Just Who's Asking the Questions?

Putting the Press in its Place

WHENEVER BARBARA Walters lets a solemn tone creep into her voice, I expect to hear something like "How has stardom treated you, Farrah?" It's been so long since the Million Dollar Journalist covered anything real that I wasn't sure she remembered how. But when her big chance for revived "hard news" exposure finally came, in the first Presidential debate last week, she managed at the same time both to misstate an important issue and overstate the purity of American political news coverage.

Walters was supposed to be the moderator for the debate--a job could have been performed by almost anyone in the Louisville audience. Walters knew this, and perhaps it was inevitable that she would try to leave her own distinctive stamp on the proceedings. But she chose to make her pitch at the very beginning of the debate, when viewer attention was (hopefully) at its peak. With straight-faced regret she indicated the three journalists on the panel, and told America there should have been four. Why weren't there, Barbara? Because out of the 112 names submitted by the sponsor of the debate, the League of Women Voters, to the two campaigns, they could agree only on these three. For shame.

Now, assuming the Walters' woeful tone was aimed at the respective campaigns, two glaring facts work against her self-righteous pronouncement. This winnowing of the prospective panelists was perfectly justified under the agreed-upon terms of the debate. Just as in jury selection, both sides were given a chance to reject persons they felt were unfavorable to their cause. An adequate solution would have been merely to continue submission of candidates until four were chosen. Furthermore, it's completely unclear which campaign did most of the rejecting. Perhaps one of the other did the majority, but Walters' statement lambasted both candidates equally.

BUT LET'S consider Walters' sadness in a way she probably did not intend. Perhaps regret should be aimed most appropriately at the way campaigns are covered by the national press corps itself. Here again the jury metaphor is apt. In an ideal world juries will always be unbiased vehicles through which the facts of the case will be transformed into an appropriate ruling. But it's a truism that this is often not the case, and the men and women who have been covering Mssrs. Mondale and Reagan are very much like a jury, with elements of judge and prosecutor thrown in as well.

Both candidates, like skillful attorneys, phrase their campaign speeches to appeal to the "jury's" ear, so that those few seconds of precious film will be broadcast at six p.m. The phrasing of the "jury's" questions--which at the debate averaged a ridiculous 95 words in length--becomes crucial to the message left with the voters. At this particular debate, the panelists were allowed to phrase the same question in subtly different terms for each candidate, a common practice in the campaign as a whole. Perception, nuance, image--all concepts antithetical to the creed of objective journalism, and all crucial to the running of day-to-day news enterprises, especially TV.

Similar critiques can be made of post-debate commentary, and of the absurd practice of deciding who "won." Both practices tend to obscure what actually happened, and to leave a different image in the mind of each viewer. Why couldn't the League president have been the moderator? Why couldn't distinguished former elected officials, from all points of the political spectrum, have constituted the panel? At least then a tendency to digress from the true subject of the evening would have been understandable, even expected, and could have been expressly forbidden beforehand.

Americans didn't tune in last Sunday night to hear Barbara Walters editorialize on some vague transgression by the two campaigns, or to hear her call Presidential candidates "obedient," as she did in the middle of the debate. The more "the medium becomes the message," and the more national journalists set the imagery and the agenda for campaign discourse, the less America can expect from its political leadership.