The US Geological Survey recorded a minor earthquake this morning with its epicenter near Wasilla, Alaska, the probable result of Sarah Palin opening her mail box to find the latest issue of CounterPunch magazine we sent her. A few moments later she Instagrammed this startling comment…
The lunatic Right certainly has plenty of problems. We’ve made it our business to not only expose these absurdities, but to challenge them directly. With another election cycle gaining steam, more rhetoric and vitriol will be directed at progressive issues. More hatred will be spewed at minorities, women, gays and the poor. There will be calls for more fracking and war. We won’t back down like the Democrats. We’ll continue to publish fact-based critiques and investigative reports on the shenanigans and evil of the Radical Right. Our future is in your hands. Please donate.
Yes, these are dire political times. Many who optimistically hoped for real change have spent nearly five years under the cold downpour of political reality. Here at CounterPunch we’ve always aimed to tell it like it is, without illusions or despair. That’s why so many of you have found a refuge at CounterPunch and made us your homepage. You tell us that you love CounterPunch because the quality of the writing you find here in the original articles we offer every day and because we never flinch under fire. We appreciate the support and are prepared for the fierce battles to come.
Unlike other outfits, we don’t hit you up for money every month … or even every quarter. We ask only once a year. But when we ask, we mean it.
CounterPunch’s website is supported almost entirely by subscribers to the print edition of our magazine. We aren’t on the receiving end of six-figure grants from big foundations. George Soros doesn’t have us on retainer. We don’t sell tickets on cruise liners. We don’t clog our site with deceptive corporate ads.
The continued existence of CounterPunch depends solely on the support and dedication of our readers. We know there are a lot of you. We get thousands of emails from you every day. Our website receives millions of hits and nearly 100,000 readers each day. And we don’t charge you a dime.
Please, use our brand new secure shopping cart to make a tax-deductible donation to CounterPunch today or purchase a subscription our monthly magazine and a gift sub for someone or one of our explosive books, including the ground-breaking Killing Trayvons. Show a little affection for subversion: consider an automated monthly donation. (We accept checks, credit cards, PayPal and cold-hard cash….)
To contribute by phone you can call Becky or Deva toll free at: 1-800-840-3683
Thank you for your support,
Jeffrey, Joshua, Becky, Deva, and Nathaniel
CounterPunch PO Box 228, Petrolia, CA 95558
For Jay Leno, it was a big night, scoring the highest Nielsen rating that The Tonight Show had seen for a Wednesday in more than four years. The big guest was movie muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was coming on the show to announce whether he would run in California’s recall election against Governor Gray Davis. The buzz had been in the air for weeks. A month and half earlier, when Schwarzenegger visited the show to promote his latest film, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Leno had playfully introduced him as "the next governor from the great state of California." And although Arnold’s advisors had been hinting lately that the star was planning to forgo his shot at electoral office, Arnold had a surprise in store.
Bounding onstage, Schwarzenegger began with a warm-up joke, quipping that his decision was the most difficult in his career since his 1978 dilemma whether to get a bikini wax. Then he got serious. "The politicians are fiddling, fumbling and failing," Schwarzenegger said. "The man that is failing the people more than anyone is Gray Davis. He is failing them terribly, and this is why he needs to be recalled, and this is why I am going to run for governor." The announcement prompted whoops and cheers from Leno’s studio audience, and Schwarzenegger rewarded them with some of the lines he had made famous in his movies. "Say hasta la vista to Gray Davis," he said, promising to "pump up Sacramento."
He also paraphrased a line from another movie–the 1976 film, Network. The people of California, Schwarzenegger said, were "mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore."
Written by Paddy Chayefsky, Network is a satire about television sensationalism run amok. In the movie, Peter Finch plays Howard Beale, a deranged newscaster who has rejuvenated his network’s ratings by promising to kill himself live in front of the cameras. Instead of committing suicide, though, Beale urges his viewers to join him in chanting that they are "mad as hell," and a cult-like movement forms around his diatribes against "the system." Ironically, Beale’s anger eventually becomes a predictable television ritual, his ratings drop again, and the network itself arranges to have him killed. The movie’s message was that even when the public gets "mad as hell," nothing changes in the end. It was a grim and cynical cinematic statement–almost as cynical as Schwarzenegger’s seemingly non-ironic use of Beale’s line.
By all accounts, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a shrewd man, and his remarks on The Tonight Show were carefully crafted. He made a point, for example, of getting out in front of the main criticisms that his campaign would encounter. "I know that they’re going to throw everything at me–I am a womanizer, no experience, a terrible guy," Schwarzenegger said. "We all know that Gray Davis can run a dirty campaign better than anyone, but we also know he doesn’t know how to run a state."
Months previously, Schwarzenegger’s approach had been spelled out by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who conducted focus-group research for the party’s "Rescue California" campaign to recall Davis. In a memo to "Rescue California," Luntz outlined 17 ways to "kill Davis softly." It was important, he advised, to "trash the governor," but, "Issues are less important than attributes and character traits in your recall effort." Accordingly, Schwarzenegger carefully avoided mentioning the budget or raising any policy questions during his Leno appearance, sticking to Luntz-tested lines such as, "Do your job for the people and do it well, otherwise you are ‘hasta la vista, baby!’"
There is an art to "going negative" in political campaigns. Gray Davis was indeed an unpopular governor facing a voter backlash in a bleak economic year, and his centrist policies had alienated Democrats as much as Republicans. He had won re-election against Bill Simon less than a year before the recall drive began, but the race was marked by ugly mudslinging on both sides that left voters disgusted and gave his opponents plenty of material to use against him. Campaign consultants often advise that the best way to go negative is to find a lighthearted way to do it, preferably with a bit of humor. As Democratic campaign operative Deno Seder explains, humor "induces the flow of endorphins and other brain hormones, creating a sense of well-being or euphoria. … Such ‘statements’ can cripple the opposition, yet they leave the viewer with a pleasant feeling, not the bitter aftertaste that often accompanies sober attack ads. Instead of earning the resentment of the targeted audience for presenting a ‘downer,’ leaving them laughing creates a feeling of goodwill toward the sponsor, while actually accentuating the sting of the attack on the opponent. We all know that when Jay Leno or David Letterman starts making jokes about a candidate, the effect can be devastating."
Schwarzenegger, however, was on Jay Leno, and he had the audience laughing with him. Calling Davis "fiddling, fumbling and failing" was itself a negative attack, but in the jovial context of the Leno show, it didn’t feel negative. And by being the person to bring up the allegations of his inexperience and womanizing, Schwarzenegger was inoculating voters against his most obvious weaknesses as a candidate. Two years previously, Premiere magazine had published a report that described him as a womanizer and recounted numerous instances in which he had allegedly groped or otherwise harassed women without their consent. Schwarzenegger had originally considered running for governor in the regular 2002 election, but had declined after Davis strategist Gary South launched a pre-emptive strike by blast-faxing copies of the Premiere piece around to reporters.
The Running Man
Schwarzenegger’s declaration on The Tonight Show may have appeared off-the-cuff and spontaneous, but months of planning and preparation had gone into both the recall petition that made his election possible and the campaign itself. Conventional wisdom suggests that Republican presidential candidates write off left-leaning California’s 54 electoral votes, but such a substantial prize is hard to ignore. An associate of top Bush strategist Karl Rove calls the state "Karl’s Ahab." Aside from the ambition of winning California in the presidential race, the party stood to benefit in other ways by electing Schwarzenegger, such as an increase in Republican voter registration with the potential to influence future elections. It also forces Democratic presidential candidates to spend more time and money in the state in 2004. "We can distract the opposition long enough to make them vulnerable elsewhere on the national political landscape," said California Republican strategist Dan Schnur. Longtime Republican strategist Kenneth L. Khachigian, who worked with recall backer and bankroller Congressman Darrell Issa, characterized the recall as "fundamentally a conservative Republican mainstream movement. That’s where all the momentum and energy behind the recall comes from." Several other California GOP leaders, including former state legislator Howard Kaloogian, political consultant Sal Russo, and strategist David Gilliard, worked hard on the recall drive. Schwarzenegger’s proclaimed liberal views on social issues such as abortion and gay rights were accepted by party activists as pragmatic necessities in California’s cultural environment. As conservative strategist Matt Cunningham explained, "When a man is lost in the desert and dying of thirst, he’s not going to insist on Perrier."
One of several Republican Party figures cheering Schwarzenegger in The Tonight Show studio was political consultant George Gorton. A year previously, Gorton had directed Schwarzenegger’s campaign for Proposition 49–a noncontroversial measure providing grants for after-school programs–which many political insiders saw as a planned precursor to a future run for governor. Two weeks before the announcement on Leno, in fact, the Political Pulse, a newsletter of California politics, published a report by Anthony York noting that Schwarzenegger had recently raised nearly half a million dollars in new money for his already-concluded Prop. 49 campaign. "Is money in the Prop. 49 kitty going to be used for the upcoming governor’s race?" York asked, adding, "At the very least, the fundraising does prime the pump."
Two months prior to his appearance on The Tonight Show, Schwarzenegger supporters conducted focus groups in San Francisco and the San Fernando Valley to determine participants’ views of the actor and of Davis. The results guided a media strategy that more closely paralleled PR blitzes around Schwarzenegger’s major movies than most political campaigns. Capitalizing on the uniquely short time frame of the recall election, it was a remarkably controlled and image-focused campaign. Voters in California–the most populous and one of the most diverse states in the country–had only two months to decide whether they wanted to recall Governor Davis and, if so, which of the more than 130 registered candidates should replace him.
Schwarzenegger required all of the aides and consultants to his campaign to sign a five-page confidentiality agreement. The agreement, which itself was supposed to be confidential (but leaked anyway to the Los Angeles Times), stated that Schwarzenegger "is a public figure and substantial effort and expense have been dedicated to limit the constant efforts of the press, other media and the public to learn of personal and business affairs" in which he was involved. Campaign aides agreed not to "take any photographs, movies, videos, or make any sketches, depictions or other likenesses of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s family, friends, associates or employees, all of which constitute confidential information." They also agreed not to divulge "financial, business, medical, legal, personal and contractual matters" and "any letter, memorandum, contract, photograph, film or other document or writing pertaining in any way" to Schwarzenegger "or any Related Parties." Nondisclosure agreements of this type are common in Hollywood but unusual for political candidates.
Newspapers and more serious television news shows were, for the most part, ignored by the Schwarzenegger camp, which waited until 30 days into his campaign before agreeing to his first interview with California newspapers. Instead, carefully crafted yet vague messages were relayed to the public via entertainment-focused venues such as Access Hollywood, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Howard Stern Show and Larry King Live. According to Sean Walsh, the campaign’s co-director of communications, "We ran away from the established media. We went to the real mass media. We make no apologies for doing lots of radio or TV. It gave us five, seven, eight minutes of unfiltered opportunities to get out our message every day."
The campaign finale was an elaborate bus tour through the state, with journalists in tow. Each bus was named after a different Schwarzenegger film–"The Running Man" for Schwarzenegger himself and his immediate retinue, "Total Recall" for VIP tagalongs, and four buses for reporters, dubbed "Predator 1-4" by the campaign staff. Writing in the conservative Weekly Standard, Matt Labash called the caravan "the No Talk Express–in which he invites hundreds of access-starved journos along for the ride, then essentially tells them to buzz off. . . . Since it is fairly clear early on that access to Arnold will be next to nil, journalists interview other journalists from foreign countries."
The campaign was dominated by slogans parroting his movie tag lines: "I’ll be back," or "Gray Davis has terminated opportunities! Now it is time that we terminate him!" The campaign even had its own special effect: a giant wrecking ball, used at a campaign stop to crush a car as a way of dramatizing Schwarzenegger’s opposition to the state’s auto tax.
As Schwarzenegger had anticipated on Leno, one of the areas that did come under scrutiny was his long-standing reputation as a womanizer. Reports of his rough handling of women were prominent in Wendy Leigh’s 1990 book, Arnold: An Unauthorized Biography. According to Leigh, the actor’s publicity team had responded to the book with lawsuits, threats and efforts to sabotage the book’s publicity campaign. The 2001 report in Premiere magazine also left questions hanging about the candidate’s character. The truncated time frame of the recall campaign, however, left little time for further investigations.
The Los Angeles Times conducted its own investigation and compiled a list of 15 women with stories of sexual harassment. The Times was able to find corroboration of each woman’s story, either from independent witnesses or from friends or relatives who said the women had told them of the incidents long before Schwarzenegger’s run for governor. The Times report, however, did not appear until the last week of the campaign and was quickly dismissed by the Schwarzenegger camp as a smear orchestrated by Davis. In its own bit of last-minute smearing, the Schwarzenegger campaign circulated an e-mail attacking the character of Rhonda Miller, a stuntwoman who said she had been manhandled on the set of Terminator 2. The e-mail pointed reporters to the website of a Los Angeles Superior Court, which showed that Rhonda Miller had an extensive rap sheet for theft, forgery, drugs and prostitution. After the election, it turned out that the felon in question was a different Rhonda Miller.
If anything, the reports of Schwarzenegger’s sexual misconduct may have helped rather than hindered the campaign. More than 1,000 Times readers cancelled their subscriptions, accusing the paper of last-minute partisan attacks–a charge that editor John S. Carroll vigorously disputes, calling the stories "solid as Gibraltar" and noting that publishing them earlier would have been impossible given the amount of research needed to confirm them. "It was a daunting feat to get all this accomplished during the 62 days of Schwarzenegger’s campaign, a year less time than we’d have to cover a normal gubernatorial race," Carroll wrote. The Times, he said, understood that publishing it late in the campaign was likely to "touch off an outcry against the newspaper. We had no illusion that it would be warmly received." But the only other options were either to "never publish it," which "could be justified only if the story were untrue or insignificant," or to "hold it and publish after the election," which would "prompt anger among citizens who expect the newspaper to treat them like adults and give them all the information it has before they cast their votes."
Like the campaign itself, Schwarzenegger’s victory celebration resembled a Hollywood gala as much as anything political. The crowd surrounding him at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles could have been the receiving line at an NBC promotion. Prominent faces at the celebration included his wife, Dateline NBC correspondent Maria Shriver; actor Rob Lowe of NBC’s Lyon’s Den; and Pat O’Brien of NBC’s Access Hollywood. The man who announced his victory and introduced him to the crowd of cheering supporters was Jay Leno. And the following night, Schwarzenegger made another appearance on The Tonight Show, this time as governor-elect. During his unbilled but clearly preplanned appearance, Leno’s band played "Happy Days Are Here Again" while the studio audience chanted, "Arnold! Arnold!"
NBC representative Rebecca Marks attempted to play down the impression that the network had thrown its support behind the man now called California’s "governator." Leno’s election-night introduction, Marks said, "was something he agreed to do with Arnold as a friend. He was not in any way endorsing him politically. It was a personal appearance."
Marty Kaplan, associate dean of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, disagreed. "What Leno’s presence did is give legitimacy to the notion that it wasn’t a partisan event, it wasn’t a political event, it was somehow an American cultural event," Kaplan said. "It was like welcoming home an astronaut from a safe voyage. In so doing, it played into a campaign strategy that this was a campaign for all, beyond politics. Which is not true; he’s a Republican candidate. … It gives the impression of taking it out of the political realm into an extraterrestrial domain where politics don’t matter, where we’re all friends. It puts people who value dispute and debate [into the position] where we’re all seen as earthly and petty, as if we should get with the program."
Conservatives frequently decry the "liberal bias" of the mass media. The grain of truth in their complaint is that people who work in the entertainment and news industries–television, movies, popular music, books, magazines and newspapers–tend to lean Democratic. People from these industries give about two-thirds of their campaign contributions to Democrats, and one-third to Republicans. People who work in the media are different in this regard from many other leading corporate sectors such as oil, livestock, trucking, chemicals, tobacco, railroads and the automobile and restaurant industries, all of which give more than 70 percent of their contributions to Republicans. There is no shortage of liberal performers in Hollywood–Ed Asner, Martin Sheen, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Rob Reiner and Barbra Streisand, to name just a few. While vocal in their views, however, Democratic-leaning actors have rarely sought political office and have almost never held it, preferring to advance their views through activism, lobbying and the arts. By contrast, acting has been a stepping-stone to political careers for numerous Republicans. In addition to Arnold Schwarzenegger, examples include:
* George Murphy, an actor, dancer and former president of the Screen Actors Guild who served as a U.S. senator from California from 1965 to 1971.
* Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California and two-term president of the United States.
* Clint Eastwood, who served two years as mayor of Carmel, California in the 1980s.
* Fred Grandy, who played the character of Gopher on the TV sitcom The Love Boat before serving as a congressman from the state of Iowa from 1986 to 1995.
* Sonny Bono, who followed his split from Cher by becoming the mayor of Palm Springs, California, followed by his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994.
* Fred Thompson, who was elected to the U.S. Senate from Tennessee in 1994 following an acting career that included roles in films such as In the Line of Fire and The Hunt for Red October (and, more recently, the district attorney role on NBC’s Law and Order).
Following Schwarzenegger’s declaration of his candidacy, Backstage, a professional magazine for actors, published a story on actors who had run successfully for political office, but the only example it cited from the Democratic side was Sheila Kuhn, a California state senator who many years previously had been a child actor on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (from which she was fired when CBS discovered that she was a lesbian). We were able to find only one other example–Ben Jones, who played the character of Cooter on the Dukes of Hazzard and then served two terms as a Democratic U.S. congressman from Georgia before losing in 1992.
There are several reasons for this disparity. One is that the Republican Party has actively recruited and supported candidates from the entertainment world. Another is that Republicans often run as "antigovernment" or "nonpolitician" candidates, so that an actor’s lack of political experience can actually be an advantage for his campaign. And although Bill Clinton was clearly a master of showmanship, for the most part Republicans have shown greater mastery of the rules of postmodern politics, in which style is as important as substance and issues are less important than personality. Republican candidates understand these unwritten rules because they and their campaign consultants, some of whom actually started in the entertainment industry, played a big part in inventing them.
It is no accident that several of the names on the list above came from California. The first political-campaign firm in the United States, Campaigns Inc., was also established in California in the 1930s by the husband-and-wife team of Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter. Whitaker and Baxter drew on the culture of nearby Hollywood as they developed techniques for "selling" candidates through the mass media. Incumbent California governor Frank Merriam hired Whitaker and Baxter to defeat a 1934 election challenge by muckraking journalist and social reformer Upton Sinclair. Whitaker and Baxter developed a smear campaign to defeat Sinclair, arranging to have false stories printed in newspapers about Sinclair seducing young girls. To combat Sinclair’s Depression-era populism, they worked with Hollywood studios, which controlled movie theaters throughout the state, to place phony newsreels in cinemas featuring fictional "Sinclair supporters" in rags advocating a Soviet-style takeover.
After their victory, Whitaker and Baxter explained the cynical philosophy behind their success: "The average American doesn’t want to be educated, he doesn’t want to improve his mind, he doesn’t even want to work consciously at being a good citizen. But every American likes to be entertained. He likes the movies, he likes mysteries; he likes fireworks and parades. So, if you can’t put on a fight, put on a show." In Whitaker’s words, they transformed elections from "a hit or miss business, directed by broken-down politicians" into "a mature, well-managed business founded on sound public relations principles, and using every technique of modern advertising."
Whitaker and Baxter were in turn succeeded by another Californian, Murray Chotiner, who took Richard Nixon under his wing in 1945 and groomed him in the techniques of political campaigning. Nixon’s career spanned the rise of television as a new medium that transformed both entertainment and politics. "It was Nixon’s television performance in his Checkers speech that saved his place as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952," notes historian David Greenberg, the author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image. "In a historic piece of image-craft, Nixon talked earnestly about his onerous childhood and his struggles upon returning from the Navy–and adorned his speech with folksy touches about his wife’s cloth coat and his daughters’ cocker spaniel. So effective was his self-portrait that telegrams flooded in to the studio praising his sincerity, forcing Eisenhower to retain him. Only a handful of liberal critics dissented, warning that Nixon was using insidious new techniques to misrepresent himself–and endanger democracy. But Nixon innovated further." Following his defeat in the 1960s election against John F. Kennedy, Nixon set out to reinvent himself, hiring professional image manipulators including William Safire, then a New York public relations executive; advertising executives H.R. Haldeman and Harry Treleaven; and television producer Roger Ailes (currently the head of Fox News). Long before Bill Clinton played the saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show or Arnold Schwarzenegger traded quips with Jay Leno, Nixon paved the way by appearing on the comedy show Laugh-In to say "Sock it to me" as part of his 1968 campaign strategy for overcoming his humorless image.
Before Roger Ailes met Nixon, he was an executive producer of The Mike Douglas Show, a popular TV talk and variety program. They met in 1967, while Nixon was waiting to appear as a guest on the show. "It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected," Nixon said.
"Television is not a gimmick," Ailes replied, and Nixon hired him.
The problem for the Nixon campaign, Ailes said, is that "a lot of people think Nixon is dull. Think he’s a bore, a pain in the ass. They think he’s the kind of kid who always carried a book bag. . . . Now you put him on television, you’ve got a problem right away. He’s a funny-looking guy. He looks like somebody put him in a closet overnight and he jumps out in the morning with his suit all bunched up and starts running around saying, ‘I want to be President.’ I mean this is how he strikes some people."
To change this image, the campaign paid to produce a series of television shows, in which Nixon fielded questions from panels of citizens. Although the shows were broadcast live, both the audiences and the panel were prescreened by the campaign, chosen carefully to have the right demographics–just enough blacks, for example, but not too many. Panel members were chosen so they would ask just enough tough questions to make the shows feel spontaneous, and since the audience was all Republican, applause was guaranteed.
"The audience is part of the show," Ailes said during a discussion with Harry Treleaven about whether to allow reporters to watch the tapings. "And that’s the whole point. Our television show. And the press has no business on the set. And goddammit, Harry, the problem is that this is an electronic election. The first there’s ever been. TV has the power now. Some of the guys get arrogant and rub the reporters’ faces in it and then the reporters get pissed and go out of their way to rap anything they consider staged for TV. And you know damn well that’s what they’d do if they saw this from the studio. You let them in there with the regular audience and they see the warmup. They see Jack Rourke [the show's warm-up man] out there telling the audience to applaud and to mob Nixon at the end, and that’s all they’d write about it."
In 1968, Nixon’s success in reinventing himself as the "New Nixon" helped him win the White House. When journalist Joe McGinniss detailed this strategy the next year in The Selling of the President, shamefaced reporters vowed to get wise to such manipulation, but the Nixon campaign was just the beginning. Although his impeachment in the Watergate scandal meant a temporary setback, the Republicans roared back into the White House in 1980 with Ronald Reagan, the first actor ever to become president. Reagan also relied on the talents of Ailes, who served as a consultant to his 1984 re-election campaign. Ailes oversaw production of the now legendary "Morning in America" campaign television ads, designed by Madison Avenue executive Philip Dusenberry and featuring swelling violin music and emotional, issue-free imagery of weddings, flag-raising, home-buying and peaceful, scenic vistas.
Ailes used a similar strategy in 1988, when he worked with Lee Atwater to mastermind George H.W. Bush’s come-from-behind victory over Michael Dukakis. The Bush/Quayle ’88 campaign combined morning-in-America imagery with ads that ridiculed Dukakis through deceptive visual imagery. One TV spot took Dukakis to task for pollution in Boston Harbor, displaying a sign that said, "Danger/Radiation Hazard/No Swimming." The sign actually had nothing to do with pollution or Dukakis. It was posted to warn Navy personnel not to swim in waters that had once harbored nuclear submarines under repair.
The most egregious ads, however, used visual imagery to exploit racial feelings. One featured a threatening photograph of William Horton, a black inmate who had escaped from a prison-furlough program and raped a woman, to suggest that Dukakis was unusually soft on crime. (Actually, Massachusetts was one of 45 states with prison furlough programs at the time of Horton’s crime.) A second prison-furlough ad depicted a "revolving door" through which a line of white men entered prison, while blacks and Hispanics exited. "That phrase ‘revolving-door prison policy’ implies, of course, that Massachusetts criminals could, thanks to Governor Dukakis, slip out of jail as easily as commuters streaming from a subway station," observes Mark Crispin Miller. "But the image makes an even more inflammatory statement. . . . The ‘revolving door’ effects an eerie racial metamorphosis, implying that the Dukakis prison system was not only porous, but a satanic source of negritude–a dark ‘liberal’ mill that took white men and made them colored."
By its nature, television is expensive to produce and broadcast (although that may be changing, thanks to the Internet and other technological advances). It therefore lends itself to control by the people who can afford to pay for the considerable costs of production. It is also a highly emotional medium. Unlike print, which requires that the audience make a conscious effort, television is often absorbed unconsciously, as pure images and background in our information environment.
Reporter Leslie Stahl tells a story in her memoir, Reporting Live, of an experience she had in 1984 when she broadcast a piece for the CBS Evening News about the gap between rhetoric and reality under the Reagan administration. She juxtaposed images of staged photo opportunities in which Reagan picnicked with ordinary folks or surrounded himself with black children, farmers and happy flag-waving supporters. These images, she pointed out, often conflicted with the nature of Reagan’s actual policies.
"Mr. Reagan tries to counter the memory of an unpopular issue with a carefully chosen backdrop that actually contradicts the president’s policy," she said in her Evening News piece. "Look at the handicapped Olympics, or the opening ceremony of an old-age home. No hint that he tried to cut the budgets for the disabled or for federally subsidized housing for the elderly."
Stahl’s piece was so hard-hitting in its criticism of Reagan, she recalled, that she "worried that my sources at the White House would be angry enough to freeze me out." Much to her shock, however, she received a phone call immediately after the broadcast from White House aide Richard Darman. He was calling from the office of Treasury Secretary Jim Baker, who had just watched the piece along with White House press secretary Mike Deaver and Baker’s assistant, Margaret Tutwiler. Rather than complaining, they were calling to thank her. "Way to go, kiddo," Darman said. "What a great story! We loved it."
"Excuse me?" Stahl replied, thinking he must be joking.
"No, no, we really loved it," Darman insisted. "Five minutes of free media. We owe you big time."
"Why are you so happy?" Stahl said. "Didn’t you hear what I said?"
"Nobody heard what you said," Darman replied.
"You guys in Televisionland haven’t figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. Lesley, I mean it, nobody heard you."
Stahl was so taken aback that she played a videotape of her segment before a live audience of a hundred people and asked them what they had just seen. Sure enough, Darman was right. "Most of the audience thought it was either an ad for the Reagan campaign or a very positive news story," Stahl recalls. "Only a handful heard what I said. The pictures were so evocative–we’re talking about pictures with Reagan in the shining center–that all the viewers were absorbed. Unlike reading or listening to the radio, with the television we ‘learn’ with two of our senses together, and apparently the eye is dominant. When we watch television, we get an emotional reaction. The information doesn’t always go directly to the thinking part of our brains but to the gut. It’s all about impressions, and the White House understood that."
The George W. Bush administration also understands this lesson. At the Republican National Convention that nominated Bush in 2000, only 4 percent of the actual delegates were black, compared to 20 percent at the Democratic Convention, but the talent onstage looked quite different: not just Colin Powell, but comedian Chris Black, the Temptations, a gospel choir, rhythm and blues and salsa singers, and Representative J.C. Watts (the only black Republican in Congress). "It’s all visuals," Karl Rove told campaign finance chief Don Evans. "You campaign as if America was watching TV with the sound turned down."
(This essay is an excerpt from Rampton and Stauber’s hot new book, Banana Republicans.)
Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber work for the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit organization based in Madison, Wisconsin. For more information about the Center, visit their website at www.prwatch.org. For more information about their latest book, visit www.bananarepublicans.org.