Videoculture 3. Do `mediagenic' candidates make good leaders?

IN near-blizzard conditions on Feb. 26, 1972, presidential primary candidate Edmund S. Muskie stood on a flatbed truck in Manchester, N.H. -- and, with the aid of television, effectively lost his party's nomination. At the time, Muskie was the Democratic front-runner. But a harsh attack published the day before in William Loeb's right-wing Manchester Union Leader -- aimed not only at Mr. Muskie but at his wife as well -- brought him to an emotional breaking point. Three times that day, as he lashed out at Loeb in a press conference in front of the Union Leader's offices, his voice broke, and he had to stop.

It was widely reported that he wept. According to the news reports at the time, those in the audience saw him wipe his face. They also saw the snow. But did they actually see tears? Monitor correspondent Richard L. Strout was on the scene. ``His face was wet,'' Strout wrote judiciously, ``either from snow or emotion.''

Prof. Joshua Meyrowitz of the University of New Hampshire likes to use this example to define one of the effects of television on the political process.

Given the snowstorm, he asks, ``How many people [in the crowd] could see that he was crying?'' In fact, as Meyrowitz points out, the answer hardly matters. The eyewitness reports of newspapermen, however close their position and sharp their vision, could not equal the power of the television camera's zoom lens. That night, millions around the nation saw a candid close-up of Muskie's face in their living rooms and could decide for themselves.

That turning point and its eventual results -- Muskie going down in defeat to George McGovern, who was overwhelmed by Richard Nixon, who was in turn swept away by Watergate -- cannot all be traced to the effect of a camera lens. But on that day television again proved that it had become an inescapable force in national politics -- simply by magnifying for the viewer things a live audience might pass by with less notice.

By most accounts, the impact of television on the political process -- and on the journalism that reports that process -- is enormous. EVER since 1954, when Edward R. Murrow, on CBS television, helped kick the pins out from under the excesses of Joseph R. McCarthy's anticommunist witch hunting, television has had a prominent part in the democratic process.

In 1960, it was widely reported that those who listened to the Kennedy-Nixon debates on the radio inclined toward Nixon -- while those who saw the youthful, personable Massachusetts senator on the screen beside the stubble-faced vice president felt otherwise.

A careless remark about Poland by President Gerald Ford while debating Jimmy Carter was instantly, and damagingly, bounced around the nation.

Later, a polished performance against then-President Carter by a former actor-turned-governor helped make Ronald Reagan (as ABC anchor man Peter Jennings observes) ``the best TV president we've ever had.''

The power of television is undeniable. But is it for good, or for evil?

On this question, as on most others concerning television, the opinions are sharply divided. Critics of television accuse it of subverting the political process by:

Requiring ``mediagenic'' candidates, whose good looks and attractive speaking voice make them immediately attractive to television viewers.

Placing a premium on candidates who, in the tight time limits imposed by nightly news programs and political advertising ``spots,'' know how to provide appealing, oversimplified answers to highly complex issues.

Breaking up established party structures and local organizations -- since the candidates can now bypass this apparatus and go directly to the voters.

Setting the agenda for political campaigns by playing down certain issues and repeatedly emphasizing others.

``My greatest concern about national campaigns,'' says ABC's Mr. Jennings, ``is that we will elect people in the future who are extremely adept at organizing their arguments and their campaigns for TV, but who are vastly less [well] informed on the issues.''

James W. Carey, dean of the School of Communication at the University of Illinois, puts it another way. The ``telegenic candidate,'' he says, is ``one who substitutes personality for ideology'' but who may not be able to pass along his triumphs to his successors.

And since the bias of so much of network television is toward amusement, says New York University's Neil Postman, all personalities channeled through television ``appear inevitably to be packaged as a form of entertainment'' -- a point he expounds in a forthcoming book, highly critical of television, entitled ``Amusing Ourselves to Death.'' BUT William Lilley, an economist who helped found the magazine National Journal in Washington before joining the senior management team at CBS four years ago, says that ``I'm hard pressed to see any difference in kind, as opposed to difference in grade, among United States congressmen'' in recent years.

``There is a general belief,'' he continues, ``among both the two parties and their campaign committees in both houses, that in the last five or six years they have been able to attract better candidates to challenge incumbents in marginal races. And I think that is reflected in the lower age levels and higher income levels of incoming congressmen.''

He attributes some of that improvement to television. ``I think some of the tedium [of being a congressman] is relieved by the greater notoriety they get through television,'' he says.

Political consultant David H. Sawyer, who has orchestrated campaigns for presidential aspirant John Glenn (D), the Ohio senator, Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York and Christopher J. Dodd (D) of Connecticut, and Gov. Bruce Babbitt (D) of Arizona and former Gov. James B. Hunt (D) of North Carolina, among others, contends that television has opened up the once-hidden recesses of the political process.

Before television, Mr. Sawyer says, that process was ``much more internalized. Candidates were chosen in the back rooms. Corporations didn't have to worry about toxic waste, or whether they fleeced banks -- it could always be handled inside, it was internal.''

But recent years brought ``a process of externalization,'' he says, through which ``the best and the brightest were no longer believed.

``We used to trust the good-old-boy network,'' he adds, but ``they got us into a lot of trouble, and we began to mistrust them in a variety of ways. How did we end up mistrusting them so much? Part of it was through mass communications -- you were experiencing what was happening in Selma, in Washington, in Hanoi or Saigon.'' ON one point both sides agree: Americans get their views of the political process through the news. Increasingly, that news comes through television.

Surveys by the Roper Organization have consistently shown that most people get the bulk of their news from television. In 1984, when Roper asked its respondents where they got ``most of'' their news, television had a 51 percent percent share of the total news audience -- well ahead of newspapers (31 percent) and all other sources (18 percent), and the first time since Roper began this poll in 1959 that television received more than half the mentions.

Surveys commissioned by print organizations show the same anti-print bias: A report from the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April, based on a study by MORI Research, found television news ranking above print news sources in credibility.

What, then, are the strengths of television news?

The sources of its appeal are familiar:

It combines timeliness (which newspapers, with overnight deadlines, cannot have) with visual excitement (which radio lacks), combining a feeling of immediacy with a sense of being ``on the spot'' and involved in the action.

Often centered on personalities, it can build a sense of trust. A Roper survey for U.S. News & World Report in April found that an astonishing 84 percent of the nation rated Walter Cronkite's ``job performance'' as excellent or good.

Moreover, the fact that only 6 percent of those polled responded ``don't know'' when asked to rate Mr. Cronkite suggests another feature of television news: It has broad impact, molding the nation into a community of viewers who tend to know the same things at the same time. That power is often most felt at times of crisis: Within an hour of John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, researchers have found, 90 percent of the nation knew it had happened. By contrast, it is said to have taken six months for 85 percent of the nation to learn of Abraham Lincoln's death. MORE 30{et

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