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Published: Tuesday, 10/2/2012

Veteran national journalists to discuss election, media

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

During the throes of the testy 1992 presidential campaign, longtime network news correspondent John Cochran began to notice a shift in the “very level-headed” President George Bush after national polls showed him substantially trailing Democratic candidate Bill Clinton.

“For some reason, Bush decided to level his main attacks not at Clinton, but at Clinton’s running mate, Al Gore. Bush lambasted Gore as an environmental extremist. He said Gore was so extreme that if elected ‘we would be up to our necks in owls,'” Mr. Cochran recalled in an email interview.

“In speeches Bush would work himself up into a lather and call Gore ‘Ozone Man.’ He would yell ‘Ozone Man, Ozone Man.’ It would crack me up. I had a hard time stifling laughter. It was so unlike the Bush whom I had known and liked for many years. As I covered other campaigns later, I would think of the pressure candidates are under, and I would think back to ‘Ozone Man, Ozone Man!’ ”

Mr. Cochran and his wife, Barbara Cochran, will discuss the election and the media's role as the keynote speakers at Press Club of Toledo’s 14th annual Touchstone Awards ceremony, beginning at 6 p.m. Wednesday at The Toledo Club, 235 14th St. The event is $65 for Press Club members, $75 for non-members, and $45 for students. For more information, visit pressclubtoledo.com or call (419) 578-2441.

John Cochran retired in 2011 as senior correspondent at ABC News, where he had worked since January, 1994. He also was senior White House correspondent and chief Capitol Hill correspondent at the network. At NBC, where he worked for 23 years, he was chief White House correspondent and chief foreign correspondent, among other things.

Barbara Cochran is the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Journalism and director of the Washington Program at the Missouri School of Journalism. She has served as managing editor of the Washington Star, vice president of news at NPR, executive producer of NBC’s Meet the Press, vice president and Washington bureau chief at CBS News, and president of the Radio Television Digital News Association.

When asked about the perception of liberal bias in the media, Mr. Cochran said he was surprised to see how many reporters once openly scorned President Richard Nixon.

“It was not a liberal bias; it was an anti-Nixon bias. Of all the presidents I have covered, Nixon is the only one where I felt the occupant of the Oval Office had a legitimate grudge. Of course, it turned out that Nixon was guilty of everything reporters suspected of him,” he said. “Still, before Watergate, coverage of him was probably more negative than was warranted. Even the guilty deserve a fair hearing and objective reporting. After Watergate, he deserved all the criticism he got and then some.

“All presidents complain about the coverage they get. Most of the time the criticism is unfounded. Presidents want reporters to be cheerleaders for them. I know that there is a famous survey purporting to show that reporters vote Democratic. I don’t know whether that is true or not. But I do know that as a general rule reporters try to be fair.”

Barbara Cochran added in the same email interview that she found “very little evidence” of liberal bias while working at four major news organizations.

“Reporters tend to be skeptical. Their job is to question authority. I’ve seen the same reporters ask tough questions of the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration,” she said. “What has changed is that reporters now play different roles in different settings. A reporter may write a straight story for his newspaper and then appear on a television show where he is asked to give his opinion. The lines between news and opinion are blurry now, and that troubles me.”

That line is most prevalent on cable news networks such as Fox and MSNBC, which mingle opinion and fact with troubling results.

“The Pew Research Center recently reported the credibility of most major news organizations has fallen for the second time in the past decade,” Mrs. Cochran said. “But the major broadcast networks and CNN still rank about ten points ahead of Fox News Channel and MSNBC. Those channels have succeeded in finding niche audiences who get their own beliefs affirmed by what they see on air, but the vast majority of viewers prefer news they perceive as unbiased.”

Mr. Cochran said that both networks offer legitimate reporting to go along with the opinions expressed by many of the hosts. It’s up to the viewers to filter the truth from commentary, he said.

“As long as viewers know which programs are opinion and which are news programs -- such as Fox’s Special Report with Bret Baier and MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports -- no harm is done,” he said. “I fear, however, that conservatives tend to watch Fox primarily for the right-wing views so often expressed there and that liberals watch MSBNC to confirm their leftist views. That leads to more polarization. And I don’t see that as a good thing.”

Contact Kirk Baird at: kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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