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Politicos and the Tube By Kaye Northcott Austin ONE OF the hardest adjustments a print journalist must make in going to work for a political campaign is to accept the notion that image is more important than substance. When I first signed on as press aide to gubernatorial candidate Peyton McKnight, I filled a file drawer with folders on weighty state issues. I imagined myself doing heavy-duty research, just like an investigative reporter. My first few press releases were heavy on fact and light on conclusion. But it soon became apparent that the pronouncements that made the evening news were bald assertions topped with a heavy dollop of controversy. When Senator McKnight pledged as governor to raise teachers’ salaries to the national average, he made the nether regions of the sports section. When he claimed that Gov. Bill Clements was so anti-teacher that he was crippling the state’s public education system, he landed on page one. McKnight dropped out of the governor’s race in February, so he never really got to mix it up with the other candidates. I suspect one of the biggest disadvantages he would have faced running against Atty. Gen. Mark White in the primary and Republican Clements in the general election would have been his penchant for accuracy and his reluctance to simplify an issue for the sake of a headline. If the budget figure was $475,000, McKnight didn’t want to round it off to $500,000. On TV he was ineffective because he gave lengthy answers when the subject required it, rather than responding with something short, snappy, and suitable for a 15-second sound bite. The most effective candidates are not necessarily those who get their facts straight. They are the confident souls who give the impression of being knowledgeable and truthful. Forcefulness beats accuracy 90 times out of 100. Take Bill Clements . . . please. Like his president, Ronald Reagan, Clements is enormously effective on television because he appears to know what he is talking about. Reporters are constantly flummoxed by Clements’ ability to o’erleap empirical evidence and land defiantly on dogma. Admitting an error recogniz ing an error is for nerds and weaklings. Clements has pledged that he would never allow water to be diverted from wet East Texas to dry West Texas, and yet he supports an Army Corps of Engineers plan that would do just that. During a recent press conference, Clements attempted to finesse this apparent contradiction. When a reporter pointed out that the Corps”map has little arrows showing East Texas river water channeled north and then west to the High Plains, Clements simply pulled out a red Flair pen and redirected the water flow south toward Houston. “You just redrew the Army Corps of Engineers map,” protested the reporter. “I can do that,” the governor replied. “I have an engineering background. You have a media background.” Here was an instance in which the truth had fought Clements at least to a draw. Unfortunately, voters rarely see candidates in press conferences, and news stories rarely correct a politician’s misstatements. How fitting that Clements must square off against Mark White in the fall. Both play fast and loose with the facts. A capitol reporter who covers both men mused over dinner recently, “It’s hard to tell whether they are misinformed or deliberately lying. It makes them very difficult to cover.” The press, for the most part, operates on a principle of indiscriminate objetivity. It matters not that Candidate A is sincerely trying to deal with reality and Candidate B is deliberately distorting the situation. Both get the same coverage. BEING RIGHT and being forceful don’t have to be mutually exclusive attributes. My second political employer, Ann Richards, is both. But her ability to marshal facts was not nearly as important to her success as her charisma on television. Today most voters choose their candidates via television news \(when the stations deign to cover races, which is intisements. The commercials usually run 30 seconds, the news reports 90 seconds max. There is precious little a candidate can say in 30 seconds, but then the verbal message is not as important as the visual content of an ad. A minute and a half of TV news is not much better. The spoils go to the fast talkers, the quipsters, and the good lookers. The impact of television is to emphasize personality and gimmickry over issues, negativity and emotionalism over rational discussion. TV narrows the focus of a campaign and winnows out the dry issues, that which government is really about, in favor of sexy topics. Oversimplification or inaccurate statements are considered an occupational necessity by an alarming number of politicians. Take, for example, Mark White’s 1978 television commercial in which he slams a jail door. White was running for attorney general and wanted to tell the folks that he was hardnosed on crime. Was the commercial justified in light of the fact that the attorney general’s jurisdiction is almost exclusively civil? I don’t think so. Take;for example, Jim Collins’ TV allegation that Sen. Lloyd Bentsen is a liberal, or Bentsen’s 1970 ad implying that Ralph Yarborough was a radical. I was uncomfortable with Jim Hightower’s 1980 campaign for the railroad commission in which he ran against high energy prices and the big bad oil companies rather than against his opponent, Jim Nugent. A railroad commissioner has no sway over energy prices today. Hightower was sending voters a message that he was a populist, little more. His current campaign for agriculture commissioner has legitimate content. He is admirably well-versed on agriculture issues and is raising the big questions in an effective manner. But he may also be generating false expectations concerning what the state can do to lower food costs to the consumer and help the hardpressed family farmer. One of the reasons voters are so turned off today is that they weary of undelivered campaign promises. Now that I have been on the inside of a couple of races, I still have reservations about Hightower’s type of campaigning, but I better understand why he does what he does. Hightower is widely admired among political professionals for his ability to create little morality plays for the press. This is one of the few ways an underfinanced candidate can get enough free publicity to compensate for the high cost of advertising. IN A STATE as large as Texas, it is no longer possible for a statewide candi 12 JUNE 18, 1982