TV chases its tail on '92 campaign trail


The first and so far best postmodern book on American presidential campaigns was Joe McGinniss' "The Selling of the President." Its real strength was not in portraying the way clever television advertising helped elect Richard Nixon president in 1968. (That issue had been around since 1952, when Adlai Stevenson, who refused to be sold "like a bar of soap," ran against Dwight Eisenhower, who carped about being marketed but acquiesced and won.)

Rather, where Mr. McGinniss broke ground was in recognizing that for the first time in 1968, brilliant strategies had been employed not just to sell perceptions to the electorate through the media but, more important, to manipulate public opinion to influence news decisions.

Twenty-four years later, during the presidential campaign of 1992, the news organizations most susceptible to that manipulation -- those of the three traditional television networks -- had finally begun to grapple with the selling of the candidate. In 1992, more than ever before, network news took note of the media manipulation that is the essence of any modern presidential campaign. But despite the subtitle of Tom Rosenstiel's uneven book, they really hadn't mastered the second part. In 1992, network news -- hamstrung by corporate budget cuts, pandering to hold on to diminished market share -- didn't change politics at all. It was more often the other way around.

For the networks, the result was sharply reduced political coverage purchased on the cheap, a homogenization of views tailored to appeal to the widest possible marketing concerns, and above all the kind of hand-wringing caution epitomized by ABC anchorman Peter Jennings in "Strange Bedfellows," fretting not about how to deliver tough independent coverage, but about possibly being "out of step" with the people.

The best modern campaign chroniclers have been media subversives, such as Mr. McGinniss or Hunter Thompson, and "Strange Bedfellows" might well have worked brilliantly from that point of view. The central problem is that Rosenstiel, a media critic for the Los Angeles Times who was obviously looking for an angle to separate his book from the quadrennial pack, chose to spend the 1992 campaign following a single network organization, ABC News. While this allows for interesting play-by-play and color commentary, it puts the author into a position not unlike that of home-team announcer.

That is not to say that the book is without merit, despite occasional ham-handed writing that renders big shifts, for example, as "sea changes." Mr. Rosenstiel is especially good on the extraordinary transformations that have occurred in the relationships between the once-mighty network news organizations and their chronically lowbrow but immensely profitable local affiliates. There's almost a sense of poignancy in the depiction of an ABC News crew cooling its heels, waiting to use a hallway to edit its daily report at the ABC owned-and-operated station in Philadelphia.

Mr. Rosenstiel also is sharply perceptive about the "video wallpaper" churned out in the daily grind of television campaign journalism, with the role of the professional, highly trained network correspondent often reduced to no more than a print on the pattern. His thoughts on the "hysteria of a press corps grown too large" alone could make a book.

I could have read much more of his ideas on the way, virtually unique to the 1992 campaign, in which the broadcast media -- often knowing better -- blithely ran with half-baked "investigative" stories from major newspapers, creating something entirely new: news chasing its tail as a cyclical reaction to perceived public perceptions of uncertain realities.

In the end, it appears that Clinton strategist James Carville was absolutely right. In 1992, it was the economy, pure and simple. Because of it, voters threw out the incumbent, George Bush, and sent a loud and angry message by giving Ross Perot 20 percent of the vote.

Even though the networks occasionally distinguished themselves in 1992 with hard-nosed reporting using "truth squads" to evaluate the candidates' advertising claims, they were really covering the 1988 election retroactively. By 1992, network news operations were expected to make a profit. Ironically, sophisticated economic reporting has been one of the first things to go as networks slashed their news budgets. Foreign news has been sharply cut back in favor of easy-to-digest -- and cheap to produce -- personality and lifestyle features.

"Strange Bedfellows" is predicated on the notion that an organization such as ABC News, perhaps the best of the broadcast lot, still can define a campaign. As the events of 1991 showed, the electorate has fanned out through a bewilderingly multitiered information system, with both opportunity and peril for the future of a democracy dependent on reliable sources of news. Where will the networks be in a future campaign when issues are less clear? Mr. Rosenstiel aptly notes the worry that network television "might never again have the resources to cover a campaign properly."

Mr. Rosenstiel is at his best when he breaks away from his book's conceit and makes perceptive observations about the journalistic inbreeding, elitism, mob rule and institutional cravenness that have poisoned much campaign coverage, print and broadcast alike. Otherwise, the perspective is limited to what looks very much like a shrinking screen.


Title: "Strange Bedfellows: How Television and the Presidential Candidates Changed American Politics, 1992"

Author: Tom Rosenstiel

Publisher: Hyperion

Length, price: 368 pages, $24.95

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