Forum examines tie between media, politics

by Michael Fibison

Members of the media have become entirely too close to the politicians they are supposed to be covering, a former U.S. congressman said Wednesday.
“The first dilemma at the national level is the incestuous nature of politics,” said Tim Penny, a Democrat who represented Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District from 1983 to 1994. Penny resigned after becoming disenchanted with the Washington political power structure.
Penny, now a fellow at the University’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, was one of four panelists to address a group of media professionals, academics and some of the state’s top political leaders. His remarks came during the annual Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law Forum, titled “Getting the Story and Getting it Right: The Ethics of Political Reporting,” on Wednesday at the University Club in St. Paul.
He cited the example of syndicated conservative columnist George Will, who came to Sen. Bob Dole’s defense after the Kansan was roundly criticized for his flaccid rebuttal to President Clinton’s State of the Union Address.
Will’s wife, a Dole campaign insider, probably wrote the speech, Penny argued, and that fact made few media accounts.
“All in all, the relationships on Capitol Hill are too cozy,” he said.
Penny also lambasted the pack mentality of journalists, the use of poll results as news, reporters’ refusals to disclose how much they make on speakers’ fees and the horse-race reporting that leaves little room for coverage of the issues.
In addition, media organizations are increasingly making deals in return for access to political candidates, begging the question of the impact on coverage and whether the public should know about such secret deals, said panelist D.J. Leary, who edits a political newsletter.
Another panelist, state Senate Minority Leader Dean Johnson, R-Willmar, voiced concern about the lack of substance in this year’s political coverage.
“In 1996 politics, character has become more important,” he said.
Moreover, political analysts cite negative campaigning as one reason for Dole’s ailing popularity, but as the national political race steams ahead, the panelists agreed that attack ads and heightened media scrutiny will dominate public discourse.
Professor William Babcock, moderator of the panel discussion, recently returned with a group of University students from the Iowa caucuses, where they covered the race for various newspapers across the country. He said students saw candidate rallies where media professionals comprised 50 percent or more of the audience.
“Iowans retreated to their TVs to see what was going on outside their windows, and what did they see? They saw spiteful and demeaning ads leading a tidal wave of negativity,” Babcock said.