How to watch 'Face the Press's Issues and Answers'

With basketball season long over and the football season not yet begun, it gets harder and harder to make it through a Sunday afternoon without having to watch at least one of those news interview programs. It really doesn't matter which one. Their names are intechangeable ("Meet the Press"? "Face the Press"? "Face the Issues"? "Answer the Issues"?) And so are the "distinguished panels of journalists" they have on hand to question "this week's guest," who is either a congressional leader, Cabinet secretary, White House adviser, or Anwar Sadat.

I used to host a local public affairs show in Augusta, Ga., an experience that opened my eyes to how inane they can be. I didn't worry about it too much at the time, though; the fact that we were a cable station all but guaranteed that our home audience rarely would outnumber the half-dozen or so of us in the studio, which minimized the damage we could cause. But the network programs are different. Many civic-minded citizens actually make a point of watching "Face the Nation" and the rest. Those people deserve some protection.

Here, then, are eight caveats, without which you should not willingly expose yourself of your children to anything more pretentious than an old Abbott and Costello movie on Sunday afternoon.

* If you don't understand what the guest politician is talking about, it's probably not your fault.

Huey Long, the notorious Louisiana governor of the 1930s, once wrote in the margin of a speech he was about to give: "Weak point. Holler louder." The McLuhan-age public official knows better than to holler on television, but with big words, acronyms, and jargon he can hide his ignorance even more effectively. "Actuarial." "Laffer curve." "GATT." "Certiorari." "Feedback loop." He may not know what he is saying, but he knows exactly what he is doing: he's relying on our native fear of looking stupid if we say that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. Well, he isn't.

* Beware of "zero" answers . . .

Important political leaders often are called upon to give commencement speeches at college graduations, settings in which empty statements such as "This is a time of crisis and challenge" evoke wild applause. It should not surprise us, then, that they later repeat these sentiments everywhere, including the interview show. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, one presidential candidate based his campaign on "these four historic sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. The future lies ahead." Fortunately, perhaps, President Dewey's tenure was short.

* . . . and "zero-sum" answers.

These consist of two or more bold but self-canceling statements. How often have you heard: "I endorse integrated education at all costs, but we must preserve the neighborhood school"? Or: "Naturally I'm for cutting the defense budget, once the objections of our senior military officials have been met"? Because zero-sum answers are hard to recognize for what they are, few politicians would think of leaving the house without several.

* "I intend to introduce legislation" means "I don't intend to do anything."

Congress may be the legislative branch, but introducing legislation is about the least important thing that congressmen do. The shrewd senator or representative tosses bills into the hopper on any and all subjects -- 10,000 or more accumulate every year -- secure in the knowledge that few of them ever will be heard from again. He is just covering himself of situations like the Sunday interview show.(Incidentally, the executive branch equivalent is: "We are studying this matter with an eye to doing something about it.")

* Forgive honesty.

Gov. George Romney told a news panel in 1967 that he had been "brainwashed" by government officials into supporting the Vietnam war. As a result, he was laughed out of the presidential race by the press, most of whom had been brainwashed themselves, along with the rest of us. Somehow honesty has become the worst policy in political discourse; don't encourage this.

* Ignore gaffes.

Have any of us ever experienced a day when at least one thing we said did not come out wrong? If so, let that fellow cast the first stone when a public figure inadvertently does so.In the 1976 presidential debates, President Gerald Ford committed the most famous gaffe in recent history when he gave his "Poland-is-free" answer to a reporter's question. He was jumped on unmercifully for this, even though it was obvious that Ford's syntax, not his thinking, was the thing that was mangled. All we do when we attach inordinate importance to verbal slips of the tounge is to reward politicians whose aptitude is for saying nothing but saying it well.

* Don't rely on the reporters.

A familiar scene. Grim-faced reporter asks tough question. A cloud of words floats back ("always supported . . . multiplicity . . . sacred liberties . . . our children's children"). But, says reporter, you haven't answered my question. Another cloud ("difficult times . . . talked with the president . . . unprecedented challenges"). Moderator looks at clock; politician looks pleased; reporter yields floor, having impressed all with his sound and fury. Nothing has been signified.

* They call them news shows, but everyone there has something to promote.

Commentator Edwin Newman tells about the senator who came to the "Meet the Press" studio armed with a list of reminders to himself: "1. Candid, straightforward. 2. Thoughtful. 3. Modest. 4. Some very short answers."

The senator was there to promote himself to his constituents. The reporters were there to promote themselves to their editors. The network invited everybody there in the first place to promote itself to the Federal Communications Commission.

These shows will continue to lighten our Sunday, no doubt, and they probably should. Watch them if you choose, but watch skeptically -- as you would any commercial.

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