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Political Pundits Fixated on Campaign Imagery


NEW YORK — As Vice President Al Gore climbs in the polls, the pundits are scrambling for explanations. And some are embarrassed by the gap between their view of Gore as a wooden man who does poorly on television and the public's response.

"Why do we have to be theater critics?" veteran Baltimore Sun reporter Jack Germond asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "Why does he [Gore] have to be scintillating?"

Germond's comments were the exception among weekend bloviators, some of whom rhapsodized over Gore's "new" or "refurbished" persona. But other media observers echo Germond's concerns, saying pundits, and to a lesser extent actual reporters, have offered a distorted picture of both Gore and Gov. George W. Bush (the man with the smirk) from the beginning. They complain that much of the media imposes TV and entertainment values on the analysis of candidates, losing sight of complex issues and substance.

"It's not what the candidates say that's ultimately important to media experts," said Todd Gitlin, an author and media analyst. "What matters is how well the press thinks candidates are doing on television, and whether they're living up to the media's expectations for them."

After Gore's convention speech, the media deconstruction of his personality continued full bore. Various pundits and reporters derided his "boring," "clunky" address and, according to Jacob Weisberg in Slate, "oratorical klutziness." Others said his comments lacked inspiration, that he'd hit "a weak grounder to second" (Robert Novak). The minority of commentators who were impressed praised the vice president for being "warm, fuzzy and personal."

Of course, elections frequently come down to a popularity contest, and few doubt the power of television to influence perceptions. Many campaigns are remembered for a defining image: Michael Dukakis riding ridiculously in a tank in 1988. Ronald Reagan's "There you go again" riposte to President Jimmy Carter.

Yet presidential elections are not simply beauty contests, and the tendency of many commentators to reduce a campaign to questions of which candidate seems to be more jocular or sincere on television strikes many as damaging, even absurd.

A key reason for this behavior is the growing impact of all-news cable TV shows on campaign reporting. As broadcast networks back away from sustained coverage, cable operations such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel fill the void, and much of their programming is dominated by pundits with attitude, as well as reporters who are encouraged to express opinions. The result, say Gitlin and others, is reporting short on specifics, such as what candidates say, and heavy on entertainment values.

"It's bad enough that electronic media rate candidates almost solely on TV skills and theatrical performing," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist and media critic. "But when newspaper journalists who are expected to be substantive and fill in the blanks do the same thing, it can affect the whole tenor of a race."

Whether they support him or not, most viewers would agree that Gore's speech to the Democratic Convention last week was filled with policy proposals. Yet readers of some newspapers had difficulty getting details quickly in their lead stories the next morning. USA Today failed to describe the proposals; the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times didn't get to them until the 22nd or 23rd paragraphs, a fact noted in Slate, the online magazine. The newspapers did, however, devote sidebars to policy issues.

"The media would rather do anything than tell people about issues and how it affects them in a presidential race," said political columnist Molly Ivins of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "That's why we are getting all of this nonsense now with The Kiss. It's an excuse to avoid much tougher issues, like tax cuts, and in the process the media becomes a caricature of itself."

She's talking, of course, about the passionate, extended smooch that Gore planted on his wife, Tipper, before beginning his acceptance speech. Speculation about the kiss and what it meant--a humanized Gore, said some; a calculating bid to make people forget the Lewinsky affair, charged others--has generated 107 newspaper articles, according to an ABC-TV News survey. On its front page Monday, USA Today reported that five morning TV shows asked Gore about the smooch.

Earlier this year, there was similar focus on Bush's supposedly "flippant" demeanor and the smirk on his face. Campaign analysts had a field day speculating how those quirks would turn off voters. When Bush delivered, by all accounts, a lyrical and upbeat convention speech, his presentability on television seemed to evaporate overnight as an issue.

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