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Picture Perfect: The Art and Artifice of Public Image Making.

Andre Agassi, the young tennis pro who wears hideous day-glo colors Land plays with his shirttail out, has been starting recently in a television commercial for Canon cameras in which--nicely cleaned up and hair combed--he declares that in today's world, "Image is everything."

Now comes Kiku Adatto, who is not your average day-glo, shirttail-out kind of person, to declare that Agassi is probably right. And, more important, Americans and their politics are the worse for it.

Adatto's name won't ring any bells with American politicians or voters--she has been a lecturer at Harvard and studies American culture--but around television newsrooms she is known as the "Sound Bite Lady." It was Adatto who set network news on its collective ear when she sat down with a stopwatch and timed just how long presidential candidates were allowed to speak on evening news broadcasts during the 1988 campaign.

Her findings startled political scientists and other assorted observers, delighted a lot of television's print competitors, and, frankly, embarrassed many of us who were responsible for that year's campaign coverage. Adatto discovered that the average sound bite for candidates in 1988 was only 9.8 seconds, compared to an average of 42 seconds in 1968. At no time during the entire Bush-Dukakis campaign, which came when the Cold War was ending, when America had been plunged into record debt, and when our cities were overrun with crime and poverty, did a candidate for president speak uninterrupted for as long as a minute in any story broadcast on any network evening news program. Television reporters and producers had become so obsessed with pretty pictures from the campaign trail, Adatto observed, that they had little time left to report on what the campaign was about or even what the candidates were saying. In Picture Perfect, she goes beyond her original study and shows how television's obsession with pictures is part of a much larger problem--modem American culture's fascination with visual images, real and manufactured.

Adatto's new work is sometimes a frightening reminder of how easily we can be influenced by the images generated by advertising, still photography, and the movies; but, to me, her most pertinent observations are still about television campaign coverage.

Armed with her original findings and buttressed with scores of interviews with reporters, consultants, and strategists, Adatto concludes that viewers have become so accustomed to picture-driven campaign coverage that even when they know that the "reality" on the screen has been staged, they can still be seduced by the powerful images and diverted from the real issues of the campaign. More disturbingly, perhaps, she says we have become so conditioned to "photo opportunities" and the other hucksterism of modem campaigning that we have developed a certain fondness for it. We not only expect the hucksters to fool us; we want them to do it fight:

When [photography] was first invented in the nineteenth century, people were fascinated by the realism of the camera even as they acknowledged the artifice of the pose. In contemporary American culture our sensibility has shifted. Now we are alive as never before to the artifice of images. We pride ourselves on our knowledge that the camera can lie, that pictures can be fabricated, packaged, and manipulated. We have even developed an appreciation for artifice, an appreciation of slick production values whether in political campaigns, beer commercials, or a favorite movie.

She cites a political cartoon from the recent campaign season which shows two country boys talking politics on the front porch of a run-down general store. One tells the other, "I like Buchanan's sound bites, but Clinton and Tsongas have slicker production values." When Adatto first published her preliminary findings about the brevity of sound bites in The New Republic in 1990, the article touched off an uproar. Television reporters and their bosses at first huffed and puffed that the study missed the point--that it wasn't how long someone spoke but what was said that was important. Their favorite example was the phrase "I love you" which, it was pointed out, takes less than three seconds to say and requires no elaboration.

Happily, by the time Campaign '92 rolled around, news people were having second thoughts, and even the most ardent defenders of network news coverage were conceding that whatever else was right or wrong about television's political coverage, stories in which sound bites averaged less than ten seconds were a disgrace and ought to be corrected. In fact, the author quotes me to that effect in this book, and we should pause here for a Truth in Packaging Announcement: Readers of this review should be aware that I generally agreed with Adatto's earlier conclusions, encouraged her as she was writing this book, and she has been kind enough to quote me in several passages. Reviewing it did present a multitude of temptations ("The author really drives home her point when she quotes me as saying ... etc.") which I have tried to resist, but nonetheless, this review should be judged accordingly.

Asserting that professional image makers and spin doctors have become a powerful force in American politics is nothing new. But Adatto is alerting journalists and voters alike to just how powerful the image makers have become, how easily we can be seduced by their work, and how the emphasis of picture over substance has contributed to the deterioration of American political discourse.

Adatto began her study by looking at coverage of campaigns 20 years apart--those of 1968 and 1988. In fact, I hosted a meeting of a few reporters and producers in my home to watch a sampling of the campaign tapes Adatto had been reviewing. The reactions broke along generational lines. Young journalists always find it hard to imagine how their work can be improved upon, and the youngest in our crowd bristled at nearly every criticism of the 1988 campaign coverage.

The older crowd (meaning me), having reached that point in life where one understands that most daily journalism is neither as wonderful nor as important as it seemed at the time, found the 1968 stories breathtakingly better. It wasn't just the use of longer sound bites in the '68 campaign. The stories themselves were longer, which made more room for stronger narratives that drove home a point. The '88 stories were slick, all right, but looked and sounded like, well, television commercials. Unlike commercials, however, it was sometimes difficult to remember what the stories were about.

Camera sly

Reading Adatto's new study has helped me to understand that the 1980 campaign probably transformed television campaign coverage most dramatically. In retrospect, I suppose Ronald Reagan had more to do with it than we realized. But the blame is not Reagan's. The fault, dear Brutus, is ours. It started with television news' built-in love for pictures and was compounded by a general misunderstanding of how television's rapidly changing technology should have been used.

By the 1980 campaign, film cameras and the complicated developing and editing processes that film required had been phased out. Video technology had reached the point where stories could be edited quickly and where producers could carry vast videotape libraries with them on the campaign planes. Graphics technology had become even more sophisticated: If you needed a picture to illustrate something you were writing about, chances are a producer had one close by in a carry-on bag. If you didn't have a photo, a chart could be generated with the new graphics technology. Because we could illustrate every word of every story, we got the wrong idea that every word ought to be illustrated. The illustration mania reached such levels of silliness that the late CBS correspondent Hughes Rudd said, "If you wrote a script with a phrase 'that's water under the bridge,' someone would try to stick a picture of a bridge with water running under it in your story."

As often happens with new technology, there was a tendency to use it for the sake of using it. Pictures and graphics, what the producers call elements, were jammed into stories just because it was possible to jam them in, not because they served any editorial purpose. Into this situation stepped actor-cum-political candidate Ronald Reagan and media manipulator extraordinaire Michael Deaver, proud to be called the "Vicar of Visuals."

The Nixon White House had first substituted the phrase "photo opportunity" for news conference, but Deaver refined the act of presidential presentation to an art form, sometimes giving more attention to backdrop and setting than to what the president actually said. Whatever reporters thought of Reagan, the networks loved the visuals--the dramatic pictures that Deaver served up daily made it easy to tell the Reagan story on television. Television people began to talk about how stories looked, not what they said. (Some of the new people didn't even call them stories, preferring instead to call them "packages.")

Unfortunately, too little thought was given to what the "packages" were about, or even if they had a point. Adatto's theory is that as powerful as they were, stories so heavy on picture and so light on content eventually left both viewer and reporter wanting. After all, as pretty as a sunset may be, we finally tire of it and want the sun to set. "If one side of us appreciates, even celebrates the image," she writes, "another side yearns for something more authentic."

Thus she said that, as campaigns mastered the art of television image making, it was only a matter of time until reporters found it necessary to take step two: shift from recording the images to exposing them and revealing the contrivances.

This, she argues, created a dilemma for the television journalist. Television's desire for "entertaining stories" compelled reporters and producers to seek the best possible picture even if this made them accomplices to the artifice. But, at the same time, the traditional documentary ambition of television journalism compelled reporters to puncture the picture, to expose the image as an image.

By 1988, television reporters were well into step two--exposing the images and, in Adatto's view, wasting too much time investigating the stagecraft of the campaign--again overlooking the story behind the pictures. After being carried away by the touchy feely scenes produced at the Reagan White House, reporters were determined to expose the fakery of Campaign '88. In spending so much time explaining how the images were manufactured, they failed to investigate what the candidates were actually saying.

Adatto's lesson for the television reporters is fairly simple: Do not underestimate the power of imagery--real or otherwise, but ignore it when it cannot be backed by content. Even when you are pointing out that an image is false, you are unwittingly circulating pictures that may be powerful enough to override whatever you are saying about them. But we need to understand as well that to stage an event for television does not necessarily falsify content, nor is broadcasting an event staged for television a sin in itself. When Barbara Bush held an AIDS baby for the cameras, for instance, she was transmitting a powerful and legitimate message that deserved circulation.

Adatto points out that before some Vietnamese monks burned themselves to death in 1963 to protest their government's policy, they sent out press releases notifying the American networks of what they intended to do. She also recalls that the leaders of the American civil rights movement timed their demonstrations so that they would be seen on television.

Communicating through television images, Adatto argues, is part of modern discourse. The distinction between real and pseudo events must be judged not on the method of presentation but on the content of the event itself. It is not enough, she says, to point out that an event has been staged for television. Where television's political reporting has gone wrong is in failing to examine the candidates' ideas and assessing the substance of what they are trying to illustrate with their manufactured images.

This book offers some fresh insights on how to go about correcting that. I hope a lot of television reporters will read it.
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Author:Schieffer, Bob
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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