May 15, 2002

Fund-raising photo creates a smokescreen…

The Bush administration is catching heat for offering a photo of the president, taken on 9/11, as a fund-raising promotion. Donors received the photo, as part of a 3-picture set, when they made a minimum $150 donation at a recent gala for major corporations. While the gesture is certainly in questionable taste, critics should focus their attention elsewhere. For example, as reported in the New York Times:

Among the companies making the top donations of $250,000 each tonight were the the American International Group, Chevron, the El Paso Corporation, Microsoft, Philip Morris and Union Pacific, fund-raisers said. All have issues before the government, and the executives of one, Chevron, were represented by the American Petroleum Institute last year in meetings before Vice President Cheney’s energy task force. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, is a former Chevron executive.

I certainly think that offering the photo politicizes the events of 9/11 in an unsavory way. But, then, political fund-raising is often an unsavory business in which Democrats and Republicans alike find themselves making tasteless decisions to chase the almighty dollar.

The press focuses on drama because it plays well according to the inherent narrative bias of journalism. The photo is the center of drama, and it adds visual tension (and a snippy ethical element) to a “story” that is easily presented and easily digested. And it draws fussy sound-bites from opponents. The important controversy, however, will be found in the thirteenth paragraph of the Times story.

May 10, 2002

Message stability and ideology…

In his latest article for Slate, Joe Klein contends that populism is a troublesome ideology for presidential aspirants, especially that brand sold by Democratic message-master Bob Shrum. As Klein says:

“The central assumption is that the little guy is so aggrieved that he can only be roused to citizenship by an appeal to his basest suspicions. Exploitation and venality are posited as the central fact of American life: The country is being taken to the cleaners by wicked plutocrats. This rather sour ideology did have one fleeting moment of high-mindedness a hundred years ago.”

This is one of the reasons Klein contends that Shrum’s record with presidential candidates has been “disastrous.” There is, however, a very interesting line later in the article that, I think, tells an even deeper story. Klein analyzes some of the populist campaign messages crafted for several Democrats, including Al Gore and Bob Kerrey. After describing a particular commercial Shrum crafted for Kerrey, Klein writes: “Kerrey later admitted he didn’t believe a word he was saying.” While populism may certainly be a troublesome ideology for a presidential candidate in the twenty-first century, I would suggest this tidbit speaks more eloquently to Kerrey’s failure in 1992.

Actors can deliver convincing lines they do not believe while playing characters they do not resemble ideologically. This is a skill that eludes most of us. Message stability and coherence are crucially important in the era of the 24-7-365 TV campaign. One skill the electorate develops from the personality-driven, horse-race coverage of television is the ability to smell a phony.

May 6, 2002

Want journalism? Read a newspaper…

Howard Kurtz reports this morning in his Media Notes column about an apparent inequity in hiring former politicos as news anchors and hosts of pundit talk-a-thons. It seems television favors liberals and Democrats for these roles. As Kurtz says:

“By this fall, [George Stephanopoulos] the onetime Democratic operative likely will be in Brinkley’s old chair as solo anchor of the prestigious Sunday program [This Week]. It’s a remarkable career transformation that has some critics questioning whether the major news organizations would ever allow a Republican to make such a leap.”

As I have said of media bias in the Rhetorica Critical Meter, it is easy to make anecdotal cases for bias from the right or left. I find it far more interesting to consider how the media are biased by their institutional structures. So let’s consider the only newspaper source Kurtz quoted:

“I’m an absolutist about this,” says Baltimore Sun columnist Jules Witcover. “I feel like there should be them and there should be us. It’s hard for the reader or viewer to separate the sheep from the goats. This easy crossing-over has made the public confused and maybe jaundiced about the news business.”

This quote demonstrates a fundamental difference between television news presentation and print journalism, a difference that is slowly disappearing. Television is about drama and personality–who is “reporting” is as important, or more important, than what is being reported. If you want journalism you need to read a newspaper. As Neal Postman suggested in his fussy book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” television, because of the kind of medium it is, cannot do anything but trivialize, simplify, and dramatize the news as it focuses on personality, pictures, and conflict.

May 3, 2002

Is Gore a Shoo-in for 2004?…

James B. Chapin, political analyst for UPI, has this to say about Gore’s chances of securing the Democratic nomination in 2004:

Since Gore is right in the center of his party, whomever this challenger is will, perforce, find himself a touch too far to the right or to the left to win the nomination. That’s the advantage that present media coverage gives to the guy on top — he has lots of time to position himself JUST so, while his last-minute opponent, whomever it may turn out to be, doesn’t have time to figure out where to put himself. He’s “stuck” with whatever got him the last month’s headlines.

This is a cogent observation about how the news media affects the political process. It is for exactly this reason that Sen. John Edwards is campaigning in the Carolinas this week. Campaigns for president no longer have beginnings and endings. The campaign is constant.

Working further in Gore’s favor is journalism’s penchant for perpetuating unexamined master narratives. Gore is the front-runner because he was the loser in a tight race yet the winner of the popular vote. The master narrative must see the two antagonists meet again on the streets of Dodge City for a final shoot-out in 2004. Chapin may be right that no other democrat has a chance. But then pop-punditry claims Gore lost a campaign that could not be lost, so…

May 2, 2002

Talk is not cheap…

Unnamed sources in a story published by the Los Angeles Times say former president Bill Clinton talked to NBC about hosting his own television show for $50 million. As of now, no one in a position to know (and willing to be named) has confirmed this. Clinton is apparently in Los Angeles for a Democratic fund-raiser, although the Times could not find a source willing to be named for this bit of information, either. So just what did Clinton talk about when he met with executives at NBC yesterday?

Until someone in a position to know goes on the record, we will have no idea. If it turns out he is in L.A. for a fund-raiser, I think this may be the clue to the reason for the visit to NBC. While thin on facts, the Times story does make a cogent point about the likelihood of a Clinton talk show: “Television executives doubted that Clinton would sign up for a demanding regimen of daily tapings for 39 weeks that such a show would require.” Perhaps. Further, the Times article quotes an academic source naysaying the idea:

“The price he could pay is so much higher than the potential payoff,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of media and pop culture at Syracuse University. “Clinton is obsessed with his legacy, and a talk show is not the best way to erase Monica Lewinsky and the impeachment and reposition himself in high school history books for his positive achievements. How does he maintain his dignity if he cashes in on his ‘Animal House’ presidency?”

It seems the professor has answered his own question. What legacy is possible for an “Animal House” presidency? It is likely that this story is a floater–a bit of information leaked to the press for the purpose of testing the idea with the public. This is a common practice in Washington politics. If the idea flies, go for it. If it flops, deny any inquiries every took place.

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