Presidents say media now harsher on politicians

ORLANDO, Florida Thu Mar 29, 2007 7:31pm EDT

Former President Bill Clinton (R) talks with Colombian Nobel price writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez during the IV International Congress of Spanish language at the Caribbean city of Cartagena, Colombia March 26, 2007. REUTERS/Handout/Presidencia

Former President Bill Clinton (R) talks with Colombian Nobel price writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez during the IV International Congress of Spanish language at the Caribbean city of Cartagena, Colombia March 26, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Handout/Presidencia

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ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Former U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton said on Thursday media coverage of politicians had grown harsher and warned that this could have a detrimental effect on future leaders as the 2008 election draws near.

Bush, the 41st U.S. president and father of the current president, described what he called an increasingly adversarial relationship between the press and politicians that is "even tougher, uglier" than he remembered.

"I'm afraid it will turn off a lot of good people from politics," he said in his speech at the CTIA wireless industry conference in Orlando, Florida.

"I've never seen it quite as harsh as mean as it is right now for the president and for a lot of other people in public life," said Bush during questions from PricewaterhouseCoopers managing partner Juan Pujadas after the speech.

Clinton's wife, former first lady and New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, is a contender for the White House in 2008.

Clinton said he and Bush had received their share of tough questions when they were in office, but cited a blurring of the lines between sensationalism and mainstream journalism.

Clinton had to deal with rumors of marital infidelity, and a scandal involving a White House intern during his presidency and the accompanying press coverage.

As the current race takes shape, deeply personal issues of candidates are regularly making headlines, from the multiple marriages of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to the battle with cancer being fought by former Sen. John Edwards's wife, Elizabeth.

Clinton said a more even discussion of politics could come from Internet sites and Web blogs. He cited the tendency of blogs to scrutinize one or two subjects rather than a full plate of issues.

"They can do research and get the facts and don't have to bad-mouth people. Sometimes they do, but they don't have to," Clinton said. "I think all these blog sites are creating a whole new opportunity for public debate that may revitalize our politics in an old fashioned way."

Clinton said that sensational news coverage could interfere with the ability of politicians to make good decisions.

"Any time you take a three-dimensional person and turn him into a cartoon or take a three-dimensional issue and turn it into a cartoon you're running a great risk," he said. "If you get your anger up, you're not thinking."

Clinton lauded the role telecommunications and technology can play in improving healthcare, spreading individual freedoms and eradicating poverty.

He cited several examples of how cell phones help to improve economies and individual lives in developing countries.

For example, in Bangladesh, village women are taking out micro loans to buy cellphones so they can sell phone time to people who want to stay in touch with families and establish business connections, Clinton said.

About 60 percent of these women manage to lift themselves out of poverty, he added.

Clinton said Haitians were also making money selling cellphone time. "Street kids (in Haiti) instead of living lawless lives will be pulled into a predictable system," he said.

As for personal technology, the former presidents said they were dedicated to using cell phones or wireless devices.

"The hour I'm here is about the longest I can be away from my Blackberry," Bush said.

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