TV campaigning: the tail wagging the dog

WE can all be thankful that the election is over. But none of us -- winners, losers, voters -- have much to be proud of. If the next few elections continue the trend of the last few, our political system may become unworkable. This lament has nothing to do with who wins and who loses elections; it has to do, rather, with the deterioration of the process itself. The most striking and disturbing aspect of this is the degradation of political discourse. Enormous amounts of money are spent in efforts by talented people to compress complex issues into 30-second television spots. Most of the time what comes out on the screen has less to do with issues than with the perfidy or personal habits of the opposing candidate.

A good many politicians don't like to campaign this way with negative advertising, but their media consultants and campaign strategists tell them it works. And so it does, with discouraging frequency. Political advertising campaigns on television ``might be dishonest,'' one TV reporter said, ``but they're really neat.''

This is the kind of cynicism which, if unchecked, will ultimately corrode and corrupt the whole political process. It is the glorification of imagery at the expense of substance.

The disease is more pervasive than television commercials. It extends to candidates' debates, which this year were singularly unenlightening. This may be due, at least partly, to the format. Two minutes is better than 30 seconds to explain Central America or strategic defense, but not much better. Maybe the people who arrange these things should experiment with giving each candidate 30 minutes. Still, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, used roughly the same format as most candidates in 1986 and managed to do better.

These earlier debates sharpened the differences between the candidates. The candidates who debated in 1986 seemed to be trying to blur the differences on issues, while accusing their opponents of sundry heinous behavior. Politics is, of course, a process of compromise, the object of which is to blur differences. But a good many of the 1986 debates must have ended with viewers wondering what sort of choice they had.

There is evidence that perhaps growing numbers of people are finding 1986-style political campaigns boring, confusing, offensive, or all of the above. One piece of this evidence is declining voter turnout. This public disgust may be what it takes to change the downward trend in the process and give more point to our political life.

It would be an enormous improvement if ways could be found to shorten campaigns. How do the British manage to compress into a month what takes us a year or two -- or in the case of the presidency, more? Sure, we are a bigger country with more people who need to get the message -- or image -- but does it really take as long as we spend on it?

The length of campaigns and the perceived necessity to saturate the airwaves with scurrilous statements about the other candidate introduce another corrupting element -- money. There has been enough hand wringing and pointing with alarm over this problem. It is admittedly complicated, but hardly more complicated than the tax reform or immigration reform that Congress summoned the political ingenuity to get done.

We are not going back to the campaign style of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Television is here to stay; but despite the media consultants, campaign strategists, and pollsters it has spawned, we have not learned to use it to improve and civilize and sharpen our political discourse. There is nothing inherent in the medium that dictates the present state of affairs. On the contrary, there are examples -- most of them provided by public broadcasting, but some by the commercial networks -- of how good it could be.

But as it is used most of the time, TV tends to transform politics -- and journalism, too, for that matter -- into show business. The tail is wagging the dog. Politicians are no longer in control of the process. They don't use television; television uses them. Again, we go back to the emphasis on imagery at the expense of substance. The presumed experts say this is what grabs attention. Maybe. But could it be that what the experts really mean is that it is easier for them, that it doesn't take as much effort, to deal with image than with substance?

Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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