The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists and the Stories That Shape the Political WorldKathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman
Oxford University Press. 240 Pages. $26.
Is it possible, ask Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman, for truth to exist in journalism?

President Bush’s telegenic landing in a four-seat S-3B Viking fighter jet on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln for his May 1st nationally televised speech provided ample opportunity for the news media to be tested. And just like the many examples used in Jamieson and Waldman’s book, “The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists and the Stories That Shape the Political World,” most news organizations fell short.

Prior to the event, Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, told reporters the carrier would be hundreds of miles off shore. When Bush landed, the carrier was waiting for the President about 30 to 40 miles away from San Diego—a short helicopter’s flight distance to land. Initially, Fleischer said use of a helicopter—a much safer way to get to the carrier—was impossible because of the distance. After the event, Fleischer acknowledged that Bush “could have helecoptered, but the plan was already in place.”

The news media reports made much of how Bush’s dress—in a fighter pilot flight suit—gave him the appearance of a “Top Gun” character. And the live TV visuals of the flyover, landing and the President’s walk across the carrier’s deck remind us of the power of images to trump whatever words might follow. It has become a maxim among political image-makers that voters remember pictures, not words.

Immediately following Bush’s flight and speech, there was little independent reporting on the appropriateness of the event and the way the nation’s military service was used in a publicity spot. The few stories about this were premised mostly on partisan Democrat questioning of the cost of the trip and whether it was political in nature.

Unasked Questions

Ten days after the USS Abraham Lincoln event, Richard H. Kohn, a nationally recognized expert in presidential war leadership and civil-military relations, said no reporters called to ask him about the event. No reporters called to ask about any implications the event might have on military-civilian relations or the traditional separation between the uniformed military service and the civilian commander in chief.

Kohn heads the University of North Carolina Department of History’s curriculum in Peace, War and Defense. He was chief of U.S. Air Force History for the Air Force from 1981 to 1991. He’s said that there are some questions worth raising—and having answered—about the event:

  • Was Bush’s trip an appropriate use of a military facility—both in the context of public policy and the historic role of the President and use of the office?
  • Just how dangerous was the made-for-TV fighter-jet arrival?
  • What did the Secret Service think of it?
  • Was it necessary for Bush to wear a flight suit?
  • What is the history and custom of Presidents, while in office, dressing in military gear?
  • To what extent did the President’s event delay the arrival home of the war-weary crew of the USS Abraham Lincoln (that had set a record of 10 months at sea)?

Then there are the questions of the news media’s reaction to the aircraft carrier event and how it contrasts with coverage of Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis’s 1988 ride in a tank or with reports (later found to be inaccurate) that President Clinton delayed air traffic at the busy Los Angeles International Airport while getting a haircut aboard Air Force One.

A review of the coverage of Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln would have, no doubt, left Jamieson and Waldman wondering if their book had even been noticed. With the exception of a brief Associated Press report two days after the speech, nearly all of the coverage that raised questions about the event’s staging came from clearly partisan pundits and columnists.

Informed, Aggressive Skeptics

University of Pennsylvania communications and journalism professors Jamieson and Waldman say the press need to take a stronger and more affirmative role. “The proposal we offer is a simple one,” write Jamieson and Waldman. “Reporters should help the public make sense of competing political arguments by defining terms, filling in needed information, assessing the accuracy of the evidence being offered.” They call on reporters to be, as New Yorker editor, David Remnick, says, “informed aggressive skeptics.”

The authors rehash a series of case studies of press missteps and failings:

  • The reporting in 1988 on Dukakis’s law-and-order record, as it was portrayed by the “Willie Horton” TV advertisement, and George H.W. Bush’s inflation of Horton’s crimes went largely unchallenged by the news media.
  • Coverage of the claims of technological success in the first Gulf War far outweighed later revelations about the actual facts.
  • Examinations of presidential candidates character (they call it “the press as amateur psychologist”) fall short or they stray from assessing potential governing behavior.
  • A look at how the press has covered Bush during and since the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City and Washington. They challenge the oft-repeated notion that the President had been “transformed” and say the press were simply put “at bay” and even took what had previously been considered his lack of eloquence and transformed it into emerging grace.

These case studies demonstrate how reporters often seem mesmerized by politicians’ and consultants’ tactics and spin. One wonders, though, in examining press coverage in this way, whether they are unwittingly giving too much attention to tactics over substance.

The two authors conclude with their list of recommendations to the press when politics is part of the story:

  • Use a “reasonable person” standard to define accuracy of claims and define in easy-to-understand language the shorthand of political rhetoric for readers.
  • Press candidates and campaigners to acknowledge easy to understand ways of discussing their differences and clearly understandable standards of accessing the truth and accuracy of a campaign’s claims and charges.
  • Explain, don’t assume.
  • Assess whether examples cited by candidates are typical or exceptional.
  • Fit the story to the facts, not the facts to the story.
  • Tie facts to the larger context and be skeptical about the frames of references being offered by candidates and campaigners.

Neither the examples examined nor the advice being offered by Jamieson and Waldman are all that original. Still, the authors can be credited with taking the time to thoughtfully remind the news media, again, of what they know they should do and recommend reasonable steps they can take to become more responsible and helpful to citizens who seek to be more engaged in American civic life.

Seth Effron, a 1992 Nieman Fellow, is special projects director at the Nieman Foundation and covered state and regional politics in North Carolina for 18 years.

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