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Political candidates' handlers outfoxing journalists

James Bettinger, Shanto Iyengar and Jon Krosnick
discuss political reporting. (Photo by John McManus)

In the daily "chess match" between the press and political candidates' spin masters, the journalists are getting outwitted and the public checkmated.

That's how Shanto Iyengar, an expert in political communication at Stanford University, describes the struggle to control news in current and recent campaigns.

He likened it to a "tragedy of the commons" in which every one acts in their self-interest, but destroys the common good. Politicians' "handlers" are able to manage coverage to benefit their candidates. News media earn revenues by avoiding "boring" political policy stories. But "the net loser in this scenario is the consumer, the voter," Prof. Iyengar charged during a panel discussion Tuesday at Stanford University's Green Library.

Defending mainstream news media, James Bettinger, director of the John S. Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists at Stanford, argued that reporters do cover policy issues that voters can use to choose among candidates. But he acknowledged that journalists are under siege from increasingly aggressive and sophisticated political advisors who take advantage of reporting conventions.

Jon Krosnick, a professor of psychology and political science at Ohio State University currently teaching at Stanford, said the press has failed to illuminate key campaign issues with the frequency distracted citizens need to make informed choices.

Political news more important than ever

James Bettinger

All three speakers emphasized the importance of news to democracy. In fact, Prof. Bettinger said, the "press has assumed a greater role in the selection of candidates" as political parties' influence has waned over the 20th century.

Before a single primary vote is cast, Mr. Bettinger explained, political reporters vet candidates in terms of the amount of money they've raised, the quality of their political organizations, how they rank in early polls and who has endorsed them. At the beginning of the Democratic presidential primary campaign Dennis Kucinich was framed as a non-contender before the public ever got to know him, he said. "Once this frame gets set, it's very hard to break."

Those criteria, the former San Jose Mercury News city editor noted, differ from assessing what a candidate might do in office.

Despite this power to define who is and who isn't a worthy candidate, the press claims the role of simple observer, Mr. Bettinger said. It's something, he added, journalists haven't thought through.

Political scientists have. "The press is defining the news," said Mr. Iyengar, "and not merely describing events."

Political reporting, he continued, is "a struggle for control" between the press and candidates' advisors. "Invariably it is the professional handlers who end up winning this struggle."

Shrinking sound bites

Shanto Iyengar

Mr. Iyengar, who chairs the Communication Department, cited research showing the average amount of time a candidate is permitted to speak without interruption on television newscasts has fallen from 90 seconds in the 1960s to six seconds today.

"Journalists are no longer willing to entrust the air waves to the candidates," he complained. News media have interjected pundits to explain the candidates, rather than letting the candidates speak for themselves. Those pundits, he said, usually present candidates as cynical opportunists who "will say anything to get elected." The result? The public tunes politics out and may skip voting.

Mr. Iyengar said the press exhibits a "pathological" fascination with "horse race" reporting about candidates' strategies and popularity polls. Coverage ought to center on each candidate's core policy positions, "platform versus platform."

Avoiding skeptical reporters

For their part, political advisors manipulate the press, Mr. Iyengar said. The president was on a bus tour of the Midwest avoiding the heat in Washington developing over torture and humiliation of Iraqi detainees by U.S. forces, he said. Avoiding the more informed Washington press corps for small town journalists is "a very simple kind of gimmick." Calling infrequent press conferences, he said, is another tactic.

Political advertising, Mr. Iyengar added, is often aimed at the press, designed to set the media's agenda with the hope that in covering the controversy, negative claims in the ads may gain additional repetition. As a result, "the press does the bidding of the handlers."

Jon Krosnick

Prof. Krosnick also called the press on its attention to the drama of the race among candidates rather than issues they stand for. Strategies and polls change daily, but policies become old news the day after they've been reported, even if many readers or viewers weren't paying attention that day, Mr. Krosnick said.

What do do?

In interviews after the panel discussion, Mr. Iyengar called for frequent front page coverage of issues, emphasizing how each candidate's policies would affect local communities. Mr. Krosnick suggested the press set the news agenda, taking key issues such as the environment, economy, abortion and contrasting the candidates' position at the top of the news each day.

"One easy step for newspapers to take, Mr. Bettinger noted, "would be to publish more stories analyzing candidates' records and proposals in other than strictly political terms. That is, to examine them in detail on their intrinsic merits, rather than in terms of their political effectiveness and ramifications." Past coverage could remain on the paper's Web site and newer articles could reference it, he added.

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