Anchors enjoy their roles in '92 campaign


CBS's Harry Smith laughs with pleasure when he talks about television's new role in the 1992 presidential campaign.

"It's one of those times when I can't believe I've got this job," Mr. Smith said the day after he and "CBS This Morning" co-anchor Paula Zahn spent an hour with George Bush in the White House Rose Garden. "This is all new territory and it has almost happened by default. And it's great."

ABC's Peter Jennings agrees.

When he interviewed Ross Perot for almost two hours last week, about 9 million households tuned in. That's more than two times as many as Clinton's "Today" interview drew last week, and more than three times as many as President Bush attracted to "CBS This Morning."

Even more surprising, most viewers stuck with the Perot/Jennings program until 1:20 a.m., when it finally ended.

"Some guy told someone here that he hadn't stayed up so late since 1952 -- and that was his wedding night," Mr. Jennings said.

For television's news anchors, the biggest surprise in the election of 1992 might be their own prominent role in it.

Never before have TV anchors sat with presidential candidates for hours in front of live cameras, playing intermediary as the public asks questions.

Never before have the anchors walked the delicate line between genial host and probing journalist so often, and under the scrutiny of so many people.

With the election still four months away, Mr. Smith already has done long-form interviews with President Bush and Gov. Clinton, and Mr. Jennings has done the late-night session with Mr. Perot. Anchors for "Today" and other talk and news shows have also interviewed the candidates live for long periods of time.

Some critics complain that the TV anchors haven't been tough enough in the long-form interviews.

Mr. Jennings and Mr. Smith counter by saying they don't want to monopolize programs that are meant to be a conduit between the candidates and the public.

When Mr. Jennings interviewed Mr. Perot, for instance, he decided not to spend much time challenging the statements Mr. Perot made in rebuttal to the one-hour documentary on Mr. Perot that preceded the talk session.

"His rebuttal was not completely accurate," said Mr. Jennings, even though he didn't debate Mr. Perot's details.

"In a program like this to a large extent I feel more like a facilitator. Had I sat down and done a straight hour and a half with Perot, it would have come out different, I think."

Mr. Jennings shared the Perot interview with a live studio audience, plus audiences brought in by satellite from other cities.

Mr. Smith and Ms. Zahn shared their Bush interview with 130 people plucked from the White House visitors' line.

Smith thinks TV viewers watch these programs hoping to get a sense of who the candidates are, not to see a confrontation between anchor and politician.

"This is a different kind of coverage and a different context," he said. "The program isn't about me. It's not about, 'Look at me fight the president,' or 'Watch how I can get in their faces.'

"We can say what we think or how we felt or make our own personal evaluations. But in this whole new atmosphere -- in this brave new world of candidate appearances -- I think there's a lot of other stuff going on."

Both Mr. Smith and Mr. Jennings agree that TV's glut of candidate interviews is good not just for the TV networks, whose ratings usually jump when the candidates visit, but for everyone.

Mr. Jennings thinks the public's questions, backed up by some prodding from the TV moderators, often focus more directly on the main issues than the questions asked by the traditional press corps.

Mr. Smith also believes that television's mingling of the candidates with the people may even help translate voter anger into voter action.

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