The technological warp

If Nixon had the Internet, Larry King, and TV satellites ...

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If Richard Nixon had had today's communications tools available to him 25 years ago, could he have convinced America he was doing a good job and therefore avoided his certain impeachment? Consider President Clinton, who enjoys a 70 percent job approval rating even as the Senate decides his fate. Modern instruments of communication such as the Internet, television satellites, and TV and radio news channels have helped the Clinton team reinforce its message with the public. People who surf the Web and watch television talk shows often have strong opinions. It is those people who will go out and "radiate" the message -the "talking points" hatched in the war room of the White House. Take, for example, the familiar refrain by those who are against the impeachment of President Clinton: "It doesn't rise to the level of impeachable offenses." That argument first was made by Clinton officials over the airwaves. Now it seems that all his supporters say it. But those of us communicating Nixon's story from inside the White House had rudimentary tools to work with, by today's technological standards. There were no 24-hour nationwide news and talk channels available to get the administration's message out. Today's technology gives the White House access to the public at all times of the day and night. Point-counterpoint TV formats abound to ensure parity with the president's critics and provide direct contact with viewers for hours on end. Mr. Clinton and his supporters can do one-on-one interviews with a dozen local TV anchors in 90 minutes via satellite from a TV studio in Washington, and appear before newspaper editorial boards whose participants are thousands of miles away. Twenty-five years ago, we in the Nixon administration were reduced to 10-second sound bites funneled through the journalistic filters of the three half-hour nightly network news broadcasts. Before television satellites became commonplace, Nixon surrogates were sent packing for a week to Peoria, Bozeman, and Duluth, to spread the word with farflung media. By contrast, the public now can scroll through more than 200,000 pages of the White House's Web site. On the day the Paula Jones lawsuit was dismissed, so many people logged onto the site that there was an 80 percent slowdown on page delivery. Web surfers can visit the White House's virtual briefing room, e-mail the president and the first lady, and otherwise review the accomplishments of the administration. There's even a special site for kids, where the first family's cat, Socks, leads children on a White House tour. During the Nixon administration, there were very few opportunities to appear on television in neutral formats. A three-month White House review of TV network coverage in 1971, claimed, for example, that the late-night Dick Cavett Show on ABC favored opponents of the administration's Vietnam policies over those expressing support, by a 3-to-1 margin. Nixon found that one of the most effective ways to communicate with the public was through nationally televised news conferences. In his book, "Six Crises," Nixon describes the strategy of his famous 1952 "Checkers" speech on television. "I was determined to tell my story to the people rather than to funnel it to them through a press account," he said. His nationally televised press conferences got rave reviews at the outset. Reporters, eager to be seen on prime-time TV, clambered for more televised press conferences decades before Larry King, Wolf Blitzer, and Chris Matthews would provide easy access for talking heads. Newsweek reported early in Nixon's first term, before the release of the Pentagon Papers, that "the man who once felt abused by the media has mastered them." But the televised news conferences were just a start. In the end, the Nixon administration was missing the opportunity that now exists to reinforce messages that are important for the public to hear. If Nixon had the same access to viewers, listeners, and surfers that today's White House has, he may have been able to influence public opinion with more reporting on his accomplishments. And - maybe - it would have reversed the course of history. Alvin Snyder, a Washington media consultant, was a special assistant to President Nixon. He wrote 'Warriors of Disinformation: American Propaganda, Soviet Lies, and the Winning of the Cold War' (Arcade Publishing, 1995).

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