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From AJR,   May 1999  issue

Defending Horse-Race Coverage of Elections   

The Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections

By Martin Plissner
The Free Press
240 pages; $25


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

Maybe veteran CBS political director Martin Plissner is just a defensive old-timer. But I prefer to view his book as a clear-eyed analysis by an unreconstructed newshound.

Plissner covered every presidential election from 1964 to 1996. Reviewing those years of increasing network domination, he concludes that "those...who worry about this worry too much." He finds something suitably democratic in the evolution of campaigns "from a party-driven process rooted in a leadership elite to one in which the choices are presented to the voters primarily by television."

He flouts conventional wisdom on several key points:

He defends horse-race reporting. "The reason anything new about the likely outcome of a presidential race tends to dominate the day's report," Plissner writes, "...is that this is the first thing most people want to know about." He sees no reason to reduce such coverage, despite protests from "an academic posse bent on frustrating the natural curiosity of most Americans about how their candidates are doing."

He objects to the networks' policy against reporting on exit surveys before polls close. This practice, he says, simply suppresses the news. Reporters, politicians and other insiders have easy access to exit polling, leaving only voters in the dark.

He scoffs at critics who believe adversarial news coverage is undermining faith in democracy. Citing Tonkin Gulf, Watergate, Iran-contra, the Lewinsky affair and other scandals, he doubts that "reporters owe it to their country to err on the side of trust."

Of course, Plissner offers more than opinion. "The Control Room" presents a compact history of more than a quarter century of change in covering conventions, debates, primaries and elections; in using and reporting polls; and in day-to-day political journalism.

While I appreciate his pungency, the book does have important deficiencies. Oddly enough, Plissner supplies very few inside anecdotes from his CBS tenure. Most importantly, he fails to fully engage the criticisms he sometimes glibly rejects. His premise, after all, is that "television calls the shots."

But in acknowledging evidence of growing public disaffection and falling voter rates, he can only reply that television's controversial practices probably don't have much to do with turnout. For a tough-minded analyst, that is a disappointing cop-out.