Videoculture 3. Do `mediagenic' candidates make good leaders?
IN near-blizzard conditions on Feb. 26, 1972, presidential primary candidate Edmund S. Muskie stood on a flatbed truck in Manchester, N.H. -- and, with the aid of television, effectively lost his party's nomination. At the time, Muskie was the Democratic front-runner. But a harsh attack published the day before in William Loeb's right-wing Manchester Union Leader -- aimed not only at Mr. Muskie but at his wife as well -- brought him to an emotional breaking point. Three times that day, as he lashed out at Loeb in a press conference in front of the Union Leader's offices, his voice broke, and he had to stop.Skip to next paragraph
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It was widely reported that he wept. According to the news reports at the time, those in the audience saw him wipe his face. They also saw the snow. But did they actually see tears? Monitor correspondent Richard L. Strout was on the scene. ``His face was wet,'' Strout wrote judiciously, ``either from snow or emotion.''
Prof. Joshua Meyrowitz of the University of New Hampshire likes to use this example to define one of the effects of television on the political process.
Given the snowstorm, he asks, ``How many people [in the crowd] could see that he was crying?'' In fact, as Meyrowitz points out, the answer hardly matters. The eyewitness reports of newspapermen, however close their position and sharp their vision, could not equal the power of the television camera's zoom lens. That night, millions around the nation saw a candid close-up of Muskie's face in their living rooms and could decide for themselves.
That turning point and its eventual results -- Muskie going down in defeat to George McGovern, who was overwhelmed by Richard Nixon, who was in turn swept away by Watergate -- cannot all be traced to the effect of a camera lens. But on that day television again proved that it had become an inescapable force in national politics -- simply by magnifying for the viewer things a live audience might pass by with less notice.
By most accounts, the impact of television on the political process -- and on the journalism that reports that process -- is enormous. EVER since 1954, when Edward R. Murrow, on CBS television, helped kick the pins out from under the excesses of Joseph R. McCarthy's anticommunist witch hunting, television has had a prominent part in the democratic process.
In 1960, it was widely reported that those who listened to the Kennedy-Nixon debates on the radio inclined toward Nixon -- while those who saw the youthful, personable Massachusetts senator on the screen beside the stubble-faced vice president felt otherwise.
A careless remark about Poland by President Gerald Ford while debating Jimmy Carter was instantly, and damagingly, bounced around the nation.
Later, a polished performance against then-President Carter by a former actor-turned-governor helped make Ronald Reagan (as ABC anchor man Peter Jennings observes) ``the best TV president we've ever had.''
The power of television is undeniable. But is it for good, or for evil?
On this question, as on most others concerning television, the opinions are sharply divided. Critics of television accuse it of subverting the political process by:
Requiring ``mediagenic'' candidates, whose good looks and attractive speaking voice make them immediately attractive to television viewers.
Placing a premium on candidates who, in the tight time limits imposed by nightly news programs and political advertising ``spots,'' know how to provide appealing, oversimplified answers to highly complex issues.
Breaking up established party structures and local organizations -- since the candidates can now bypass this apparatus and go directly to the voters.
Setting the agenda for political campaigns by playing down certain issues and repeatedly emphasizing others.
``My greatest concern about national campaigns,'' says ABC's Mr. Jennings, ``is that we will elect people in the future who are extremely adept at organizing their arguments and their campaigns for TV, but who are vastly less [well] informed on the issues.''
James W. Carey, dean of the School of Communication at the University of Illinois, puts it another way. The ``telegenic candidate,'' he says, is ``one who substitutes personality for ideology'' but who may not be able to pass along his triumphs to his successors.