Bad News: Where the Press Goes Wrong in the Making of the President


In Bad News, Robert Shogan draws on the lessons of nine presidential elections to assess the power and role of the press in the making of the president. The media, Mr. Shogan argues, now play the role of enablers. Without fully realizing it, they allow and abet the abuse of the political process by the candidates and their handlers. Bad News targets not only the machinations of the competing campaigns but the innate weaknesses and limitations of the press corps, with special ...
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In Bad News, Robert Shogan draws on the lessons of nine presidential elections to assess the power and role of the press in the making of the president. The media, Mr. Shogan argues, now play the role of enablers. Without fully realizing it, they allow and abet the abuse of the political process by the candidates and their handlers. Bad News targets not only the machinations of the competing campaigns but the innate weaknesses and limitations of the press corps, with special attention to the 2000 election.
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Editorial Reviews

Washington Post
If there is such a thing as a good book about 'bad news,' this is it.
— Broder, David S.
Washington Monthly - Charles Peters
A tough, perceptive, and eminently readable account...absolutely essential.
Newsweek - Howard Fineman
This sets the sad story institution that has grown in power and yet lost its moorings in a riptide of hucksterism and handlers.
Sam Donaldson
Shogan has got it right. This book is a wake-up call for journalists everywhere.
Richard Reeves
The best book I've read on how political reporters think and work since Tomothy Crouse's The Boys on the Bus. Actually, I wish Shogan had not written cuts a little too close to the bone.
Review Of Higher Education - David S. Broder
If there is such a thing as a good book about 'bad news,' this is it.
ABC News
Shogan Has Got It Right. This Book Is A Wake-Up Call For Journalists Everywhere.—Sam Donaldson
Washington Post
If There Is Such A Thing As A Good Book About 'bad News,' This Is It.—David S. Broder
This Sets The Sad Story Straight...An Institution That Has Grown In Power And Yet Lost Its Moorings In A Riptide Of Hucksterism And Handlers.—Howard Fineman
Washington Monthly
A Tough, Perceptive, And Eminently Readable Account...Absolutely Essential.—Charles Peters
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The problem with the media, contends veteran political reporter and author Shogan (The Double Edged Sword, etc.), is that they "allow and sometimes abet the abuse of the political process by the candidates and their handlers." In this carefully crafted retrospective on the media and presidential campaigns since JFK, Shogan explains how this state of affairs has occurred, highlighting how politics and the media have changed. In politics, parties and party bosses no longer really matter that much. A candidate has become an "independent political entrepreneur," who must market himself or herself to the public, and the best way to do that, argues Shogan, is to sell image (warm and fuzzy for the candidate, as negative as possible for the opponent) over substance, "not information or ideas but illusions and impressions." Thus the media have become an increasingly important marketing tool for candidates, and the media's reliance on more sophisticated technology which translates into ever more and ever shorter deadlines causes their willingness to publish whatever candidates may offer. Substance, explanation and research have become rare things in modern political journalism, according to Shogan. The loser is the American people, who grow increasingly cynical about campaigns that don't seem to be about much of anything. While pessimistic about change Shogan thinks only a major overhaul of the political system can make politics truly matter again he does believe reporters can offer the public real news and meaningful stories, and he challenges them to do so in this highly readable chronicle. (Apr. 27) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In the aftermath of the disastrous presidential campaign of 2000, media analysts continue to engage in painful self-analysis in an attempt to figure out what went wrong. Shogan, a respected political journalist (Newsweek) and author (The Double-Edged Sword), shines a bright and not very complimentary spotlight on the media, arguing that their performance in the 2000 campaign was one of the poorest in modern history. Arguing that highly critical coverage probably cost Al Gore the presidency, the author asserts that it is not ideological bias but the drive of professional forces that skews modern reporting. Seeking to beat deadlines and top the competition made intense by the proliferation of media outlets vying for viewer attention, the coverage becomes superficial and distorted. Thus, the media fill the role of "enablers" for candidates and their handlers. Shogan is hard on his own profession, offering an insightful and valuable guide to understanding why the media so often fail the public in campaign coverage. A valuable contribution to the public debate over the role of the media in presidential campaigns. Michael A. Genovese, Loyola Marymount Univ., Los Angeles Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Washington Monthly
A tough, perceptive, and eminently readable account...absolutely essential.
— Charles Peters
This sets the sad story institution that has grown in power and yet lost its moorings in a riptide of hucksterism and handlers.
— Howard Fineman
Review Of Higher Education
If there is such a thing as a good book about 'bad news,' this is it.
— David S. Broder
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781566633468
  • Publisher: Ivan R Dee
  • Publication date: 3/28/2001
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.52 (h) x 1.15 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Shogan has reported on presidential politics for more than thirty years, first for Newsweek, then as national political correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, based in Washington. His work has won the Scribes Book Award and the American Political Science Association prize for distinguished reporting of public affairs. His other books include The Double-Edged Sword, The Fate of the Union, Hard Bargain, and Riddle of Power. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Enablers

MONTHS BEFORE George W. Bush officially announced his candidacy for the presidency, I spent a day with him as he campaigned in his home state of Texas for reelection to the governor's office he had won four years earlier. We traveled in style in his sleek chartered jet, which, as Bush pointed out, "is what you get when you have $14 million in your war chest."

    The rolling countryside stretching from Austin to San Antonio that the governor ranged across on this hot, dusty day is rich in Texas history. Hays County, his first stop, was named for Jack Hays, a legendary Texas Ranger captain who led a bloody rout of the Comanches a century and a half ago. San Marcos, the county seat, is home to Southwest Texas State College, alma mater of the first Texan president, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Next we visited Floresville about one hundred miles south, the site of the two-hundred-acre ranch that used to belong to John B. Connally, another self-made Texas titan and another presidential aspirant—a domain to which Connally clung even after he went bankrupt.

    But in his stump speeches Bush was less interested in the past than in writing new history of his own. Governor Bush is no more a spellbinder than was President Bush. But the eldest son's direct, informal manner created an impression of force and authenticity that his father rarely achieved. Although he was nominally only running for reelection as governor, Bush promised the admiring south Texas crowds that his candidacy would be the harbinger of nothing less than afundamentalshift in American culture to what he heralded as "the responsibility era."

    "I'm worried about a culture that says, `If it feels good, do it, if you've got a problem just go ahead and blame somebody else,'" Bush declared. "l see a more compassionate time which says that each and every one of us are responsible for the decisions we make in life."

    By then it was no secret that Bush had been something of a hellion as a young man. "George had a good time, and there were a lot of gin and tonics and a lot of fun and a lot of wise-guy remarks," his cousin and friend since childhood, John Ellis, a TV journalist, told me. And down deep, Bush remains a smart aleck. "If someone agreed with me 100 percent of the time, one of us wouldn't be necessary," he remarked, trying to demonstrate his willingness to accept different viewpoints. Then he added: "That's a funny line, you ought to get it in the paper."

    But the years have altered his mores and his way of life. On his fortieth birthday, Bush—reputedly with some prompting from his wife—decided that alcohol was "interfering with my energy level," and quit drinking cold. That did not turn him into an advocate for prohibition. But during our travels that day he did urge young people not to drop out of school, not to use drugs and alcohol, and, in particular, not to have children out of wedlock. He spoke highly of a Baptist program called "True Love Waits," which advocates sexual abstinence before marriage.

    "Do you think a presidential candidate needs to practice what he preaches?" I asked him after the speechmaking, when we chatted aboard his campaign jet.

    Bush gave me a look that would curdle milk in an ice-cold bottle. "I have never committed adultery, if that's what you're asking," he snapped. Then, still glaring at me, he said, "Now there's a question that I'd like to ask you."

    "Sure, go ahead," I told him.

    "How does it feel to belong to a profession where you have to ask people questions like that?"

    "That's what I do for a living," I said. But I knew that was not much of an answer. And for a long time afterward I thought about Bush's question.

    I had been a newspaperman for more than forty years. I had covered national politics for more than thirty years. Still, I had no easy answer to Bush's question. What sort of profession is journalism that required me to ask a candidate for president about his sex life? And what sort of a profession is politics that the candidate felt compelled to answer?

Obviously political journalism is an intrusive and exasperating trade. More important, it bears the burden of power—power to do good and also harm. Or so many people believe. But how much of the power is real, and how much just perception? And what is the basis of this power? The more I thought about Bush's question, and the other questions it generated, the more I realized there are no simple answers. The trade of journalism had changed a lot since I started working on newspapers. And presidential politics had changed at least that much. In fact they had each forced changes on the other. And to understand how all this had happened I realized I needed to go back in time, to the year I started covering presidential politics, to the year that politics and journalism both began to change dramatically, back to 1968.

    "The Democratic National Convention is as good as over," Democratic National Chairman John Bailey declared in January of that year. "It will be Lyndon Johnson, and that's that."

    This assessment voiced by Bailey and almost universally shared by the political and journalistic establishment of that day would turn out to be one of the monumental miscalculations in American history. Fewer than three months after Bailey's confident prediction, Lyndon Johnson, landslide victor over Barry Goldwater in 1964, architect of the most sweeping program of social and economic reform since the New Deal, master manipulator of political power, would be forced to abandon his plans to seek another term in the White House. Even more important, the events of 1968 would touch off a wave of change that would engulf not only LBJ's Democrats but the opposition Republicans as well and lay the foundation for a new order in American politics.

    This new order would be marked by the domination of personality and technology, the self-selection of candidates and the self-promotion of candidacies, the fragmentation of constituencies, the shifting of voter loyalties, and, most conspicuous of all, the thrust of the media to the forefront of the political scene. Indeed, the enhanced prominence of the media in the new political system that resulted from the turmoil of 1968 gave rise to the widely accepted notion that journalists had shouldered aside the established political leadership to assume command of the quadrennial making of the president. This view has taken hold not only among media consumers, the readers and viewers of political journalism, but also among a fair number of respected scholars, as witness a proliferation of books with titles such as The Mass Media Election, Media Power in Politics, and Channels of Power.

    On closer inspection, based on what I have learned covering presidential campaigns, the concept of media hegemony turns out to be a substantial oversimplification and exaggeration. Instead of conquering the political hierarchy, the media merely moved into the void created by its implosion, and then had to contend with many of the same problems that had wrecked the old power structure. No one can deny that the media have helped shape the course of American politics for the past generation. But more frequently they have been acted upon rather than acted in their own right. Lacking a common agenda or the will to exercise power, the press and television have served mainly as a conduit for events and as potent instruments in the hands of others.

    As became evident in the presidential campaign just concluded, a new hierarchy has emerged, building on the rubble of the old to rule the new political order and to define the role of the media. The new establishment differs from the old not only in makeup but also in tactics, reflecting the erosion of both political parties and the heavier weight of money and technology in the balance of political power. Prominent on its membership rolls are fund-raisers, lobbyists, interest-group panjandrums, and assorted technocrats skilled in the arts of polling and imagery. Unable to depend as much as they once could on party apparatus, the new leadership has learned to rely more and more on its ability to exploit the media to reach the electorate. Although this formula does not guarantee success, it worked well enough in the early months of the 2000 campaign in each party to help the established favorites suppress energetic insurgencies and secure their party's presidential nominations for Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.

    The new reality of the campaign trail boils down to this: the media all too often have been reduced to filling the role of enablers. Without fully realizing it or intending it, they allow and sometimes abet the abuse of the political process by the candidates and their handlers.

    None of this is to excuse the sins of omission and commission committed by the media, both the electronic and print branches The chapters that follow will reveal their all-too-willing acceptance of the slick offerings of the packagers of candidates, who, like the Shadow in the old radio show, seem to wield "the power to cloud men's minds." But it is not just the machinations of the competing campaigns that are to blame. The innate weaknesses and limitations of the press corps are also a large part of the problem. In their coverage of campaigns the media at one time or another have been guilty of just about every one of the seven deadly sins—pride, greed, lust, anger, envy, sloth, and, finally, as anyone who has watched reporters swarming around a press room buffet can testify, gluttony.

    Of these failings, probably the most common and most injurious are sloth and pride. Too often journalists, myself included, have been unwilling to make the effort to learn what they do not know, and to make the information they do possess relevant and significant for their audiences. Too many of us, eager for attention, have been too willing to create stories that are larger than life and reality, and too impressed with our own importance to benefit from the criticism leveled against our work.

    Don't the media do anything right? Of course they do. They provide fast and relatively accurate accounts of day-to-day events, without which the political system cannot function. They excel at probing wrongdoing, such as the fund-raising abuses perpetrated by both parties in the 1996 presidential campaign. What political journalism too often fails to provide, though, is a context for these events and revelations that would help readers and viewers understand why this reportage matters. Of course some journalists have the imagination and fortitude to break out of formulaic patterns and provide coverage that illuminates. But these exceptions serve to demonstrate the standards for political coverage that others should strive to meet.

    Whatever the performance of the press, the outcome of presidential elections is usually shaped by the state of the union—whether it is at war or peace, enjoying a boom or struggling through a bust. In the orchestration of presidential campaigns, the press plays second fiddle. The candidates wield the baton and set the tone, for better and often for worse. The media could not elevate the discourse of the 1980 presidential campaign above the stunted level set by Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. When Michael Dukakis could not defend himself against George Bush's irrelevant indictments, reporters could not exonerate him. If Bob Dole could not find a good reason for unseating Bill Clinton, the press could not discover it for him.

    Still, the media have the potential for significant impact. While the national condition generally dictates the fate of the incumbent, whether he ultimately wins or loses, the media can help to decide who the challenger will be. They also can influence how voters view the nation's problems, and in assessing the solutions offered by the opposing candidates, can help shape the nature of governance until the next election. Yet the performance of political journalism cannot be weighed in isolation. The most important thing I have learned during more than three decades of covering elections is that presidential campaigns bind together the strengths and faults of political journalism with the strengths and faults of the political system itself. As this book will demonstrate, understanding the journalistic coverage of presidential campaigns depends on understanding the forces that influence the decisions of politicians. This book will show how in each election from 1968 through 2000, from Nixon's narrow victory over Humphrey to the Bush-Gore competition, the interaction of politics and journalism has defined the nature of the campaign. It will show where the press went wrong and where it went right, and what difference that made. And it will also show where, because of the nature of the campaign and the candidates, the press was sometimes helpless to make any difference at all.

    This linkage between politics and journalism is rooted in history. The two institutions have grown up together in this country, locked in an often awkward symbiosis. In the nation's infancy, journalism possessed nothing like the reach and resources it now has. Yet political leaders even then sought to take advantage of the influence of the press, meanwhile nurturing the resentment and suspicion of its practitioners.

    While the Founding Fathers generally paid lip service on patriotic occasions to the notion of a free press as a bulwark of liberty, they resisted concrete measures to guard that freedom. In the only substantial reference to the notion of legal protections for the press in the Federalist papers, Alexander Hamilton, the great proselytizer for constitutional ratification, dismissed the idea as "impracticable." Rather than insert any language in the nation's charter, Hamilton advised that the security of the press "must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and the government"—which of course are precisely the forces against which the press needs to be protected if it is to be free.

    The political leadership of the time conceived of the First Amendment, like the rest of the Bill of Rights, as an afterthought, a promise offered and kept to aid ratification of the Constitution. And the adoption of the First Amendment did not reduce the tension between the political establishment and the press.

    His two terms in office so embittered Washington against the press that Hamilton thought it prudent to excise from the first president's draft of his Farewell Address his vitriolic condemnation of the political journalists of the time. The coverage of his governance, Washington had complained, displayed "all the invective that disappointment, ignorance of facts, and malicious falsehoods could invent to misrepresent my policies."

    If the Founders were quick to criticize the press, they had even harsher words for political parties. On leaving office Washington warned his countrymen that parties were likely to foster a spirit that "agitates the community with ill-founded and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection," and "opens the door to foreign influence and corruption." This view drew support from all sides. Hamilton contended that the spirit of "faction," a term then used interchangeably with party, "is apt to mingle its poison in the deliberations of all bodies of men." Hamilton's bitter adversary, Jefferson, declared: "If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go at all."

    So much for heaven. Here on earth, Hamilton, Jefferson, and most of their colleagues soon became fierce partisans who organized political parties in order to gain and maintain power. And being intensely practical men, they found the press—for all its shortcomings—an essential tool for furthering their partisan enterprises. Outraged at what he considered the libels perpetrated against him by the Federalist press supported by Hamilton and his allies, Jefferson set up the poet and journalist Philip Freneau as editor of the National Gazette as a counterforce. As part of the bargain, Jefferson, then Washington's secretary of state, secured a job for Freneau at the State Department and promised to award him government printing contracts.

    A pioneer in manipulating the press to undermine his adversaries, Jefferson was more than paid back in kind by the Sally Hemings scandal, which erupted during his second term in the White House. Jefferson's nemesis in this affair was James Thompson Callender, a journalistic hatchet man who began his career as a Jeffersonian acolyte, turning his venom against Jefferson's enemies, often with Jefferson's encouragement. Callender struck first at Hamilton, exposing his adulterous affair with a Philadelphia housewife, which had made him the victim of a blackmailing husband. Next the resourceful Callender smeared another Jefferson foe, President John Adams, as "the corrupt and despotic monarch of Braintree," in a pamphlet which Jefferson helped subsidize.

    But when Jefferson himself reached the White House and rejected Callender's demands for a postmaster's job, the infuriated scribe subjected Jefferson to the same treatment he had meted out to the Virginian's foes. First Callender put out the word that Jefferson had subsidized his efforts against Hamilton, Adams, and other Federalist targets, Washington among them. Even more damaging was Callender's claim that Jefferson had fathered several children by one of his slaves, a young woman named Sally Hemings. The ensuing public controversy took an even uglier turn when Chief Justice John Marshall, a bitter Jefferson adversary, publicly praised Callender's journalism. That led a pro-Jefferson editor to warn the slave-owning Marshall that his appreciation of the Sally Hemings story should be tempered by the supposed fact that, as the editor not so subtly put it, "upon this point his character is not invulnerable."

    The political damage to Jefferson from this furor was limited because of the decrepititude of the Federalists, who were soon to expire as a political party. But the experience left its mark on the sage of Monticello, who personified the ambivalent attitude of the new nation's best and brightest toward the press. It was, after all, Jefferson who had famously said, "If it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

    But that was in 1787 when Jefferson was a private citizen. Some twenty years later, nearing the end of his second term in the White House, with the memory of the Sally Hemings affair still painfully fresh, Jefferson wrote that "the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed that he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors." To make things easier for readers, Jefferson proposed—presumably with tongue firmly in cheek—that newspapers be organized into four sections—truth, probabilities, possibilities, and lies—adding that he expected the first of these divisions to be disproportionately short.

    Despite Jefferson's misgivings, the growing popularity of the press had made the citizens of the nation he helped to found the largest newspaper-reading public in the world. And thanks in good measure to the efforts of Jefferson, his rivals, and his allies, the press had assumed the role it has continued to play over two centuries of American political history: a nettlesome but indispensable presence.

    In the 1790s newspaper circulation in the young nation doubled. By the early nineteenth century, politicians counted on journalists not only to report their speeches but first to improve them, transforming the rough notes of their delivered talks into a polished oration. The politicians and the journalists generally contrived to delay publication, making it less likely that an alert rival would note the discrepancy between the original utterance and the published version.

    To grease the system's wheels, a national political press flourished in the new capital. The thirty-four senators of the Eighth Congress, convening in 1801, had ninety-five subscriptions spread among twenty-three newspapers, most of them national newspapers such as the National Intelligencer, the leading Jeffersonian organ, and the Washington Federalist, the voice of that party. Only eleven of the senators bothered to order a newspaper from their home states.

    Yet newspapers proliferated around the country too. By the time Tocqueville made his memorable visit in 1831, Americans could choose from among seven hundred papers, including sixty-five dailies. By 1850 the number had increased to two thousand, of which two hundred were dailies. "The number of periodical and occasional publications which appear in the United States surpasses belief," Tocqueville marveled. He added that "the most enlightened Americans" believed that the number undermined the potential influence of the press, citing as "an axiom of political science" the theory "that the only way to neutralize the effect of public journalism is to multiply them indefinitely."

    Whatever the merits of that hypothesis, the rapid increase in towns and cities created a more direct and pragmatic spur to the spread of newspapers. The communities' governing bodies generated printing contracts that supported the local papers and generally bought the loyalty of their editors. The local ties between politicians and journalists were matched on the national level where, during the country's first half-century, most major papers verged on being subsidiaries of political parties, their bonds bolstered by patronage. Andrew Jackson, who forged the modern Democratic party, named nearly sixty journalists to high office. Old Hickory did not disguise his expectation that these scribes would repay his generosity by fending off the torrent of contumely unleashed by opposition journalists.

    Around the time of the Civil War, the press's overt partisanship began to recede. The creation of the Government Printing Office in 1861 took away the printing contracts that had helped to subsidize papers loyal to the incumbent administration. Lincoln, the first president elected by the new Republican party, ended the custom of chief executives maintaining a semi-official voice among the capital's press. And finally, but certainly not least, the penny press arrived on the journalistic scene. Sheets such as James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald and Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, by selling for a nickel less than the prevailing rate, gained mass circulations and enough advertising revenue to free themselves from dependence on partisan largesse.

    Still, the press continued to make its influence felt in politics, and Lincoln was not above catering to this strength. Convinced that the support of the Philadelphia Press for Stephen A. Douglas in the 1860 election widened a rift among Pennsylvania Democrats which had eased his path to the White House, the grateful president helped the paper's editor gain appointment as secretary of the Senate. For good measure Lincoln secured a Marine Corps commission for the editor's son.

    Lincoln's interest in cementing friendships in the press was understandable, for he had felt the sting of his journalistic foes. He blamed Republican losses in the 1862 elections in part on newspapers, which, "by vilifying and disparaging the administration," furnished the Democrats the weapons for victory. In the face of vicious press attacks throughout his presidency, Lincoln tried to take such abuse in stride. "I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice and have received a great deal of kindness, not quite free from ridicule," he wrote a friend who had expressed sympathy about a journalistic brickbat aimed at the chief executive. "I am used to it."

    As newspapers grew more independent and more important, presidents sought new ways to influence their coverage. Theodore Roosevelt blazed the trail. Grateful reporters noticed his sensitivity to their deadlines and the special interests of their readers. What the gentlemen of the press may not have noticed was how effectively this considerate chief executive used them to float trial balloons, a tactic TR invented to test the public reaction to his ambitious schemes for busting trusts at home and swinging a big stick abroad.

     Determined to control the public's perception of himself, the hero of San Juan Hill was happy to have reporters cover his hikes and hunting forays. But no photo was ever taken of this proponent of the strenuous life swinging a tennis racket, a pastime he thought too sissified. And he advised William Howard Taft, his successor, not to allow coverage of himself on the golf links, considered by Roosevelt also to appear insufficiently manly. In the 1920s the increase in mass-circulation newspapers and national magazines fostered the rise of a new profession, press agentry, whose practitioners found a fertile field in politics. Among their most enthusiastic early clients was Florence Harding, who helped Republicans win the presidency in 1920 by her vigorous promotion of herself and her husband Warren as "just folks." "I love the newspaper fraternity," the future First Lady confessed. "I'd tell them where to get a story and they'd get it and never mention me." The Hardings both had additional reason to be grateful for the discretion of political reporters, who never reported a word about the president's widespread womanizing.

     Franklin Roosevelt, like his distant cousin after whose career he modeled his own, brought with him to the White House a keen appreciation of newspaper clout. A bargain with the press had in fact opened his road to the presidency. This was not a deal with a humble scrivener but with one of the barons of the fourth estate, the publisher William Randolph Hearst. As the 1932 campaign approached, Hearst, though past his prime, still wielded plenty of power—his newspapers reached sixteen million readers in every large city across the land; his magazines sold thirty million copies—and he still dreamed imperial dreams. Convinced that thanks to the Great Depression the Democrats were bound to win the White House, isolationist Hearst determined to ensure that their candidate would not rekindle efforts to enlist the United States in Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations, which he detested.

    Hearst knew that Roosevelt, the early front-runner in the Democratic race, had ardently supported the League in the past, so the publisher ordered a barrage of editorials denouncing the New York governor as a hopeless internationalist. In Georgia, Roosevelt supporters sent word to the New York governor that Hearst had instructed his local staffers "to get up interviews against Roosevelt" with a particular eye on appealing to "the old Tom Watson element" in the party, whose hearts still beat in tune to the xenophobia of nineteenth-century Southern populism.

    Roosevelt tried to dispose of the problem quietly, dispatching an aide to assure the editor of Hearst's flagship paper in the East, the New York American, that the charges of internationalism against him were false. Hearst would have none of it. "If Mr. Roosevelt has any statement to make about his not now being an internationalist, he should make it to the public publicly, and not to me privately," he insisted in a page-one editorial.

    FDR soon caved and delivered a speech which, as critics pointed out, gave Hearst exactly what he wanted. Liberal commentator Elmer Davis called Roosevelt "a man who thinks that the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line but a corkscrew."

    Roosevelt could afford to put up with such criticism. His reversal on the League not only silenced Hearst but gained support for his candidacy for the nomination among Democrats in the South and West. They provided the base that prevented any other rival from seriously challenging him.

    As he took office and prepared to tackle the Great Depression, FDR had a threshold problem of his own which required a deft hand with the media—his paralysis. Before his inauguration his longtime political operative, Louis Howe, inspected the hallways and doorways of the White House with an eye for locations where the president in his wheelchair might be exposed to view by visitors and to photographs by the press. Howe's precautions helped ensure that most Americans had no more than a dim idea of the severity of the president's condition, that he actually spent most of his life in a wheelchair, that even with his braces he could not stand erect without support, and that even with assistance he could walk only a few yards. A complaisant press corps submitted to the White House ban on pictures of the president in a wheelchair, being lifted out of an auto, or being carried up stairs. When Roosevelt fell in the mud behind the speaker's platform at Philadelphia's Franklin Field as he was about to deliver his address accepting renomination in 1936, Secret Service agents and aides quickly surrounded him, shielding his sprawling figure from the 100,000 onlookers. Pool reporters knew about the incident but never reported it.

    In the same spirit that ignored Warren Harding's philandering, the press chose to look the other way when an old flame, Lucy Mercer, came back into Roosevelt's life. FDR's romance with Mercer, when he was Wilson's assistant secretary of the navy during World War I, nearly destroyed his marriage when Eleanor Roosevelt learned of the affair. But decades after the romance ended, the two began seeing each other again, without Eleanor's knowledge and without the press taking public notice. Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, as she was then known, was with FDR in Warm Springs, Georgia, when he died.

    FDR arrived in the White House just as radio was gaining political effect. During his four terms as president, most notably through his celebrated fireside chats, Roosevelt made radio a key medium for expounding his policies, in the process achieving unprecedented personal rapport with the citizenry, whom he invariably addressed as "my friends."

    After his resonant voice fell silent forever on April 12, 1945, many in the press had trouble mustering much respect for his plainspoken successor, Harry Truman. Reporters regarded the man from Missouri as drab and pedestrian. "To err is Truman," some wiseacres jeered. A bitter jest summed up the difference between the squire of Hyde Park and the son of the Middle Border: "For years we had the champion of the common man in the White House. Now we have the common man." Truman had to fend off criticism not only for alleged policy blunders, foreign and domestic, but even for minor notions that seized his fancy. When he proposed to build a new balcony on the White House, the New York Herald Tribune upbraided him "for meddling with a historic structure which the nation prefers as it is."

    The press corps's low estimate of Truman leadership ability was reinforced by the Democratic debacle in the first postwar congressional elections in 1946, which put Capitol Hill under Republican control for the first time since Herbert Hoover's election in 1928. Then, to make matters worse, as the presidential campaign approached, the Democratic party fell apart. On the left, Henry Wallace, FDR's erstwhile vice president, recruited liberals and blacks for his new Progressive party, while on the right, Southerners bolted the party and rallied behind Strom Thurmond, the candidate of the States' Rights party, more popularly known as the Dixiecrats. By the time the nominating conventions concluded and Truman faced the challenge of the GOP's formidable standard-bearer, New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, journalists of every leaning and experience regarded FDR's successor as a gone goose. "The cold facts are in many ways unjust to Harry Truman, but they cannot be removed by personal pluck," Ernest K. Lindley, Newsweek's Washington bureau chief wrote with an evident attempt at compassion shortly before the Democratic convention that summer. "The best service Truman could render his party right now is to step aside."

    The major pollsters who had correctly predicted the outcome of the two previous presidential elections since 1936 all forecast a Dewey victory. Two months before election day, Elmo Roper blandly announced that "my whole inclination is to predict the election of Thomas E. Dewey by a heavy margin and devote my time and effort to other things. Unless some major convulsion takes place in the next month and a half, Mr. Dewey is as good as elected."

    It was hard to find a dissenting opinion. Of American newspapers, 65 percent, representing nearly 80 percent of the nation's total circulation, supported Dewey, and their editors and correspondents were confident they were backing a winner. In its October 11 issue Newsweek published the results of a poll of fifty top political reporters, every one of whom predicted that Dewey would be the next president.

    So convinced were the reporters of the inevitability of Dewey's victory that they ignored the evidence of their own eyes: the large crowds that were gathering to hear Truman wherever he spoke, far outnumbering the audiences that Dewey attracted. Some mentioned this puzzling phenomenon in their stories, but most discounted the significance of Truman's audiences, concluding that they were drawn by the prestige of the office rather than what Truman stood for politically.

    Having nothing to lose, Truman seized the initiative. As he toured the country on his campaign train he attacked the Republicans furiously, from start to finish, giving rise to the shouts of "Give 'em hell, Harry" which became the battle cry of his candidacy. For his part Dewey, certain of victory, chose to ignore Truman, delivering speeches filled with smug generalizations and creating the impression that he was conducting not an election campaign but rather a triumphant goodwill tour.

    While Truman was whistle-stopping around the country, I was starting my sophomore year at Syracuse University, working on the student newspaper, the Daily Orange. Like nearly everyone else I was sure that Dewey would win. At dinner on election night, another student offered 20 to 1 odds if I would bet on Truman. I told him my parents had worked too hard to help me get through college for me to throw money away like that.

    Later that night I was at the Daily Orange offices when I heard the incredible returns that showed Truman actually leading Dewey. Since no one had thought beforehand that there would be any interest in an election story, I volunteered to write one at the last minute. Even as I listened to the vote come in on the radio, I could hardly believe what I was typing on my Royal portable: "According to late returns Tuesday President Harry S. Truman is threatening a stunning upset of pre-election predictions." It was the first election story I had ever written, and probably the most memorable.

    Truman's victory taught me and other journalists never to take any election for granted. But that was 1948. By 1968 that lesson had been all but forgotten by the media. It took the shocks of one of the most tumultuous years in American history to awaken our memories and remind us to test predictions against reality.

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Table of Contents

1 The Enablers 3
2 1968: "The Omnipotent Eye" 20
3 1972: "The Greatest Goddam Change" 45
4 1976: The Talent Scouts 69
5 1980: Hostage to Crisis 90
6 1984: "You Cover the News, We'll Stage It" 109
7 1988: Character Study 132
8 1992: Beat the Press 152
9 1994: Not the Russian Revolution 174
10 2000: Seduction on the Straight-talk Express 197
11 Ballots on Broadway 217
12 From Liebling's Law to Gresham's Law 246
Notes 278
Index 297
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2001

    Entertaining but biased

    It was great fun to read and relive the Presidential campaign days of 1968 to the present. However, the author slowly but surely preceives a Pro-Republican, Anti-Democratic bias in the media events surrounding these campaigns. Some explanations, such as why the media were ga-ga over John McCain are perhaps not what we want to hear, but plausible. But this man is obviously angry that George W. Bush won the 2000 election, and it shows. Not the sort of objectivity I had hoped for from a journalist supposedly stepping back and taking a critical look at his own profession.

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