NEW YORK — Moments after George W. Bush's 1976 arrest for drunken driving was reported, the media faced a dilemma: How do you cover a politically sensitive, late-breaking story of questionable origin and impact on the eve of an election?
For a host of observers, the media's performance left much to be desired. While a few praised the restraint of some outlets, others blasted the coverage as verging on hysterical, lacking context and top-heavy with punditry.
"I think much of what we've seen has been disgraceful," said media observer Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "I've been watching cable television particularly since this story broke and the volume of coverage is totally out of proportion to the importance of the story. It's a real feeding frenzy."
But perhaps the worst shortcoming, some said, was the media's failure to unearth a public document about Bush's arrest that apparently had been available for inspection in Maine for 24 years--and is only now coming to light. The major news organizations deployed small armies of reporters to comb through Bush's and Al Gore's histories.
"We teach our students the importance of checking public records when you cover candidates," said Orville Schell, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. "It's so basic to the profession, you almost take it for granted."
Soon after the news about Bush's arrest broke Thursday evening, all-news cable channels went into overdrive, serving up highly opinionated commentary--but precious few facts--about the incident. Anchors and reporters alike opined on how long the story would play out in the media, the effect it would have on the GOP presidential nominee's campaign, who leaked the information on Bush, and how it might be linked to Democratic nominee Gore's campaign.
On ABC-TV's "Nightline" on Thursday, anchor Ted Koppel seemed chiefly focused on how the story got out and its effect on Bush--as well as the media--in the campaign's closing days. It would be another 24 hours before more of the facts behind the incident became known to the viewing public.
"Can a 24-year-old story have an impact on the election?" Koppel asked. "The time remaining until election day is so short that it may be difficult [for Bush] to fix the damage and regain momentum. At the very least, with only four days left to this presidential campaign, a story that seemed to come out of nowhere throws the Bush camp off stride and soaks up a critical day's worth of headlines."
Some commentators agreed that the story might persist if it could be shown that Bush had ever lied about the arrest or tried to cover it up. Still, in the absence of information, the media's temptation to jump on the news was irresistible.
Some observers suggested this was because the press has not really found an interesting angle to cover in the presidential race outside of daily poll stories, said Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. For television in particular, he said, "this was a golden chance to breathe new life into the coverage."
Meanwhile, newspaper editors across the country were grappling Thursday night with how to play the revelations.
Not surprisingly, it made for headline heaven at the tabloids, such as the New York Post, which trumpeted "D-Dubya-I."
Only a few major dailies--among them the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun and the Dallas Morning News--considered it front-page news. Others, such as the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, mentioned the arrest on Page One but ran a full story inside.
Editors at the Washington Post initially decided to keep the story inside. But they changed course as the story gathered steam during the night on the news wires.
"In the end, after a lot of discussion back and forth, . . . I decided that this was front-page news pure and simple," said Executive Editor Leonard Downie. Bush's acknowledgment that he had withheld the information, Downie said, "struck me as a newsworthy decision, to not disclose this when there was a long-standing issue about his personal conduct in the past."
The Baltimore Sun's Web site gave prominent display to a wire version of the story at 9:40 p.m. EST Thursday, said Mike Leary, national editor. It played the story on the front page Friday because "this is a matter that's on the public record. . . . This is something he [Bush] has had several opportunities in the past to acknowledge or discuss and has sidestepped that question."
But other editors said Page One display would be overplaying the revelations at a critical juncture in the campaign.
"I guess I come out of a generation that looks back 25 years and says, 'Oh gee, I was there, I know about that stuff,' " said Bob McGruder, executive editor at the Detroit Free Press, which played the story inside. "I just think that that's not a crucial [revelation] for me, that he got drunk 24 years ago. . . . I would rather that the focus be on issues."