Television is the greatest single contributor to the trivialization of modern life. At first a spectator of, then an intruder into, now the fabricator of the events it shows us, television news has reduced political campaigning to the level of the advertising and promotion of products. We all know this. It is a cliche. How ironic then to hear television newscasters and pundits complain that political campaigning has become what they have made it.
Candidates, you remember, were chided for putting their points in sufficient brevity to accommodate the attention span of the nightly television news. Why didn’t they talk about the issues? It was always unclear what the issues were in this context, but whatever they were it was clear they would not make it onto the nightly news except in what are misleadingly called “sound bites.”
Surely “sight bites” is a more appropriate designation. As often as not, the television reporter is talking over the picture of the candidate speaking, telling us what to make of it, with the result that it is the way the candidate looks that comes through when nothing else does. Even a politician is going to look more trustworthy than a Sam Donaldson or an Andrea Mitchell, so these little peeks at the campaign are a plus for the campaigner.
The brevity and superficiality of television news is the least of it. Consider the debates, which we are always assured are not genuine debates. Of course they aren’t. They are a product of television and to a lesser degree that consummately sanctimonious body, the League of Women Voters. The League, which has been colluding in these charades for some years, apparently thought that their withdrawal from the second debate would bring on a constitutional crisis. No one noticed any difference between the second and the first debates.
The problem with the “debates” is not that they are rehearsed; imagine the nightly news unrehearsed. The problem is not that the answers are short. By and large, they are too long. The fundamental problem is the revolution in journalists’ conception of their task, a revolution which is largely a result of television.
The constitutional guarantee of a free press has become the presumptuous notion that Dan Rather is an equal branch of government and, in keeping with the wisdom of the Founders, plays an adversarial role vis-a-vis the other branches. In a recent editorial calling for more Presidential news conferences, the New York Times described the role of the journalist as the cross-examiner of politicians, particularly of the President.
Whence came this weird idea that the most untrusted segment of modern society, most of them millionaires, all of them in private business, somehow stand in judgment on the only natural criminal class in America? The Times incredibly alluded to the good old days when FDR called the press around his desk frequently and engaged in democratic dialogue with them. Bunk. In those days, the President had far greater control over how he was quoted. This was changed with the advent of television. The whole notion of a press conference has changed. And it has changed largely due to the press’s appointment of itself as adversary of elected officials.
What is a press conference? A press conference is an occasion when insolent reporters seek to trick a politician into saying something outrageous. It is not an opportunity to learn anything. It is accusatory, prosecutorial, and futile if the politician knows what is going on and prepares accordingly. His task is to survive the ordeal without saying anything quotably gauche. Failing that, of course, any misstatements, mispronunciations, or ordinary memory lapses, can be magnified into proof of senility or imbecility.
The presidential debates have honed this technique to its ultimate absurdity. What would you do if your wife was raped and murdered? Zoom in on the startled candidate. What will you do when the President is assassinated and you take over? Zoom, zoom. Is it any wonder that the rehearsals of candidates are reported, as well as the names of the stand-ins for their opponents? One was a little shocked, reading The Making of the President, to learn that John Kennedy had been prepped for hours for his meetings with Richard Nixon, that make-up and camera angles had been carefully attended to. Show biz had arrived in presidential campaigning.
The sequel has been the collusive effort of television and the politician. Who has not thought that anyone willing to submit to this charade is not fit to be President? The television reporters have not only thought it but said it. The rapist blaming his victim. The networks announce they will no longer be manipulated by the parties who have turned their conventions into television shows under network pressure. Only when they themselves produce the conventions will the networks be satisfied.
The pursuit of Senator Quayle was the single most unsavory aspect of the campaign. This decent and able senator was hounded and harassed for months by a cynical press. The fact that he survived it is proof of his presidential stature in the age of television.
When USA Today began its television news show, the reaction of the networks, looking into this mirror of themselves, was amusing. “McNeil/Lehrer” is the great exception, no doubt of it, but that program does not represent the future. The future lies in the direction of “Crossfire,” “The McLaughlin Group,” and Mort Downey. This will be an improvement. When television loses its show biz glitz and matches the triviality and irrationality of everyday political discourse, it will no longer be a danger to the republic.