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Press Distorting Campaign, Sen. Kennedy Says

December 01, 1987|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | Times Staff Writer

A press fixated with the horse-race mechanics of politics, with opinion polls and simplistic labels has contributed to something being "very wrong" with the way America elects presidents, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said Monday.

Presidential elections, the Massachusetts Democrat said, are becoming an unreal spectacle of illusion and expectation, glib one-liners and fake momentum.

"Frequently," he said, "events matter less than what is now widely referred to as spin control--who in which campaign can explain why something doesn't mean what it seems."

Kennedy's remarks on press coverage of the presidential campaign, made in a speech Monday night at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, were among the sharpest to come so far from a major political figure. While journalism has always been riveted on politics at the expense of issues, Kennedy said, the problem seems worse this year, during which two candidates have been driven from the race before a single primary vote has been cast.

Sees 'Distorted Bent'

"The distorted political bent" of coverage is typified by the fixation with polls, particularly before the primaries, said Kennedy, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in 1980. Such early polls have proven notoriously inaccurate, but they have nonetheless become "the quintessential pseudo-events of the pre-primary campaign," he said.

Polls also tend to read candidates out of the race prematurely. Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt has "thoughtful and courageous" views on various issues, Kennedy said, but is ignored because he trails in early polls.

Simplification and trivialization are another problem, Kennedy said. "What issues coverage there is now largely comes in the form of labels," he said. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), for instance, has a complex proposal on trade that the press has misleadingly dismissed as protectionist, he said.

The focus on process rather than issues, Kennedy said, leads the press also to demand that some candidate always be gaining or losing momentum, and this makes the campaign a largely imagined game of expectations.

Candidates 'Torn Down'

"Candidates are raised up only to be torn down. And to justify that, the whole field is falsely characterized as unimpressive and unsubstantial," Kennedy said.

The implied complaint that candidates in earlier days were giants ignores history, Kennedy said. "Lincoln was derided as a party hack. . . . Franklin Roosevelt was dismissed by Walter Lippmann as an 'amiable man' of no consequence."

He called on the press to allow candidates to talk about campaign coverage "without fear of being assailed as 'whiners' or 'complainers,' or agents of repression." And he urged that news organizations approach elections "with at least a minimal sense of consequence and history."

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