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What Role for Government?
Lessons from Policy Research
By Richard J. Zeckhauser, Derek Leebaert
Duke University PressCopyright © 1983 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
The Role of Television in American Politics
Fred Wertheimer and Randy Huwa
In the last 30 years, television has become the primary source of news for most Americans and a dominant force in politics as well. This study attempts to assess the impact of television on the political process. The analysis is based on the premise that (a) television can be a very positive force in politics and (b) the tendencies of television to distort politics can be overcome. The study examines the role of television in three different political contexts: Presidential nominations—TV coverage of primaries tends to exaggerate the importance of early primaries and gives undue attention to winners. Correcting this distortion requires more balanced media coverage and modifications of the nominating process itself Political programming—news, the first facet of TV political programming, tends to focus on the events of a campaign rather than on the substance: the issues and candidates' personalities. The networks can take and have taken steps to devote more attention to issue coverage. Further, public affairs broadcasting, the second major facet, provides valuable information to voters but is somewhat restricted by communications regulations. Possible remedies include repeal of the "equal time" rule and the institution of a system of free "voters time" for candidates. Paid political advertising— TV spots, though much maligned, provide candidates with an unprecedented forum for the presentation of information to voters. The increasing costs of the medium, however, threaten to reduce access and increase candidate dependence on political action committee (PAC) contributions. This study explores the modification of the existing "lowest unit rate" rule to reduce the costs of TV advertising.
If a tree falls in the forest, and the media aren't there to cover it, has the tree really fallen?
—cartoon from Saturday Review
The last three decades have seen a phenomenal, society-altering explosion of television. In 1950 fewer than 10 percent of American households had TV sets. Today television has an almost total market penetration—98 percent of all U.S. households have one or more TV sets, with an average of 1.67 sets per household.
The TV set is an active participant in most American homes. On the average, an American TV set is in use seven hours per day. The average American spends nearly three hours a day watching television, and on a typical evening, nearly half the population will be watching. A February 1980 poll conducted by the Roper Organization found that 91 percent of the respondents had watched some television in the previous 24 hours. For special events, as many as 75 to 80 million people may be watching the same telecast simultaneously (Graber, 1980).
In one generation, television has become the primary source of entertainment for the average American and the primary source of news as well. According to the Roper poll, television has been the chief news source for most Americans in every year since 1959. On a daily basis, the evening news programs on the three networks reached an average audience of 56 million individuals, up to 5 million in the last year alone. And polls since 1961 consistently have shown that television is the news medium that most people feel is most believable.
Not surprisingly, the use of television by politicians closely parallels the explosive development of the TV industry. In the 1980 presidential campaign, for example, television consumed more than half of the total campaign budgets of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan (Bonafede, 1981). Television appears to have become the single most important strategic resource for virtually all U.S. Senate races, major statewide candidacies, and many congressional campaigns (White, 1978). TV time and production costs, which have skyrocketed in the past decade, can consume one-third to one-half of campaign expenditures in elections at all levels of government (Graber, 1980).
The importance of television in politics has reached the point at which Theodore H. White can say, "Television is the political process—it's the playing field of politics. Today the action is in the studios, not in the back rooms" (Bonafede, 1980b). In significant ways, the media provide candidates with direct access to voters and have replaced the parties as the conveyors of political information (Swerdlow, 1981). Veteran Republican campaign manager John Sears has called the news media—the press, radio, and television—the "bosses of our political system." And Phillips (1975:v) has bemoaned the emergence of a "mediacracy."
Curiously, television became a dominant force in American politics during the past three decades with relatively little public attention. We watched the daily network and local TV news programs, we saw the paid political commercials, we listened to the TV debates when they occurred. But we did so almost unconscious as a society of the profound impact that television was having on the political process, on our ability to govern and be governed.
The challenge for the American political system in the 1980s is to come to grips with television. Too often, politicians yearn for the "good old days" when political news came from the party block captain—not from Walter Cronkite— and when the candidate selection process was not open to television's probing eye. Yet there is no room for nostalgia. The TV genie is out of the bottle. Television is here—and here to stay—as an incredibly powerful communications medium. And new technological advances—increased deployment of cable systems, satellite networks, and the like—promise to perpetuate the influence of television.
This study attempts to assess the impact of television on the political process. The analysis is based on two premises. First, television can be a very positive force in the political process. Television has the capacity for instantly communicating more political information and discussion of issues to more people than anyone would have thought possible three decades ago. Robert MacNeil (1980:37) of public broadcasting has written, "Indisputably television has brought the electorate into more intimate contact with politicians than had ever been thought possible. Most Americans alive when he was president never actually saw Abraham Lincoln. Now millions can see and hear Jimmy Carter every day, as close as if they were sitting beside him in a cabinet meeting." As President Kennedy observed, television allows citizens to examine their public officials and candidates "close up and close to the bone, for the first time since the Greek city-states" (Senate Commerce Committee, 1971:27).
Second, the negative effects that television has had on the political process can be tempered. The peculiarities of television lead, without design or intent, to a distorted coverage of politics. Television, for example, has a unique capacity to intensify. Like the magnifying glass that a child uses to focus the sun on a blade of grass until it begins to burn up, television can bring white heat—irresistible heat—to the subject of its attention. The familiarity that television brings—the ability to view politics "up close and personal"—may breed its own form of skepticism, increasing voter indifference and contempt. As a medium that is watched rather than studied, television has a preference for the colorful and scenic setting, even though "talking heads" are a much more important part of politics. Television is also normally forced to compress politics into very small morsels. The result of these time pressures is the TV version of the short story; 60- or 90-second segments become the standard lengths for "in-depth" discussions of issues, candidates, and campaigns.
TV Looks at Politics: The Presidential Primaries
In the last 12 years, the process by which the major political parties select their presidential standardbearers has been greatly altered by the proliferation of state primary elections. In 1968 there were 16; in 1980 a presidential contender was faced with 36. An outgrowth of the Progressive era and an important vehicle for direct citizen involvement in party politics, the presidential primary also could have been invented by a director of TV spectaculars—cheering crowds, stump speeches, motorcades, and, most important, election-night coverage. In fact, the mass media may have contributed to the growth in the number of primaries; Swerdlow (1981:91) has called presidential primaries "the handmaidens of television." First, the boosterism these races bring—every state would like a visit from John Chancellor or the staff of "Today"—has encouraged the proliferation of primaries. Second, as Rubin has suggested, the media have portrayed primaries "as the democratic way to make nomination choices" (Patterson, I980a:4).
In a system with this many races, it could be argued, a single primary is just one indicator of a candidate's popularity—a return from one of many units. Furthermore, a presidential primary lacks the finality of a general election— both winners and losers survive, and, because of proportional representation, most candidates are likely to pick up convention delegates.
But while the "winner-take-all" primary has been barred from presidential campaigns, the media in general and the networks in particular have developed a very close facsimile. Thomas E. Patterson's study (I980a:44) of the 1976 presidential primaries found that "no matter how close the balloting, the state's leading vote getter was awarded the headlines and most of the coverage. To finish second, even a close second, was to receive little attention from the press." Coverage of nominating primaries should resemble a series of snapshots of a continuing process; too often, primaries are presented as a series of playoff games—with one candidate the winner, the rest sent to the showers.
Patterson's study of the 1976 primaries demonstrates the media's winner-take-all coverage. In the New Hampshire primary, Jimmy Carter received 28 percent of the vote, trailed by Representative Morris Udall (D-AZ) with 23 percent and a host of others. Yet television (and newspapers) gave the victorious Carter four times the coverage they gave to each of his major rivals. The New Hampshire example was part of a general pattern. In the typical week following a primary election, 60 percent of the news coverage went to the candidate who finished first. The second-place finisher—no matter how narrow the margin of "victory"— garnered 20 percent, with 15 percent to the third-place candidate and 5 percent for number four (Patterson, 1980a).
If the media like to identify the winners of presidential primaries, then there is no winner like the first—the winner in New Hampshire. A study of three months of TV coverage of the 1976 campaign (Patterson, 1980a) found that over half of the network evening news stories discussed the New Hampshire primary. ABC political correspondent Hal Bruno complained, "We had to cover New Hampshire, but I wanted to scream that it wasn't important, that it was only a small, first step. Yet it never came through" (Bonafede, 1980a: 1132). According to Michael Robinson (1978:42), "The key to winning the nomination is merely to be declared the winner by the networks in the New Hampshire primary."
The results of this type of coverage are obvious. Winners of early primaries quickly become front-runners with subsequent increases in media attention; losers, despite substantial promises of support in later primaries, are quickly relegated to the category of also-rans and have difficulty raising money and attracting volunteers. The principle of "one person, one vote" notwithstanding, the participants in Iowa's caucuses or New Hampshire's primary have a much greater say in the election of the major party presidential nominees than do the voters of, for instance, California or New Jersey.
To correct this imbalance, the networks should take steps to improve their coverage of presidential primaries. Television must resist the temptation to label every primary the make-it-or-break-it election, for instance, and must focus attention on delegate counts as well as primary returns.
But more importantly, the presidential nominating system itself is in need of a major overhaul. ABC's Hal Bruno concedes, "There is no question the media have an impact on the system. But the system is at fault; the media are as much a victim as anyone else. We are carried along, week after week; it's like riding a tidal wave ... the system is an abomination; it is too long and too costly and the early primaries have an impact far out of proportion to reality" (Bonafede, 1980a: 1133). By changing these procedures, the political system could do much to dilute the unintended but distorting effect that TV coverage has on the presidential nominating process. Three current proposals for modifying the primary system are to institute a national primary, a system of regional primaries, or a series of fixed dates for primaries within a certain time frame.
A National Primary
A Gallup poll taken in 1980 showed that 66 percent of the public favored a national primary, allowing voters to choose nominees by direct popular vote on a single date. While a national primary would end the undue influence of early primary states and would be the ultimate simplification of the process, it would eliminate the testing that a series of primaries provides. One of the advantages of the current crazy-quilt system is that it allows a fresh face to be tested and emerge from the pack over the course of a campaign. Competition is not limited to incumbents, well-known personalities, and candidates of the monied interests. A national primary might make it impossible for an able but relatively unknown candidate to win a nomination. In addition, a national primary would further undermine the role of political parties and their national conventions in the nominating process.
A less drastic remedy for modifying the process is a proposal for regional primaries. Proponents of regional primaries—where all state primaries in a given region or time zone would be held on the same day—argue that they would facilitate the efficient use of media and candidate travel and would help focus attention on regional issues. Critics argue that a system of regional primaries would require significant changes in existing state primary dates and would pose the difficult problem of deciding the order of the regional primaries. This critical decision might well skew the discussion of issues or the choice of candidates, depending on which region would vote first. The discussion of energy issues, for example, might be quite different depending on whether the candidates began in the Northeast or the Southwest.
Limited Primary Dates
The most promising of the proposals designed to improve the nominating process would restrict the delegate selection process to a three-month period and limit state primaries to four or five specific dates within that period. By clustering state primaries on a few specific dates, this proposal would diminish the importance of the early individual state contests and minimize the ability of the press to call winners and losers. With a number of primaries representing various regions on the same day, credible candidates would be less likely to fall victim to early knockouts. If, for example, caucuses and primaries were held on March 25 in such states as Florida, Illinois, Iowa, New Hampshire, New York, and Washington, the mixed results would probably produce several winners. The media's ability to establish momentum and deliver death blows would be lessened.
In addition, this target date proposal, unlike the national or regional primary proposals, would provide flexibility to states in selecting primary dates. This plan could be adopted by federal legislation but might gain more widespread acceptance if proposed as amendments to Democratic and Republican party rules. Patterson has also suggested that a series of staggered dates—separated by three to four weeks—would give time for candidate travel and also "would provide the press with more space in which to report the candidates' views, since each Tuesday would not bring contests that the press felt compelled to forecast, report, and analyze." This would give voters a better opportunity to consider their election choices, for in 1976, as Patterson noted, and in 1980, "Each week was so filled with news of the latest and upcoming races that voters thought and talked about almost nothing but the candidates' success in the primaries" (Patterson, 1980a: 178).
The Message of the Medium: TV Presentation of Campaigns
If television is the major source of news for most Americans, if—as Roper (1979:7-8) indicates—television is the news source through which most people become "best acquainted" with candidates for U.S. House and Senate seats and statewide offices, what kind of job is the medium doing? How well does television convey to voters information about the candidates and the issues of a campaign? To answer these questions, two facets of television must be examined. First, what picture of an election emerges from regularly scheduled TV news programs? And second, how well can voters learn about candidates and issues through special public affairs programming—candidate debates, interviews, and the like?
Excerpted from What Role for Government? by Richard J. Zeckhauser, Derek Leebaert. Copyright © 1983 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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