Do Members of the Press Try to Set the Policy Agenda?
Lee Hamilton, former congressman from Indiana: “I am impressed about how many people in the media in Washington, D.C. really are not much interested in doing what I at least would consider the basics of journalism, which is to ask questions, to explain, to examine, and to describe. What many are interested in being is a player in the policy game. In other words, they really want to impact policy a lot more than they want to pursue the business of journalism…. It just seems to me today that the news people have become the celebrities in many ways. They want to be policy players.”
A little while later, when the discussion turned to how local press covers campaigns, Hamilton described what he regards as its primary role.
Lee Hamilton: “The local press has a real obligation to try to make clear first of all what they think are the major issues in that area, not what the candidate thinks but what the press thinks are the major issues. And one of the responsibilities of the press, it seems to me, is to listen in their community, to their readers, so that they make the analysis of what the issues are.
“Candidates believe they know what the issues are. But the candidate’s view of what the issues are is usually very strongly colored by the candidate’s own political biases or views. So the local press has the obligation to try to understand the whole candidate, both the incumbent and the opponent, and to present that to the constituency of the media as clearly and precisely as they can. I think that’s best achieved through very extensive interviewing with the two candidates. I apply that both to television and to the written press and to the extent that they do not do that, then they’re falling down on their responsibility, regardless of what the bottom line is. There is a responsibility that the press has, that the media has, to the public and to the public good. And that responsibility runs far beyond the bottom line and the profit and loss. That responsibility is a key part of representative democracy. It is to make clear to the people what the choices are in a political contest. And a representative democracy doesn’t function very well unless the people know the fundamental facts about their candidates….
“I have my own sense of priorities in my congressional district as to what I think is important. I don’t think the media should accept that sense of priorities. I think it’s your job to push and to probe and to ask me a lot of tough questions, whether I’ve been in office one term or 15 terms. You have a responsibility to press the candidate. Don’t let the candidate control you. Don’t let the candidate spin. You should analyze what the problems are in the district and ask that candidate about them and press him very hard, whether he’s been there a short time or not.”
Gwen Ifill, senior correspondent, “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” and Moderator of “Washington Week in Review”: “But how much of that is the press setting policy?”
Lee Hamilton: “You’re asking questions that you think are important. The candidate is responding to your questions. In a sense the press is setting the agenda. But I’m saying I think that’s an appropriate role for the press and not to accept the agenda as put forward by the candidate. I don’t look upon that as determining policy, however. I think that’s a difference.”
During the question and answer session, Tom Rosenstiel, Director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, asked panel members to comment on the expertise members of the press bring to the role of being an agenda setter.
Tom Rosenstiel: “If the press is becoming more interpretive, in the sense that reporters are not just writing ‘he said yesterday’ stories and, as Congressman Hamilton suggests, the press is thereby, in part, setting the agenda with the kinds of questions it asks and the kind of stories it writes, what qualifications does the press have to set the agenda? What expertise? On what basis other than where we are and what we do? What real expertise do we have? And the second part of the question is, how do we establish or how should we establish those expertise and qualifications for the public? Or do they just take them on face value because we are members of the press?”
Lee Hamilton: “With regard to setting the agenda, what qualifications do you have for it? Again my experience is local. But as I went into town after town in Indiana there wasn’t any person in the community better positioned to know what was going on in that entire community than the media. If they don’t know the problems of the community, I don’t know who would. They have a remarkable perspective on what is happening in a community. Now, as the media become more nationwide it becomes a little more difficult. But it seems to me that the responsibility stays the same.
“Likewise, I would think a press person, to be true to the best in journalism, has an objectivity, an independence, that a candidate would not have. So I think your qualifications in setting the agenda are, number one, familiarity with and knowledge of the community and its problems, and number two, a certain objectivity and independence which I would hope you would have.”
Geneva Overholser, columnist, Washington Post Writers Group: “I’m a little bit confused in this discussion we’ve been having about the difference between setting the agenda and making public policy. Obviously they are two different things. And I’m not sure that, Tom, in your question you meant that we present ourselves as being capable of setting public policy. Or are you saying that if in fact what we’re doing is affecting the agenda, what gives us the right to do that? I guess I would answer partly that when we are helping set the agenda because we understand what is on the public’s mind or in our communities and we know what the community problems are, then that is appropriate. We can let readers know that we feel we’ve done our homework in doing this. And assure them perhaps of our skills in reaching those conclusions.
“But when we’re setting an agenda by what, I think, Gwen Ifill was appropriately calling this soap opera journalism we do—meaning the agenda right now for us is whether George W. Bush snorted coke—then we’re setting an agenda that isn’t based on expertise. It’s based on what we perceive to be the thing that needs to be ferreted out because somebody is hiding it. But I think that’s where we go awry. The public is far less intrigued when we do this sort of terrier-holding-on-to-the-piece-of-meat number. I think this is one place where we go astray.”
Tom Rosenstiel posed another question about whether the press has any responsibility for trying to keep the political playing field level.
Tom Rosenstiel: “This year a lot of people have talked about the return of the smoke-filled room, that the parties, particularly perhaps the Republican Party, has tried to preset the election before voters have had a chance to be involved. To some degree some have argued that the press has been complicit in this by covering the internal workings of the campaign more. I guess the question is, to what extent should the press feel an obligation to involve voters, to engage voters, to increase participation? To what extent should we be keeping the playing field level for all of the candidates until the primaries are underway? Is that an obligation that we have? Is that part of our responsibility?”
David Broder, columnist, The Washington Post: “For better or worse we have to try to deal with reality. Alan Keyes is not George W. Bush. There’s just no way to pretend that those are on a par. Doesn’t mean you don’t cover what Alan Keyes does or says, but it would be ridiculous to try to say that the press is going to serve as the equalizer among candidates. There is no screen for anybody to get through to become a presidential candidate. All you’ve got to do is say, ‘I’m a presidential candidate.’ And we’d be damn fools if we treated them all as if they were the same person.”
Tom Rosenstiel: “I think that to the extent that we, especially early on, focus our stories around things such as fundraising, strategy, horse race, those play to the strengths of the front-runner. And they reinforce the weaknesses of the laggards. If you were to cover how people make decisions, their record, the kind of staff people they have around them, that’s an area in which everybody is equal. Everybody has those things. And I’m not sure what the answer is. I myself don’t know what the answer to my first question is. But I think that we do make choices here in our coverage. To the extent that we cover things that accentuate who’s ahead by their nature, while we can’t ignore those things, we may increase the public anger towards the press because we’re shutting them out, we’re not writing to them.”
Susan Page, White House Bureau Chief, USA Today: “One thing that sort of relates to the question you raise is, after each presidential election I realize all the very stupid mistakes I made during the previous one. At the end of the 1992 election one of the mistakes I felt I had made was not paying enough attention to candidates who I thought didn’t have a chance to win. And it was true they didn’t have a chance to win but they had a lot to do about shaping the debate. Paul Tsongas. I didn’t think he really had a chance, and I didn’t pay too much attention to him. But his voice had a big impact on the conversation that the candidates who did have a chance to win had. The same was true with Ross Perot. The degree to which the subject of the conversation is covered as opposed to the horse race gives candidates who are not leading in fundraising or leading in the polls a better chance to have their voices heard and to be treated in a serious and appropriate way.”