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JOURNALISTS FELL INTO HYPE TRAP IN COVERING GOP STRAW POLL

The Year of the News Manipulators is officially under way. And doing very well, sad to say. That's the real scoop from Iowa's bizarre vote-buying bazaar, the Republican presidential straw poll that, in the summer of '95, was covered like the first returns of Campaign '96.

The manipulators of the Phil Gramm campaign just reaped an outlandish profit in news-hype, as hundreds of thousands of dollars were invested in a perfectly legal distortion (it borders on corruption) of a process we still like to call democratic.Blame goes not to Sen. Gramm, who spent at least $200,000 (opponents say $500,000) to get a share of a meaningless tie vote, nor to Sen. Bob Dole, who spent a reported $75,000 for his share of the tie.

No, the blame must be placed upon the candidates' willing (yet unwitting) accomplices: my colleagues in the media who went to Iowa to cover a story, vowing they would not be fooled yet again. But were.

On the front page of Saturday's Washington Post, Paul Taylor, one of the nation's finest political writers, seemed to have it pegged perfectly in this lead: "Most times and in most places, vote-buying in presidential campaigns is a no-no. This week in Iowa, it's mandatory." He added: "If it all sounds a bit too hokey to take seriously, that's about half-right. And half wrong." Because it is a test of a candidate's organization skills.

But on Sunday Taylor's news story took it all seriously: "Activist Republicans dealt front-running GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Robert J. Dole . . . the first setback of his campaign and gave Sen. Phil Gramm . . . a boost when the two tied for first in a straw poll of 10,598 voters tonight."

In television news, CNN (the network on which I appear each week on the show "Reliable Sources") was the most egregious overreacher, pumping out the results all Sunday as if they were momentous.

NBC News, in an act of sound judgment, didn't use the straw story at all.