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Call-In Shows Question Tempo of Political Beat


WASHINGTON — The newest turn in presidential politics--the rediscovery of the viewer call-in show--is revealing stark differences between the questions reporters ask of politicians and those that voters seem interested in.

Over the course of the last two weeks, Democrat Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot have spent several hours taking viewer questions on the "Today" show, "Larry King Live" and a CBS "National Town Hall." Of roughly 100 questions asked, almost all focused on where the candidates stand on issues and policy. Unlike reporters on many interview shows, few viewers inquired into anyone's personal life, poll standings or attacks from opponents.

The differences are raising provocative issues about the media and the election. Are these call-in formats, which for now have taken center stage in the campaign, just "slow-pitch softball" that allows politicians to evade unpleasantries and twist the truth, as the Washington Post suggested this week? Or does the disparity between what voters and journalists ask suggest that the media are out of touch with what voters consider important?

A comparison of broadcast interviews--those conducted by prominent journalists and those involving the public--finds troubling conclusions for both the media and the call-in format:

--A good many of the journalists' interviews seem designed to provoke conflicts between candidates, or show up candidates as inconsistent or fuzzy on details, rather than to find out where candidates stand on issues.

--In contrast, viewers tend to stick to issues. But the call-in shows appear vulnerable to manipulation by the candidates, especially when the moderator is not aggressive about interrupting with follow-up questions.

--While viewers may be too polite to bring up the subject themselves, there is evidence that voters don't consider personal matters irrelevant to the election.

Many in politics see the call-in shows, which were a common feature of campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s, as attempts to circumvent the press in order to get easier questions and avoid scrutiny.

"These shows are like watching rank amateur tennis players stepping onto the court with John McEnroe," said University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, the author of a critical review of political press coverage called "Feeding Frenzy."

But others say the press could learn something. After listening to Clinton take questions for an hour on the "Today" show Tuesday, co-anchor Katie Couric said: "We probably should take some cues from that when we conduct our own interviews--not polls, not reactions, but basic issued-oriented questions."

And some question whether interviews conducted by reporters are necessarily more revealing. Michael Sheehan, a consultant to Democratic candidates, says most television interviews follow a predictable, standard form. Most candidates know they will be asked three questions, Sheehan said: "Name two specific federal programs you would cut. Explain your flip-flop on the following issue. How do you deal with the following political problem or charge or scandal against you."

Sheehan says he and other consultants usually can figure out roughly what those questions will be in advance and advise their clients to not appear evasive but to move on quickly to other subjects.

A look back at interview transcripts bear Sheehan out.

When Perot appeared on "Good Morning America" on May 22, for example, he was first asked by ABC news anchor Mike Schneider if he would declare his candidacy that morning on the air, then about polls, then about a charge that he was not being specific on issues.

In his fourth question, Schneider asked Perot to "tell me how you plan to deal with the federal deficit, how you plan to pay for national health care, how you plan to reduce the Pentagon budget." Perot said he would need an hour to do that, although later he also said he was not prepared to do that yet in any case.

The shows sometimes push the formula to extremes, asking questions that may be fair but that "leap light-years ahead of whatever the voters are interested in," says Sheehan. The result is a kind of political version of the TV show "American Gladiators," he says, in which the guest contestants try to run an obstacle course while the show's beefy cast members pummel them along the way.

On a "Meet the Press" broadcast this spring, for instance, moderator Timothy J. Russert asked Democratic presidential contender Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. what programs he would cut to reduce the deficit. When Brown said the military, Russert asked: "So how many service people would be unemployed with your cuts?"

Brown did not have an exact number. "You don't know?" Russert accused.

Or consider a March 22 "Meet the Press" with Clinton. Russert asked: "Can you assure the Democrats across the country this morning that there is nothing in your background that might emerge which would doom your candidacy and the Democratic Party?"

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