Public Should Trust The Politicians And Not The Press

Posted: December 20, 1993

SYRACUSE — In his interview with Rolling Stone, Bill Clinton exploded at the claim that he had not honored his commitments.

"I have fought more damn battles here for more things than any president in 20 years with the possible exception of Reagan's first budget and not gotten one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press. I am damn sick and tired of it."

To the press, the outburst was the self-indulgent grousing of a thin- skinned politician. But Clinton was right that the press has been overly negative. His presidency has been dogged from the start by hypercritical coverage.

More than 60 percent of comments by nonpartisan sources have been unfavorable, according to a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. And this reflects a long-term trend.

My own study of news reporting from 1960 to 1990 confirms that the portrayal of politicians has grown more and more negative.

In the 1960s, less than a third of the media's evaluative references to political leaders were unfavorable. In the 1980s, nearly two-thirds were. Although Watergate and Vietnam are viewed as the high point in critical coverage of our leaders, they merely marked the beginning of a steady rise in negative news.

Some criticism is richly deserved, but much is not. Take the press' allegation that Clinton has not kept his campaign promises. A few commitments have indeed fallen by the wayside, including his pledge to allow homosexuals into the military.

But Clinton has fulfilled many commitments: a tax increase on higher incomes, an end to the ban on abortion counseling in family-planning clinics, a health-care reform initiative, a family-leave program, banking reform, the North American Free Trade Agreement, a college-loan program, the Brady bill, a youth training program.

Contrary to what journalists say, politicians tend to keep their promises. Exhaustive studies have reached the same conclusion: victorious presidential candidates try to fulfill nearly all of their campaign promises and fulfill most of them.

In Times Mirror polls at the end of 1988 and 1992 campaigns, the public gave the media the lowest rating of any source - below that of the candidates, talk shows, debates, and even televised ads and political consultants. Rather than dismissing Clinton's complaint, the press should take a closer look at what it has become: a negative force that is losing the confidence of the public it seeks to serve.

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