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Dog Bites Man: How TV Has Helped
Presidential Politics

By Joseph Hanania  , Joseph Hanania, who lives in Santa Monica, writes
frequently about TV and minority issues

Los Angeles Times  Sunday November 12, 2000
Home Edition  Opinion  Part M  Page 2  Opinion Desk
25 inches;  878 words | Type of Material: Opinion Piece 

   Never has presidential political advertising been so clean, so
informative, so devoid of personal attacks. Never has it brought so many
voters into the political process, making the country more democratic
than ever. And we can thank TV for this.

   So says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for
Communications at the University of Pennsylvania and author of
"Everything You Think You Know About Politics . . . And Why You're
Wrong." In fact, says Jamieson, this year may well have witnessed a sea
change in how presidential political campaigns are run.

   "The closeness of this election, coupled with important issues
addressed in the ads and the debates, increased voter turnout," she says.
"In the election's closing days, as the polls indicated a race too close
to call, the usual expectations that undecided voters would fall away
proved wrong. Instead, the undecideds not only came out in force; they
[went] toward [Al] Gore. Because of TV's influence, voter interest and
attention to politics both increased."

   Yet, it was not always clear that this would be so. A mere 12 years
ago, Jamieson says, candidates were held largely unaccountable for ads
promoting their candidacies. At the same time, given TV's
disproportionately growing clout--it now soaks up about 67 cents of every
campaign dollar or about $1 billion this year--many people despaired over
the country's future. TV smears, sound bites taken out of context and
grainy, unflattering photos of opposing candidates would, experts feared,
subvert the national dialogue essential to a free election.

   Instead, says Jamieson, the system has come together with a series of
built-in checks that have actually increased voter turnout. What's behind
all this?

   Although seeming to appeal to the mass electorate, presidential
campaigns really hinge on swing voters, especially those in key states.
That's why this year's ads were disproportionately concentrated in
battleground states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Florida
and Wisconsin, while ignoring the most populous ones, New York and
California. With swing voters making up just 10% of the electorate and
with most of those voters moderate middle-class women averse to attack
ads, candidates have cleaned up their campaigns not out of altruism but
out of practicality, says Jamieson.

   In fact, given TV's omnipresence, a return to smoke-filled rooms with
machine bosses deciding who runs and how is inconceivable, as then
Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley (the father of Gore campaign manager
William M. Daley) found out following the 1968 Democratic convention.
Moreover, political bosses themselves have largely been replaced by
primaries--thanks, once more, to TV's democratization.

   OK, say some nattering nabobs of negativism (with apologies to former
Vice President Spiro Agnew), so what if TV has broadened the number of
voters? Hasn't it also cheapened political discourse, replacing weighty
arguments put forth in, say, the "Federalist Papers" or the
Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 with corny, often embarrassing images,
such as 1988 Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis grinning goofily from
a tank?

   As a matter of fact, it hasn't. Such imagery long preceded the
political TV ad. Thus, in 1840, Whig presidential candidate William Henry
Harrison, who lived in a three-story Georgian mansion on a 2,000-acre
estate, nevertheless campaigned--through songs, banners, coonskin-cap
souvenirs and planted newspaper accounts--as a backwoods Everyman living
in a log cabin. Citing an exaggerated heroism from an indecisive battle
against the Shawnee Indians at an obscure town called Tippecanoe Creek,
the "backwoodsman war hero" won on the catchy slogan "Tippecanoe and
Tyler too" referring to his running mate, John Tyler.

   Given TV's reach, could such a deception today last more than a single
news cycle?

   Moreover, TV has destroyed a candi date's ability to pander to local
audiences without it being known elsewhere. This year, for example,
Republican nominee George W. Bush attempted to rally the conservative
base in South Carolina by appearing at fundamentalist Bob Jones
University without condemning its anti-Roman Catholic sentiments. This
would not have caused much controversy in the days before TV, but it set
off a firestorm when broadcast nationwide.

   Finally, through their ever-broadening reach, TV and radio have helped
uplift the national political discourse. Thus the census of 1850
classified a mere 5% of newspapers as politically "neutral and
independent." A century later, amid competition from the airwaves, more
than half the nation's newspapers called themselves independent, says
Jamieson. Today, the partisan newspaper is on the endangered list.

   By almost any standard, then, the 2000 presidential campaign was an
improvement over any before, reaching more people with more issues and
fewer unwarranted attacks. It was not always apparent, however, that TV
would help bring this about. A mere four years after the first TV
political ads aired--for Republican hopeful Dwight D. Eisenhower in
1952--Democratic presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson produced TV's
first negative ad, holding President Eisenhower accountable for allegedly
breaking promises to promote government "thrift" and "integrity," says
David Bushman, curator of "Madison Avenue Goes to Washington: The History
of Presidential Campaign Advertising," on exhibit at the Museum of
Television & Radio in Beverly Hills.

   But reaction to TV's brand of "dirty politics" did not truly set in
until 1988, when supporters of Republican candidate George Bush aired a
spot featuring Willie Horton, an African American imprisoned for murder
and rape, who had been released from jail on a prison-furlough program
initiated by the governor of Massachusetts, Bush's opponent. Largely in
reaction to the implicit race-baiting, newspapers in 1992 started
scrutinizing ads for truthfulness and balance. Thus, whereas radio and TV
had once provided a check on partisan newspapers, today newspapers hold
TV accountable, arguably the beginning of the modern trend.

   Now that the election is over, "We ought to stop and give ourselves a
cheer," Jamieson says. "The system works as it was supposed to."

GRAPHIC-DRAWING: (no caption), WES BAUSMITH / Los Angeles Times

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