The Candidates and the Media Trying to Make Sure Voters 'Don't Get Willie Hortoned Again'

March 01, 1992|By DAVID ZURAWIK and CHRISTINA STOEHR | DAVID ZURAWIK and CHRISTINA STOEHR,David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun's television critic. Christina Stoehr teaches writing and arts criticism at Virginia Wesleyan College.

The favored metaphor so far this year in coverage of candidate advertising on TV is war. Air war, ad war, tube war, war of the words.

Television and print news organizations across the country have declared war on candidates' TV commercials -- those 30- and 60-second spots with all the stirring music, images of leadership and promises of a better tomorrow wrapped in red, white and blue video bunting.

Some of the best and the brightest in media are monitoring and dissecting the TV commercials that started airing last month in New Hampshire and will continue to fill our TV screens through November.

At the CNN bureau in Washington, correspondent Brooks Jackson and producer Jim Connor spearhead such a self-described "truth squad." Reporting on the candidates' TV ads is their full-time job for the next nine months.

Spend any time at all with them, and you can't help but appreciate how hard they are trying to make sure "American voters don't get Willie Hortoned again," in their words. They have spent time at the feet of persuasion experts learning how to deconstruct the ads. And a "good" day for Mr. Jackson now seems to be one in which he gets to eat his lunchmeat sandwich and bag of potato chips right there at his hopelessly cluttered desk so that he can keep incessantly fast-forwarding and rewinding his VCR until he gets just the perfect freeze frame of a candidate doing something improper in a commercial message.

But despite all the talent and commitment marshaled on the side of the good guys, Campaign '92 could well be yet another war that we in the media lose to the candidates and their image-makers. That's right, lose.

In the main, we have once again jumped into this war without nearly enough reflection about the ads or about ourselves and our fundamental conceptions of mass communication. Many of the people both in the front lines and back at headquarters are operating with questionable, outmoded or, in some cases, dead-wrong ideas about how these ads affect or don't affect us. We in the media are mostly more comfortable doing than thinking, and every four years it seems that we pay the price.

There is this strange ritualistic dance in American political reporting that can be traced back at least 30 years to Theodore White's "The Making of the President." It involves the media putting some of their best people on presidential election coverage, and those people running around like madmen and madwomen covering the campaigns for a year or so. Then, after the election is over, dozens of books -- some of them written by the same people who reported the races -- come out, saying "Now here's what really happened, and here's how the press and the American people got hustled by the candidates and their image-meisters during the campaign."

The last 10 years, the "here's how we got hustled" part often centered on TV campaigns: campaign commercials (paid media) and pseudo-events and photo opportunities staged for TV news programs (free media).

There are several conclusions that can be drawn from this pattern of media behavior.

One is that the candidates and consultants are simply a lot smarter than we are. We never come right out and admit that we might believe they're smarter, but go back and read all the accounts that paint Michael Deaver and Roger Ailes as being to vTC American political life in the 1980s what filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was to Germany in the '30s, and you get the idea that in their heart of hearts that's what some media folk believe.

(We comfort ourselves with the balm that, though not as smart, we are somehow morally superior, which is why Ms. Riefenstahl, who made "Triumph of the Will, a propaganda masterpiece for the Nazis, is such a favorite source of comparison.)

Thinking of Leni Riefenstahl and Nazi propaganda is one of the places our current problems of coverage begin. We in the media are still thinking in terms that governed mass communication thinking and research 40 to 50 years ago. And that model has been in serious dispute among scholars for at least 20 years.

One of the great underlying questions of mass communications research right after World War II was part of the greater question at the root of so much intellectual activity then: How could Hitler have happened? Mass media research focused on propaganda using a hypodermic model for communication: Messages were injected through the media into members of mass audiences who responded monolithically, like a nation of sheep, to the injection.

The model for mass communications research has been modified, but the fundamental notion of messages being injected into and affecting a passive population still has a surprising hold not just in the media but also among some university scholars.

Last week, the American Psychological Association put out a press release headlined, "Researcher Tells APA Scientific Psychology Forum How Voters Can Guard Against Election-Year Propadanda."

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