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The electronic polis: the 1992 election.

FRANK SESNO, POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT for Cable News Network, stared into the camera and urged "interactive viewers" to phone in their opinions about the economy.

"If you think the economy is getting better, press one, then the pound sign," he said. "If you think the economy is getting weaker, press two, then the pound sign."

The video vignette, on CNN's "Democracy in America" last week, illustrated a remarkable aspect of a remarkable political year: a communications revolution that redefined how national campaigns are conducted and covered. In a year when nearly 100 million people tuned in to a presidential debate, candidates have created a new style of campaigning to transcend 30-second attack ads -- and news organizations have broken the mold of traditional reporting that relied on photo opportunities and nine-second sound bites.

Presidential rivals have become talk show populists, paid for half-hour "infomercials," published books and used satellite technology to gain direct access to voters and extended exposure for their personalities and proposals.

Entertainment and morning shows, plus a host of cable organizations, offered the candidates frequent, open-ended interviews -- while some network news operations became electronic truth squads, challenging assertions made in ads and debates and presenting in-depth reporting on issues.

"In an important sense, the changes have drawn more people into the national conversation about the election," said Everett Dennis, executive director of Columbia University's Freedom Forum Media Studies Center. "The downside is that it somewhat denigrates the news process and deceives the public, as candidates are allowed open access time to be actors ... without benefit of intervention by serious journalists," he added.

The profound changes in campaign communications have been shaped by several key elements:

* The dominance of the economy as an overarching national issue. Voters concerned about their economic future demanded more substance and specifics from candidates, rebelling against recent campaigns defined by character.

* The proliferation of specialized cable stations, the popularity of call-in shows and the use of interactive technologies. Politicians won access to new audiences on shows without filters of analysis and commentary.

* The saturation of negative campaign techniques in recent campaigns led to something of a backlash. As some studies showed TV attack ads less effective, strategists sought ways to make spots more credible through documentary evidence or by removing the patina of slickness.

Jaded Voters

"No group in human history has been subjected to more -- and more sophisticated -- political propaganda than Americans, especially Californians, have been in the last 20 years," said Richard Ross, a Sacramento political consultant.

"One byproduct is that voters developed great ability to sort through it -- "Oh, there's a flip-flop ad, there's a toxic polluter ad." They've seen it all before, they've fallen for it before and they don't believe it anymore."

Despite complaints from some journalists that candidates get a free ride on the talk show beat, several polls suggest that voters like the new style of campaigning.

Last April, just 39 percent of voters in a Gallup/CNN survey said the presidential campaign made them proud to be Americans. In a similar poll released last week |October~, more than 50 percent said they were proud of the campaign.

Similarly, just one-third of those surveyed in April said candidates for president were discussing good ideas; last week, nearly two-thirds said so. And the 52 percent who six months ago said the candidates discussed issues they were interested in has grown to 76 percent in the new survey.

"The big difference is the change in the attitude of the voters -- they're willing to sit and listen to the details of someone's plan or watch an hour interview on Larry King," said Bill Carrick, an adviser to Democratic Senate candidate Dianne Feinstein. "The economy, and the heavy white collar component of the recession, is responsible. People are more interested in details and less in flag factories."

Democrat Bill Clinton, the biggest beneficiary of the new campaign style, said in the final debate that, "when the history of this election is written, it will not be about politics and manipulation -- it will be about how the American people took charge of their future again."

New Communications

Along with the debates, which drew record audiences, and the Clinton-Gore bus trips, a prime symbol of renewed emphasis on direct contact between candidates and crowds, here are other elements of the new campaign communications:

TALK SHOWS -- Michael Dukakis' binge of talk show appearances in the last days of the 1988 race was scorned as desperation, but it set the stage for 1992, when Larry King, Phil Donahue, Arsenio Hall and Katie Couric had more access to the candidates than did campaign reporters, and traditional media for the first time covered such interviews as news.

Although network morning shows constantly host candidates, CNN's King is the star of the genre. Viewers of his show saw Ross Perot launch his campaign, George Bush first attack Clinton's patriotism and Dan Quayle shift on abortion.

Bush at first refused to go on what he called "weird" shows; lately he has become a fixture. He has been interviewed by MTV and by "Today" on Air Force One, and he has answered callers' questions with King, becoming the first president to do a call-in show since Jimmy Carter's 1977 appearance with Walter Cronkite.

"You give the interviewee a real fair chance to answer questions, which is very nice," Bush told King.

Clinton, however, was the politicians' Oprah, whether answering adultery charges on "60 Minutes," facing down Donahue on character or blowing the sax on "The Arsenio Hall Show."

INFOMERCIALS -- Amid record spending on traditional ad spots, Perot won huge ratings for his 30-minute infomercial discussions of the economy. Although candidates have used long broadcasts as far back as the 1950s, the technique was revived in 1992, starting with Jerry Brown's half-hour video in the New Hampshire primary.

800 NUMBERS -- When Brown bellowed his 800-number on NBC during the first debate of the primaries, Tom Brokaw attempted to cut him off. The 800 number, however, quickly became a standard campaign tactic, most notably for Perot, but also for Clinton and Bush, to raise money, distribute books and build mailing lists.

ELECTRONIC TOWN HALLS -- In 1968, media guru Roger Ailes set up "Ask Richard Nixon" programs, in which the GOP candidate answered questions from studio audiences. Boosted by satellite technology, the technique became widespread in 1992. Clinton used it in New Hampshire to go over the head of the press when he was embroiled in controversy over the draft, and Perot vowed to use such broadcasts to replace some functions of Congress. Campaigns often used satellites to "feed" interviews to stations without crews on the trail.

C-SPAN and CNN -- The C-Span public affairs network was first to present uncut, uninterrupted, unanalyzed broadcasts of speeches, rallies and other events that showed the political process, tedium and all. CNN, which soared in importance during the Persian Gulf war, in 1992 also broadcast live campaign events, including key speeches and news conferences.

Jerry Roberts reports on political affairs for the San Francisco Chronicle.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Institute of General Semantics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Media Analysis
Author:Roberts, Jerry
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:1167
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