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Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction, and Democracy.

A colorful, compact, often humorous history of negative campaigning, Dirty Politics provides an enlightening analysis of political ads and speeches and remarkable insight to how political consultants think and work in the modern age of advertising. In the in-depth analyses of campaigns from Eisenhower to the present, Jamieson uses the 1988 presidential election as a definitive basis. For example, she cites the 1988 Michael Dukakis tank commercial to show the important, far-reaching differences between the Republican and Democratic strategies; the extent to which the traditional genres of campaign discourse have been reduced to visually evocative ads; and, more importantly, what was wrong with press coverage and advertising in the 1988 campaign. In analyzing the Willie Horton ad, Jamieson concludes that the result showed a complex, interactive relationship between voters and campaign messages--what was shown was not necessarily what was seen, and what was said was not always what was heard.

From the beginning, sloganeering--not substance--has been the stuff of politics. Hired hands consistently have canonized their candidate, condemned their opponents, and relentlessly contrasted the two. Television has assumed Svengalian powers denied to both print and radio.

How campaigns are reported shapes subsequent campaigning. As the news media subject themselves to the control of politicians, they encourage candidates to perpetuate control. In 1988, the result produced "rhetorical gridlock" as, relying on polls and manipulated by clever consultants, television news ceased to be a source of objective reporting. Reporters permitted the Republicans to commandeer media coverage with claims that had little relevance to governance. As a result, the American people had practically no idea what kind of presidency George Bush would provide.

The media should ask candidates to define what problems America faces, how they propose to solve them, and what qualifications they bring to producing solutions. Campaign discourse is failing the body politic not because it often is negative, but because it has conventionalized candidate and press discourse that minimize argumentative engagement and ignore the responsibility that all parties should assume for the claims they make.

Jamieson proposes a number of reasonable options for improving political campaign reporting. During the primaries, states that share similar problems and challenges might "cluster": one set of primaries might occur in states grappling with decaying cities--i.e., Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois. Such clustering potentially could solve problems for both the candidates and the press. To increase voter interest and reduce campaign expenditures, each candidate might broadcast only two 30-minute speeches, one on national TV on Labor Day, the other on election eve. In the interim, the candidates could participate in four topical debates followed by nationally telecast press conferences. Candidates also might appear weekly in five-minute time slots provided to major party candidates who agree to deliver a statement on a specified weekly topic determined by noncandidate polls. Television could contribute a powerful incentive by providing free national airtime. The legislature might tie acceptance of Federal campaign financing to an agreement to participate in debates. By giving voters the information necessary to judge candidates' messages on accuracy, fairness, context, and relevance to governance, reporters penalize sleaze and reward substance. All of this is possible if the public insists that candidates and reporters restore the relationship between campaign discourse and governance.
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Author:Fischer, Raymond L.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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