The making of a mediarchy

INTERRUPTSam Smith, 1988

This year’s presidential campaign, otherwise without socially redeeming virtue, has at least effectively destroyed the myth of Ronald Reagan as mediameister. George Bush has proved that anybody can do it.

This had been long concealed because of a natural confusion between cause and effect. Reagan appeared to be manipulating the media when, in fact, he was simply reaping the benefits of being its most diligent and well-behaved student-politician. What appeared to be a Stygian skill called from deep within him was nothing more than a long and total commitment to the media’s own rules and mores.

That the effect can be replicated virtually at will was amply demonstrated by the Bush campaign. Bush entered the race absent a verifiable microcurie of charisma, with little rhetorical ability, and seemingly lacking even elemental shrewdness. Yet his media triumph has put even that of the Great Prevaricator to shame. What took Reagan years of GE commercials to achieve, Bush has mastered in a few short weeks.

The dramatic alteration of the presumed persona of George Bush should come as no surprise to students of the tube. After all, television long ago learned that talent was the least of its requirements. It discovered it didn’t need a comedian as good as Ernie Kovacs, a journalist as good as Edward R. Murrow or some actress imported from Broadway to fill a dramatic role. It could simply manufacture a reasonable likeness out of the endless pool of attractive, inoffensive faces and bodies trooping through its casting offices.

One of the earliest and longest smash hits of television was Howdy Doody, a seminal production that recognized television’s potential as the electronic successor to the Punch & Judy show — in which life is portrayed by farcical characters engaged in fantastic situations evoking the most generic mythical symbolism.

In drama this potential has brought us to Miami in music to MTV. Our news anchors are Punch & journalists, Ted Koppel symbolizes Thought, Vanna White is Beautiful Woman, Tom Braden does his political transvestite act as The Leftist. Even Saturday Night Live now seems a recreation of the original as performed by puppets. George Bush stars in this season’s mini-series: The Presidency, Part XXXXI. And J. Danforth Quayle plays Robert Redford playing a Quayle-like candidate.

To be sure the real survives in strange corners of the box, as I have discovered with pleasure grazing through the back forty channels of my newly acquired cable system. But the dominant character one sees on television today is an actor or actress playing a role ~ even when that which is presented is supposed to be real.

The ability of television to corrupt whatever its ubiquitous eye finds can be frequently observed during sports coverage. Coaches and players have learned what television expects of them and even the most inarticulate attempt to adapt themselves whenever the microphone pops up. Similarly, many victims of tragedies have learned unconsciously to speak of their sorrow in modulated and analytical terms when confronted with the cameras of Eyewitness News. We all speak television now. American life has become a docudrama and we keep forgetting which part we just invented.

Reality as nostalgia

In such an environment it is small wonder that we choose our presidents for their symbolic virtue more for their policies, that political debates are really little than national screen tests, and that facts have become the icing on the cake of myth.

We are not electing a president any more. We are selecting a mediarch, one who rules through the media. The person we chose is the one who best performs the symbolic role of president as we would like to see it on TV.

Presidential elections have become a process by which the American voting public decides which advertising agency it likes best.

The newly trained George Bush looked and acted the part best. Right height, right accent, right smile, right ethnicity…

Backed by virulently mendacious advertising aimed at making his opponent look unpresidential, Bush seized the media initiative.

There’s an irony here, because at the start Dukakis had the media edge. He is actually a superb performer, as he belatedly demonstrated during a town meeting with Illinois high school students. Holding a hand mike and wandering around the stage like a low-key Phil Donahue, Dukakis was forceful, convincing and, yes, even likeable.

The problem is that we don’t think of our presidents as low keyed Phil Donahues. George Bush is more like it. You’re great, Mike, but not quite what we’re looking for, you know? Besides there’s the Greek thing and – er, urn, the mixed marriage, you know what I mean?

Many who were raised on rationalistic values, educated to respect truth, fact and knowledge, have felt a bit stunned by the insignificance of the real in the 1988 presidential campaign. But if, as mounting evidence suggests, we have moved into a post-rational age driven by symbols and myths, the real may be as unrecallable a piece of nostalgia as the “free enterprise system” is to Ronald Reagan.

One can not, for example, explain the massive change in the poll results from summer to fall based on anything that actually happened. Nothing actually happened. Except on television.

One of the shamans of contemporary politics, Democratic pollster Peter Hart, was asked about this. Does this mean issues aren’t important anymore? His reply: “Issues are important because they define character.” A screenwriter’s answer. Issues are just another tool of the trade.

The Next Hurrah

The era of old machine politics is over, but television, and such related crafts as political polling and consulting, have become our new political machines, machines strikingly different from the previous ones because, fundamentally, they are not really that interested in politics.

One hundred and eighty ten-year-old kids were surveyed on a variety of subjects. One of the questions asked them to name as many US presidents as they could; another asked them to name as many alcoholic beverages as they could.

On the average, they were able to name 4.8 presidents and 5.2 alcohol products. And there were those who could correctly spell Asti Spumante who could not spell Ronald Reagan.

Consultants take on political clients with the eclecticism of lawyers; pollsters are, they will assure you, independent professionals; and television pretends it is merely an onlooker, reminiscent of one of its earlier creations, the bumbling Cauliflower McPug, whose favorite sound-bite was, “I wasn’t doin’ nuttin’. I was just standing there.” But there is no way that television can just stand there.

It has increasingly dominated national politics, from determining which candidates are visually acceptable to sopping up so much campaign money that there isn’t even enough left for political buttons. Pollsters and the political consultants are similarly intrusive. Many of the latter get paid like advertising agencies, based on the size of their media buys, which means a vested interest in steering politics towards high-cost television ads.

One of the most vivid images of the last campaign came from a PBS program on European coverage of the race. The scene was set in what might be best described as the convention control booth. In the background were monitors showing delegates waving red and blue Dukakis signs. A man – would he call himself a convention producer? – paced up and down yelling, “I want the red signs down and the blue signs up! Red down, Blue up! Get that? Red down, blue up!” His minions reached for the phones and a close-up revealed a woman screaming into the mouthpiece, “No, get those red signs down!” A few seconds later the monitors showed not a single red sign. Those in the control booth broke into self congratulatory applause.

I sat there wondering: for this, we got rid of the Richard Daleys of the world? Could it really be that there were no Democratic delegates who would wave their red signs in defiance of capricious orders from some unseen, unelected expert in the control booth? Apparently not in the politics of 1988.

Now back to the newsroom

Television news, most notably CBS, made some effort to counteract the damage its own medium has done. But these attempts, such as pointing out the lies of the Bush television ads, were sapped of their strength by the media’s inexorable fear of appearing unbalanced. Thus the Bush falsehoods were treated as basically no more serious than the largely technical flaws found in Dukakis’s claims. Television news’ on-the-one-hand-this-on-the-other-hand-that approach to such matters actually furthers the falsehood and may help to explain why so many voters fail to understand the real differences between their politicians.

In addition, television news has been irrevocably changed by television advertising. One of the most instructive articles of the campaign, by Lloyd Grove, appeared in the October 20 issue of the Washington Post.

Grove’s point was that TV news and ad images were becoming intertwined to such an extent that, as pollster Marvin Bainman, put it, “People are confused as to what is advertising and what is not advertising. To the extent that the ads look like news items or the reverse, that just contributes to the confusion.” Grove quotes Brian Healy, senior political news producer at CBS as saying: ‘In the 1970s, when we looked at commercials and advertising techniques, and the pacing of popular TV programs, we saw that the American mind was capable of handling a lot of different camera angles, quick shots and short bites, because Americans had seen commercials all their lives. So we have borrowed from the advertising techniques of commercial film making to put our spots together.” Democratic media consultant Robert Squier says that if you did a history of the sound bite, you’d find that ten years ago, a candidate could get 45 seconds on the air. A 1984 study by George Washington University found that the sound bite was down to 14.79 seconds and this year’s preliminary work at the University of Texas found the average sound bit running about nine seconds.

At this rate, by 1992 all television will tell us about the candidates is their last names. And they’ll bill it as a debate.

Timid new world

One of television’s least noted destructive side-effects is how it bullies us into timidity. It has taught us that the reality of the world is too complicated for us to understand, that being perceived as being right is more important than being right, that if we are not threatened by war, famine or flood, we are definitely threatened by whatever exotic disease is used as a crutch for the latest docudrama. The only really safe place is in front of one’s television set.

This lesson has been well learned by the nation’s politicians who, unfortunately, are not in front of the set but inside it. We sit down for a safely contained vicarious experience and find our candidates acting like couch potatoes, i.e. just like us. And the price they pay for projecting security is that they bore us. Late in the campaign, one poll found that nearly two-thirds of the voters wished someone else was running.

But even if a candidate were brave enough to talk about a real issue insome depth, would it work? According to Robert Abelson of Yale University, probably not.

Abelson and Robert Kinder has studied the polling samples of the 1980 and 1984 National Election Study and, says Abelson, feelings are three to four times more important than issues or party loyalty in a presidential election.

The samples measured four variables: people’s perceptions of the candidates’ personal qualities, the feelings aroused by the candidates, party affiliation and positions on current issues. According to a report in Psychology Today, Carter was seen as vague and indecisive and Mondale failed to inspire hope and pride. Says Abelson, personality judgements and feelings “are close to our daily experiences; they package a lot of complicated things very neatly, they’re a much more natural response than rational reflections on policy choices.” Another study, at the University of Minnesota, found that emotional reactions to Reagan and Mondale were twice as important as party affiliation to a sample of 1500 voters.

Still another study, this one at the University of Pennsylvania by Garold Zullow and Martin Seligman, found that you could judge winners by their campaign speeches.

The one with the most optimistic speeches took the White House. As Zullow put it: “People tend to vote for the candidate who makes them feel more hopeful about the country’s future.” Interestingly, earlier this year, the pair analyzed the speeches thus far by Dukakis and Bush an)” gave the election to Dukakis. But that was before Bush had taken his Berlitz course in television and begun describing Dukakis, totally unfairly but incessantly, as a prophet of doom and gloom.

Democracy: more than a feeling?

Those who find much of the above alien to everything they thought choosing a president should be about might note that Robert Abelson is not some political philistine. He is an academic, presumably a Phd, trained in the rational, telling us that feelings are a more natural response than rational reflections. While it is unlikely that he would extend to his students much tolerance were they to function on such an assumption, here is yet another indication of the rising importance of the non-rational in American life, even academic American life.

I recently visited several colleges. At one, semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, was offered as a major. Semiotics teaches us, among other things, that red and green mean nothing until they are put in relationship, as hi a traffic light. Similarly, I suppose, Willie Horton and Michael Dukakis mean nothing until they are put in relationship, as in a TV commercial. At another school, a basic psychology course outdrew every other course on campus by a factor of three to one.

Determining, marketing, and analyzing how we feel and how we react to the symbols that engulf us may be one of the last great industries we have to offer the world.

Progressives, propelled by fact, logic and critical thinking, resist the trend. We don’t like to talk about symbolism of our own efforts or engage hi practices imply contempt for our audience. This is honorable but places us at risk of becoming a stolid, ineffective sect clinging to values that no one challenges but no one accepts.

Everyone thinks the Amish are good and noble people, but they don’t get many converts.

Curiously, it was the left in the 1960s that gave symbolic politics one of its greatest boosts, combining a rational assault on the establishment with great theatre and a cry for the liberation of our symbols and our feelings. But with time, the theatrical left grew up and dried up, replaced by somber advocates of change who seem at tunes more like Talmudic scholars than rebels. Todav some of the dullest people in Washington are public interest activists who know plenty of statistics but few songs.

In conventional Democratic politics, the trend has been in the same direction. The last four Democratic candidates -McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis– have been sincere and decent but not all that interesting. Good utility infielders don’t fill the ball park.

In better times, this would be merely unfortunate. But the real danger of rule by media is that the tyranny of symbols doesn’t disappear on election day. It continues to obscure real issues, real poh’cies and real practices throughout an administration. America is far less a democracy than it was when Ronald Reagan entered the White House. That’s bad enough but far worse is the fact that America doesn’t know it.

The first job of progressives after this dismal election is to come to terms with the semiotic society we have become, a world in which signs and symbols mean more than facts and figures, a world in which you lose elections because of a bad choice of ad agencies rather than a poor choice of issues. We proved in the sixties that myth and reality can be integrated in such a way that the symbols support real change. There will inevitably be a conflict between the symbols and the reality, but if the symbols are based on honest dreams rather than the hypocritical images of a Reagan or a Bush, they can help us towards a better reality.

Roosevelt understood this, so did Jack Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Millions of young Americans understood this in the sixties. And these myths, these symbols, sustain us still, breaking through the wall of our rationality, giving us something to live and fight for when the facts say we have lost.

It is time not only to dream again but to give mythical substance to our dreams. The alternative is to leave the American spirit hostage to the fraudulent symbols of a crypto-authoritarian right which will steadily but surely rob democracy of its essence leaving us only with endlessly repeated images that assure us that nothing has changed.


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