Generals Fighting the Last War

By Malanowski, Jamie | Washington Journalism Review, December 1992 | Go to article overview

Generals Fighting the Last War


Malanowski, Jamie, Washington Journalism Review


The mainstream media did a lot of responsible reporting yet often seemed clueless in dealing with a new kind of campaign.

It's always hard to tell whether some set of phenomena constitutes a trend or an aberration, but we as a nation have just completed the first presidential campaign that has taken place in a post-party, post-ideology and post-literate era: Call it the Politainment Era. As a consequence, these may well be the 10 most important items for the media and political types to remember about the 1992 election:

1. Bill Clinton played the saxophone on "The Arsenio Hall Show."

2. Dan Quayle attacked Murphy Brown.

3. Clinton made his nomination inevitable by winning the New York primary, and he won New York by going one-on-one with disc jockey Don Imus.

4. Ross Perot launched his campaign on "Larry King Live."

5. Sitcom creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason produced Clinton's convention biography film.

6. Gennifer Flowers made a name for herself (and at least $100,000) with a most unremarkable claim.

7. The ratings of Perot infomercials rivaled those of major league baseball's playoff games.

8. There was only one issue in the 1992 campaign.

9. There was only one issue in the 1992 campaign.

10. There was only one issue in the 1992 campaign, and it wasn't the economy.

The single issue of the election was should George Bush stay or go, and if it's go, who replaces him? Ultimately, that's what Pat Buchanan was about, what Jerry Brown was about and what Perot was about, and it was also what the Democrats' hard-headed nomination of the more mainstream Clinton was about. And if the establishment news media seemed always one step behind the likes of Larry King and the Star in establishing and directing the campaign, it's because they resolved not to fall victim to the same manipulations that stymied them in 1988, 1984 and previously. A little like generals fighting the last war, the news pros strove to insure that they didn't get trapped by sound bites or let the candidates package the imagery. They didn't want to allow the campaign to be fought out on symbols instead of issues, or permit candidates to lie and mislead in commercials and interviews without correction.

Consequently, sound bites were lengthened to the size of good, nutritional infosnacks. The New York Times, Washington Post and other publications felled acres of forests to provide lengthy examinations of the candidates' economic and health care plans. The networks and newspapers fact-checked candidates' statements and commercials. In the end, they did a credible job avoiding the pitfalls of 1984, when Ronald Reagan ran a campaign that was all image and personality, and of 1988, when Bush ran on the proposition that he was a lot like Reagan and not at all like Michael Dukakis. In other words, having determined that campaigns were vehicles for political discourse, and that the sober, fair-minded way to conduct political discourse was to focus on issues, the establishment media did their best to hold that line all year.

What did the media get for their troubles? Not what the news guys had planned for. They got a one-issue campaign that focused almost completely on whether Bush deserved to keep his job. It was about character, personality. Does he or does he not get it?

Thus the poor media usually seemed out of sync. Yes, the voters were concerned about health care and the economy, but let's face it, how many voters are equipped to evaluate different plans? Not a whole hell of a lot. People may be concerned about paying for health care, but darn few who are already covered and who haven't been sick lately have any idea what their coverage includes. It is the rare voter who's going to be able to sit down, and in some sort of super-rational, John Stuart Millian way, think, Well, in my personal calculus of interests, I care most deeply about health care, and the Republican package with its particular payment plan is more attractive to me, particularly if I develop heart disease or cancer, which I am currently working on, so I'm going for Bush. …

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