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Through the Glass, Brightly : GOP Reporters: They're Polite and They're True Believers

August 14, 1996|ELEANOR RANDOLPH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Debbie Steelman flashed her media pass at a small group of reporters hovering around her.

"See, right there. It says reporter," she said with a grin, pointing to the GOP convention badge that recognized her as an agent for the Republicans' television operation, GOPTV.

"It feels so weird. I feel like," she paused, "like I'm going to do vengeance." Then the 41-year-old Washington lawyer and longtime Republican activist laughed, revealing a stalwart cheerfulness that she would need over the next 2 1/2 hours as she worked the GOP convention floor for the first time as a television star.

In many ways, Steelman and her support crew of four were like any cluster of television equipment wandering the floor at any convention. They wrestled with crowds, jostled their way to the best camera positions, struggled to keep their crew focused and together. They waited and battled with the sky booth's constant yammering at them to do this or stand there, and then, suddenly, the lights were on and Steelman was being beamed over the Family Channel to who knows how many viewers. For a minute and 20 seconds.

In more ways, however, the GOPTV operation was different. For one thing, these crew members were uncommonly polite. They apologized when they bumped into people along their path. Steelman was not obsessed with her makeup or the way her headset's large, green earmuffs mussed her blond hair. And when she lost an interview subject to another network--after waiting for an hour to get on the air--she was resigned and relatively unperturbed. "I'm just a cog in the wheel," she said in a manner that would never suit many of the stars of network television.

More important for the world of journalism, however, the GOPTV operators were not neutral.

Its reporters include Republican Reps. Henry Bonilla (Texas), JC Watts (Oklahoma), Jennifer Dunn (Washington state) and Joe Galli, the head of College Republicans. Crew members occasionally applauded the proceedings--a no-no in the news business. (No cheering in the press box is the old rule for journalists who are supposed to take sides with nobody.)

Steelman made no bones about her lack of expertise. At one point, when she forgot her microphone, she laughed at herself gamely. "It's Reporting 101," she joked after she had to retrace her steps.

Steelman made working through the crowd less like a reporter searching for news than a class sweetheart at a college reunion.

"Hey, Debbie," yelled one delegate as she passed, "I'm ready to be interviewed by you any time."

*

No wonder. For Republicans, who tend to be at least skeptical of the mainstream media, this group promised no context, no debate, no counter-point. For the journalism community--that isn't journalism. It's advertising or, because it's politics, propaganda.

"If we lived in a totalitarian country where there was only one point of view, that's similar," said Ed Turner, CNN's vice president in charge of news gathering. "And there's nothing wrong with that, except for one small thing--where's the other side? That's what news is all about. News is a fair presentation of all sides of a particular issue. They have one. And that's fine as long as you understand that what you're watching is not a balanced presentation. . . . It is a Republican point of view, but that is not news."

For the Republicans the other side--many other sides--are available on other channels. The networks, C-SPAN, every local television station--16,000 media people have gathered for this convention. As Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour said recently when he announced that GOPTV was buying time to air the convention: "We're telling people don't get snookered by the networks. Get it straight from the horse's mouth.

"Our mission is to let people see this convention--unfiltered," he said.

" 'Unfiltered,' " NBC's moderator of "Meet the Press" Tim Russert commented at a media forum earlier in the week, "what that means is unchallenged."

Maybe the message is unchallenged on the air. But the GOPTV package has certainly been a subject of some controversy at the Federal Election Commission where Democrats are charging that Republicans are riding roughshod over spending regulations. At first paid for by a $1.3-million contribution from the Amway corporation, GOPTV's convention coverage will now be paid for with the public funding allotted each party for the conventions.

The regular news coverage of which offered conflicting views but was generally positive. In comparison, the Republicans' TV show was upbeat, happy, cheery, teary, bursting with pride and full of support for the Republicans and their ideas and their efforts. It was even a long way from C-SPAN, which is supposed to give the viewer a window on the event at hand--a plain, clear glass, not the rosy version of GOPTV.

*

For the convention, GOPTV has a full coterie of 26 cameras and 210 people putting on the show. Most were on contract to do the convention, but a few, like Steelman, were unpaid.

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