There may be an insidious media bias at work this election year, but it isn't
the publishers tilting Republican or the networks showing an Eastern Establishment slant for the Democrats. No, it's an anti-ideological prejudice in favor of a close election.Close elections make better stories. Close elections make it seem as if the American Democracy is in some kind of wonderful balance.
Close elections are fun to cover. Close elections give journalists and politicians something to talk about over drinks after work.
Journalists - like gardeners, accountants and electrical contractors - tend to pursue their own best interests. If there is a close race, they'll work to keep it that way. But if one candidate moves way ahead of another, journalism often triggers mysterious forces that test a front-runner's mettle or encourage the underdog's heroic comeback effort.
In races like those for Pennsylvania or Tennessee Senate seats, there is little anyone can do to boost the fortunes of anonymous and underfinanced challengers against popular incumbents like John Heinz III and James Sasser.
In races for the House of Representatives, where 90-odd percent of the 435 seats will be won by incumbents, journalism can't even provide a finger for the dike.
But the presidential campaign is another matter altogether, and the bias for a close race has been a factor in the titanic struggle of George Bush and Michael Dukakis.
Bush leads the race and the bias for a close election is benefiting Dukakis. Bush would complain, except that he's benefited from the same process and might need to again - say next weekend, for example. Also, Bush would not like to anger the other constituency, aside from journalists, who welcome a close race - voters.
From a voter's perspective:
-Close elections make for humble and responsive public officials.
-Close elections make it seem as if the American Democracy is in some kind of wonderful balance.
-Close elections are fun to watch on TV. The ads become especially entertaining, even if the debates tend to wax insufferable.
-Close elections make it seem as if every voter counts, even those on the West Coast.
Journalists can do lots of little things to make close elections possible, assuming that the underdog is not morally repugnant, intellectually comatose or too bankrupt to mount a respectable challenge.
How journalists do it:
- Raise new and sharply tougher questions about the front-runner. This happened to Bob Dole during his brief stay atop the GOP primary race. He won Iowa and sought a New Hampshire knockout of George Bush. But Bush waged a great comeback campaign, his forces fanning reporters' questions about the operation of Mrs. Dole's trust fund. (It didn't hurt that Bush allies controlled the New Hampshire GOP and he began primary week with a big lead).
- Raise the underdog's visibility. This is happening now with Dukakis, who is deluged with TV invitations and is using the platform to explain his values to voters who are just now tuning into the election process.
- Write encouraging things about the dauntless, dignified, suddenly impassioned comeback kid. Dust off the 1948 Truman stories, explain how the Electoral College math provides a glimmer of hope for an Election Day "miracle." Suggest that Democrats may yet "come home" to the party of Roosevelt and Kennedy.
Americans love the candidate who battles from behind. Since Dole disappeared in February, the presidential race has looked like this: Dukakis emerged in New Hampshire and led Bush just before Super Tuesday in March; then Bush swept 18 states and led Dukakis for several months; then Dukakis put away Jesse Jackson in a succession of springtime primaries and led Bush until the Republican convention. Then, from 10 to 17 points down, Bush began his latest surge.
This is exactly the sort of campaign that journalists like to encourage, except that Bush went too far, built a big lead in October, forcing voters to pray that the race will tighten one last time.