Stagestruck

by James Q. Wilson | June 21, 1993

Picture Perfect: The Art and Artifice of Public Image Making
by Kiku Adatto
(Basic Books, 200 pp., $20)

In May 1990, Kiku Adatto published in this magazine an article in which she revealed that the average length of a presidential statement on a network evening news broadcast fell from forty-two seconds in 1968 to less than ten seconds in 1988. The three major networks gave to George Bush and Michael Dukakis only one-fourth as much time to present their views in their own words as the networks had given to Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace. And not only was the average sound bite vastly shorter in 1988 than twenty years earlier, the chance for a candidate to make any lengthy statement had all but disappeared. In 1968 nearly half of all sound bites lasted forty seconds or more; in 1988 only 1 percent were that long. Nixon and Humphrey could be heard making a statement at least thirty seconds long on 162 different occasions; Bush and Dukakis could be heard for that long only fifteen times.

 

ADATTO’S ARTICLE ATTRACTED a great deal of attention and precipitated much soul-searching within the networks. Several leading executives promised that in 1992 things would be different: the news broadcasts would return to covering “the issues” and would lengthen the bites. But the promises were empty. In 1992 the shrinking sound bite continued to shrink: Bush and Clinton could be heard, on the average, for less than nine seconds at a time. And so the candidates and their handlers, realizing that the evening news would no longer provide them with a forum for setting forth their views, took their cases to other forums. They went to the talk shows and the television magazines, where they found that Larry King, Phil Donahue, Arsenio Hall and the “Today,” “Good Morning America” and “This Morning” shows would give them time (in some cases, an hour or more) in which to present themselves.

Why did the sound bite shrink? To find an explanation, one must first understand how the networks filled up the airtime they once gave to candidate speeches. Briefly, they replaced talking candidates with talking reporters and anchormen. In 1968 the candidates could be heard for 84 percent of the time that their pictures were on the screen; in 1988 they could be heard for only 37 percent of this time. The rest of the time the viewer would see the candidate but hear Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings or their staff reporters. And often they would not even see the candidate: the reporter who was marginally present in 1968 was often the center of attention in 1988.

In her book, which restates and expands on these findings, Adatto explores how these reporters used their greatly enlarged visibility. Perhaps the shrinking sound bite would not be a problem if the journalists spent their growing airtime carefully summarizing the candidates’ views and analyzing the fit between those views and the facts of some policy issue. But no. What the reporters tended to do was to comment on the image-making efforts of the candidates and their managers. They did not become policy analysts, they became theater critics.

In 1968 no network news broadcast ran an excerpt from a candidate’s television advertising and then discussed it in terms of image-making. In 1988 this was done 125 times. Sometimes—as with the famous footage of Dukakis riding in an Army tank or in the pro-Bush ad alluding to the furlough of prisoners from a Massachusetts prison—the network news programs ran and commented on the footage so frequently that these pictures became campaign themes. The networks by their coverage created images that defined what the campaign was about.

But that image definition had little to do with reality. Dukakis’s tank ride was a bad idea and his managers were idiots to have staged it, but it said nothing about his views on military policy. The Bush campaign’s “Willie Horton ad,” it is often forgotten, never mentioned Horton or showed a picture of him; it showed men dressed as convicts moving through a revolving door while the narrator criticized Dukakis’s prison furlough program. But when the networks decided to make the ad a symbol of the Bush campaign, they linked it with pictures of Horton and made it clear that he was a black man who had raped a white woman while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison. And having made the linkage between Horton and the ad, the networks were then free to criticize Bush for “racist” campaign tactics. This linkage may have hurt Bush in the eyes of some viewers, but it probably helped him in the eyes of even more.Ironically, the networks may have boosted Bush by becoming theater critics, even as they thought they were exposing him.

Despite their desire to expose ads, images, staging and “spin control,” the networks rarely assessed the veracity of what they revealed. In less than 8 percent of the cases, Adatto reports, did a reporter comment on the accuracy or the inaccuracy of the ads. Television reporters, in her view, are caught in a dilemma of their own making: they are desperately eager to get exciting scenes on film at the same time that they are convinced that campaigning has become an image-manipulating sham. Persuaded that politics has become theater, the networks emphasize the theatricality of politics, thereby giving campaign managers even more incentive to stage theatrical events for the cameras.

 

WHY DID THIS happen, and what effect has it had? Adatto has relatively little to say about these matters. I find that puzzling; her superb analysis of the facts leads naturally to issues of causality and consequences that she partly sidesteps. She is chiefly interested in images and the meaning of images. Her doctoral dissertation, “American Fantasy:Social Conflicts and Social Myths in Films of the 1970s,” was an account of the maverick hero—Rambo, John Wayne, Superman, Indiana Jones and Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John in M.A.S.H. By making the dissertation the basis of the fifth chapter of her book, she leads the reader away from why and with what effect the sound bite shrank, and toward our well-known fascination with movies that portray the lonely hero reluctantly drawn into the service of communal ideals that the community itself is unwilling to defend (or, in High Noon, even to believe). And to prepare the way for this insertion of a condensed dissertation, she tells in her fourth chapter how motion pictures depict television (as in Network) and how arty photographers have shown scenes of everyday life in ways designed to emphasize the deformity or hypocrisy of that life. These two chapters may be the heart of an interesting book, but not the book that she began to write in her first three chapters.

Still, Adatto provides several clues as to why network news has increasingly treated presidential campaigns as artifice and, by so doing, has made them even more artificial. I can discern at least four possible explanations, distinct but probably related.

 

THE FIRST IS glamour and status. Anchormen and reporters have become celebrities in a celebrity-oriented culture. Many of them earn large sums of money; their faces leap out from magazine pages as well as television screens; they are invited for private briefings at the White House; their presence at a Washington or New York party can raise it high in the social firmament. They have become, in short, part of the stories they cover.

Celebrated people will seek out opportunities to sustain the celebration. Theatrical personalities themselves, they will tend to see the world in theatrical terms. The network anchormen and anchorwomen are especially vulnerable to this perspective, for the demands on their time and the status that they enjoy make it all but impossible for them to be real reporters. At best they may write their own copy, but rarely do they gather the news that informs that copy. Of late they have traveled much to distant places to “report” what is happening there, but I doubt that the reporting involves much more than carefully orchestrated meetings with heads of state coupled with “stand-ups” in front of visually compelling scenes.

If they are to be on camera more than presidents or presidential candidates, what are they to say? Not trenchant comments on the complexities of public policy. Even if they have the knowledge to make more than banal comments, which is unlikely, they do not have the time to do so. The anchors may have grabbed center stage, but for them, as well as for the candidates they cover, the director is always yelling “cut.” Their sound bites, too, must be short.Presidents may not get to say much on the network news, but then neither does anybody else. In this state of affairs, the easiest and least offensive thing to do is to point—with an adjective, a phrase, an arched eyebrow—toward the clay feet of the officials they cover.

Second, television news is big business. Begun in the 1950s as a loss leader—a public service activity done to satisfy fcc requirements as much as anything else—it has become, as Adatto reports, a profit center in each network. Many experienced news producers like to contrast the good old days, when they did not feel acute pressure to stage audience-maximizing news broadcasts, with today, when they do. This is romantic exaggeration, but it contains some truth. Walter Cronkite was once the dominant news broadcaster, but he alone could not create a profitable audience.Edward Jay Epstein, an acute student of television news, has recalled the time in 1972 when CBS changed from one affiliate to another in Boston, and the audience for Cronkite and CBS News fell by almost 40 percent. Bostonians, like people in most cities, watched a local station based on its total programming package, especially the lead-in programming to the news broadcast. Change the package and you change the audience, Cronkite or not.

In those days there was a concern about ratings, but it was not yet an obsession. Today network television is being squeezed by many competitors—new networks (CNN, Fox), videotapes, satellite dishes and a proliferation of special-interest magazines. Under these circumstances, every contribution to “market share” is vitally important, and the newsroom is no exception. In a highly competitive environment that is rich in information, anyone who aspires to reach a mass market (as opposed to, say, the market for this magazine) must find a mass theme into which they can tap with visually dramatic, quick-tempo messages. In politics the theme is obvious: politics is a corrupt, self-serving enterprise. Opinion polls since the mid-1960s have steadily shown a decline in public confidence in almost all American institutions, with the political ones leading the way downward. If Americans believe that politics is self-interest dressed up by Madison Avenue hucksters with slick, spin-controlled images, then that is what network news will confirm.

 

FACILITATING THAT market-oriented strategy has been a third change—the technological improvement in the way in which images are gathered, transmitted and edited. In the “old” days—the 1970s!—images were gathered on film, developed in laboratories, transmitted over coaxial cables and painstakingly edited by hand. Today images are gathered electronically, transmitted by satellite and edited on computers. Now any bit of imagery can be made instantly available almost anywhere for almost any purpose. As a result news producers have more freedom to construct their broadcasts. When Nixon or Humphrey made a speech, the networks got a film of it; the only real decision was which section of it should be run and whether it should go for thirty, sixty or ninety seconds. When Bush and Clinton made a speech, the producers could mix a rapid-fire sequence of images of the candidate, the crowds, the reporter, the background and the staging under a reporter’s narration of “the event.”

Some television reporters claim that these new techniques simply reflect the demand by the viewers for quick, fast-paced information. Adatto quotes Tom Bettag, who has produced “CBS Evening News with Dan Rather,” asserting that “people became used to a much faster pace of information” and acquired a greater ability to absorb visual information.Susan Zirinsky, another news producer, makes the same point: modern technology makes it possible for the networks to put out a better product, using a few words of a candidate’s speech, not to convey information, but as “natural sound” that reveals the candidate’s “rhythm and mood.”

By the standards of Bettag and Zirinsky, then, the people who stood in the sun for three hours to hear Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas were premodern dolts, unable to “absorb” “fast-paced” “natural sound.” Had they been around at the time, NBC and CBS would have covered the Lincoln-Douglas debates by juxtaposing quick sound bites—“a house divided cannot stand!” “popular sovereignty!”—over catchy images of black slaves and Kansas Free-Soilers, accompanied by a reporter remarking that Lincoln’s handlers have not yet managed to get him to speak in a lower register, while Douglas’s people are rumored to have purchased elevator shoes for The Little Giant.

 

THE FOURTH EXPLANATION concerns the opinions of the media itself. Everyone knows that the members of the national media are well to the left of the average voter. This does not mean that they will always provide biased coverage of a presidential campaign. Other considerations—standards of fairness, a readiness to expose a scandal regardless of who is involved, a desire to avoid offending an audience or the owners of local affiliates—will play a role. (In 1992, however, these other considerations played almost no role at all; the pro-Clinton bias of the press was evident at almost every stage of the campaign, save for his early problems with questions about the draft.) Ideology exists, but most reporters, though liberals, are not ideologues, and ideology can be combated by public pressure.

But there is another attitude of the media that is less well-remarked and less likely to be exposed to counterpressures. That is its cynicism. One of the most interesting findings of Adatto’s research was the importance of Joe McGinniss’s book The Selling of the President. Published shortly after the 1968 campaign, the book argued that politics in the television age was all about image-making. Ted Koppel recalls its impact this way:

All of a sudden everybody said, “Oh I get it. They’re trying to sell candidates the way they sell soap.” And from that moment on, we had emerged from the Garden of Eden. We were never able to see candidates or campaigns quite the same way again.

Bettag makes the same point in his interview with Adatto. “Packaging is important, and Joe McGinniss’s book was the first time a lot of us thought about that.”

We know that the press became more adversarial after Vietnam, Watergate and the Nixon presidency. But perhaps “adversarial” is not quite the right description. They became not so much opposed to politicians and the government as contemptuous of them. Politics, they decided, was about lying. (Paul Weaver will soon publish a book on this theme.) The rise in cynicism can almost be quantified. In 1968, Adatto notes, there was only one network news broadcast that focused on a gaffe—a misspoken word, a misstated idea, a clumsy move. In 1988 there were twenty-nine.

Again, this is not merely liberal ideology at work. If ideology were all that was involved, Bush’s gaffes would have been reported and Dukakis’s ignored; or, better yet, there would have been an attack on Bush’s policies, whether well or poorly stated. In 1968 Spiro Agnew mistakenly said “Richard Nixon” when he meant “Hubert Humphrey” in condemning those who would appease military aggression. The slip, quickly corrected, was never reported. It was not thought to be news. Within a few years, however, reporters seized upon Ford slipping down some stairs, Bush getting the date of Pearl Harbor wrong and Dukakis dropping a fly ball while playing catch with a Boston Red Sox player.

The shift in orientation was not lost on the political professionals. Roger Ailes summarizes his knowledge of campaign coverage this way:

Let’s face it, there are three things that the media are interested in: pictures, mistakes and attacks. It’s my orchestra-pit theory of politics. If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, “I have a solution to the Middle East problem,” and the other guy falls into the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?

This change is not confined to television. Many of the national newsmagazines, from Time to Insight, have become recorders of scandals, blunders and devious motives. The national political press increasingly covers politics the same way People magazine covers entertainment, as a clutter of personalities, each of whom has a dark secret.

The cynicism of the press does not merely reflect the growth of cynicism among the public. To some degree, I suspect, it also causes it. If the press doesn’t like Ross Perot, it ought to consider the possibility that it helped to create him, this allegedly maverick hero who wages a solitary fight to root out the corruption of the system. He is shorter than Gary Cooper, weaker than John Wayne and uglier than Harrison Ford, but he is a great character actor, and he captures all their spirits very nicely. The press and the public reinforce each other’s views in a process that might be called symbiotic cynicism.

Some time ago Michael Robinson published data suggesting that people who watched television the most were the most cynical about politics. There are a lot of unknowns in such a correlation: people who watch a lot of television are different from others in many ways that precede their viewing habits. But it remains an intriguing possibility. If it is true, then the problem is not just political hucksterism, it is the relentless portrayal of politics as hucksterism.

In such a context, Adatto thinks the candidates’ shift to talk shows as the vehicle for reaching their audience makes sense not only for them, but also for us. She is right. Let us bear all of this in mind when reporters next complain that being on a talk show shields candidates from the “tough questions” of the “knowledgeable reporters.” The complaint has rather a hollow ring when one realizes that the “tough questions” are designed mostly to produce a gaffe or an attack, and that many of the “knowledgeable reporters” mostly know what it is that will get them a shot at doing a stand-up in front of a compelling image or a voice-over for a misplayed fly ball. 

James Q. Wilson’s new book, The Moral Sense, will be published in July by the Free Press. This article appeared in the June 21, 1993 issue of the magazine.

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