The Fault of Candidates - and Press


This was the election year in which the public took a good, hard look at the emperor's new clothes and recoiled with disgust.

The electorate did not find the two major party candidates for president -- Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican incumbent George Bush -- standing naked before them. Folks should be so lucky.

Instead, they found the candidates dressed in suits of insincerity and half-truths, so carefully coiffured and spin-doctored that the real men seem totally disguised behind the candidate. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush were not found to be clothed so much as they were packaged.

With but nine days to go before the Nov. 3 general election, substantial portions of the public admit they would prefer to vote for neither man.

I'd feel sorry for Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush, I really would, because I am sure that they are decent men at heart. But they brought this distrust upon themselves by the way they chose to conduct their campaigns.

This also was the election year in which the public took a good, hard look at the role of the news media in election campaigns. And, the fact is, the public doesn't like us much either.

I wish I could engage in self-pity on behalf of myself and my colleagues because we mean well. We tend to think of ourselves as the very best and the very brightest, noble crusaders who embarked on this career in service of truth, justice and the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. We flatter ourselves that we serve as the eyes and ears of the people. We go to the places they can't go to ask the questions they can't always ask.

We are the watchdogs. Neither emperor nor contender dare play-act around us.

But the fact is, the public ranks our credibility right down there with the politicians we cover -- and we deserve it.

The issue -- such as it is -- of Bill Clinton's trip to Moscow during his student days illustrates why the media has earned the public's poor esteem.

Last month, two Republican congressmen announced before an empty House chamber that Mr. Clinton visited the Soviet Union six weeks after helping to organize student protests against the Vietnam War in London. Mr. Clinton, the congressmen hinted, may even have met a Soviet KGB agent during his trip. Shortly afterward, President Bush called upon his opponent to explain to the American people why he went to Moscow one year after the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, explain whom he met there and what was discussed, and generally to "level with the American people" about his past.

Mr. Bush's allegations by innuendo backfired in the public eye so thoroughly that the president quickly backed off.

But, by then, the press was in full cry. The State Department claims three different media organizations last month filed requests for information on Mr. Clinton's activity overseas under the Freedom of Information Act. Those requests apparently encouraged unknown State Department officials to expedite their file search so that any findings could be released before the Nov. 3 election. Officials now admit their actions were improper.

The allegation that the Bush administration may have tried to use the FOIA requests for political purposes is rapidly growing into a major scandal. Investigations have been launched. Official statements are being scrutinized.

But what about the media's role in all of this?

Three news agencies -- a television station and two newspapers -- filed a request for information relating to Mr. Clinton's passport file and other documents relating to his 1969 and 1970 stay abroad. What did they hope to find? That Mr. Clinton was a traitor to the United States? That the KGB had paid for his trip to Moscow or had given him instructions on how to organize the anti-war protests? Or were they engaged in a fishing campaign?

And if the State Department had released information from the Clinton file before the election, and if that information had revealed nothing to indicate that Mr. Clinton was guilty of high treason or dangerous liaisons, I wonder if my colleagues would have refrained from reporting whatever trivia they did find?

The sad truth is, this campaign has exposed my colleagues' weakness for gossip. We are easily manipulated and all too ready to be distracted from the demanding task of covering what Ross Perot calls the "real issues of concern to the American people."

We have allowed the candidates to pull us right down in the muck with them, and we have only ourselves to blame.

Wiley Hall is a columnist for The Evening Sun.

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