TOPICS > Politics

Editorial Judgement

October 28, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Is media biased, distorting coverage in this election? We debate that point now with Michael Barone, a senior writer for “U.S. News & World Report,” and the co-author the “Almanac of American Politics,” and Alan Murray, Washington Bureau chief of the “Wall Street Journal.” Welcome both of you Has there been media bias in the coverage of this campaign?

MICHAEL BARONE, U.S. News & World Report: I think there has–sure there has been some media bias in the coverage of this campaign. I mean, start off with the fact that the press, the reporters, and bureau chiefs, as a poll last year showed. 89 percent of a sample of Washington political reporters and bureau chiefs voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. 7 percent voted for George Bush.

Now to believe that those political feelings have no effect on coverage you would have to believe that you would get exactly the same coverage from an 89 percent Bush press corps. Obviously that’s nonsense. Now I don’t think there’s standard–there’s conscious attempts to influence voters–it’s vote for my candidate–that sort of thing doesn’t go on in any serious way, certainly not by the standard political reporters who are pretty straightforward. I do think Bob Dole has a point when he says that–and suggests the press has a very much less hearty appetite for news of scandal than with a Democrat administration than it had with a Republican administration.

I mean, he cites–this is not in–that doesn’t mean they don’t cover it at all. Yes, it does come out, but notice on the FBI files, when it was first reported that FBI files of Billy Ray Dale were in possession of the White House long after they fired him, that played on something like Page A-27 of the “New York Times.” When it became clear that there were 300 files, that also ran on the interior page of the “New York Times,” and it ran with a lead saying Clinton administration says it’s all innocent.

The fact is I am utterly convinced that if that had been a Republican administration with one or three hundred with FBI files in the possession of the White House, obviously wrongfully, that would have been front-age news, as it should have been, and as it soon became in the “New York Times” and many other papers, one must add.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, a less hearty appetite for scandal?

ALAN MURRAY, Wall Street Journal: Well, actually no. I mean certainly the press is far from perfect. The report you just did on Richard Jewell, on the Richard Jewell affair shows that, and I’ve been–I’ve written critical things about the press corps in Washington, but I think what Bob Dole is talking about here is way off the mark. I mean, he’s out there day after day citing Yogesh Gandhi who gave $325,000 to the Democratic Party when he didn’t seem to have any money or the Buddhist Temple. Well, how does he know about that?

He read about it in the news pages of the “Wall Street Journal,” the news pages of the LA Times, others, the “Washington Post” has done some stuff on this. I mean, he knows about it because the mainstream press is writing about it. I find it very hard to see how you can develop an argument that the mainstream press lacks an appetite for these stories. I’ve got four reporters right now who are going at them full blast.

I mean, I think Sen. Dole’s problem is not that people don’t know about these things, but, as the polls seem to suggest, they don’t seem to care enough to change their votes. They know that Clinton is not terribly trustworthy. They say so to pollsters, but they’re going to vote for him anyway, and that’s Sen. Dole’s frustration. I mean, he’s out there saying, wake up America, pay attention to these things.

MARGARET WARNER: Does he have a point? I mean, most of this–all of this stuff is in the public domain because the press first uncovered it?

MR. BARONE: Well, some of it is in the public domain. Alan Murray’s paper, the “Wall Street Journal,” deserves a lot of credit on some of these stories in which they have really dug out some information that wasn’t publicly available and so forth. I will wonder, though, I mean, the Asian file cases, it strikes me as a little odd that we haven’t had more pawing into the Buddhist Temple and the fact that we’ve had a denial now from the Temple’s lawyers that anything bad took place.

The Temple’s lawyer is the former California state Democratic chairman, Peter Kelley, who I believe is a law partner, was of Terry McCauliffe, the chief fund-raiser for the Clinton campaign. Taking his word as the last word on it is something that I think the press should not do, and maybe indeed the “Wall Street Journal” is working further on this, and we will see more. I hope so.

MR. MURRAY: I’ve got a reporter sitting back at the office right now making calls on this. I mean, the problem is–

MR. BARONE: And a lot of them–right to your page tomorrow–

MR. MURRAY: But a lot of these people who made these contributions have mysteriously disappeared, uh, and, uh, you know, I think it’s something, you’re right, that has to be–

MR. BARONE: Although when Mr. Wong was called by Judge Lambreth last week–

MARGARET WARNER: Let me point out that Mr. Wong is the Democratic National Committee fund-raiser that raised most of this money from the Asian community.

MR. BARONE: He was one of the top four fund-raisers on the masthead of the Democratic National Committee. He is now physically unavailable. Nobody knows where he is. We were told on the radio, on the television talk shows last week by spokesmen for the Clinton campaign that he would be presented Monday, then he wasn’t.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. But on the point of this discussion, are you saying that the press could be doing more to get to him?

MR. BARONE: Yeah. I think the press has done an exemplary job on most of these things, and obviously this is not playing a decisive role in the Bob Dole campaign, or the fact that he’s not doing as well as he wants to. It’s a marginal political effect, if any. I do think that on some of these things we’ve had testimony, for example, on the FBI files. We had testimony from a woman named Mari Anderson who had worked with Craig Livingstone and, and Anthony Marceca, the people–

MARGARET WARNER: The two guys–

MR. BARONE: –who had custody of the FBI files. She said they laughed and made jokes about how Bush administration officials now out of government had their files in their possession, that the files of those people in their possession when obviously they shouldn’t. That directly contradicts Craig Livingstone’s testimony. We have the fact that there was a six-month gap in the log-in for the FBI files. Now I’ve been on programs with James Carville in which he’s assured me that nobody looked at those files who shouldn’t have been–Clinton’s spokesman. How does he know? There was a six-month gap in the log, and they said the rest of the log was no good. I think some of the interesting–

MARGARET WARNER: All right. I think some of these–

MR. BARONE: –those would be interesting things for the press to follow up on.

MARGARET WARNER: Alan, let me ask you to comment on something that Michael just said about or said earlier about that this was a liberal bias in the press because of this poll taken in ’93 and ’94 by the Freedom Forum showing that 89 percent of the 140 reporters have voted for Clinton. What does that–when do you believe–what does it say to you?

MR. MURRAY: It’s a very interesting poll. I don’t have any reason to disbelieve it. And I frankly don’t have a clue whether–what a similar poll in my own newsroom would show. I mean, when we hire people–reporters at the Wall Street Journal, we don’t ask them how they voted in the last election. We try to determine that they’re tough, fair, professional reporters, uh, who are going to be willing to pursue a story, wherever it goes, and who don’t have a particular agenda to push. And I think you’d be getting into very dangerous territory if you started asking the people who make the hiring decisions at the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post, or the New York Times to have some sort of quota system for people–for how people voted on the–in the presidential election. I think you can be a professional journalist, you have to try to be a professional journalist without regard to your personal political beliefs. MARGARET WARNER: And do you think that if all these reporters did vote for Clinton, that–that they aren’t able to do what Alan Murray just said, make–

MR. BARONE: I think it’s harder. I think it’s harder. I’ve worked for seven years at “U.S. News & World Report.” One of the big advantages to me, in my work, I think, is that it is a–it is a newsroom or an environment of colleagues in which we actually have, unlike most news organizations in Washington, significant numbers of people who vote for Republicans as well as Democrats in elections. I find that that helps me because we often make our judgments of news with a thought to our colleagues in the newsroom, with the thought to people who will be there at the office tomorrow twitting us and saying, hey, that was a biased thing, you missed a big story there because you assumed that the Democrats never do anything wrong, only Republicans do wrong, and you missed it when you put that FBI files story on the inside pages, rather than the front pages.

When you have colleagues that’ll remind you of things like that in the kind of good-natured banter or the sometimes not so good natured that one has in offices, you learn more about the world. You–I think that the press might be very irresponsible not to bring more people of differing views if they want to present full and fair coverage. The press has had quotas for blacks. It has had quotas for women. The theory behind them was that they would have a broader range of coverage and information. I think they might consider quotas for the people that are not outnumbered politically twelve and a half to one in Washington newsrooms.

MR. MURRAY: You know, I mean, Michael makes an interesting case, and there may be a point there, particularly when it comes to sort of openness to new, uh, conservative ideas, whether it’s on how to deal with welfare, or how to be on immigration, but, but going back to what Sen. Dole is charging, the notion that the mainstream press hasn’t been willing to look into scandals in the Clinton administration is just off base. I mean, all these scandals came up because of good, hard investigative reporting, uh, by reporters at press organizations, and the amount of manpower and the amount of time and the amount of news pages, uh, that has been given over to Whitewater and all the various tentacles of the Clinton ethical problems is enormous.

MARGARET WARNER: Very briefly, before we go, do you think these charges Bob Dole is making will help his campaign, are helping? Do you see any evidence they are?

MR. BARONE: No. I don’t think they’re going to help his campaign very much. Many people do believe that the press is biased against Republicans, it not biased for Democrats. I don’t think–I think it’s marginal.

MR. MURRAY: I don’t think–I think people hear him not only criticizing the press but criticizing them. Wake up America, why don’t you get it? I don’t think that works politically.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you both very much.