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Politics, Press, and Primaries

Views From New Hampshire

By Patti B. Saris

COVERING the New Hampshire primary was like watching a scene from Fellini's La Dolce Vita, where the main character was enveloped wherever he went by a swarm of reporters and photographers. This is not to compare an Ed Muskie or a George McGovern to a Marcello Mastroianni but simply to illustrate the overwhelming role the press played in the New Hampshire primary.

A particularly striking example of the omnipresent hoard called the press was the Muskie tour of the Manchester shoe factory. The smiling Maine Senator, dressed in his gray wool body-fitting suit, weaved his way through huge barricades of incomplete shoes to shake hands with the factory workers. The press, about 50 of them, invaded the building chasing Muskie down aisles, questioning workers about their opinions, and cutting off the campaign team to get local-color pictures of Muskie with the workers.

One stocky white t-shirted worker provided just the quote the reporters needed for their mood pieces. "Hey you're a polack. I'm a polack too. I'll vote for you." Muskie smiled, shook his hand. The reporters hastily jotted down the comment and photographers clicked wildly. The worker had made it to national fame.

The hoard is far from considered a nuisance by campaign managers. Without the aggressive old-style hand-shaking frontal attack of a Sam Yorty, who can exude his own magnetism, McGovern needs the hovering press to create the excitement of a devoted following. Early in the campaign McGovern toured a shopping mall without a press entourage with the result that he had to wander through the aisles, a lone figure in search of a handshake. A week later, surrounded by the press. McGovern's appearance in a local Jordan Marsh managed to create the favorable impression of a much-loved candidate.

Sometimes it became a little too obvious that the candidates made their tours not to elicit votes but as a gimmick for the press. On one stop in a paper factory, McGovern's press following outnumbered the employees by about two to one. Not only were the press overwhelming in number but they were not very subtle. One plump middle-aged woman with a "Re-elect the President" button complimented McGovern on his lovely daughter, telling him. "I can't vote for you. I'm voting for the President because I'm a WASP." One member of the press chortled. "Hey, did you hear that? She couldn't vote for McGovern because she was a WASP," he whispered loudly, evoking a soft but very noticeable laugh from his fellow reporters.

Manchester residents got used to the sight of caravans of press cards parading through the streets in single file behind the lead car, made particularly noticeable when the huge press bus blocked crowded streets during rush hour.

One of the more ridiculous such expeditions involved a Muskie walking tour of the Manchester restaurants at lunch hour. First stop was a small, dingy diner where Muskie greeted a handful of eaters who were engaging in a frantic last minute effort to switch the fork from the right hand in time to meet the extended handshake of the Maine Senator. After cramming obtrusively into the small diner, the hoards of reporters followed the Senator to the pizza parlor havens where, much to the delight of the eager photographers, Muskie ate a piece of pizza. (All credit for foresight goes to the A.P., who had pizzas waiting for them which had been ordered that morning.)

BUT MORE THAN just create the bulk of the candidates' campaign followers, the press also decided what were the major issues in the primarily issueless campaign. Muskie was particularly aware of this. When asked by a reporter, "Do you think the funding question is an important issue?" Muskie drily responded, "Does it really matter? You guys make up the issues anyway." It was, in fact, the press which catapulted the issue of campaign funding to a position of national prominance to such a degree that Hubert Humphrey announced his campaign contributors last Tuesday and Muskie agreed to follow suit.

Of all the candidates Muskie was hurt the most by a bad press in both the campaign funding issue and the crying - on - the - steps - of - the Manchester-Union-Leader-Episode which was blown up to natural magnitude by such syndicate writers as Evans and Novak. He was especially careful to be nice to certain influential reporters. "Hi, what are you doing here? I thought you just stayed in your ivory tower in Boston," Muskie said smiling warmly to a prominent Globe columnist.

And McGovern, who had only to gain by good press coverage, went out of his way to maintain contact with the press. After the debate between the five Democratic candidates. McGovern personally appeared to answer questions at the press conference afterwards while Muskie just sent his campaign aides. After his startling 37 per cent "victory," McGovern could afford to be a little less helpful to the reporters. "Now that he's a winner, he's no longer such a nice guy," a political reporter from The New York Times said after McGovern's refusal to have some pictures taken for him.

Few people realize the extent to which the camaraderie and the cohesion between reporters from major newspapers across the nation affect the kind of news reported to the public. After spending endless amounts of time waiting around for candidates, dashing around madly together to keep up with the campaign tour, eating meals together and sleeping in the same hotels, it is hardly surprising that the reporters, by discussing at length the events and the major issues throughout the day, should reach a consensus before their articles are written that night.

This is not to say that there is some kind of active collusion among the press to warp the import of the news but that the day-to-day close contact between the top analysts of The Washington Post, the L.A. Times, the Globe, The New York Times and The St. Louis Post Dispatch should have a self-reinforcing effect on the perspective of the news analysis which differs from an individual that's-the-way-I-see-it approach.

This was never more apparent than in the angle of the news reporting after the Sunday debate. As a result of the press conference afterwards, where all the reporters united in asking about the same funding issue, and because of the communal press room where reporters from The Washington Post, The L.A. Times, The New York Times and The Harvard Crimson all wrote their stories at adjacent tables, most of these stories the next day emphasized, you guessed it, the campaign funding. The most original approach was taken by The Boston Globe, which had not remained in the press room after the conference to write the story. This is not to say that one approach is more valid than the other but merely that constant close contact affects the angle of the news much of the nation receives.

The closeness of the press extends beyond the limits of news reporting and develops into a camaraderie which expresses itself in small ways. After the debate in the far-off town of Durham. Don Irwin of the L.A. Times went around the press room making sure everyone had a ride back to Manchester. And Tom Ottenad of the St. Louis Post Dispatch offered to help three homeless Crimson reporters find lodgings for the evening

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