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TV networks give away the store to Ross Perot


WASHINGTON -- Let us suppose, for example, that George Bush decided he wanted to appear on NBC, CBS, the Phil Donahue show, CNN and PBS all within three days for the sole purpose of trashing President Clinton. Would the networks go for it? Not a chance.

But that schedule is precisely the one Ross Perot has been following this week -- to be augmented with a paid half-hour commercial on NBC tomorrow night.

When it comes to the billionaire from Texas, the television networks simply roll over.

The rationale for all this is, of course, that Perot is "newsworthy" because less than seven months ago he ran up 19 percent of the presidential vote as a third-party candidate and obviously has a following.

No one would question Perot's celebrity. But is it "newsworthy" when the news is always the same -- Perot bashing Clinton, promising to clean out the barn, insisting he is just a creature of his "volunteers," ducking the specifics about what he would do differently? At what point, it is reasonable to ask, does that become "oldsworthy?"

Moreover, Perot is clearly embarked on this television talkathon because he intends to run for president again in 1996, despite all his folksy disclaimers. So he is using the exposure he is being given to soften up Clinton just as he used the same kind of exposure to soften up Bush a year or so ago. But what would be the response from the networks if some other potential candidate -- Jack Kemp, for instance -- wanted instant and repeated access to the airwaves? That would be too partisan, they would say.

The performance of television in dealing with Perot is all the more baffling because the medium has become so much more sophisticated in dealing with politics over the past few years.

Those of us who work for newspapers have come to recognize and accept, if grudgingly, that television has the power to define the political agenda and that it does so wisely most of the time. Indeed, in many cases these days, newspapers find themselves following the course charted by television.

But not in the case of Ross Perot. The difference here is that newspapers concentrate on the details, the fine print, what he said now and what he said last year, whether his claims check out or not, whether the assertion that Republican "dirty tricks" really were responsible for Perot's problems last year was true or paranoia.

Perot himself recognized the difference during the 1992 campaign. He boasted to his advisers about his ability to get on television any time he wanted to appear and often scheduled appearances without even informing his campaign staff. It was a piece of cake. You sit down in front of the cameras, spin off a few colorful lines about looking under the hood, and everybody's happy.

By contrast, the newspapers are always nitpicking. What, for example, was the evidence that the Republicans were planning to interfere with the wedding of Perot's daughter? And what would be the logic of doing so?

Perot often complained privately to his associates that the newspapers were "out to get" him and that he wouldn't deal with them. Pressed at news conferences to back up his assertions, he frequently grew testy with reporters.

Indeed, shortly before his withdrawal from the campaign in July, Perot went into a rage about newspaper coverage of his appearance before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- the one where he talked about "you people" and told little stories about how his father looked after blacks in Texarkana. That newspaper coverage, he complained, was "the last straw" -- and a few days later he was out of the campaign, at least temporarily.

There's no secret about why Perot gets such special treatment on television. Because he has such a huge fortune, the television producers believe -- probably correctly -- that he will be a factor in the presidential campaign of 1996 just as he was in 1992, when he spent more on television advertising during the general election than either of the two major party candidates, who were using public funds and abiding by spending limits.

But his potential as a candidate is not a reason to allow him essentially unlimited access to the cameras these days. At some point, the same old story doesn't qualify as news.

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