AJR  Columns :     FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   December 1996

There They Go Again   

When politicians start blaming the media for their problems, it's usually a good indication that they're toast.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

"Now I know the enemy is you." – the Cuff Links, "Guided Missiles"

If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, and even if it isn't, there's no doubt where losing politicians turn for solace. They attack the media.

It's a venerable practice. "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore," Richard Milhous said at his "last press conference" after his loss in the 1962 gubernatorial election in California. As pundit to the stars Cokie Roberts put it after the 1992 election, "The losing party always whines" about the coverage.

This time, Bob Dole didn't wait until the votes were counted. During the final weeks of his doomed campaign, he turned to sustained media-bashing, as he turned to many other things, in his fruitless search for the magic bullet.

Frustrated by his inability to gain traction, he blamed the "liberal" press for the failure of his attacks on Bill Clinton's ethics to register with an attack-weary public, singling out the New York Times as public enemy number one (see Free Press, pages 10-12).

Much of the time, the attempt to blame the media for a candidate's shortcomings is fantasy. But this latest spate of kill-the-messenger theatrics was particularly absurd because the media was the best thing Dole's aimless, desultory campaign had going for it.

Rather than ignoring ethics issues as the GOP standard-bearer suggested, the press covered them relentlessly. The Los Angeles Times broke the story about the Democratic fund-raiser in the Buddhist temple. Heavy coverage of the Indonesia connection turned the Lippo group and John Huang into household names.

Perhaps no paper is as vilified by conservatives as the Washington Post, never to be forgiven for its aggressive reporting on Watergate. But in the campaign's final weeks, the Post's front page was dominated day after day by fresh instances of sleazy campaign finance practices by the Democrats.

Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican National Committee, had it right when he was asked why Dole had resorted to ethical attacks on the president. It wasn't Dole, Barbour replied, but the press that had brought the fund-raising scandals to the fore.

As for the New York Times, that's the newspaper that broke the Whitewater story way back when, and has mercilessly skewered the Clinton administration's ethical transgressions on its editorial page.

Remember, too, that after compiling stories about an alleged Dole affair 25 years ago, both the Post and Time magazine decided not to run the pieces – hardly behavior suggesting they were part of a liberal cabal out to slay Republican dragons.

And after the results were in, it wasn't Dole but Clinton to whom David Brinkley attributed "goddamn nonsense." The veteran broadcaster also dismissed the president as a "bore" who "always will be a bore."

There's no doubt that much was written about the Dole campaign's lack of direction, its failure to develop a coherent theme, its flailing around from issue to issue, from approach to approach (today: character; tomorrow: back to the tax cut), its dizzying shifts of where to focus its resources and attention.

But all of that was written because it was true.

In fact, the Dole campaign seemed to have a Democratic flavor, a harkening back to the hapless Dukakises and McGoverns of yore. And Clinton, of course, campaigned with the mastery of Ronald Reagan.

Keep in mind, too, that nobody was more scathing in their depiction of Dole than the champions of the right, the George Wills and Robert Novaks and William Kristols and Charles Krauthammers.

Nevertheless, the notion of "liberal bias" in political coverage is being trumpeted with renewed vigor in the wake of a poll finding that Washington reporters voted way disproportionately for Clinton in 1992.

While this may sound sinister on its face, a reality check suggests that it may be beside the point.

For example, Clinton's press has fluctuated wildly. He was hammered in the 1992 primaries, lionized during his post-convention bus trip. After assuming office he had no "honeymoon" of the sort normally accorded newly elected presidents. He received far harsher treatment during the early months of his presidency than did George Bush at a similar juncture in his tenure.

After the Republican sweep two years ago, those media liberals managed to put aside their leftist leanings and label Clinton as history, dismissing him as a one-term president (see Free Press, July/August).

Æhy do many Americans think of Clinton as an inveterate flip-flopper, constantly adjusting his positions to reflect the latest poll numbers? Because the media have documented it in case after case.

ýimilarly, suggesting that the media have enough power to work their will on a reluctant electorate, even if they wanted to, doesn't hold up. If the media are both partisan and all-powerful, how in the world did Ronald Reagan effortlessly win two terms >n the White House, and why did Michael Dukakis get trounced?

For most journalists, what matters is not personal political ideology but the story. If the story is influence-peddling at the White House by high-flying Indonesians, they'll pursue it big time, no matter how they vote. l