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COLUMN ONE : Policing Political TV Ads : Media are devoting more attention to the accuracy of commercials, often in critiques known as 'truth boxes.' The new reporting is seen as a major advance in coverage of elections.

October 04, 1990|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In Florida, Miami Herald state editor John Pancake is having political reporters skip some of the speeches at county fairs this year and instead watch a little more TV.

In Texas, Clayton W. Williams Jr., the Republican candidate for governor, had to redo one of his television commercials because reporters found he had exaggerated his claims with faulty statistics.

And in his TV ads in California, Sen. Pete Wilson, Republican gubernatorial candidate, has defended himself against an attack commercial by Democrat Dianne Feinstein by quoting newspaper articles critiquing the accuracy of Feinstein's original ad.

This year, the American news media have embarked on what many campaign professionals and journalists consider the first real advance in press coverage of politics since Theodore White began looking behind the scenes at the mechanics of campaigning in his landmark book, "The Making of the President 1960."

From California to Florida, the press is devoting a major part of its time and resources to policing the accuracy of political TV commercials--in most cases in systemic critiques set in special ad watch columns that have come to be known as "truth boxes."

While this change might not strike casual readers as dramatic, it represents two important shifts. One is formal recognition that, to the extent elections define the national agenda, American political dialogue, in great part, now occurs in the exchange of TV commercials.

The other is that, amid broad discontent with the state of political campaigning, the press has decided to become less of a color commentator up in the booth and more of a referee on the field in the hope of cleaning up the game.

Frankly, for the last 20 years, "you got a kind of nostalgic reporting," about politics, in the words of Democratic consultant Robert Squier. The media, particularly newspapers, focused on what candidates said in speeches and issue papers, things even the candidates themselves considered a largely symbolic part of their campaigns. "They were covering things that no longer really influenced the process," Squier said.

Tom Fiedler, political editor of the Miami Herald, believes that the "ad watch" columns now appearing in several Florida newspapers have made print media "more relevant" to politics for the first time in a generation. One key reason is that candidates who are attacked in commercials are using the newspaper critiques of the attacks in their response ads.

"We are affecting the debate again," Fiedler said.

Many political consultants are angry over the "truth boxes," saying the press has overstepped its neutrality.

Yet so far, the effort has not stopped dishonest, distorted and false political advertising. "We've had some pretty rancid commercials here in Texas," said political editor Jim Simmon of the Houston Chronicle.

Some observers say that the media's more activist approach will take time, and that there are already signs of change, while others say the effort will only lead candidates to become more sophisticated and subtle in their distortions.

'88 Campaign Cited

The change this year was inspired, in part, by revulsion with the distortions, vitriol and 30-second rhetoric of the 1988 presidential campaign. But the roots go far deeper.

Keith Love, now an executive with McClatchy Newspapers in Sacramento, publicly advocated something like truth boxes in 1986, after being disturbed by what he saw in the California Senate campaign. In that race, Alan Cranston and Ed Zschau spent a staggering $25 million combined, most of it to air commercials.

"What I saw in 1986 is that candidates really don't do anything any more but raise money and put up TV ads," said Love, who covered the race for the Los Angeles Times.

But since the media scarcely dealt with ads, consultants and candidates were able to "get away with murder," Love said. "We had to become a referee (over advertising) or print would become obsolete to politics."

After the 1988 presidential race, those concerns crystallized, journalists around the country say, in a series of columns Washington Post political reporter David Broder began writing last January.

Broder argued that politics had become so "negative and nauseating" that the press had "to become partisan--not on behalf of a candidate or party--but on behalf of the process." Among the recommendations: "We need to treat every ad as if it were a speech" and not "be squeamish about saying in plain language when we catch a candidate lying . . . . "

Links to White's Books

For much of the television age, political reporting in this country was fashioned on a variant of the model Theodore White developed 30 years ago for his series of books on "The Making of the President." White's innovative books saw elections as heroic clashes of men and ideology, offering insights into the national mood. But the books also were among the first to look backstage to the role of the campaign strategist and the growing emergence of campaign technology.

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