New rules for the media?

Friday, September 22nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Political scandal.

Today, the term often seems redundant.

From Watergate to the Clinton impeachment, for nearly three decades the American public has been inundated with disappointing, sometimes disgusting revelations about some of this country's public servants and others who would be. Candidates decry "gotcha" journalism and "ambush interviews" and complain that declaring for office amounts to an invitation to the news media to begin digging for dirt – any dirt. Political operatives play the game, too, engaging in "opposition research" and "whisper campaigns" targeting their adversaries.

One of America's foremost political scientists wants it to stop, and he and a couple of colleagues have some specific ideas about how to make that happen. In Peepshow: Media and Politics in an Age of Scandal, Larry Sabato, along with Mark Stencel and Robert Lichter, propose new ground rules for the news media that would limit areas of inquiry to those that, in the authors' opinion, are relevant to an individual's ability to serve. That means declaring off-limits for the most part the personal lives of a candidate's family; his or her sex life if it doesn't interfere with public responsibilities and isn't illegal; and youthful indiscretions involving drugs or alcohol, if they don't represent a pattern.

To illustrate this new "fairness doctrine," the authors dissect the coverage of a number of recent real-life political scandals large and small. (Political junkies will love it, but the officials involved can't be too thrilled that this stuff is being revisited in such detail.) The authors grade the news outlets involved in each case, from A to F according to their principles suggested in the book. In a few instances the media earned A's, but there are many more C's, D's and F's.

The book is an easy read, and the authors' premise is straightforward, humane and common-sensical. Their guidelines are worthy goals to consider as the nation prepares for the heat of an election.

Mr. Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia, and his co-authors suggest that the public, by holding reporters, editors and producers accountable for decisions, can effect meaningful change in the way politics is covered.

Mary Carter is deputy political editor of The Dallas Morning News. For more book reviews, see The Review in Arts Sunday.

Peepshow: Media and Politics in an Age of Scandal

By Larry J. Sabato, Mark Stencel and S. Robert Lichter

(Rowman & Littlefield, $22.95)