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.
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.
Taking a different tack from Jamieson's qualitative analysis of the televisual format, a team of political scientists has actually attempted to provide ``hard'' (quantitative) answers to some questions about the influence of television news. In News That Matters: Television and American Public Opinion (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 187 pp., $19.95), Shanto Iyengar and Donald R. Kinder recount in detail a series of carefully controlled experiments designed to measure the effect of television coverage of a given topic (for example, civil rights, inflation, pollution, defense) on an audience's perception of the relative national importance of that problem.
Among their findings: featuring a story at the beginning of a broadcast does increase viewers' perception of the topic's importance; repeated attention to a given issue leads viewers to take that particular issue into account when evaluating the performance of a president or the platform of a candidate. More surprisingly, vivid human-interest stories, meant to dramatize a given problem, actually seem to be less effective than ``dry'' statistics in impressing viewers with the national importance of the problem.
The experiments described in ``News That Matters'' tend to bear out an observation cited by the authors at the outset: They believe that the news media (both television and the press) ``may not be successful much of the time in telling [people] what to think, but ... stunningly successful in telling [them] what to think about.'' And, of course, by doing that, television can indeed exert a strong political influence all the more insidious for not seeming overtly political.
While Jamieson's analysis of television as a medium and the Iyengar-Kinder study of audience response both focus on the influence of television as a form, media critics on the right and on the left have been scrutinizing the content as well, looking for evidence of bias. Right-wing critics like National Review publisher William Rusher, author of The Coming Battle for the Media: Curbing the Power of the Media Elite (Morrow, New York, 218 pp. $18.95), tend to locate the bias in the attitudes of the news establishment.
Left-wing critics, like the contributors to American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives, edited by Donald Lazere (University of California Press, Berkeley, 618 pp. $48 cloth; $15.95 paper), also point to a bias - against labor unions, citizens' groups, or any idea that is socialist - but the leftists go beyond analyzing the personal attitudes of individual reporters, editors, and news producers to examining some of the broader cultural effects of television as a marketer of consumer goods and pacifier of citizen activism.
A kind of litmus test for media critics of varying ideologies is a survey of attitudes among the so-called ``media elite'' conducted by S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman. Results of the Lichter-Rothman survey were first published in 1981 in Public Opinion, a journal sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think-tank). Lichter and Rothman defined ``media elite'' as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, and the news departments of CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, and other major independent networks.
On the basis of in-depth interviews, Lichter and Rothman concluded that the average media person was more liberal than the average citizen. This, at least, is how William Rusher interprets the survey results, and so do Profs. Jeffrey Hadden and Anson Shupe, who in their book, Televangelism, Power, and Politics (Henry Holt, New York, 312 pp., $19.95), set forth the argument that liberal bias is the reason the media elite have tended to underestimate the popular appeal of television evangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. But leftist critic Peter Dreier in his essay ``The Corporate Complaint Against the Media'' (in ``American Media and Mass Culture'') points out that the Lichter-Rothman survey originally compared the attitudes of media folk with the (understandably more conservative) attitudes of members of America's corporate elite, who are not exactly ``average'' Americans either.
After seven years of a conservative presidency, it is not surprising that conservative (and some moderate) media critics misinterpret the adversarial stance of journalists like Sam Donaldson and Dan Rather as anti-conservative. But only 10 years before, the media were just as eager to practice their adversarial skills on a president who was considered to be liberal, even ``soft.''
The clash between George Bush and Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News some weeks ago furnishes a kind of paradigm. Rather, apparently, considered it very much his business to ask the Iran-contra question, even though it was not very likely that Bush was prepared to answer it. Bush, evidently, hoped that his ``you too'' response would be seen by the audience as an attempt by a beleaguered politician to ``get the media off his back.''
Spiro Agnew's classic stance of running against the media remains an option for politicians and media critics - and not only conservative ones - vide Gary Hart - who feel they are hard done by. Tactically, this stance places the politician in a ``heads I win, tails you lose'' situation, to borrow a phrase from Donald Lazere's essay on ``Conservative Media Criticism,'' one of the ``Left Perspectives.'' If the media continue to be critical of the politician, it only ``proves'' their bias. If they are chastened and treat him more gingerly, he has succeeded in getting the treatment he hoped for in the first place.
To critics more interested in form than in political content, the Bush-Rather incident would seem to illustrate the trivializing tendencies of television in its present state. A question of substance (What, in fact, was Bush's role in Iran-contra?), which had already become a question of character, or ethos (Had Bush told all?), which in turn became a question of stage-management (Why was Bush unable at least to appear consistent?), had finally become a question of what business a journalist had to ask such embarrassing questions in the first place. With a few days' further ``commentary,'' the story degenerated into the still more vacuous question of whether Bush or Rather had appeared the more ``mean,'' and which of them had gotten the better of the other.
Yet conservatives like William Rusher address a very real concern about the hazards of a media which seems to conceive of its role as permanently adversarial. True, in a situation as complex as the Vietnam war, television may well have rendered a service in exposing the extreme difficulties of an all but hopeless military task and the divisions of a nation insufficiently unified in its commitment to that task. But even opponents of the Vietnam war ought perhaps to feel some concern that the kidnapping of one career officer serving in the UN peace-keeping forces in Lebanon should unleash a spate of journalistic breast-beating as to whether a great power had militarily overextended itself in exposing a single soldier to harm. It is hard not to find merit in Rusher's charge that the media elite are almost automatically opposed to any military action undertaken by the American government.
The adversary dialectic between the media and government is unlikely to change and the nature of television continues to dictate that that dynamic will be most apparent in the most visual of the media. But, after all, government exerts by its very nature enormous power. And one can expect that the media will continue to exercise whatever power they can in whatever manner is most efficacious. From William Rusher on the right to others of more liberal persuasion, thoughtful media watchers still advocate such safeguards of free expression as the Fairness Doctrine in broadcasting, recently overturned by shortsighted conservative ``libertarians'' on the Reagan administration Federal Communications Commission.
For all the excesses of the hydra-headed media, however deplorable their individual solecisms, it seems that Americans must finally look to the pluralism and open-mindedness of the media, reflecting and reinvigorating as they do the pluralism of US society, as one of the forces that keep the exercise of free expression alive. And, it is not too much to claim, political liberty itself.
Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.