The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, September 25, 2004

Media campaign coverage: a trip down Memory Lane

A useful piece of historical perspective in a study [1] from 1990 by Kiku Adatto, Sound Bite Democracy: Network Evening News Presidential Campaign Coverage, 1968 and 1988.

There's much more on 1988 than 1968; but plenty of interesting stuff. The opening anecdote (p4a) is Edmund Muskie (Hubert Humphrey's running-mate) at a rally making a deal with the anti-war guys heckling him: they would shut up for Muskie's speech, and, in return, one of the hecklers - one Rick Brody - would be allowed to address the rally.

(Talk about another country!)

The relevance to the study is that
NBC showed 57 seconds of Brody's speech, and over a minute of Muskie's.

That all went out with the high-buttoned boots: the length of the average soundbite on the networks' nightly news shows went from 42 to 10 seconds between 68 and 88; and, in 1968, 20% of soundbites lasted over a minute (none did in 1988).

So far, so predictable.

The words were, to that extent, replaced by images - both photo-ops and campaign commercials. And - the argument goes - the journalism, as a result, started to include a large element of theatre criticism: of campaign events as performances, majoring on highlighting gaffes and slips. Our old non-existent friend objectivity was nodded to by giving equal time to both sides' spots or photo-ops.

The study cites (p6) as a sort of threshold moment Humphrey's walk on the beach [2] with the boys on the bus in September 1968: NBC reported it as a presser, CBS (David Schoumacher) went for the image:
It used to be kissing babies. Now candidates like to have their pictures taken walking alone on the beach. Apparently it is intended to show the subject at peace with himself and in tune with the tides.

First class bollocks, worthy of standing beside Jodi Wilgoren's Kerry's butler piece.

The problem with theater criticism, or image-conscious coverage as a style of political reporting, is that it involves showing the potent visuals that the campaigns contrive. Reporters become the conduits for the very images they criticise.

Not only can the power of images be sufficient to drown out the voice-over commentary, however caustic: the piece cites (p8) Brit Hume's cynical comments on a visual of Bush wrapping himself in the Stars and Stripes on a visit to a flag factory (!)

the very pictures that Hume tried to debunk would live again on the evening news, as file footage, or stock imagery illustrating Bush's campaign.

And (p17) the famous (even I've heard of it!) report of Leslie Stahl's criticising Reagan's manipulation of imagery in the 1984 campaign; she was surprised to hear that the White House loved the report. And was told by one of Reagan's guys [3]
They don't listen to you if you are contradicting great pictures. They don't hear what you are saying if the pictures are saying something different.

By 1988, the campaigns themselves were happy to admit complicity on the record, as with the GOP's Ed Rollins (p11):
These are staged events, and anyone who says they're not is kidding themselves.

As for TV spots, no footage was shown in the nightly news in 1968: 125 extracts ran in 1988. And less than 8% were accompanied by any kind of fact-checking commentary. Examples of the exceptions are cited, including (p9) Leslie Stahl's correction of a statistic used in Bush's revolving door furlough ad: the VO said that Dukakis'
revolving door prison policy gave weekend passes to first degree murderers not eligible for parole

Then, 268 escaped appeared on screen. In fact, of those who escaped, only four were first-degree murderers.

Plus ├ža change...

Stahl's was the only correction in the ten times the ad was shown on evening news shows.

The Willie Horton ad, Weekend Passes, gets some space: this was actually produced, according to Jake Tapper, for
the National Security Political Action Committee and its Americans for Bush arm-- both independent advocacy groups.

The problem - no problem at all for the Bush campaign, of course [4] - was that
As they appeared on the evening news, the Bush ads on crime enjoyed a heightened impact due to the networks' readiness to combine them with material from [Weekend Passes]. This link was so seamless that many viewers thought the revolving door furlough featured Willie Horton, when in fact it never mentioned him.

The point of ads grew to be to get shown on the news, rather than persuade viewers seeing them in commercial breaks.

(Though networks strained at the gnat of convention videos:
We are not in the business of being the propaganda arms of the political parties.
said CBS' Lane Venardos (p10).

Self-deception not a recent phenomenon at the Eye Network, apparently.)

And, again, the commercials became stock footage.

An interesting example (p19) of a commercial about commercials
in which Dukakis stood beside a television set and snapped off a Bush commercial attacking his stand on defense. "I'm fed up with it," Dukakis declared. "Never seen anything like it in twenty-five years of public life. George Bush's negative television ads, distorting my record, full of lies, and he knows it..."

Dukakis seemingly trying to take charge of his own image. (Fat chance!)

As to gaffes, the study contrasts (p12) Bush's misstating September 7 as the anniversary of Pearl Harbor (in a speech to the American Legion!) - which drew adverse comments on all three networks - with a gem from Spiro Agnew, at a presser on defence:
"Mr Nixon is trying to cast himself in the role of a Neville Chamberlain." Like Bush, Agnew quickly corrected himself, saying it was Humphrey who reminded him of Chamberlain. "Mr Nixon, of course, would play the opposite role, that of Winston Churchill."

The Agnew gaffe was shown on the news, but no comment was made.

Initial coverage of the infamous Dukakis tank ride (p13), apparently, was not wholly negative. For instance, NBC's Chris Wallace started his item
Don't call Michael Dukakis soft on defense. Today he rolled across the Michigan plains like General Patton on his way to Berlin.

But the absurdity of the images looked at on their own - and soon tediously overfamiliar to the journos and editors - invited their use as sarcasm.

Analysis wasn't wholly crowded out by images: the piece cites (p14) ABC's Jim Wooten
assessing the validity of each candidate's claims in the first presidential debate. He interspersed clips of the candidates' statements with a correction of their facts.

As, for instance,
Dukakis: "I was a leader in the civil rights movement in my state and in my legislature."

Wooten: "Well, he did propose an anti-discrimination commission once, but that was about it."

Advanced stuff for 1988!

There's plenty more besides - theory well beyond my ability to explicate.

Oh, and a kicker from - who else? - Dan Rather:
With all this emphasis on the image, what happens to the issues? What happens to the substance?

Comment surely superfluous...

  1. It's a 4MB PDF file: it's been scanned as images, hence the heavy byteage.

    A deal of promising-looking papers available from the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

  2. British readers will recall Labour leader Neil Kinnock's famous walk on Blackpool beach in 1987 - he fell over into the water in front of the cameras, footage endlessly repeated on TV. In the titles of satirical plastic puppet show Spitting Image, for instance.

  3. The study says that counter-images - showing the reality over a VO from the candidate with his falsification - were used once or twice. The objectivity thing gets in the way of the device being used more often.

  4. The piece suggests the reasoning behind the Dukakis campaign's reluctance to challenge the ads:
    When Dukakis attacked these ads, the networks treated his attacks as one more chapter in a dirty campaign, as if Dukakis's criticisms of these commercials were on a par with the smears themselves.
    On October 25, when Dukakis attacked Bush's ads,
    That night on the evening news, the networks not only reported the candidates' charges and counter-charges, but showed no fewer than twenty excepts of campaign commercials to dramatize the dispute.
    And only Stahl was offering factual corrections.


The Brown University analysis of the Willie Horton ad controversy points out, in its introduction, that, in Spring 1988,
No sitting vice president since Martin Van Buren in 1836 had been elected in his own right...

The office veritably Cactus Jack Garner's pitcher of warm piss (I think the unbowdlerised version was).

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