wearing a bull’s eye: Any misstep and the arrows are instantly launched in your direction. These past several days, the arrows from the press pack have been increasingly sharp. “Foundering,” “faltering,” “slipping,” “sagging"--the adjectives of the week suggest that Dole is too dour, that his support is weak and that his campaign could be ailing, if not at death’s door.

What has happened to Dole is a classic example of journalists moving in packs. The basic story line--that Dole is in trouble--has swept through the press corps, forcing Dole to spend much of his time simply responding to questions about his future. Simultaneously, his rival Steve Forbes has ridden to new media heights in part because he is a novelty, paying his own way into the contest with millions of dollars in political advertising.

Some press analysts argue there is nothing wrong with what has happened to Dole. As Michael Gartner, publisher of the Tribune in Ames, Iowa, and a columnist for USA Today, puts it: “I think the story that Dole is in trouble is true. There’s nothing wrong with pack journalism if it’s right.”

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Not surprisingly, Dole disagrees. “I don’t know, maybe [Forbes] owns stock in all those networks and Time and Newsweek,” Dole complained to reporters in Iowa. “Somehow, they don’t seem to bother him.”

But while Gartner may be correct about the substance of the coverage, the tone of stories about Dole in recent days has often bordered on ghoulish. Dole “looked like a funeral director, not a front-runner,” said Newsweek about Dole’s response to President Clinton’s State of the Union address. Time described the Kansas senator as the “National Mortician, brusque, impenetrable, embalmed by Washington . . . " And to round out the grim reaper motif, a San Francisco Examiner editorial called the speech Dole’s “audition as host for ‘Tales From the Crypt.’ ”

At least some of Dole’s problems with the press were probably inevitable, say those who have studied press coverage of campaigns. “There’s an element of the media’s lying in wait for a story in a time when there haven’t been very many,” says Jarol Manheim, professor of political communication at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

At the same time, however, “it is also a real story here of missed opportunity. For all of Dole’s complaints of media commentary, he did not do a credible job at a time of great opportunity. To complain that the press is hyping this story is fair, but to complain that they created the story is unfair.”

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James Fallows, author of a new book that sharply criticizes the media’s coverage of politics, makes a similar point. Dole’s problems, Fallows says, stem in part from his own campaign theme, which is light on ideas and argues “basically, ‘Elect me rather than him.’ ”

“His campaign may be a lesson to political people about the vulnerability of having a campaign with no real issue attached to it,” Fallows said. “If in that situation you seem to be weak in simple animal terms, there’s nothing to fall back on.”

The problem for Dole, of course, is that once the press pack latches on to a particular story, there is little a candidate can do to change it. Right now, Dole’s argument with the press runs the risk of overshadowing whatever other message he is trying to convey. Take, for example, this lead-in from a recent broadcast by ABC’s John Cochran: “Dole started this week the way he ended last week, angry at the news media . . . . “

On the campaign trail in Iowa on Monday, Dole accused reporters of hammering him as front-runner and not scrutinizing Forbes, who has been moving into a competitive position with him in the early primary and caucus states.

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Forbes has the comparative luxury of having the media scrutinize his proposals. Even when the coverage is critical, as many accounts of his proposed “flat tax” have been, the attention given to his policies conveys the message that he is a candidate with new ideas.

So far, the one potentially more damaging story line about Forbes--the effort by the media and other candidates to get him to release his income tax records--has failed to catch fire, perhaps because Forbes has shown considerable discipline in simply brushing the question aside rather than arguing about it.

The fact that Forbes is a businessman rather than a politician with a voting record has also made reporting about him more difficult. “There is a lot of uncertainty in the coverage of Forbes,” Manheim said. “The press is just not sure what to make of him.”

Should Forbes continue to ride high in the polls, the coverage is apt to get less pleasant. Already, some in the press are sharpening their rhetoric. For example, columnist Sandy Grady, writing in the Philadelphia Daily News and appearing in the Des Moines Register, recently compared him to Texas billionaire Ross Perot, calling them “both fat-wallet egotists who’d spend their megabucks on that ultimate toy, the White House.”

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But mostly, so far, the media seem curious to hear him or to see him in action, to weigh his political impact.

On Tuesday, a campaign breakfast for Forbes in Derry, N.H., was packed not only with potential voters but with a media following that included at least 11 television cameras and some of the nation’s most famous journalists. Al Hunt from the Wall Street Journal and his television nemesis, Bob Novak, were there, as were Margaret Warner from PBS and Jeff Greenfield from ABC-TV.

“NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw summed up the situation: “Forbes clearly is the flavor of the week.”


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