"Neither candidates nor press believe that the public is really concerned about issues," New York Times columnist Tom Wicker told an audience of 20 in Quincy House last night.
Wicker, invited to speak by the Harvard-Radcliffe Democratic Club, said the lack of emphasis on issues in the recent presidential race coverage was partly a failure of the press, but also a reflection on the nature of the political system itself.
"I have never known any campaign to be based on issues." Wicker said, "because politicians do not believe the public is interested in them. The detailed programs are there, but they are on paper in headquarters, not discussed. The emphasis is on personality."
Wicker said that despite the lack of emphasis on issues, Carter was more scrutinized by the press than any other candidate in his experience.
"Every word of Carter's speeches was examined under a microscope," Wicker said, adding that President Ford was not as accessible to the press.
"It is hard to get at the "President," he said, "because if you shove a microphone in his face you will probably get wrestled to the ground by the Secret Service. Carter, on the other hand, felt compelled to talk to the press in order to avoid being accused of dodging questions."
The press today is more skeptical than ever before, he said, after having been "burned" by the dishonesty of government releases about the Vietnam War, Watergate, and other issues. Therefore, Carter's talk of "love" and "compassion" drew particularly close press scrutiny.
Wicker criticized the press for being timid and hesitant to publish information at risk, despite its skepticism of government sources. He added that the press is protected by the First Amendment and was intended by the writers of the Constitution to be a check on the government.
"The constitution calls only for a free press," Wicker noted, "not a 'responsible' press, recognizing that, although we all hope that the press is responsible, the government would be the only agency capable of enforcing responsibility."