Playing politics with pictures: seeing (on a TV screen) is believing. Media messages
TELEVISION is a complex system of technology that seems to reduce us to a state of near-primitive credulity. Time and again, we scoff at commercials, yet buy the advertised products. Often we see a news story on television, poorly reported, even garbled, then go on to read a more accurate, coherent version in the next day's newspaper, yet we somehow trust what we see over what we read - as if seeing an anchorman reading a TelePrompTer were more reliable than reading for ourselves, as if seeing edited film clips were as real as ``being there,'' as if seeing ``live action'' through the eye of the video camera could explain what we see or why the event being covered has a claim to our attention. Seeing is believing. It's hard not to believe one's eyes, harder still when the sight is ``validated'' by the authority television has as a provider of images in our common culture. ``The central claims of Madison Avenue, of prime-time television, and of widely viewed films have replaced those of the Bible, Shakespeare, and the great speeches as the lingua franca of contemporary oratory,'' Kathleen Hall Jamieson regretfully observes.Skip to next paragraph
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In her stimulating and thoughtful book Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking (Oxford University Press, 320 pp., Illustrated. $24.95), Jamieson, author of ``Packaging the Presidency'' and professor of communication at the University of Texas at Austin, shows how far Americans have come from a time when a speaker could calm a hostile crowd by quoting a well-known Psalm to an age when a speaker would more likely quote something like ``Make my day!''
Jamieson finds more than television to blame for the sharp decline in the quality of political oratory. The failure of schools to provide a core curriculum in the humanities that would familiarize students with great literature and with important speeches from the past deprives orators of an audience. The lack of opportunities for speakers to practice their skill further diminishes an already dying art.
But television remains the central culprit. ``Because television is a visual medium whose natural grammar is associative,'' she explains, ``a person adept at visualizing claims in dramatic capsules will be able to use television to short-circuit the audience's demand that those claims be dignified with evidence. ... When the public is unwilling or unable to evaluate the reasoned exposition of candidates, it cannot know whether the candidates have examined alternatives to the policies they espouse. Nor can it know whether the would-be leader has understood the lessons of the past....''
Insightfully - and entertainingly - Jamieson takes us on a tour of rhetoric from the Greeks to Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, with side trips to examine the problems of less successful communicators, such as Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. Her analysis of the blend of qualities responsible for Reagan's success as the ``Great Communicator'' goes beyond the obvious points often made about his acting experience and ``nice guy'' style to lead us to an understanding of his humorous self-effacement (a key to the ``Teflon effect''), his storytelling ability, and his gift for evoking in words those dramatic visual images that serve for today's audience something of the function that literacy and biblical quotations served for our ancestors.
Although Jamieson can scarcely approve of the brave new world of intellectual short-circuitry she understands so well, she does have some modest proposals for improving the situation, from reintroducing public speaking in the school curriculum to requiring broadcasters to provide free equal time slots for candidates to address the electorate just before elections. By meshing her close scrutiny of modern speakers with the long view, Jamieson calls to our attention the ancient Greek concept of logos - the appeal to reason - that is in danger of being lost in the electronic rush to appeal to emotion (pathos) and to portray the politician's character (ethos) in the most favorable light that imagemaking consultants can shed on it.