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The Shame of Political TV

Like ill-matched partners in a bad marriage, American politics and American television seem bound inextricably together, unable to escape a relationship that increasingly degrades both partners. Television, “the business of selling audiences to advertisers,” produces programs that at bottom are brightly colored conveyer belts carefully designed to deliver to corporations particular segments of a mass market: Ally McBeal‘s success lies in the efficiency with which it delivers the “eyeballs” of young urban females to gaze upon the products of L’Oréal, Monday Night Fooball‘s in how many middle-aged male eyeballs it attracts for Budweiser and Chevrolet. Yet American politics, however important its workings may be to the future of the republic, simply does not deliver enough eyeballs. In order to obtain them, politicians, like corporations, are forced to pay, forming a system that has left American television increasingly rich, American politics increasingly corrupt, and American voters increasingly ignorant. Television is the means by which democracy has been absorbed by the market, producing a new hybrid: call it “democracy commodified,” and we have seen its emergence this summer in its purest form yet.

It should have surprised no one that the three broadcast networks, which still account for almost half the television audience, declined to offer viewers more than a bare minimum—scarcely more than one minute in ten—of coverage of the political conventions. “The parties have designed these conventions, both of them, to be marketing tools—not news events, but marketing tools,” declared CBS’s Dan Rather. “And I’m not comfortable with trying to sell the audience on the idea that they are something other than what they are. The argument that somehow we have a ‘moral responsibility’ to carry the political parties’ fogging-machine infomercial—I don’t buy it.”

Rather, at sixty-eight, has covered a great many conventions, including some that offered no important floor fights and no real suspense about who the candidates were to be—that offered, that is, “no news.” Whatever his employer’s supposed “moral responsibility,” he well remembers a time when the networks had a clearly stated legal one, defined originally under the Communications Act of 1934, which obliged broadcasters, on pain of losing their licenses, to serve the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” The airwaves were public property, and if “selling audiences to advertisers” was the rule of the business, Congress carved out an exception, a safe zone in which news and politics and other information deemed essential to the public could flourish protected from competitive pressures.

During the Reagan administration, this exception became in effect a dead letter, sacrificed to the vast expansion of cable television and the deregulation of the communications industry that came with it. The Clinton years brought not its restoration but further growth and concentration in what we have come to call “the media,” leaving all of television, network and cable, concentrated in the hands of a half-dozen multinational corporations whose executives feel responsibility only to earn higher profits for their shareholders. For all Mr. Rather’s complaints about the political parties’ use of their conventions as “marketing tools,” it is precisely the parties’ failures in marketing that have led the networks increasingly to ignore them. Whatever the supposed “lack of news,” it is safe to say that if the conventions delivered as many eyeballs as Survivor, CBS would broadcast them. And why not? Why should the networks subsidize American politics?

One answer might be: Because American politics subsidizes American television—to the tune, this year, of $600 million for the networks and broadcast stations alone (not including cable). With the decline of local party organizations, television has long since become the essential way—virtually the only way—to reach voters. And as television time has become more and more expensive, the American political world has come increasingly to resemble Republican Rome, in which the wealthy and powerful expend their largesse to make it possible for their chosen candidate to reach and thereby seduce the masses.

American politicians have been forced to become a species of bagmen who collect money from the wealthy and deliver it to television in order to sell themselves to the voters. And voters, seeing the mounting piles of money and the access and influence gained by those who supply it, grow less and less willing to participate. And yet amid the sporadic but increasingly angry debate about money in politics and about the need for campaign finance reform, it is astonishing how infrequently television—and in particular proposals to force the industry to offer free time to candidates—is mentioned. For if it is the big donors who benefit first in the system of corruption that is now the motor driving American politics, the television industry comes a close second. The one thing hardly anyone on, or near, television is interested in is criticizingtelevision itself.

Though television profits greatly from politics, it covers it grudgingly. The network newscasts, once protected as “loss leaders” under the “public-interest exception” but now under sharp pressure to cut staff and deliver ratings, devote less and less time to national politics: according to one survey, little more than half a minute an evening during the month leading up to the decisive primaries last March. And this “coverage,” just like cable television’s coverage of the conventions, is dominated by personality and “strategy.” As a medium driven by images, television has never been particularly suited to explaining issues or policies; but what strikes the viewer now is the rigor with which broadcasters manage to keep these matters almost entirely off the air. Even the Republicans’ “Leave No Child Behind” night in Philadelphia did not succeed in provoking any real discussion of Governor Bush’s record on education in Texas or his plans to extend these policies if elected. And one might have been forgiven for assuming that the only matter at issue for the Democrats in Los Angeles was whether Vice President Gore could “step out of Clinton’s shadow” or “re-introduce himself to the American people.”

Amid the ocean of commentary, of reporters and commentators talking to one another about the political challenges facing the candidates, it wasn’t the small attention paid to issues and policies that was striking but their almost total absence. Indeed, Mr. Gore in particular seems to have taken advantage of precisely this, using his hour of network time to deliver a speech crowded with specific proposals; and, though many television commentators criticized the speech as “a laundry list” or “a state of the union address,” the sheer information the Vice President managed to convey to voters who clearly knew little about him helped him gain suddenly and dramatically in the polls.

Personality, of course, is the currency of television; perhaps it is not surprising that much of our political coverage, when it doesn’t focus on “spin,” has the feel of Current Affair—or that, to accompany what have become our quadrennial “pseudoevents,” television concentrates on the personal histories, quirks, and changing styles of those who are “known for being known.” Dan Rather affects to disdain such a focus: “I’m a journalist,” he says. “I’m news. I wish it were otherwise, but there is not much news here. This [convention] is a week-long political infomercial.” In view of network television’s reluctance to cover politics and its preference for personality and “horse-race” pieces when it does, Rather’s disdain for the “infomercial” seems misplaced, particularly when he uses it to justify the networks’ neglect of the conventions. News is not just what is “new” or surprising or startling. News is information. “Issues don’t win elections, constituencies do,” goes the old saying; but issues are the means by which politicians attract constituencies. If television is the business of selling audiences to advertisers, and politics is the business of selling constituencies to candidates, then issues are the television programs of politics: the means to attract voters. Whether these are “traditional issues” used to secure a candidate’s base (affirmative action for Democrats, for example, or opposition to abortion for Republicans) or “wedge issues” intended to break off groups of disgruntled voters and attract them to the other party (the “social issues” that helped Republicans lure away the so-called “Reagan Democrats”), no issue can be effective unless it is widely identified with a candidate. To sell himself to a voter, a candidate needs to have a reliable means to deliver information to him about what he stands for and what he plans to do if elected. That Gore was forced to use his acceptance speech—the single hour of undivided television time the networks will grant him during the entire campaign—to explain his basic politics, and that voters, after a year of presidential campaigning, greeted these policies as something of a revelation, suggests that the candidates’ voices are not reaching the broad public.

More than any other source, television is where Americans look for their information, and increasingly television does not provide it. When a bare 51 percent of voters were even aware that the two major candidates have different positions (as poll-takers from Pew Research Center found in June), this is not simply an indictment of voters but a condemnation of television. When, after a year of campaign coverage, the number of voters who think the candidates’ stands are “similar” has “grown” by more than a third, this suggests that television is failing to inform Americans about what the candidates are saying. If the inextricable embrace between politics and television has left television’s owners fat with profits and politicians beholden to large donors, it has left voters not only alienated and bored but strikingly uninformed.

The networks, still far and away the country’s dominant mass media, managed to cover fewer minutes of the conventions than ever before, while keeping Survivor and Big Brother firmly before the public and the profits those programs earn streaming into shareholders’ pockets. Now the main campaign has begun, and during the commercial breaks between these and other programs, viewers will be confronted by campaign commercials. Though for the big donors’ money makes it possible to buy time on the most expensive and desirable programs—programs, like Survivor, that attract a lot of eyeballs—the candidates will likely favor for their “media buys” programs that deliver the eyeballs of certain key groups, in television markets in certain “battleground” states: “soccer moms” in Michigan, for example. These commercials will not be “news,” of course, not in Dan Rather’s sense, and the information they offer to voters about the candidates will be of the sort a L’Oréal or Budweiser commercial offers to viewers about its product. For most viewers who see them, however, these commercials will be the main political information they ever receive. After all, that’s what the American business of democracy commodified is all about.

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