Nowhere is the power of television taken more seriously than in politics. With party loyalties loosening, television becomes the candidateís direct channel to the undecided voters who swing with circumstance and with images. The rise of primaries, especially since 1968, has stripped power from the old party bosses, and granted a premium to candidates who can mobilize their faithful in state after state. Television advertising is not the only way of doing that; Jesse Jackson showed that it is possible for an impoverished candidate to fire up crowds and win votes on the basis of principle and presence. But Jackson may be the fabled rule-proving exception. He did well in the primaries because he started with a devoted constituency and he played well on TV–he is a veritable master of the ìsound bite,î televisionese for a speech module. In any case, as the two political parties have weakened, television has become the candidate’s major channel of access to the populace. Perhaps television itself, by plunging the candidates directly into the living room, has weakened the parties. Whichever way the causal arrow runs, the parties’ capacity to hold their constituencies has dwindled and television has rushed in to fill the vacuum.
Today, therefore, virtually no one dares run a campaign without spending vast sums on the management of images. Indeed, raising those sums becomes the campaign’s major financial operation. Last fall, former Florida Governor Reuben Askew quit the race for the Democratic senatorial nomination, although he was the frontrunner, in protest over the fact that he was spending three-quarters of his time raising money. The candidates take the power of television seriously enough to stuff their staffs with squads of specialists-buyers of TV time, commercial makers, wizards who produce photogenic stunts and practice the art of acquiring free coverage by landing in the right airport at the right time.
The consultants’ candidates may lose campaigns, but rarely do the consultants themselves fall from grace. They have been unmasked in a best-selling book (Joe McGinniss, The Selling of the President) and superior movies (The Candidate, Power). They have not, in the process, become any less prominent-if anything, more so, for in the consulting game, it seems, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Look at them as a profession-the pros have moved to the heights of American politics. If they were not already sufficiently relied upon by practitioners, the consultants are consulted regularly by news and talk shows. Since the candidates regard them as knowledgeable, so do the media, and so on around the loop. In short, we have what Sidney Blumenthal of the Washington Post calls the permanent campaign: an amalgam of consultants, pollsters, and pliable candidates who year in and year out fabricate images in order to package transitory coalitions. Their strategies will not only propel candidates into office but manage their conduct there.
But something disconcerting is happening. As politics grows more professional, voting declines. It has declined steadily since 1896, except for the New Deal period. The decline has accelerated since 1960. The more the professionals have commanded politics, the more states have held primaries, the longer the campaigns and the exposure, the fewer people participate.
POST HOC, ERGO TELEPROMPTER HOC? It is striking that Jack Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan-the last four men to reach the presidency by getting elected-learned how to project through the small screen. Kennedy mastered the pungent statement that goes over well in debates and press conferences. Nixon, who was hurt by a five o’clock shadow and a furtive manner in his debates with Kennedy in 1960, learned that the best way for him to use television in 1968 was to hide from it; in the next five years, the advertising men on his staff were adept at managing televisual events. Carter, the insider’s outsider, the one-term governor elevated to prominence through the Trilateral Commission, was not the most personable candidate ever to stand before the small screen, but he benefited from the punditry buzz after the Iowa caucuses and he was fortunate enough to run against one of the most hapless opponents imaginable. And Reagan-ah, Ronald Reagan, whose career has been so extraordinary as to sug-gest in two words the entire argument.
It is easy to believe that Reagan is the definitive politician of the television era-Reagan in whom the gap between radiance of image and feebleness of capacity yawns to unprecedented proportions; Reagan the master of the small, quotable remark, the aptly named “sound bite” tailored to the evening news, preferably a line he’s imported from his earlier career on the silver screen (“I paid for this microphone”); Reagan with the just-folks mannerisms and the tiny shake of the head that plays so well on the small screen; Reagan attuned to the anecdote that aligns an audience with him in a phalanx of common sense; Reagan of the hostly manner which enables him to preside over the return of the bodies of 241 Marines killed in Beirut as a result of his orders and still distance himself from the policy which resulted in their deaths.
It is worth noting that Ronald Reagan made his strongest marks as two very distinctive kinds of actor. He first came to public notice as a radio sports announcer in Des Moines. His mission was to recreate, in fine detail, a Chicago baseball game he could not see, having been informed via wire service only whether the last pitch was a ball, a strike, a single, whatever. He did this so well-and so frequently: more than 600 times-he became famous for the theatrical “credibility” (not the fidelity, which no one could assess) of the performance. Then, after an undistinguished movie career, he became a professional TV host, and this is where he mastered the small moves, the ease in holding himself, the ability to make you feel comfortable, that he later turned to political advantage. The man who “brought you” General Electric Theater and Death Valley Days could be trusted to “bring you” the United States of America. Reagan could not have succeeded as announcer and host, and then as an embodiment of presidentiality, unless a vast public had been possessed of the will to believe in his hostly hand-a will which can mobilize television for a skilled practitioner.
But the will to believe stretches only so far. Phil Dusenberry, the “Pepsi generation” adman who crafted Reagan’s famous 1984 “Morning in America” film, tried to repeat with Jack Kemp in 1988, only to have his folksy ads rejected by the candidate. There are limits to what television can do even for the Great Prevaricator. Exponents of the doom-laden theory that TV has taken over American politics neglect the fact that, in the trough of the recession of 1982, Reagan’s popularity was the lowest achieved by any president since Gallup began tracking approval ratings during the Eisenhower years. Television, which had allowed Reagan to bedeck himself in a halo, now juxtaposed his performance with televisible realities-unemployment lines and shut-down factories. And people responded.
As Elliot Katz and Michael Schudson have shown in a recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, it was reporters (again, both print and TV) who declared that Reagan was more popular than he was. They liked Reagan; they bent over backward to be “fair” to him although they disliked many of his policies. (They had loathed Carter, and I think they feared for the country if the next president proved to be a weak reed; they were impressed, despite themselves, by a stand-tall-forAmerica posture.)
Which tells us something about the media’s customary relation to power. As Jack Newfield of The Village Voice says, if officials had their druthers, journalists would be “stenographers with amnesia.” Fortunately for the White House, most of journalism (and here television is neither worse nor better than print) regularly complies. Television was willingly bamboozled by Michael Deaver, Reagan’s Secretary of Camera Angles, and dutifully relayed pictures of what one Reagan staffer calls “our little playlets”-far-flung photo opportunities with real-life backdrops. No matter if the commentary was occasionally critical. The networks and the president shared a common interest in “great pictures.”
Television news, even more than print, is afflicted by a curious amalgam of feistiness and decorum. The personnel are supposed to transcribe the policies and musings of the powerful, and at the same time sound the horn of independence. But they are not supposed to make a mess in the living room. That is the best way to understand the terrific flap that erupted last January when Dan Rather put some difficult questions to Vice President Bush in an arrogant tone. An anchorman above all is supposed to preside over the living room with soft-edged stolidity, not lose his temper. Horror of horrors, disrespect to the vice president!
For the last six years of the Reagan administration the Washington press corps tiptoed about like court retainers. Reduced to shouting their tiny questions over helicopter rotor blades, they let Reagan set their agenda-until the midterm elections of November 1986 signaled that the reigning host was vulnerable. Reagan had campaigned all-out for Star Wars and against satanic liberals, and his mud hadn’t stuck. The Democrats, amazingly, proved to be alive, even occasionally outspoken. Presently the Iran-Contra scandal broke in a Lebanese paper and the mantle of untouchability fell from Reagan’s shoulders. Plenty of evidence of secret wars run from the Executive Office Building was lying around Washington ungathered by the American press, but journalism is afflicted by deference; when the mandate of heaven shifts, the journalists aren’t sure whom to defer to. This leaves them freer to focus on inconvenient stories-and to repeat them, which is what makes for moments of truth and shifts in public disposition.
And only this repetition allows symbols to loom large. In palmier days, this self-same Reagan was helped into office by the long-running television melodrama “America Held Hostage,” some sixty-three weeks of it, which five nights a week transmitted an image of American weakness crying to be relieved by a man riding out of the sagebrush on a white horse. Those were the months when Walter Cronkite signed off CBS every night by ticking off “the umpty-umpth day of captivity for the American hostages in Iran.” Such certifications of significance are not themselves all-important. But it would be interesting to know what would follow if the networks signed off, “the umpty-umpth day of famine in Ethiopia” (we know what happened when NBC ran footage of starving Ethiopians a few years ago) or “the umpty-umpth day of military attacks on Indians in Guatemala.”
TELEVISION DELIVERS A SHRIVELED DISCOURSE. One measure is the shrinking sound bite. In the early seventies, according to Daniel Hallin of the University of California, San Diego, the average sound bite on the evening news ran between fifteen and twenty seconds, with the president getting more than a minute. In the eighties, the average sound bite, including the president’s, is down to ten seconds. In the age of remote control (65 percent of American homes have them), the premium is on grabbing viewers and keeping them grabbed. The advantage goes to the candidate who speaks in modules. The odds are against the making of an argument, let alone a complicated one.
But we should proceed cautiously whenever we hear phrases like “no longerî or ìhas become,î as in ìpolitics has become image” or “candidates no longer debate.” Just how good were the good old days? Television did not invent the superficiality, triviality, and treachery of American politics. American politics has been superficial, giddy, shallow, and demagogic for more than 150 years, even before the advent of the “Today” show. “Infotainment” is in the American grain: At least since 1828, American politics has rarely been far from moral crusades and their counterpart, demagoguery. Flashy personal charges, both grounded and groundless, have flown thick and fast during many, though not all, presidential campaigns. In 1828, supporters of Andrew Jackson accused John Quincy Adams of having slept with his wife before marrying her and, while minister to Russia, having supplied the Czar with an American mistress. In turn, pro-Adams newspapers accused Jackson of adultery, gambling, cockfighting, bigamy, slave-trading, drunkenness, theft, lying, and murder. He was said to be the offspring of a prostitute’s marriage to a mulatto. Papers accused Jackson’s previously divorced wife of having moved in with him while still married to her first husband. American politics was not all Lincoln-Douglas debates, even before the depredations of the sound bite. American democracy for a century and a half has frequently been raucous.
Still, a good deal has changed, much of it for the worse. The technology of polling has resulted in growing attention to the horse race. This is not only true during campaigns. During the presidency itself a ‘permanent campaign,” again-attention turns to the next lap in the horse race: how the president is doing vis-a-vis Congress, public expectations, etc. Meanwhile, the growing sophistication of reporters means a larger bulk of commentary and more interpretive flair, with correspondingly less attention to what are quaintly known as “issues.” Candidates, observing this process and eager to carve out maximum coalitions, are reluctant to commit themselves to sharply demarcated, extensively argued positions. As they hurl “theme” and microscopic policy blips (ìSave jobs!” “Sales tax!”) at each other, for the benefit of the evening news, the horse, race is vastly more interesting-especially in the primaries, when impressions weigh most heavily.
The prominence of the horse race heightens the already formidable power of the media to interpret events. With his era of “new ideas” Gary Hart became the serious candidate in 1984 when he did “better than expected” in Iowa-with 16 percent of the vote. That anointed Hart the man of the hour. Then, having set him up as the man with a signature bite (“new ideas”), Roger Mudd and others took him down. (The Mudd interview on NBC featured the memorable line, “Give us your Teddy Kennedy imitation.”) Those who live by the punchline die by the punchline: Hart was demolished by Mondale’s counterline, “Where’s the beef?”
In the meantime, excepting occasional scandal, we don’t get much reporting about the candidates’ records. Where are the pictures? Before 1980 Ronald Reagan had been writing newspaper columns and giving radio commentaries every week for years. A record of that sort produces, if nothing else, piles of material for scrutiny. Yet not one daily reporter from TV, radio, or newspapers was assigned to rake through the material and describe it, let alone analyze it. Reporters swallowed patent untruth whole-for example, as James David Barber points out in the Columbia Journalism Review, the uncritical repetition of Reagan’s distorted claims about his record in cutting welfare spending in California. The press winked at Reagan’s refusal to face them during his campaigns, and restored his teflon with euphemisms. At the end of a 1984 debate with Mondale, Reagan trailed off into a stupefying anecdote about driving down Route I in California … something about a time capsule by which posterity would remember…. The president blathered on, seemingly forgetting his lines and point, until moderator Edwin R. Newman took pity, or saved his day, and called time. Howell Raines’s report in next day’s New York Times applied a single adjective to this astonishing tale. It was not “incoherent,” “incomprehensible,” “senseless,” or ìnonsensical.” Reagan’s story, our newspaper of record told us, was “vivid.”
Anyone appalled by the political performance of television must also recall those occasions when television, by broadcasting hearings, has served the public good. Not necessarily because it conveys information, whatever exactly that is, but precisely because, as the consultants say, television is better at conveying dramatic images. (It is so much better at conveying images that they drown out words. If you close your eyes and listen to the TV news, you grasp more than if you watch.) Live television coverage of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings had a lot to do with ending the career of the junior senator from Wisconsin. TV coverage of the nonviolent civil rights movement and the violent police counter-movement did a great deal to show why there had to be a movement. Marvin Kalb’s public television interviews of the candidates this year were exemplary in their curiosity about political positions, not just “positioning” strategies. But technology is not destiny. TV coverage of the Iran-contra hearings gave the joint committee ample opportunity to explore the mission-not just the minutiae of the sub rosa Department of Manifest Destiny that trampled upon the law for years. It was not the fault of cameras that the committee refused to rise to the occasion.
TELEVISION MAY PRODUCE, finally, a troubling effect which has gone unattended. I suspect that, though renowned for its capacity to induce “involvement’ through emotion-laden images, the spectacular way in which TV renders politics inspires withdrawal along with pseudo-sophistication. As the pundits and correspondents pontificate in their savvy way, they take part in a circular conversation. The attuned audience, wishing to be taken behind the scenes, is invited to inspect the strategies of the insiders. Whether in the cynicism of a Bruce Morton or a Roger Mudd or the bravado of a Sam Donaldson, the spectacle revels in means, not ends. Politics, by these lights, remains a business for professionals. MacNeil/Lehrer of PBS and Ted Koppel of “Nightline,” who have the greatest opportunity to open political discourse beyond conventional Washington bounds, keep it (with few exceptions) tightly cinched within the Beltway-they prefer present and former players to those who never get to play in the first place. Thus, while the political class-the elite who manage and follow the ins and outs of Washington-jockeys, the rest of us become voyeurs of our own political fate.
Through its power to certify, television acts as a funnel for discourse. Where it has opened, it has opened to the Right. William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” was an important display case for the Right during the post-Goldwater years while it shaped up its program. As for the alienated rubes outside the political class, let them eat talk shows. The women get the intimacies of “Oprah Winfrey” and “Donahue” (Phil having downscaled his subjects to compete with the juicier Oprah); men get the rancorous “Morton Downey, Jr. Show,” the talking head equivalent of video wrestling. (Having started on television in New York after years on the radio in Chicago, “Downey” went national this spring.) At his best, Donahue opened up an unusual range of debate, but the slope downward is slippery. When it flees the closed circle of experts, television’s political culture sinks into pseudo-populism among whose forms are the obsequiousness of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and the bitchiness of “Downey.” And as for serious documentaries, they’re dead on the networks and scanty on public television. The news ‘n’ entertainment “magazine” is their replacement.
This amalgamation of forms has been accelerated by the workings of the marketplace. Growing competition within the existing system for allocating licenses, instead of bringing us discourse worthy of a democratic society, brings us Gresham’s Law. Public television has been cramped by impoverished government subsidies and effective corporate control. The broadcast companies make fortunes with the benefit of publicly granted licenses. They are permitted to hold and, in effect, sell these licenses as if they were property rights. At the minimum, in the spirit of modest proposal, the stations should be taxed to subsidize public broadcasting. They should be required to grant substantial free time (not thirty-second spots) to political candidates, in order to curb the power of wealth. All paid spots, for candidates and propositions alike, should be banned.
The problem, ultimately, is not simply that Americans are becoming steadily more ignorant (such is the claim of every generation besieged by immigrants). The statistics are bad enough. According to a 1979 poll, only 30 percent of Americans responding could identify the two countries involved in the SALT 11 talks; in 1982, only 30 percent knew that Ronald Reagan opposed the nuclear freeze; in 1985, 36 percent thought that either China, India, or Monaco was part of the Soviet Union. But ignorance is sometimes.–not always–a defense against powerlessness. Why bother knowing if there’s nothing you can do about what you know? Why get worked up?
What is disturbing is not ignorance in its own right, but rather the fact that ignorant politicians, aided by ignorance-inducing media, acquire the power to reach out and blow up cities on the other side of the world. Under the circumstances, the spirit of diversion seems, to say the least, inadequate to the approaching millennium.
Originally published in the August 1988 issue of Boston Review