Agendas, Politics, and Television
In 1992, I was teaching as a Fulbright Guest Professor at the University of Essen in Germany. One morning local newspapers carried a story from the United States that bewildered my students. It caused me to embark upon an examination of one of the more vexing issues in contemporary media criticism The story was about the vice president of the United States, Dan Quayle. While visiting a spelling bee he had urged a youthful contestant to add an e incorrectly to his spelling of the word potato.1
What crossed my mind first was how and why this event had come to be considered newsworthy. How odd it would have been to have awakened, back home in the United States, to a front-page news story about Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany misspelling "Kartoffel." As I reflected on this news story I had difficulty imagining a similar incident involving any other politician, no matter what his or her nationality or party affiliation, receiving the same attention. The incident occurred on the eve of a campaign for the presidency, but it struck me that even had Quayle's running mate, President George Bush, made the same gaffe it was unlikely that it would have drawn similar media attention. What was involved was something unique and peculiar to the public persona of Dan Quayle. The reason a spelling error by Quayle was news had to do both with specifics about him and how news, in general, is made.
From that moment in the summer of 1988 when then presidential candidate Bush selected Quayle, a little-known junior senator from Indiana, as his running mate the press had made much of the latter's