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Political conventions, images, and spin.

September 2, 2004

THE POLITICAL CONVENTIONS have not served any real substantive purpose in the democratic process for years.

By the time they roll around, we already know who the candidates of the two parties will be. The platforms of the parties often are made public before the events.

The conventions primarily serve two purposes: 1) to provide delegates with a big party, often on the dime of those companies and organizations that would like to buy influence and 2) to provide an opportunity on television to spin certain images and establish dominant themes.

Many general semanticists would consider most of these images and themes higher order abstractions, playing off the viewers' fears, assumptions, and projections.

This summer, the main imagery of both parties' conventions centered on which party best could provide strong leadership in the War on Terrorism. Both parties created spin intended to convince those in the middle of the political spectrum--wherever that might be--that their candidate could better fight that war. TV coverage not only bought into the imagery; it helped establish the images.

The Democrats put on a convention that looked like it could have been a VFW gathering. Military veterans were everywhere. They accompanied John Kerry to the convention and escorted him to the podium. Kerry started his speech with an emphatic salute, and said he was "reporting for duty."

It was an obvious attempt to gain some ground in what has traditionally been Republican territory--national defense.

The imagery became very clear. Kerry would be just as tough as, and much smarter, in the war on terrorism than George W. Bush. The images of supportive veterans, and Kerry's Vietnam War heroism, were meant to ease the fears of anybody concerned about national security under a Democratic administration.

Kerry, primarily known as a liberal during his long tenure in the Senate, was using his military background, and all the imagery the DNC experts could spin, to appeal to more conservative groups that supported the military.

The imagery didn't really match up with Kerry's voting record in the Senate. He often has opposed increased spending for the military, and in fact has a mixed voting pattern on funding for the War on Terror. He has questioned the wisdom of "going it alone" in Iraq.

A presumed unintended offshoot of this spin and imagery was that Kerry also opened himself up for the Swift Boat commercials, in which some vets who claimed to have served with him in Vietnam disputed his accounts and those of his supporters.

For at least a couple weeks, more media attention was paid to what happened 30 years ago than what Kerry would try to do as President. He slipped in the polls during that time.

Moderate, "Compassionate" Republicans

The Republicans knew their candidate already had the advantage of actually being a war-time President, but the concerns centered on two areas: 1) mixed poll results about Bush's handling of the Iraq war aftermath and 2) some polls that showed many of those potential voters in the middle considered the President too far to the right on other issues, such as health care, the environment, economic policy, gay rights, etc.

So, early in the convention, Senator John McCain, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and the Terminator-turned-California-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took to the podium. First Lady Laura Bush, who has favorable ratings in most opinion polls, spoke on the second night to relate the more compassionate side of her husband.

All had images of being more moderate than Bush on social issues, with appeal that crossed party lines. As one pundit put it, McCain, Giuliani and Schwarzenegger likely would not have been nominated by the more conservative delegates at the convention, but by having them endorse Bush's leadership against terrorism, they spun the image of a broader, farther reaching GOP.

The abstraction was a Republican Party that had "compassionate conservatism," a party that would reach out to Americans in need while still maintaining a tough, proactive stance on the battle against terrorism.

A theme was established that played off people's fears of another terrorist attack. Do you really want to change leaders midstream during a war?

Television ate up these images. Panelists from Chris Mathews "Hardball" to CNN briefly questioned the spin at first, but spent much more time talking about how effective the approaches were.

In part, television was manipulated by GOP spin master Karl Rove and his DNC equivalents, but in part the medium also created the need for the tactics. TV pays attention primarily to visual images, controversy, and rhetoric that is flamboyant and lively, and issues that can be easily defined.

The War on Terror fits these criteria much better than detailed explanations of health care plans or economic policies. The visual images of the airplanes hitting the World Trade center towers will be etched in many Americans' minds forever.

How the war should be fought, especially in Iraq, can create controversy and flamboyant rhetoric, which can be very either-or in its structure. Any war, even one against a "different enemy" that so often is mentioned by politicians, can be more easily defined than many policies and programs.

Media Literacy Needed

So, to understand the spin and imagery of the political conventions, one really needs to become more media literate and understand that the media, especially TV, plays a big part in setting the agenda and determining tactics for the parties.

If one really wants to be politically astute, one has to pursue other outlets on the internet, in print, perhaps on public TV or the Sunday political talk shows, to find out more about the issues that are not included in the primary spin.

Citizens should consume more media than just television and become critical thinkers about the content. Do the images match up with the underlying facts? When the media concentrate on one story or theme, what else is left out?

For example, protests outside the RNC reached proportions not seen at a political convention since the infamous DNC in Chicago in 1968. Yet, TV gave them little coverage in comparison to the choreographed performance that was going on inside Madison Square Garden. In fact, it took a couple of protestors to actually invade the Garden, during VP Dick Cheney's and Bush's speeches, to almost force TV to break away from the staged show, even then for only a moment.

Visual literacy also is needed so students better understand the influence of sophisticated images, colors, staging, especially for celebrity speakers, on potential voters. Giuliani looked 10 feet tall with a backdrop of the Big Apple behind him. Arnold seemed like an action figure on steroids with the stars and stripes on the jumbo-tron in the background.

General semantics offers several tools to help citizens become more media literate. These tools develop awareness of: 1) the abstracting process and the possible effects of higher order abstractions, 2) how either-or arguments exclude other possible viewpoints, 3) the is-of-identity trap, 4) the danger of jumping to conclusions and allowing your assumptions become substitutes for verifiable information, 5) the influence of affective language, especially what Hayakawa called "snarl" and "purr" words, which also can be applied to visual images, etc.

Of course, whether this imagery and spin during the summer will have any real influence on voters' decisions in November is debatable. For example, the night on which McCain and Giuliani spoke at the RNC drew only cable coverage and not that of the over-the-air networks. Ratings for both conventions were poor.

The debates were scheduled between the conventions and the election. The economy can take several turns in two months time. Events in Iraq and elsewhere in the world cannot really be completely controlled by either party.

So, once again the importance of the conventions is questionable. But, the opportunity to spin images on a national TV show remains as one of the few functions left for the political extravaganzas.


* Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist who covers Midwest politics and business for and Hoffmann recently retired from UW-Milwaukee, where he taught journalism and developed a general semantics-based media literacy program called The Milwaukee Media Connection. Hoffmann also wrote a version of this column for Telemedium, the journal of media literacy. He periodically writes columns on media, politics and news events for the IGS web site and ETC.
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Author:Hoffmann, Gregg
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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