SILVER SPRINGS, MD. — There's a part of the newspaper that political professionals find even funnier than "Doonesbury." It never fails to give me a chuckle, especially when I consider what serious business it is to the news executives who dreamed it up.
It was created, in this age of made-for-TV elections, to give journalists a chance at deflecting the powerful impact of candidates' commercials, and also to give newspapers a chance at competing with TV.
Politicians win elections by talking directly to voters through advertising, a conversation reporters and editors find woefully one-sided. Just as depressing is the increasing dominance of television over newspapers. Why not solve both problems, editors reason, by making the paper more like TV? Put a TV monitor on the page, credit the agency that made the political commercial, add pungent analysis with zippy names like "Ad Watch" and "Reality Check," and faster than you can say "edgy" you've got what media people call a "hot book."
My morning newspaper devotes half its coverage of the Democrats' new commercial on prescription drugs to a word-for-word repetition of the script and detailed description of the images on the screen. Add a photo showing Al Gore and the tag line "Taking on the big drug companies," and I'd say this particular corner of newsprint is a nice big valentine to the Democrats.
But wait, there's more. Under "accuracy" and "scorecard" the reporter gets to add his two cents. "On its major point, a stretch," and "this is almost entirely an attack advertisement." Goodness gracious, really?
I think most voters, like most consumers, realize that advertising puts a product or candidate in the best possible light. You don't see McDonald's spending millions promoting the slogan, "Terrible for you, but tasty." Similarly, viewers understand that Al Gore and George Bush are not going to advertise their shortcomings or flaws in their policies.
The intent of the media's criticism might be to illuminate distortion, but the actual result is to amplify the impact of the ad. This is the Deaver Rule, named for Ronald Reagan's PR man Mike Deaver. Mr. Deaver was never bothered when a network correspondent would record critical narration over the pretty pictures he'd created for the cameras. They can say whatever they want, as long as they show our pictures, he would say. People will get our message before absorbing what they're saying about it.
If anyone besides political insiders like me makes it through all this media deconstruction, they'll get the commercial's message and receive it more warmly when they see it on TV. This is called a "free media boost." It's not quite as big a gift to campaigns, however, as the coverage enjoyed by politicians who publicize commercials they have no plan to pay for in terms of a serious media buy. A news conference and a good sound bite or two can give an ad campaign "legs" - even when it has only aired once or twice. The best example of this is the most famous political spot ever produced.
How many people have heard of the commercial Lyndon Johnson used against Barry Goldwater, in which a child plucked daisy petals as the soundtrack ticked through a nuclear countdown? Millions. How many people actually saw that spot? It ran once.
TV may be the big story in campaigns today, but it is not the only story. "The biggest change I've seen in politics," an old-timer said when I began my own career as a consultant, "is that before, reporters wanted to travel with candidates and watch them campaign. Now all they want to do is look at TV spots." That was 20 years ago. Today the media's more fascinated with itself than ever. Media criticism abounds in newspapers, on cable TV and in magazines like Brill's Content and Talk. But maybe we should put a stop to this idle chatter. As Jane Austen wrote about an attention-demanding youngster, "That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough."
The glamour and drama of advertising may seem more delightful to producers and editors, but it's the nuts and bolts of politics that matter.
*William S. Klein is a political consultant in Silver Springs, Md.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society