Gop's `Coaches' Work The Media `Refs'

WITH so many Republicans moonlighting as media critics these days, we'll be hearing a lot about journalistic bias against George Bush and Dan Quayle between now and November.

Sen. Mitch McConnell complains about "the Democrats and their friends in the media . . . firing their guns at George Bush." Fellow Republican Mark Goodin, a party public relations coordinator, accuses the press of taking "cheap shots" and focusing on "sideshows." Even Barbara Bush has pushed the blame-the-media spin, lecturing Judy Woodruff about alleged bias during a recent interview on PBS.

When Republican Senate Whip Alan Simpson declared at his party's convention that Americans are "fed up with the media," it wasn't the first time he'd assumed the role of press critic. Before Iraq invaded Kuwait two years ago, Simpson privately assured Saddam Hussein that his image problem in the United States was not with the government but with America's "haughty and pampered press." Even Saddam was a victim of the liberal media.

During the convention at the Astrodome, Republican Party Chair Rich Bond was so affronted by one Houston Chronicle headline - "Quayle Tries to Play Up Martyr Role" - that he kept displaying it to journalists as evidence of media bias.

But in a moment of candor, Bond provided insight into the Republicans' media-bashing: "There is some strategy to it," he told the Washington Post. "I'm the coach of kids' basketball and Little League teams. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is 'work the refs.' Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack next time."

Intent on blaming others for their ticket's low standing in the polls, Bush-Quayle strategists are targeting national news media as handy scapegoats.

Never mind that these same media acted as cheerleaders for President Bush's deadly invasion of Panama - pumping his approval ratings through the roof.

Never mind that Bush's popularity soared even higher after these news outlets fawned over him during the Gulf War, serving more as a fourth branch of government than the Fourth Estate.

In politics, nothing succeeds like success - or fails like failure. When George Bush was riding high, mainstream news media boosted him even higher. The president's backers were pleased to ride the waves of biased pro-Bush coverage for years. But, as Bush sank in the polls along with leading economic indicators, the media's genuflecting finally gave way to some blunt coverage.

The GOP gathering in Houston was supposed to turn things around. But Bush handlers didn't like some of the convention coverage because it accurately depicted a national Republican Party that has lurched to the right - with Bush caving in to religious fundamentalists.

A platform that outlaws abortions even in cases of rape or incest might reasonably be called "extreme," but such descriptions raise the hackles of Republican functionaries.

Despite the complaints, U.S. media coverage of the Republican convention was, if anything, understated - especially when compared to what foreign media reported. One conservative British daily matter-of-factly referred to Republican delegates as "the storm troopers for Family Values."

On American TV, Patrick Buchanan's declaration of "cultural war" earned bad marks from some pundits. But TV's savants mostly went dumb instead of pointing out that President Bush's acceptance speech was riddled with major distortions of fact - such as Clinton's phantom "128 tax hikes" in Arkansas, a nonexistent proposal for the "largest tax increase in history" or the nonexistent "plan for a massive government takeover of health care."

After Bush's speech, TV analysts seemed much more concerned with discussing the colorful balloon drop.

Network TV continued to apply the pejorative "special interests" label unevenly. At the Democratic convention, non-wealthy constituencies such as union members, African Americans, environmentalists and gays were repeatedly portrayed as powerful and pesky "special interests."

In Houston, the big-money interests behind the Republican Party were not tagged with the "special interests" label. Fortune magazine has just reported that 85 percent of corporate CEOs want Bush re-elected. But on national TV, big businesses are not referred to as "special interests" - presumably, they represent the "national interest."

Republican media watchdogs will keep growling about media unfairness to the Bush-Quayle campaign. As party Chair Rich Bond admitted, yelling at the media from the sidelines is a tactic of "working the refs" in hopes they'll cut the GOP ticket "a little slack."

Journalists would do well to remember Bond's metaphor the next time they receive an angry call about bias from Bush-Quayle headquarters decrying "the liberal media." (Copyright, 1992, Creators Syndicate, Inc.)