The political sound bite: better than the alternative


July 08, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

Feeling a little down lately? Worried about your job? The fighting in Bosnia? Sister Souljah?

Well, perk up! There is good news at hand.

The "CBS Evening News with Dan Rather" is now going to quote politicians at greater length.

There. I knew you'd feel better.

Concerned that the average TV sound bite for presidential candidates has shrunk from 42.3 seconds in 1968 to 7.3 seconds today, CBS will now give candidates at least 30 seconds on the air "or they won't be heard at all."

And can I see a show of hands as to which you'd prefer?

Erik Sorenson, executive producer of the evening news, said, according to one news story, that the experimental policy is "partly to prod the candidates to talk at greater length."

Which leads me to believe Erik has been sitting a little too near the microwave towers over the past few years.

Some media critics are hailing this as a great step forward. But some media critics never leave their TV sets to listen to presidential candidates in person.

If they did, they would see why quoting candidates at greater length is fraught with peril.

I will give you an example. The following is from George Bush in April 1988, when the average TV sound bite was 9.8 seconds.

Appearing before the Association for a Better New York, Bush was asked: "Why do so many Americans want to use drugs? Is there some underlying cause in American life?"

And here is Bush's reply, which I taped, but which never made television:

"Yeah, I think there's some social change going on. AIDS, for example, us, is a, is a, uh, disease for, disease of poverty in a sense. It's where hopelessness is. It's bigger than that, of course, and the hopelessness that comes when you have AIDS inter-, interjecting with narcotics -- in some areas, not across the whole country. The whole country is doing pretty well in a lot of ways. More Americans at work than any time in the history of this country and a higher percentage of the work force, but I don't think there's quote a malaise unquote in this country. I think there are some serious problems out there, that your question is a very deep and philosophical one. And, of course, there are current sociological currents in this country that, that, uh, lead people to conduct their lives in some ways, but I am one who thinks that at various times in our history we have condoned some of the things we should have condemned. We have gotten away from values in school for one. Some of it is out of post-Watergate, post-Vietnam syndrome, where our kids were taught for example about Vietnam that we were all immoral. My kids were taught that by good, smart people, who agonized over the war and look at Vietnam today. We go through cycles, it seems to me. So, yes, there's some underpinnings of discontent, but I don't think that should be used as an excuse for tolerating the use of narcotics."

Do you now see why networks use short sound bites instead of quoting these guys at length?

Oh, I know what you are saying. You are saying you want to hear such lengthy replies because it will show what the candidates are really like.

But that is not what you want. Not really. You want this stuff only from the other candidates. You do not want this stuff from your candidate.

I know that if I want to get really nasty letters, all I need do is quote a candidate exactly and at length.

Every time I do, people think I am trying to poke fun.

Which I would never do.

There is another problem with quoting politicians at length. We have limited time and space in this business. By giving at least 30 seconds to each presidential candidate, CBS will have to take time away from other people and other stories.

My columns, for example, can be no longer than 132 lines of type. If I have a column that will run longer, my only recourse is to call up George Will and ask him to write it under his name.

The George Bush quotation above, by the way, took up 40 lines of my column.

And can I afford to devote that much space to George Bush's nonsense when I have nonsense of my own to communicate?

I have a lot more to say about this subject, including lengthy nonsensical passages from Ross Perot and Bill Clinton, but I am out of space.

So try to catch George Will's next column.

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