The Empty Tube: TV Trashes Politics

By McCarthy, Abigail | Commonweal, April 10, 1992 | Go to article overview

The Empty Tube: TV Trashes Politics


McCarthy, Abigail, Commonweal


Whoever wins the Democratic nomination, whoever wins the 1992 presidential election, will have done so as the result of a political process warped almost beyond recognition. By television.

The American two-party system evolved as a means of giving practical expression to contrasting political philosophies and selecting men (later women) for office and giving them cohesive support. The primaries were part of the machinery of selection and eventually a way of giving alternative candidates a chance to be heard and elected. Originally--and not so long ago--candidates developed support state by state and came to the party convention where the final decision was made. Those state party members who chose to wait until their delegates could weigh the qualifications of each candidate in the close encounters of the convention went to them with "favorite son" candidates.

Now consider what has happened this year. As in several recent election years, the primary in New Hampshire, a small state with an electorate unrepresentative of the varied general population of the United States, assumed an abnormal importance because it was made the focus of the news. Not only did the television news (and the print media following it) pay exaggerated attention to the New Hampshire campaigns but the major-domos of the networks decided which candidates were viable and which were not and allowed only those they chose to appear on their debate programs. One of the original purposes of the primary--to allow voters to appraise all those candidates legally on the ballot--was thus summarily defeated.

In addition to that arbitrary decision restricting access to the voters, the network personalities presiding over the debates decided, by their attention, which issues were important and which were not, which candidates' proposed programs merited attention and which did not. Predictably only the most controversial piqued their interest.

(In fairness it must be said here that public television's "MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour" did lengthy in-depth interviews with more candidates than those the commercial networks had deemed viable.)

The arbitrariness and superficiality of the news side of television has been further complicated by the television advertising which assaults viewers day and night prior to election day in each primary. The cost of this advertising is the single biggest cause of the current outrageous cost of political campaigns and it automatically gives the edge to the candidate with the most campaign money. Not only must the harried contender spend hours of precious campaign time at fund-raising events, but this advertising has become so specialized that he or she must have the help of high-priced political consultants and public relations people who may or may not have any valid political philosophy.

The effect of advertising and the more or less disengaged public relations advisers was very evident in the pre-Super Tuesday campaigns in the South. The same television hour that showed us debating candidates greeting each other civilly and arguing the issues in a moderate reasonable manner was interspersed with slashing thirty second spots distorting opposing candidates' positions and accusing them of "pandering" or being "un-American." The political atmosphere, needless to say, was consequently filled with bitterness. And the end is not yet.

In short, the ultimate effect of television on politics has been to make the party system meaningless, to make a telegenic appearance more important than character, to raise the power of money in political choice, and to debase the level of debate. …

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