DURING the autumn of the 1988 presidential campaign, George Bush went to Los Angeles to visit a closed-down crack house.
In one of those carefully arranged photo opportunities designed to get the daily campaign message reinforced by pictures onto the evening news and into tomorrow's newspapers, the vice president donned a black Los Angeles Police Department jacket and led a news pool inside the area roped off with yellow police tape.After walking over the same pile of broken crack-cocaine vials that neighborhood kids saw every day, Mr. Bush commandeered the cameras and (once again) called for the death penalty for major drug dealers.
The event was a metaphor for what was wrong with the campaign coverage on television -- a contrived photo-op which led the daily network broadcasts, reinforcing the Bush-Quayle campaign message on crime and drugs, with no accompanying analysis of what George Bush actually had accomplished as the man in charge of the drug interdiction program for six years of the Reagan-Bush administration.
There were seemingly endless repetitions of that day: Mr. Bush in Boston Harbor; Michael Dukakis in a tank; Mr. Bush with Massachusetts cops; Mr. Dukakis in a flag factory. Television covered every contrived event, and, as Evening Sun political columnist Jack Germond says, it led the way for the print pack to follow.
Photo-op addiction may have been the most obvious sin of television in the 1988 campaign, but there were plenty more, and knew it.
After every national election there are meetings, seminars and discussions designed to analyze the coverage and improve it for the next time. After 1988, however, there was a greater seriousness of purpose at these events. Broadcasters came to a simple realization: Politicians know our business better than we know theirs, and, under the guidance of media advisers like Mike Deaver and his successors at all levels of politics, we are being used.
So, what needs to be done?
There are two points of view on this matter. The first says that the presidential candidates have a right to set their own agendas, and whatever they do on a given day is the news and must be covered. The other view holds that providing coverage for the carefully contrived theme-of-the-day photo-op amounts to nothing but conveyor-belt journalism.
From the campaign's point of view, the objective is to prevent reporters and broadcasters from having any choice about what they cover. The campaign provides the message, we provide the airwaves.
In previous election cycles, the "if it happens, it's news" view has prevailed; coverage has been candidate-oriented and campaign-directed. Tank rides and flag factories were covered: the pending savings and loan collapse, an event in which both parties shared culpability and had a common interest in keeping off the public agenda, was not.
At the end of 1988, the Government Accounting Office released 25 reports on the issue agenda of America in the 1990s -- including such things as decay of nuclear weapons facilities, veterans care, deteriorating urban infrastructure -- and concluded that none of the 25 issues had been addressed either by the candidates or the media in the 1988 presidential campaign.
The conclusion is obvious. We know what the issues are, and we owe it to the public to go beyond the daily photo-op handout and provide serious analysis of the various positions of the candidates. The question is not, "Did the candidate do something today?"; of course he did. The standard must be, "Is what the candidate did today newsworthy? Or was it a video contrivance designed to be irresistible television?"
Al Hunt, Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, says that television journalists are nymphomaniacs for compelling pictures. Networks and local stations will do a service to the country by proving him wrong.
Ken Bode is director of the Center for Contemporary Media at DePauw University and a correspondent for Cable News Network.