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Perot's censure of sound bites rings hollow


On the television screen, something magical is happening: A network reporter has asked Ross Perot a question he does not wish to answer, and Perot is undressing the reporter in front of everyone in America.

"That's a sound bite question," Perot says, voice dripping with ostentatious contempt. "You want an easy, 6-second answer, and America needs more than 6-second answers."

In my living room, I find myself applauding without entirely knowing why. On one hand, I want Perot to answer the damned question, simplistic as it may be, because it's beginning to get late in the game and I still don't know enough about this man who wants to be president.

On the other hand, he's pulling a lid off something here. He's exposing not only the reporter but the carefully choreographed way the election process is now conducted by both TV networks and politicians.

We're a nation whose attention span has been reduced to the length of television sound bites, those taped little moments that are snipped from an entire day's events, edited, and then spliced into the body of some deeply superficial 60-second story.

How bad is the sound-bite situation? A few years ago, Harvard University did a study of TV news sound bites from presidential campaign years. In 1968, the average bite lasted 42 seconds. By 1988, it was 9.8 seconds.

In the past six months, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, the average campaign sound bite has been reduced to 7.3 seconds.

The TV networks aren't stupid. They understand that 7.3 seconds is now roughly the attention span of TV watchers. Of course, it's the TV people who created that attention span in the first place.

And now, on the television screen, here was Ross Perot telling this TV reporter that he will not play that kind of a game. The issues are too complex, he was saying. He's not that kind of a guy, he was saying. And there in my living room, I found myself applauding.

And then David Green called.

He is Ross Perot's Maryland media coordinator, and he called to tell me about Perot's plans for tomorrow's rally in Annapolis, at which Perot will announce he's surpassed the number of signatures required to put him on this state's presidential ballot.

Green says he wants me to come to Annapolis to watch the spectacle. I am leery.

He says there will be boats in the Annapolis harbor, tooting their horns. I am looking for a graceful way to hang up the phone.

He says there will be a brass band. I am forming the words "good bye" in my mouth.

Then Green says he will get me a one-on-one interview with Ross Perot, the presidential contender who is not like the other contenders, the man who wants to deliver straight talk to the nation, the man who does not deal in sound-bite journalism.

"Great," I say.

"Well, we think you're an important guy to tell the Perot story," says Green.

"How much time can you give me with him?" I ask.

"Four minutes," declares Green.

"Four minutes?" I ask, wondering if I can tell the whole Perot story from such a limited meeting. "Isn't that a little brief?"

"Well," says Green, "I've got four people I want to get one-on-one interviews, but I've got to divide up 12 minutes among you. I'm at the mercy of the schedulers from Dallas. See, I know what you really want. What you really want is, like, half an hour."

Not at all.

What I really want is about four weeks, so that Ross Perot can explain some of the things we've been reading about him in the newspapers: for example, allegations that he's got private investigators checking out people he doesn't like (including then-Vice President George Bush); allegations that he's hinted at blackmailing certain people, and that he's secretly videotaped employees he suspected of extramarital affairs; allegations that he would have countered the country's drug problems with massive violations of civil liberties; allegations that, while making much public relations hay over looking for missing prisoners of war, he was also quietly trying to set up business deals with North Vietnam.

In a series of articles now surfacing around the country, Perot begins to sound more like a private sector J. Edgar Hoover than some great populist savior.

And, in a time when Bill Clinton's "character issues" have been fair game, and George Bush's public record stretches back far enough for most of us to get a pretty good feel for whatever he might stand for, it seems fair to look into Perot's background.

But the man who decries sound bite journalism sometimes also lives by it.

Every politician who sits in front of the network newsies understands their time limitations.

You don't like the question? Then duck around it until the clock ticks you out of danger.

Reporters press you? Turn on them. Get feisty.

If you do your dance well enough, the folks at home don't notice the evasiveness so much as the pugnacious standing-up to all those nasty reporters. That's Perot's game. He wins points for not answering questions, because he seems to be doing it on his own terms.

"He's trying to say that not all answers are black and white," David Green says.

He sure picks a funny way to do it: talking in generalities, giving sound-bite answers in which he decries sound bites to people whose medium lives off of 7.3-second sound bites, and offering 4-minute one-on-one interviews to print people and somehow imagining they'll be charmed by the offer.

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