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MEDIA SPECTACLE AND
When the real world changes into simple images, simple images become real beings and effective motivations of a hypnotic behavior. The spectacle has a tendency to make one see the world by means of various specialized mediations (it can no longer be grasped directly).
You've heard Al Gore say he invented the Internet. Well, if he was so smart, why do all the addresses begin with "W"?
—George W. Bush
The 2000 U.S. presidential election, one of the closest and most hotly contested ever, was from start to finish a media spectacle. Despite predictions that the Internet was on its way to replacing television as the center of the information system, TV in the 2000 election was perhaps more influential than ever. The proliferation of television channels on cable and satellite systems multiplied political discourse and images, with a large number presenting round-the-clock political news and discussion. These cable news channels were organized as forms of media spectacle, with highly partisan representatives of both sides engaging opposed positions in dramatic and combative competition. The fight for ratings intensified the entertainment factor in politics, fueling the need to generate compelling political spectacle to attract audiences.
The result was unending television discussion programs with commentators lined up for theRepublicans or Democrats, as hosts pretended to be neutral, but often sided with one candidate or another. Of the twenty-four-hour cable news channels, it was clear that the Rupert Murdoch—owned Fox network was unabashedly pro-Republican, and it appeared that the NBC-owned cable networks MSNBC and CNBC were also partial toward Bush. CNN and the three major networks claimed to maintain neutrality, although major studies of television and press coverage of the election indicated that the media on the whole tended to favor Bush (see below and chapter 8).
By all initial accounts, it would be a close election, and both sides tried to furiously spin the media, getting their "message of the day" on screen or into the press. Both sides provided the usual press releases and sent out e-mail messages to the major media and their supporters, which their opponents would then attempt to counter. The competing campaigns also constructed elaborate Web sites that contained their latest "messages," video clips of the candidates, and other information on the campaigns. Both sides staged frequent photo opportunities, saturated the airwaves with ads, and attempted to produce positive images of their candidates.
A HUMDRUM ELECTION CAMPAIGN
Throughout the summer, there was not much focus on the campaigns among the public at large until the political conventions took place, where both parties traditionally gathered and produced spectacles to provide positive images of their candidate and party. The Republicans met first, in Philadelphia from July 31 to August 3, filling their stage with a multicultural display of their supporters, leading pundits to remark that more people of color appeared on stage than were in the audience of the lily white conservative party that had not been friendly to minorities.
The Democrats met in Los Angeles in mid-August and created carefully planned media events to show off their stars, the Clintons and the Gores, with Al and Tipper's long kiss the most circulated image of the event. For the first time, however, major television networks declared that the political party conventions were not important news stories, but were merely partisan events, and they severely cut back on prime-time coverage allotted the spectacles. In particular, NBC and the Fox network broadcast baseball and entertainment shows rather than convention speeches during the early days of both conventions, and all networks cut back coverage to a minimum. CBS's Dan Rather, for instance, dismissed the conventions as "four-day infomercials"—advertisements for the parties and their candidates (CBS News, August 15).
Nonetheless, millions of people watched the conventions, and both candidates got their biggest polling boosts after their respective events, thus suggesting that the carefully contrived media displays were able to capture an audience and perhaps shape viewer perceptions of the candidates. After the conventions, not much attention was given to the campaigns during the rest of August and September in the period leading up to the presidential debates. The Gore campaign seemed to be steadily rising in the polls while the Bush candidacy floundered.
During September, nothing seemed to go right with the Bush campaign. The hapless candidate was caught on open mike referring to a New York Times reporter as a "major-league asshole," with Bush's vice presidential choice, Dick Cheney, chiming in "big time." While publicly proclaiming that he would not indulge in negative campaigning, a television ad appeared attacking Gore and the Democrats that highlighted the phrase "RATS," attempting to associate the vermin with DemocRATS/bureaucRATS. Bush denied that his campaign had produced this "subliminable" message (in his creative mispronunciation) at the same time that an adman working for him was bragging about it.
Moreover, as the camps haggled about debate sites and dates, it appeared that Bush was being petulant, refusing the forums suggested by the neutral debate committee, and was perhaps afraid to get into the ring with the formidable Gore. Since the 1960s the presidential debates had been popular media spectacles that were often deemed crucial to the election. Hence, as the debates began in October, genuine suspense arose and significant sectors of the populace tuned in to the three events between the presidential candidates and single disputation between the competing vice presidents. On the whole, the debates were dull, in part because host Jim Lehrer asked unimaginative questions that simply allowed the candidates to feed back their standard positions on Social Security, education, Medicare, and other issues that they had already spoken about day after day. Neither Lehrer nor others involved in the debates probed the candidates' positions or asked challenging questions on a wide range of issues from globalization and the digital divide to poverty and corporate crime that had not been addressed in the campaign. Frank Rich described the first debate in the New York Times as a "flop show," while Dan Rather on CBS called it "pedantic, dull, unimaginative, lackluster, humdrum, you pick the word."
In Election 2000, commentators on the debates tended to grade the candidates more on their performance and style than on substance, and many believe that this strongly aided Bush. In the postmodern image politics of the 2000 election, style became substance as both candidates endeavored to appear likable, friendly, and attractive to voters. In the presidential debates when the candidates appeared mano a mano to the public for the first time, not only did the media commentators focus on the form and appearance of the candidates rather than the specific positions they took, but the networks frequently cut to "focus groups" of "undecided" voters who presented their stylistic evaluations. After the first debate, for instance, commentators noted that Gore looked "stiff" or "arrogant" while Bush appeared "likable." And after the second debate, Gore was criticized by commentators as too "passive," and then too "aggressive" after the third debate, while critics tended to let Bush off the hook.
It was, however, the spectacle of the three presidential debates and the media framing of these events that arguably provided the crucial edge for Bush. At the conclusion of the first Bush—Gore debate, the initial viewer polls conducted by CBS and ABC declared Gore the winner. But the television pundits seemed to score a victory for Bush. Bob Schieffer of CBS declared, "Clearly tonight, if anyone gained from this debate, it was George Bush. He seemed to have as much of a grasp of the issues" as Gore. His colleague Gloria Borger agreed, "I think Bush did gain." CNN's Candy Crowley concluded, "They held their own, they both did.... In the end, that has to favor Bush, at least with those who felt ... he's not ready for prime time."
Even more helpful to Bush was the focus on Gore's debate performance. Gore was criticized for his sighs and style (a "bully," declared ABC's Sam Donaldson) and was savaged for alleged misstatements. The Republicans immediately spun that Gore had "lied" when he told a story of a young Florida girl forced to stand in class because of a shortage of desks. The school principal of the locale in question denied this, and the media had a field day, with a Murdoch-owned New York Post boldface headline trumpeting "LIAR! LIAR!" Subsequent interviews indicated that the girl did have to stand and that there was a desk shortage, and testimony from her father and a picture confirmed this, but the spin was on that Gore was a "liar." Moreover, Gore had misspoken during the first debate in a story illustrating his work in making the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) more efficient, claiming that he had visited Texas with its director after a recent hurricane. As it turns out, although Gore had played a major role in improving FEMA, while he had frequently traveled with its director to crisis sites, and while he had been to Texas after the hurricane, the fact that he had not accompanied the director in the case cited accelerated claims that Gore was a "serial exaggerator," or even liar, who could not be trusted.
This Republican mantra was repeated throughout the rest of the campaign, and while the press piled on Gore every time there was a minor misstatement, Bush was able to get away with whoppers in the debate and on the campaign trail on substantial issues. For example, when he claimed in a debate with Gore that he was for a "patients' bill of rights" that would allow patients to sue their HMOs for malpractice, in fact, Bush had blocked such policies in Texas and opposed a bill in Congress that would allow patients the right to sue. And few critics skewered Bush over the misstatement in the second debate, delivered with a highly inappropriate smirk, that the three racists who had brutally killed a black man in Texas were going to be executed. In fact, one had testified against the others and had been given a life sentence in exchange; moreover, because all cases were under appeal it was simply wrong for the governor to claim that they were going to be executed, since this undercut their right of appeal. The media also had given Bush a pass on the record number of executions performed under his reign in Texas, the lax review procedures, and the large number of contested executions where there were questions of mental competence, proper legal procedures, and even evidence that raised doubts about Bush's execution of specific prisoners.
After the first debate, Saturday Night Live heavily satirized both candidates, and Gore's handlers forced him to watch the episode. Accordingly, in the second debate Gore was highly restrained, careful not to criticize Bush too aggressively, and gave an uninspiring, if competent, performance. Now the Republicans had a field day raising questions concerning who is the real Al Gore?—a tactic that they repeated after the third debate when once again Gore was on the offensive, and when many commentators believed that Gore had decisively outshone the listless Bush (see, for example, Jake Tapper's article in Salon, October 18).
Gore was on the defensive for several weeks after the debates, and Bush's polls steadily rose. Indeed, the tremendous amount of coverage of the polls no doubt helped Bush. While Gore had been rising in the polls from his convention up until the debates, occasionally experiencing a healthy lead, the polls were favorable to Bush from the conclusion of the first debate until the election. Almost every night, the television news opened with the polls, which usually showed Bush ahead, sometimes by 10 points or more. As the election night results would show, these polls were off the mark but they became the story of the election as the November 7 vote approached.
The polls were indeed one of the scandals of what would turn out to be outrageously shameful media coverage of the campaign. Arianna Huffington mentions in a November 2, 2000, column that on a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released at 6:23 P.M. on Friday, October 27, George W. Bush was proclaimed to hold a 13-point lead over Al Gore; in a CNN/Time poll released around two hours later that night at 8:36 P.M., Bush's lead was calculated to be 6 points. When Huffington called the CNN polling director, he declared that the wildly divergent polls were "statistically in agreement ... given the polls' margin of sampling error." The polling director explained that with a margin of error of 3.5 percent, either candidate's support could be 3.5 percent higher or lower, indicating that a spread of as much as 20 points could qualify as "statistically in agreement," thus admitting that the polls do not really signify much of anything, as in fact election night results showed.
The polls were thus notoriously flawed during the 2000 campaign. Poll fatigue had set in with the public, and the major polling organizations admitted that they were getting a less than 50 percent response rate. Moreover, the national polls were irrelevant, because in an Electoral College system, it is the number of states won that is the key to victory, and not national polling figures. Nonetheless, network news coverage focused on the polls, or the strategies, mechanics, and ups and downs of the campaigns, rather than the key issues or the public's real concerns. With a shrinking amount of news coverage on the major network news, and soundbites in which news and information were condensed into even smaller fragments, media focus on the horse race and strategic dimension of the presidential campaigns meant that less and less time would be devoted to discussion of issues, the candidates, and the stakes of the election.
In this environment, the campaigns sought to create positive images of their candidates through daily photo opportunities and television ads, thus contributing to intensification of a superficial politics of the image. The television ads presented positive spectacles of the candidates' virtues and negative spectacles of their opponents' flaws. Contested states such as Florida were saturated with wall-to-wall advertising, and consequently Election 2000 campaign costs were the highest in history in which a record $3 billion was dispersed. The ads were closely scrutinized for distortion, exaggerations, and lies, with Internet Webzines such as Slate and some television networks providing regular analysis of the ads, while television networks replayed and closely analyzed the more controversial ones.
Both candidates ran intense phone campaigns. Republican voters could be thrilled to get a prerecorded call from George W. Bush himself, telling them that he wanted their votes. On the Democratic side, there was a late-campaign barrage of telephone calls to black voters from Bill Clinton, while Ed Asner recorded a call to be sent to seniors in Florida warning them about Bush's Social Security program. Of course, Hollywood celebrities and rock stars also campaigned for the candidates. Gore used his Harvard roommate Tommy Lee Jones, West Wing President Martin Sheen, and an array of young Hollywood stars to campaign for him, while Bush used Bo Derek and members of the Hollywood right such as Bruce Willis.
Yet it was perhaps late-night comics and Saturday Night Live, the longtime satirical NBC show, that most pungently exemplified the continued importance of television to electoral politics and that also made clear that contemporary U.S, politics is media spectacle. The comics had a field day satirizing the know-nothing smiling papa's boy "Dubya" (aka W., or Shrub, the little Bush) and AlGore, the stiff and pompous senator from Tennessee. Likewise, Saturday Night Live ridiculed the candidates after the debates in segments that were widely circulated and repeated frequently on nightly news as well as on a preelection special, giving rise to the claim that the SNL piece was the "most important political writing of the year" (MSNBC News, November 5 and November 15).
The Saturday Night Live satire symmetrized Bush and Gore as dim lightbulbs, who were equally ludicrous. The presentations of Gore in particular were arguably inaccurate and defamatory, depicting the intelligent and articulate vice president and author as slow-talking, clichéd, and bumbling. It is true that Gore tended to dumb down his discourse for the debates and repeated certain phrases to make key points, but the satire arguably distorted his speech patterns and mannerisms, which were nowhere near as slow and lumbering as in the satire. These often-repeated satires probably went further than Republican attack ads in creating a negative public image of Gore. Their constant reiteration on the NBC news channels thus provided not only advertisements for the popular Saturday night television show, but unpaid attack ads for the Republicans.
Bush's turnaround in the polls in October after his numbers had been steadily dipping for weeks was seemingly boosted by what was perceived as his successful appearance on the debates and on popular talk shows, such as Oprah, where an image of the much-beloved African American talk hostess giving him a smooch was widely circulated. Some claimed that the talk shows were a natural for the more relaxed Bush, although there were debates over whether his appearance on the David Letterman Show hurt or helped his efforts, as he appeared giddy and was unable to effectively answer the tough questions Letterman posed.
In any case, both candidates made appearances on the major late-night talk shows, as well as other popular television venues previously off-limits to presidential candidates. In general, television spectacle helps to boost the chances of the most telegenic candidate, and according to media commentary, Bush repeatedly scored high in ratings in "the likability factor." Polls continued to present Bush as more popular than Al Gore, and most media commentators predicted that he would win the election handily.
MEDIA BIAS FOR BUSH
In the postmodern politics of promotion, candidates are packaged as commodities, marketed as a brand name, and sold as a bill of goods. In a presidential race, campaigns are dominated by image consultants, advertising mavens, spin doctors, and operatives who concoct daily photo opportunities to make the campaign look appealing, "messages" sound attractive, and "events" present the candidates in an attractive format. Such campaigns are, of course, expensive and require tremendous budgets that make competing impossible for candidates without access to the megafortunes needed to run a media politics campaign. In turn, such megaspectacles render politicians beholden to those who cough up the megabucks to pay for the extravaganzas and the vast apparatus of producers, spinners, and operatives to create them.
Bush's brand name was his family trademark, son of the former president and Bush dynasty heir apparent, with his own distinctive "compassionate conservatism." The latter phrase shows the completely bogus and spurious nature of presidential packaging, as there is little "compassion" in the record of the Texas governor who executed a record number of prison inmates, who cut welfare lists and social programs, and who promised more of the same on the national level. In the politics of presidential marketing, however, creation of image takes precedence over ideas, style replaces substance, and presentation trumps policy. With politics becoming a branch of marketing, the more marketable candidate is easier to sell. Thus, it is not surprising that Bush's image, style, and presentation trumped Gore's ideas, substance, experience, and policies with large segments of the public.
Bush had another major asset in the competition for votes and marketing of the candidates. Cultural historians make distinctions between "character," based on one's moral fiber and history of behavior, and "personality," which has to do with how one presents oneself to others (see Sussman 1984 and Gabler 1999, 197). The new culture of personality emphasizes charm, likability, attractiveness, and the ability to present oneself in positive images. Bush was clearly Mr. Personality, instantly likable, a hail-fellow-well-met and friendly glad-hander who was able to charm audiences. He was becoming a media celebrity whose record and claim to accomplishments were few, but he was able to effectively play the "presidential contender" and provide a resonant personality. Moreover, Bush was able to transmit his likable qualities to television, whereas Gore frequently had more difficulty in coming across as personable and translating his considerable intelligence and experience into easily consumable soundbites and images.
The Texas governor, who was obviously more a figure of personality than character, was also able to turn the "character issue"—with the complicity of the press—against Gore and convince audiences that he, George W. Bush, was a man of "character" as well as personality. The Bush camp used the term "character" as a code word to remind audiences of the moral lapses of Bill Clinton and of Gore's association with the president, in a sustained collapse of one into the other. The Bush campaign also systematically defamed Gore's character, and the media bought into this, as I am documenting.
Furthermore, Bush, more than the deadly serious and wonkish Gore, produced entertainment; he was amusing and affable in debates, even if weak on substance. Like Ronald Reagan, Bush looked good on the run, with a friendly smile and wave, and in general seemed able to banter and connect with his audiences better than Gore. Bush's misstatements and errors were amusing, and on late-night talk shows he poked fun at himself for his mispronunciations and gaffes; Slate compiled a list of "Bushisms," and they were as entertaining as David Letterman's Top Ten list and Jay Leno's nightly NBC monologue, which often made jokes about Gore and Bush.
The American public seems to like entertaining politicians and politics, and when stories broke a few days before the election that Bush had been arrested twenty years before on a drunk driving charge and had since covered this over and even lied about it, the polls did not punish him. When asked of highs and lows of the campaign on election night, Bush said with his trademark smirk that even the lows "turned out to be good for us," alluding to polls that indicate that Bush got a rise in popularity after revelations of his drunk driving charge. As with Clinton's survival of his sex scandals and the Republican impeachment campaign, it seems as if the public empathizes with the politicians' foibles and resents moral indictments of at least those with whom voters sympathize. Obviously, Clinton was a highly empathetic personality whom voters could sympathize with, and many resented the Republican moral crusade against him. Likewise, voters liked Bush and seemed to not be affected by the embarrassing disclosure of his DWI record and its longtime cover-up.
Excerpted from grand theft 2000 by Douglas Kellner. Copyright © 2001 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
Posted May 8, 2002