'Lights, Camera Politics!': a print man looks at TV's impact

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"Television technology has already shattered the US political party system," according to political analyst Richard Reeves, "and it will eventually shatter our government system, too."

On the telephone from his vacation hideaway on Shelter Island, N.Y., where he has retreated after completing the ABC News Close-up "Lights, Cameras . . . Politics" (Friday, July 11, 8-9 p.m., check local listings), the exhausted Mr. Reeves marvels at the enormous amount of time and effort TV journalists have to put into their work.

He functioned as correspondent-writer on the documentary, produced by Ann Black and Tom Priestly under the innovative aegis of senior producer Richard Richter and executive producer Pamela Hill.

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"What television does," Mr. Reeves says, "is change what people know and when they know it. And in a peculiarly American way, almost all of TV's technology is owned by three corporations who use it for their own purpose.

"Candidates used to be chosen and elections planned by politicians in smoke-filled rooms, but today the campaigns are plotted by media experts and political events are planned to conform to television news schedules. Television exposure is the candidates' major goal. . . ."

"Lights, Cameras . . . Politics" (based on a rough cut I previewed while Mr. Reeves was completing the show and a more or less complete transcript) is a gnawingly fascinating, ultimately disturbing study of American political practices and their metamorphosis into a second- rate TV sitcom. Mr. Reeves provides historical perspective and caustically acute observations from his perch as a political observer for the print medium.

This timely documentary entertains as it enlightens. There are old clips of FDR and other master politicians plying their trade in the old-fashioned manner, on radio and in movie newsreels. For those who have forgotten too soon, there are clips from the original Richard M. Nixon "Checkers" speech, which proved early in the political game that the TV cameras can be used for one's own purposes.

Although most of the examples of TV use are culled from the Republican side, not all are unfavorable.Reagan's now-famous "I paid for this mike" statement in Nashua, N.H. -- showing the candidate in a strong and decisive moment -- is aired and analyzed by Mr. Reeves. But viewers may also be interested to see if the coming weeks of political campaigning will be influenced by a revival of interest in a now nearly forgotten early Ronald Reagan commercial. In it Reagan refers to a Kennedy administration "30 percent tax cut," but later, on "Issues and Answers," he is shown denying he had ever said that. Mr. Reeves makes certain you see both clips for yourself . . . just in case you missed them the first time around.

There are clips of the major anchor people doing their jobs -- and then explaining away their influence in the name of personal editorial judgment. And there are some important TV news executives who took a moment away from their hour-by- hour "manipulations" to reveal very little in their on-camera interviews. (NBC's William Small perhaps wisely declined to appear, although the ubiquitous TV news veteran Dick Salant, now of NBC, acquiesced).

Bill Leonard of CBS News was asked by Mr. Reeves if he thinks about the effect television has on the body politic and on the nation in general. His answer: "This is going to sound terribly irreverent, and i suppose unthinking. but not too much. . . ."

YEs, Mr. Leonard, It does soundm irreverent and unthinking. But unfortunately , it has the ring of truth.

Mr. Reeves concludes: "The men who wrote the Constitution of the United States deliberately constructed an intricate set of checks and balances. They wanted to slow down the processes of government. They wanted democracy to wait out the passions of the moment . . . nothing could happen until the crowd dispersed . . . until the mob went home.

"Now, the mob is at home . . . Watching television."

"Lights, Cameras . . . Politics" is an ominous but probably accurate diagnosis of what ails the body politic, perhaps symptomatic of what ails the whole society.

Although it is daringly early in the political year to do such a documentary, viewers should be grateful that a perceptive political creature such as Richard Reeves has taken time out from the print political wars to do battle with TV and its impact on politics, and thus on our civilization.

See it before you vote.

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