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Over the Wire and on TV

Over the Wire and on TV: CBS and UPI in Campaign '80

Michael J. Robinson
Margaret A. Sheehan
Copyright Date: 1983
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 352
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    Over the Wire and on TV
    Book Description:

    First the press became the media, and now the media have become the Imperial Media-or have they? In this timely and comprehensive analysis, Michael Robinson and Margaret Sheehan examine how the news media behaved (or misbehaved) in covering the 1980 presidential campaign.

    Using the media's own traditional standards as a guide, Robinson and Sheehan measure the level of objectivity, fairness, seriousness, and criticism displayed by CBS News and United Press International between January and December of 1980. Drawing on statistical analyses of almost 6,000 news stories and dozens of interviews with writers and reporters, the authors reach convincing and sometimes surprising conclusions. They demonstrate, for example, that both CBS and UPI strictly avoided subjective assessments of the candidates and their positions on the issues. Both gave the major parties remarkably equal access. But the media seem to give more negative coverage to front-runners, treating serious challengers less harshly. Perhaps the most surprising finding is that networks were not more superficial than print; CBS attended to the issues at least as often as UPI.

    Robinson and Sheehan find television coverage more subjective, more volatile, and substantially more negative than traditional print. But CBS behaved neither imperially nor irresponsibly in Campaign '80. The networks did, however, emulate the more highly charged journalism of the eastern elite print press.

    By blending the quantitative techniques of social science and the tools of Washington-based journalism, Robinson and Sheehan have produced a book that will be essential reading for students and practitioners of politics, public opinion research, journalism, and communications. Lively and readable, it should also appeal to anyone interested in the role of the news media in contemporary politics.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-475-0
    Subjects: Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Part I: Introduction

    • Chapter 1 Carter’s Day—“He’d Rather Not Have Been in Philadelphia”
      (pp. 3-9)

      ON September 3, 1980, Jimmy Carter took his campaign to Philadelphia. As usual, the national press went along for the ride. To cover Carter, CBS sent White House correspondent Lesley Stahl and United Press International sent Helen Thomas, UPI’s chief White House reporter since 1974.

      These women are not cub reporters; between them Stahl and Thomas have been covering Washington politics for over thirty years. But seasoned though they are, these reporters work for their news organization, not on their own. Although both write under a byline, each represents a news source, if not a news medium.

      It was Stahl...

    • Chapter 2 Press Watching in Campaign ’80: Haws and Whys
      (pp. 10-30)

      WE started this study with two goals in mind. The first was to do a public service, to evaluate the performance of the national press during Campaign ’80. We planned to carry out a twelve-month “press-watch,” and to assess the performance of some representative segments of the press, using journalism’s own criteria to measure its success or failure. Our second goal was to test what we regard as a major issue concerning national campaign press: the notion that print and electronic media differ measurably and meaningfully in the way they cover politics and campaigns.

      Given these two goals, this almost...

  6. Part II: Findings

    • Chapter 3 Objectivity: Most Objections Overruled
      (pp. 33-65)

      IN January of 1977, the Woodrow Wilson Center conducted an evening dialogue at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The seminar concerned “TV News and the 1976 Election.” NBC sent as representative Roan Conrad, then the political editor for NBC News. Conrad, showing visible signs of frustration with the discussion papers, most of which were critical of network news decisions in Campaign ’76, stunned a room full of reporters and academics by announcing that “network television news … is really not in the business of making assessments. We shy away from them.”¹

      No assessments in network coverage of campaigns? In a...

    • Chapter 4 Access: Equal Time for Equal Actors
      (pp. 66-90)

      DESPITE impressions to the contrary, the federal government does not mandate equal time or equal access to America’s news media. Even the provisions that allegedly provide for equal access for political candidates involve much less than meets the eye. Newspapers, in fact all print sources, have no legal obligation whatever to furnish any access to any candidate, whether access be defined in terms of news coverage or in advertising space. The Supreme Court has specifically exempted newspapers from any such regulation or policy.¹

      Only broadcasters fall inside the legal net of the Fairness Doctrine or the “equal time” provision. But...

    • Chapter 5 Fairness: Network Fear of Flacking
      (pp. 91-139)

      AS the length of this chapter implies, fairness may be the most important press value of all. In its most recent formal statement concerning press ethics, The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) listed but six fundamental values of journalism, and two of them specifically deal in notions of fairness in content—“Impartiality” and “Fair Play.”¹

      Fairness in content is so important it is the only single news value which the federal government chooses to enforce, or at least to regulate. Broadcasters are not required to grant access to candidates at the state or local levels, only to candidates for...

    • Chapter 6 Seriousness: More is Less
      (pp. 140-166)

      FORTY years ago in the movieHis Girl Friday, Cary Grant played the part of a devilish but lovable newspaper editor named Walter Burns, a man out to save his failing newspaper and his failed marriage. Rosalind Russell played Hildy Johnson, Burns’s estranged wife and the newspaper’s in-house feminist reporter. By accident, Burns and Johnson scoop every other newspaper in town by discovering the whereabouts of an innocent man who has been condemned to die for a murder he had not committed.

      It sounds serious, but it was really late 1930s comedy, based on the original Broadway hitThe Front...

    • Chapter 7 Comprehensiveness: “Losing” the Vice-Presidency and the Congress
      (pp. 167-181)

      A comprehensive press covers more than presidential elections. There are other political maps besides the electoral college score board. But how comprehensive were the networks and wires in Campaign ’80? How broad was their scope? Not surprisingly, coverage of every level of politics other than the presidency was in a very limited supply. In its rush to cover every blunder and event in the Presidential contest, the press virtually lost sight of all the other campaigns.

      It has been five decades since John Nance Garner said the vice-presidency wasn’t worth a bucket of warm spit. If media coverage is any...

    • Chapter 8 Covering the “Official” Presidency: “Prime-Time” Minister
      (pp. 182-204)

      In 1973, the Twentieth Century Fund concluded that because of public affairs television, “the President enjoys an overwhelming communications advantage over the opposition party and Congress.”¹ Not so overwhelming, apparently. Since 1973, the opposition party has removed three incumbents from office, Congress has rallied and become an increasingly important branch in national policy making, and, unlike presidential incumbents, nearly 90 percent of the congressional incumbents who have sought reelection have somehow managed to find it.

      The Twentieth Century Fund was right about one thing, however. Even if we ignore all campaign news, neither Congress nor the loyal opposition gets anywhere...

  7. Part III: Conclusions and Implications

    • Chapter 9 Old News, New Media: Hard-Core Comparisons
      (pp. 207-216)

      FOR the last several chapters, we have been dealing with the differences between traditional print and network journalism, and looking at the entire array of stories in each. But that technique has to this point combined hard news, soft news, features, exposés, and commentary. In order to reach a clear set of conclusions concerning print and television we now reduce wires and networks to their very least common denominator: sentences and words in hard news reporting.

      Getting down to the “hard-core” campaign news proves again three important similarities between traditional print and network TV: (1) that the wires and networks...

    • Chapter 10 Explaining the Differences: Four Theories of Press Behavior
      (pp. 217-239)

      HAVING compiled a list of observed differences between traditional print and network journalism, we asked people who reported and edited those stories whether they felt our findings were valid. Almost everybody at UPI and CBS said yes. In fact many reporters expressed some surprise we would spend so much time proving what they thought to be obvious, that the wires inevitably report fact and the networks inherently convey messages. But about the inevitability, the inherency, and the obviousness of all this, we disagree.

      As for the inevitability, it is worth recalling that it was not always the case that networks...

    • Chapter 11 Implications for Candidates and the Press: Coping with Each Other
      (pp. 240-255)

      SO far, our primary mission has been academic, not practical. But before turning to the major theoretical question of what all this means to the public, we feel a need to say something about what it all means to prospective candidates. Given all these “truths” about campaign press, what ought a politician do about the national press in campaigning for president? With Campaign ’80 as model, we have half a dozen suggestions about coping with press, networks particularly, when conducting a national campaign or even running a national administration.

      Film may not tyrannize network correspondents as much as it once...

    • Chapter 12 Implications for Us All: Are We What We Eat?
      (pp. 256-290)

      JUST after Ronald Reagan became president, part of the Media Analysis Project went to Europe. The plan entailed experiencing American politics without access to American media—no wires, no networks, no Eastern Establishment press. Our only American news outlet, day-to-day, was theInternational Herald Tribune.

      TheInternational Heraldis a dozen page daily, owned in part by theNew York Timesand theWashington Post. Although theTimesandPostcontribute articles, theHeraldhas its own staff and is printed in Europe. Despite the fact that its readership is primarily American, theHeraldisnotan American newspaper: the...

    • Chapter 13 Reprise: Reviewing the Day’s Top Stories
      (pp. 291-305)

      BOOKS ought not to follow the format of the inverted pyramid. Books merit a wrapup, a clean set of conclusions. We come at last to half a dozen such conclusions. As one might expect, there is good news and bad news about the news. First the bad news.

      American media work hard at being honest, being factual, being objective. But we found that the press did a much better job of being objective than at reaching “truth,” when “truth” is defined hypothetically as a valid representation of a larger reality. Different as they may be, both CBS and UPI came...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 306-322)
  9. Index
    (pp. 323-332)