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Regarding Media

For Whom the Polls Toll--the Candidate Who's Trailing

September 18, 2000|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — As George W. Bush slides in the polls, his battering in the press continues. When he finally agreed to debate Al Gore, dropping his insistence on a different debate format, newspapers used the metaphors of a faltering military campaign: It was "a wholesale retreat," said the New York Times; "a surrender," declared the Wall Street Journal.

"We know he pronounces the word 'subliminable,' not 'subliminal' " cracked David Letterman on "The Late Show," echoing other late-night TV comedians. "And it makes me wonder: Do you think this guy is 'electimable'?"

However upsetting this media hazing may be to Bush partisans, his troubles are hardly unique. Indeed, they recall similar turbulence that Gore went through earlier this year, when he was the constant butt of late-night jokes about alpha males, robotic speech and other campaign foibles.

Both of these episodes had one thing in common. They took place when Gore and Bush were trailing in the polls, and they illustrate much of the media's reliance on public opinion data to cast an election in terms of winners and losers. Few doubt that polls are valuable tools, but a host of experts believe poll-driven journalism is lazy and potentially harmful.

"When you're up by 20 points, the media acts as if you can't do anything wrong," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "If you're behind, every mistake gets magnified, and it becomes a lazy metaphor for how a campaign is falling apart. This is nonsense."

Bush has long been prone to malapropisms, for example, but it didn't become much of a story until he stumbled last month in the polls. In recent weeks, he has been dogged with reports about the vulgarity he blurted into an open mike about a New York Times reporter; he has been hit with complaints that his TV ads contain a subliminal message ("RATS") about Democrats. His campaign strategy has been nit-picked to death, and a Vanity Fair profile (condemned by the Bush organization) alleged that Bush's chronic language problems are due to dyslexia.

Even though most polls still show the race to be close, the media criticism of Bush has been relentless: Newsweek's lead political story last week wondered "How Bush Lost His Edge." Time said that despite the candidate's optimism, he may be "whistling past the election day graveyard."

"It's been open season on Bush, and he's certainly taken his lumps," said Frank Luntz, a prominent GOP campaign pollster. He and others suggest that the cycle may be ending, however, because the Olympics are likely to divert attention from presidential politics in the next weeks, and the upcoming debates may generate a slew of hard news stories.

Some critics, like conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, are less sanguine, blasting the most recent piling on as a textbook case of liberal bias. Yet such feeding frenzies traditionally have affected candidates of both parties. And while there are countless campaign stories to pursue, news organizations are highly subjective in deciding which ones to make prominent.

The Los Angeles Times was one of the few major newspapers to put on its front page the story that GOP vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney had not voted in recent U.S. elections; although the story about Bush's subliminal TV messages had originally been aired on Fox News, the New York Times put the story on its front page two weeks later.

And while there are cyclical, predictable events in campaigns, there is sharp disagreement over their impact and potential damage.

"If candidates like Bush and Gore experience rough times in the media, it's because they have usually contributed heavily to their own political misfortunes," said Evan Cornog, author of "Hats in the Ring," an illustrated history of U.S. presidential elections. "It's not the media's fault, and most polls will reflect this reality."

Yet others bemoan the connection between reporters' reliance on polls and the pack attacks that result when a candidate begins slipping. Presidential campaigns have been filled with moments when candidates stumbled and suddenly took on the aura of losers: Gerald Ford portrayed as a klutz in 1976. George Bush checking his watch in a 1992 debate. Bob Dole looking feeble in 1996, even though his widely reported fall off a California stage was due to shoddy construction.

"The press is often akin to a schoolyard bully," said Larry Sabato, professor of political science at the University of Virginia. "It kicks people when they're down and doles out rough justice to both sides if it can."

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