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GOP Finds That Media-Bashing Is the Right Path

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Bob Dole earlier this month testily blamed the “liberal media” for repeatedly quizzing him about his views on tobacco, he was doing more than venting steam at the Democrats or blaming NBC-TV’s Katie Couric for asking pesky questions.

Conservatives in recent years have increasingly made the “liberal media” or the “liberal media elite” a major part of their political mantra. On talk radio, in political speeches, during interviews or even in press releases, the GOP freely blames its bad news on the press.

And even though some old hands believe that attacking the messenger is politically futile, press-bashing does appear to work for Republicans on several levels.

For one thing, the charge that the media is liberal tends to be true--at least up to a point. Second, scoring the media raises money and ignites the conservative troops--a tactic that has been used since the 1964 Republican National Convention when former President Eisenhower lambasted the press and found, somewhat to his surprise, that his audience was roaring in approval.

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Moreover, yelling about the media is like bellowing at the umpire. Maybe it can’t change the calls reporters and editors made about yesterday’s story, but it might make a difference in tomorrow’s. Finally, for a candidate nose-deep in microphones, it undoubtedly feels good to swat back every so often.

“We are one of the great boogeymen for the right wing,” said Evan Thomas, Washington bureau chief for Newsweek magazine. Thomas has said he believes that Newsweek, like other national publications, tends to be liberal on social issues. However, Thomas adds that many top news organizations like his own work hard to balance the political coverage in the news sections while allowing political slant from columnists--one slightly left of center, the other slightly to the right.

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If such balance doesn’t quiet the Republicans, neither does it please the Democrats. Dole’s NBC outburst came at a time when the Clinton administration also feels besieged by the press--with recent stories about the Whitewater case, FBI personnel documents at the White House, the first lady’s relationship with a psychic counselor and rumors spread in a book by a former FBI agent.

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While many reporters covering the Clintons feel that the first couple mistrusts and dislikes their media entourage, public criticism from the White House is rare, although officials often vent anger at the media in private.

By contrast, at least some prominent Republicans in private--or in less heated moments--tend to discount what they view as the left-leaning politics of the fourth estate.

“Have they been fair to us? By and large, I think so,” said Nelson Warfield, Dole’s press secretary. “That the press is liberal doesn’t mean they write liberal.”

Similarly, Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, recently said at a lunch with editors and reporters at The Times: “I’m probably less of a media basher than probably some in our community because my sense is that it’s probably never as good as you think and it’s never as bad as you think.

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“I think if you look at the way Clinton’s been treated for example, I think you’d be hard-pressed to say that the personal liberal ideological views of most reporters . . . have somehow led to a free ride for Bill Clinton,” Reed added.

In public, however, Republicans show little reticence about ripping into the media.

Among the conservative complaints is that news organizations use any excuse to criticize the political right. One example often cited is the Oklahoma City bombing. In the aftermath of the bombing, many news organizations raised questions about whether the bombers had been influenced by anti-government rhetoric from militia organizations or from some conservative talk shows.

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Another point of contention has been the last year’s fights over Medicare. Any suggestion that the Republicans tried to cut Medicare brings an outcry from the right side of the political spectrum. Many news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, now avoid the word “cut” and talk of Republican efforts to reduce the program’s rate of growth. Democrats now object that the media have been pushed into adopting Republican rhetoric on the question, arguing that the GOP proposals would cut benefits that Medicare recipients currently can get even though overall spending would continue to rise because of inflation and the increasing numbers of elderly Americans.

More recently, Dole’s aides were outraged when reporters from Reuters and the Washington Post encouraged a woman who was concerned about abortion to ask Dole about the issue at a lunchtime photo opportunity in a New York delicatessen. The candidate, who was hoping for gentle television coverage about his visit to the deli, found himself once again embroiled in one of the hottest issues of the campaign.

Conservatives have launched several organized anti-media efforts. One group called the Media Research Center has mounted a $2.8-million campaign against the media this year. Run by Brent Bozell, a conservative activist who was finance director for Patrick J. Buchanan’s GOP presidential campaign in 1992, the center plans advertising, a Web site and bumper stickers that say: “I Don’t Believe the Liberal News Media.”

Bozell’s group is not directly connected to Dole’s campaign, but the line is consistent. In a seemingly routine statement about women’s issues in June, Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour opened by saying: “The liberal media elite have a tendency to pigeonhole women voters. . . . “

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Surveys do consistently indicate that reporters and editors tend to be more liberal than the general public--at least on social issues. Higher-paid correspondents and producers, editors, publishers and owners may be more conservative, at least on economic matters.

A survey this spring for the Newspaper Assn. of America, the lobbying arm of the newspaper industry, showed that in 1992, there were 288 newspapers endorsing presidential candidates. Of those, 53% endorsed Clinton and 47% endorsed President Bush. (Two newspapers recommended Ross Perot.)

When publishers were asked their political leanings, 38% considered themselves independents, 37% said they were Republicans and 17% called themselves Democrats. Editors were more evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

But while the report on publishers received almost no media attention, another report at about the same time was big news, especially among conservative commentators.

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That survey of 139 congressional correspondents in Washington, conducted by the Freedom Forum, showed that 89% had voted for Clinton in 1992 and only 7% for Bush. About 50% were Democrats, 37% independents and 4% Republicans, the survey said.

“Leftist press? Suspicions right,” crowed the Washington Times, which was the first to spot the numbers deep inside a report on Congress and the media. A Freedom Forum analysis last month showed that the item was mentioned by more than 40 conservative columnists appearing in more than 440 newspapers.

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Most journalists are trained to keep their political views under control. But what isn’t controlled is the reporter’s desire for a good political contest--the story full of the kinds of conflict and intrigue that can catapult the author onto the front page or into the news shows.

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“To be perfectly honest, to most reporters it doesn’t matter who wins or loses,” said Elaine Povich, a Newsday reporter who wrote the report for the Freedom Forum. “It matters if it’s a good story. No matter who the reporters will vote for, if Bob Dole does better and it’s a closer race, that gets you on Page One, and that’s what you’ve got to strive for.”

Such arguments may help campaign directors figure out how to get news coverage, but they do not sway conservatives charting liberal bias in the news.

Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, has been tracking what he sees as a political slant in the media for several campaign seasons. He suggests that voting records for reporters show Democratic leanings going back as far as 1936 but that these tendencies are growing stronger, primarily because editors and top producers are trying to bring more diversity to their news staffs.

“The irony is that the more you get people who look different, the more you are getting people who think alike,” he said.

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“My own feeling is that the press bias is much more cultural than political,” said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in the media. Hess suggests that as national reporters joined the professional class, they began to view the world in the same way as many lawyers, doctors and educators--professions that were once heavily Republican but which, beginning in the late 1960s have increasingly become socially and culturally liberal.

“Those things that are truly Republican versus Democrat--reporters are aware of and try to balance,” Hess said. “But with those issues like abortion, there is a very distinct tilt that reflects class more than political views.”

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What particularly galls the Democrats is their perception that when the media are labeled as “liberal,” reporters and their editors become “defensive,” as one Clinton administration official put it, and overreact in favor of conservatives.

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“I know some reporters who are perceived as being more liberal, and I have found them among the toughest for us to deal with,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic media consultant in Washington.

Republicans “play the media like maestros,” complained Jeff Cohen of Fairness and Accuracy in Media, a liberal group that monitors and critiques the media. “They keep bashing from the right and the media [keep] tilting to the right.”

To buttress his point, Cohen often cites a quote from former Republican Party Chairman Rich Bond, who said in 1992 that “I’m the coach of kids’ basketball and Little League teams. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is work the refs. Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack the next time.”

Still, the relationship between the media and the candidates is more dependent than it sometimes appears.

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Even though Dole made a special point of criticizing the New York Times in his interview with Couric, the Republican Party has been repeatedly picking up quotes from the Times and other newspapers to make the candidate’s own political points.

A recent column by Maureen Dowd criticizing the Clintons, for example, was faxed to news organizations around the country. In bold headline type, the Republican National Committee press office asked reporters: “Did you take note of this great quote?”


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