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Ignoring Issues, Seeking Scandals

By Julian E. Barnes

Every year they say it will be different, but every year it's the same old thing.

During each presidential campaign, the press subjects itself to endless criticism about how reporters ignore the issues and only cover the "horserace" aspect of the election.

It has been 19 years since Timothy Crouse '68 wrote The Boys on the Bus, which chronicled the failures of election year reporting. That book and the critiques that followed have focused on the reporters' "pack mentality" and the candidates and journalists' inability to focus on the issues.

But for all the critical columns, magazine pieces and books like Crouse's hardly anything ever changes. In fact, this year's political reporting will probably be worse than ever.

Just yesterday, George Bush saw his criticism of Bill Clinton's health plan overshadowed by two meaningless stories. The first was speculation about whether Bush will drop out of the race. The second described the backlash against a Republican press release concerning Bill Clinton's alleged infidelity.

The first was a garbage story: Bush will never drop out of the race and the press knows it. The second may well be a story, but it's not as important as, say, a serious critique of both candidates' plans and records--a story that did not appear in this weekend's papers.

It's not that the candidates don't talk about the issues. Both Bush and Clinton wanted to talk about health care last weekend. It's just that the press is more attracted to the horserace.

But they're just about the only ones really interested in those kinds of stories. The American people, however, don't need to know the answer to the question "who would win if the election was tomorrow." To decide who they'll vote for in November, they need to know about the issues and candidates.

Journalists do these stories: there are features on the candidates' plans, ideas and leadership ability. The problem is that these articles get lost in the course of the year-long campaign. By the time the general election comes around, the stories outlining all the candidates' health plans (written back during the primary season) are forgotten in the barrage of articles about adultery and chocolate chip cookies.

After that initial story about an issue, it becomes old news; editors want to put something "fresh" in their paper. So in order to get on the front page, the campaign reporters are forced to churn out "scandal of the day" stories.

Real changes in campaign reporting won't evolve until we see real changes in the nature of campaigns. If the campaign only lasted for three months and not three years, the newspapers wouldn't have time to find the day's scandal. Instead they would be forced to report on the issues. And these articles would get more exposure from editors and producers because they'd still be "fresh."

This kind of change would give "The McLauglin Group" less to talk about. But it would bring out the real substance of political reporting and better inform the American public.

Julian E. Barnes watches "The McLaughlin Group" religiously.

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