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Gasping Under an Avalanche of Politics

February 21, 1988|LEWIS W. WOLFSON and SANFORD J. UNGAR | Lewis W. Wolfson is a professor and Sanford J. Ungar is the dean at the American University School of Communication in Washington.

Will everyone please stand up who has already had enough of politics for this year?

If you have heard everything you want to know about Dick Gephardt's and George Bush's new selves or about Paul Simon's bow ties; if you are bleary-eyed from the pages-upon-pages of newsprint and hour-upon-hour of television time devoted to presidential campaign minutiae, then do something.

Write a letter to your editor. Honk your horn for freedom from political news.

We have had far more press coverage of this presidential campaign than of any other in history. We have been front-loaded with print and TV reports blanketing every move in Iowa and New Hampshire. And just wait until you see what's coming before Super Tuesday on March 8.

News organizations have been criticized in the past for not telling us enough about presidential candidates' background and the issues. But this time, it seems, newspapers, magazines and the networks are overcompensating. They have given us endless profiles of the candidates. They have faithfully covered the abundant pre-primary debates. We have learned all about each aspirant's standard stump speech.

We are alert to how Gephardt said one thing yesterday and another today.

Reporters have probed Bob Dole's wife's land deals and examined Mike Dukakis' economic miracle in Massachusetts. We are learning a lot about where campaign funds come from and how they are spent.

Political writers at last have the kind of campaign they dream of--more wide open than any other in memory. The Washington Post's David Broder wrote last week that reporters are "lucky" to have such a close and high-pressure contest to cover.

But the thousands of lucky reporters on this story have not just illuminated the campaign; they have left us gasping under an avalanche of coverage that has already gone on non-stop for more than a year.

Despite the vigilance, there have been mistakes and embarrassments. Pat Robertson's invisible army rose in Iowa right under all the sharp journalistic noses. Minute-by-minute polling said that Bush and Dole were neck-and-neck in New Hampshire, but they weren't. And Gary Hart's return to the fray, contrary to press predictions, has hardly rescrambled the Democratic omelet.

Surely there is a noble mission in campaign coverage. But it also produces pack journalism at its worst: Reporters stepping on each other; editors pouring the copy into their papers by the yard, while wavering on standards of news judgment applied to other stories; projections changing from one day to the next, with little care about inconsistency; advertising departments trumpeting as virtue the excesses of TV coverage.

NBC, for example, reached the point of running full-page ads on the Sunday before the Iowa caucuses, boasting that all six of its news and public affairs shows and nine top anchors and commentators would come live from Iowa for the next two days. Perhaps NBC should have been apologizing instead.

Is there no bold editor or producer out there who will buck the trend? Might not the executives of bellwether news organizations pause and at least ask how the would-be consumers of this news feel about it? Might we all not feel a bit less flattened if they shifted gears, asked for more measured reporting from the campaign trail, polled a bit less often and exercised more editorial selectivity and perspective? For much of this year, a sizable segment of the Washington press corps (and every local anchor whose station can afford a plane ticket) will have learned all there is to know about the motels in Des Moines, Manchester and all the other battlefields yet to be crossed. But they may scarcely set foot in a federal agency, let alone figure out American policy toward events in Mexico, Malaysia or Mozambique.

What are we, or the next President, not learning that we and he need to know but may not discover until long after the inauguration 11 months from now?

It is hard to conceive of slowing this monolithic campaign bus and redirecting the boys and girls on it, who numbered 3,000 in Iowa alone. But editors are not completely insensitive to what their audience thinks, and it is time for the public to let them know that while it respects their attention to presidential politics, there are other important things in our lives.

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