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Prime-Time Politics Why TV News Doesn’t Get the Picture BY DAVE DENISON NOTHER ELECTION SEASON come and gone, and the ills of the American political system the issueless campaigns, the degraded debate, the effect of television on politics have become subjects as enduring as the weather. And what Twain said about the weather seems to be true of our political breakdown as well: Everybody talks about it, but nobody ever does anything about it. This year brought more talk of reforming the election process than usual. A genuine groundswell of citizen disgust with political advertising that specializes in character assassination, trivialization, and misinformation has given rise to a discussion about ways of providing candidates free air time on radio and TV in blocks of five minutes or so, in the hope that candidates would be encouraged to discuss substantive issues. Groups such as the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. have researched ways of giving candidates more access to the electronic media while at the same time cutting the cost and decreasing the influence of money in electoral politics. But few people expect sweeping reforms to make it through Congress any time soon. For one thing, dissatisfaction with the tawdry spectacle of modern politics tends to quiet down after the elections, when most voters are happy to put the whole sorry season out of their minds for a while. For another, the National Association of Broadcasters can be counted on to lobby heavily against any government mandates for free air time for political candidates. The NAB and other media groups have frequently argued that voluntary changes in the way the industry deals with elections are the best way to go. Since their argument will most likely carry the day if not the decade, it’s worth taking the time to ask what the media, and especially the broadcast media, might do to help elevate the tone of political discussion in the coming campaign seasons. Perhaps it’s too much to ask for journalists to find ways to revivify politics in America. A.J. Liebling, after all, once speculated that the press is “the weak slat under the bed of democracy.” But at a minimum, could the media at least do a better job on its own terms of providing fair, substantial, and enlightening journalism in the Dave Denison covered the governor’ sracefor the Boston Globe and other newspapers. middle of a whirlwind political season? From what I can tell, the chances are not particularly good. After listening to politicians all across Texas this fall, then interviewing nearly two dozen voters on election day, and then discussing politics and the media with several journalists in the weeks following the election in November, I concluded there is a constantly shifting circle of blame that seems to prevent movement toward reform. Politicians commonly blame the press for ignoring their stands on issues and concentrating instead on personalities, foibles, and emotional subjects. The press blames politicians for trying to manipulate “hot button” issues and avoiding serious, dignified debate. And the public tends to blame both the politicians and the press. And yet, all three groups decry the modern practice of politics and insist that something must be done. Let’s take the Texas governor’s race as an example of the state of politics, 1990, and see what the politicians, the voters, and the journalists have to say about it. A POLITICIAN’S FRUSTRATION p OLITICIANS HAVE complained about their press coverage as long as there has been newsprint and ink. But as the mass communications industry has become larger and more powerful, some politicians have been successful with a more aggressive “media bashing” style. North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, himself a former television commentator, regularly includes “the liberal newspaper editors” in the pantheon of enemies he seeks to vanquish in each campaign. And this year in Massachusetts, John Silber frequently blasted the press during his campaign for governor. Though Silber lost the race, many voters responded favorably to his view of reporters as establishment functionaries who wanted their politicians to “speak plastic.” It was apparent to anyone who watched Ann Richards campaigning in September and October that she was frustrated with the media’s performance. Though Richards exhibited less outright hostility than Helms and Silber, many of her speeches had a few lines of “press tweaking” in them. And reporters covering her campaign complained among themselves about her sourness and inaccessibility. Richards had been a certifiable media darling up until last spring’s bruising Democratic primary. But after the primary, something changed. Richards seemed to have lost faith in the press after the intensive at tention given to charges of her past drug use. “You know, it’s very hard to get the issues covered in the campaign,” Richards told a Democratic rally on the Williamson County courthouse steps on October 3. “It’s very hard to get the media to focus on the issues. It’s very hard to get any newsprint about what you want to do in your platform and your program for the people of Texas.” From there, she launched into her boilerplate Democratic stump speech. The number one issue facing Texas is education, Richards said. She discussed education. She linked an inadequate education system to other problems such as crime. She discussed the criminal justice system. She moved to the toxic waste problem and the need for better environmental protection. Insurance rates doubled and tripled, and policies cancelled … small business unable to afford workers’ compensation insurance rates…. Richards paused to aim a few barbs at Clayton Williams \(“no qualifications whatsonal freedom, privacy and abortion rights … her record as a progressive state treasurer … When it was over, she mingled with her supporters. One of them praised her speech. “See?” said Richards, “I do this everywhere I go, and they just don’t cover it.” At the time, Richards was said to be trailing her opponent by 10 to 15 points in the polls. By the final weeks of the campaign, the media scrutiny was focused on the unpredictable ways of Clayton Williams and Richards had less to complain about. On the night of her victory, her frustration had turned to a jocular sarcasm. “They’ve told me that CNN has called the race,” she told her cheering supporters. “That CBS has called the race,” she said, pausing. “If it’s on TV it’s bound to be true!” she declared. Nevertheless, the point that Richards often made that when she discussed her issues agenda it was seldom deemed newsworthy is true, as far as it goes. The fact is, very little of what any politician says in a speech is covered. But the messages Richards herself put forward in her campaign advertising were often of a markedly different nature than the content of her speeches. And the advertisements are what most people are now using to judge the candidate. “If she thinks she was an issue-oriented candidate, she kids herself,” said Bob Stein, a political scientist at Rice University, speaking of Richards. 4 DECEMBER 21, 1990