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American Journalism Review
Generals Fighting the Last War  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 1992

Generals Fighting the Last War   

The mainstream media did a lot of responsible reporting, yet often seemed clueless in dealing with a new kind of campaign.

By Jamie Malanowski
Jamie Malanowski is national editor of Spy magazine and author of the novel, "Mr. Stupid Goes to Washington" (Birch Lane Press).     

It's always hard to tell whether some set of phenomena constitutes a trend or an aberration, but we as a nation have just completed the first presidential campaign that has taken place in a post-party, post-ideology and post-literate era: Call it the Politainment Era. As a consequence, these may well be the 10 most important items for the media and political types to remember about the 1992 election:

1. Bill Clinton played the saxophone on "The Arsenio Hall Show."

2. Dan Quayle attacked Murphy Brown.

3. Clinton made his nomination inevitable by winning the New York primary, and he won New York by going one-on-one with disc jockey Don Imus.

4. Ross Perot launched his campaign on "Larry King Live."

5. Sitcom creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason produced Clinton's convention biography film.

6. Gennifer Flowers made a name for herself (and at least $100,000) with a most unremarkable claim.

7. The ratings of Perot infomercials rivaled those of major league baseball's playoff games.

8. There was only one issue in the 1992 campaign.

9. There was only one issue in the 1992 campaign.

10. There was only one issue in the 1992 campaign, and it wasn't the economy.

The single issue of the election was should George Bush stay or go, and if it's go, who replaces him? Ultimately, that's what Pat Buchanan was about, what Jerry Brown was about and what Perot was about, and it was also what the Democrats' hard-headed nomination of the more mainstream Clinton was about. And if the establishment news media seemed always one step behind the likes of Larry King and the Star in establishing and directing the campaign, it's because they resolved not to fall victim to the same manipulations that stymied them in 1988, 1984 and previously. A little like generals fighting the last war, the news pros strove to insure that they didn't get trapped by sound bites or let the candidates package the imagery. They didn't want to allow the campaign to be fought out on symbols instead of issues, or permit candidates to lie and mislead in commercials and interviews without correction.
Consequently, sound bites were lengthened to the size of good, nutritional infosnacks. The New York Times, Washington Post and other publications felled acres of forests to provide lengthy examinations of the candidates' economic and health care plans. The networks and newspapers fact-checked candidates' statements and commercials. In the end, they did a credible job avoiding the pitfalls of 1984, when Ronald Reagan ran a campaign that was all image and personality, and of 1988, when Bush ran on the proposition that he was a lot like Reagan and not at all like Michael Dukakis. In other words, having determined that campaigns were vehicles for political discourse, and that the sober, fair-minded way to conduct political discourse was to focus on issues, the establishment media did their best to hold that line all year.
What did the media get for their troubles? Not what the news guys had planned for. They got a one-issue campaign that focused almost completely on whether Bush deserved to keep his job. It was about character, personality. Does he or does he not get it?
Thus the poor media usually seemed out of sync. Yes, the voters were concerned about health care and the economy, but let's face it, how many voters are equipped to evaluate different plans? Not a whole hell of a lot. People may be concerned about paying for health care, but darn few who are already covered and who haven't been sick lately have any idea what their coverage includes. It is the rare voter who's going to be able to sit down, and in some sort of super-rational, John Stuart Millian way, think, Well, in my personal calculus of interests, I care most deeply about health care, and the Republican package with its particular payment plan is more attractive to me, particularly if I develop heart disease or cancer, which I am currently working on, so I'm going for Bush.
What voters want to know is which candidate best understands their hopes and fears. That explains why Clinton and Perot were able to help themselves by spending time with Arsenio and Katie Couric and Larry King voters got to take the measure of the man, or at least the showman. That also explains why it didn't matter to the 30-odd percent who were backing Perot before he quit in July that he didn't have detailed positions on the issues; they saw quite clearly that he wasn't presenting himself as a man of positions as much as a man of action. That's exactly what they wanted. That also explains why Bush was never able to get off the dime.
During a year when the electorate seemed to act like the neglected spouse who complains "You never pay any attention to me," Bush acted like the cold husband who says "Of course I do. Now, can I watch the end of the game?" It's sort of amazing that he never quite figured out that he had to look concerned when discussing issues people were concerned about. He'd deny the economy was in trouble, he'd argue that some program he proposed would fix things, he'd blame Congress or the absence of a line-item veto or the size of the capital gains tax. He never seemed to grasp even when he was in Los Angeles after the riots or Homestead after Hurricane Andrew that he had to do more than furrow his brow and engage in some proposal-speak to convince people that he cared.
Nothing crystallized Bush's inability to do this as well as the moment during the second debate when the candidates were asked, perhaps maladroitly, how they were personally affected by the national debt. Bush just didn't get the question, and didn't even try to figure out its thrust, then finally using the classic rich guy's euphemism for rich guy said, "Just because you're a person of means doesn't mean you're not affected." Clinton responded in a way that made it seem like he identified more closely with folks in trouble; in fact, you wonder why it never dawned on his campaign to use his answer in a commercial.
As a consequence of this whole changing-nature-of-the-campaign thing, many ordinarily able-bodied journalists just lost it during the campaign. They were like parents during the 1960s, insisting that certain standards be maintained while growing sideburns and moustaches and trying to do the twist at wedding receptions.
How else do you explain the widely divergent responses to Gennifer Flowers? The venerable New York Times virtually ignored her allegations for days, as though the paper was reporting from a parallel Flowerless universe. Meanwhile, "Nightline" tried this Sally Rand fan dance where it talked not about the allegations but about whether the press should cover the allegations. "60 Minutes" then put matters to rest, sort of, with its post-Super Bowl interview with the Clintons. If you take at face value the transcripts of the Clinton-Flowers phone conversations that Flowers offered, the candidate clearly lied about their relationship, and everyone said well, okay, we'll just let this go.
After that, there were even more square-parents moments. Some were good NBC's Bob Kur and PBS' Judy Woodruff patiently questioning Perot supporters about his positions, exposing first their ignorance, and then their utter shock upon learning where the banty fiatocrat stood on certain issues. There were worse moments, such as Sam Donaldson grilling Sen. Bob Kerrey about drug use ("Did you ever use drugs? Ever use marijuana? Ever use cocaine?") as though he were a defense attorney and Kerrey a noted peyote freak who was the only witness to the murder. Or virtually the entire news establishment's tut-tutting of the brawling vice presidential debate (David Gergen: "It made you wonder if this was [happening in] a civilized democracy"; Mark Shields: "[An] embarrassment and [a] disappointment"; Cokie Roberts: "Little boys fighting at the dinner table").
In fact, it was an exciting argument conducted as though something of importance was at stake. But the establishment press, having taken the position that discourse should be conducted on its terrain the high ground of facts and rationality was hardly in a position to endorse the willingness of Dan Quayle and Al Gore to get a little bloody. And while all the commentators agreed that Adm. Stockdale was out of his depth, they might have paused in their tsking at Quayle and Gore who, let's face it, conducted themselves at about the same level of ferocity on which Tim Russert operates on "Meet the Press" long enough to remark that the skills politicians need to possess are not quite as common as Perot and Stockdale and their millions of naive supporters would have you believe.
Of course, it takes a few skills to be a mainstream journalist, too. And it must be a little difficult to come to grips with a presidential campaign, once mainstream journalism's show of shows, which has fallen under the influence of infotainment programs. But hey, journalists should expect change in their jobs. After all, we've got ourselves a bunch of post-party politicians vying for the votes of a post-literate electorate for the leadership of a post-Cold War world; things don't get a lot newer than this.
Watch and see if in 1996 the Brokaws and Jennings and Rathers don't spend some prime time hours interviewing the candidates and taking viewers' calls. See if the Times doesn't hire a few more Maureen Dowds and give them room enough to produce long, erudite profiles that try to illuminate a candidate's character more than his position on some issue.
One hopes the media adjust: A public willing to watch Perot commercials, or call in about a Paul Tsongas economic program, wants to learn something and play a role in the political life of the country. But Americans so clearly dislike the press that they'd rather risk being directly bamboozled by politicians than allow the press to be the mediating watchdog it wants to be.
Still, one wonders if the candidates of 1996 and beyond won't use techniques pioneered this year to skirt further around the mainstream media. The Clinton/Bloodworth-Thomason and Quayle/Murphy Brown confluences inevitably make you wonder whether the lines between reality and fiction won't someday be blurred into utter nonexistence. Tonight, President Clinton appears on "Designing Women" and explains to the Sugarbakers why we have to bomb Serbia; next week on "fortysomething," Hillary turns to Michael and Hope and Elliot and Nancy when Bill is rumored to be involved with a trampy chanteuse; next season, "The New A-Team" stops a GOP dirty tricks squad from disrupting a presidential challenger's daughter's wedding. It may be true, as Philip Roth says, that real life has become more remarkable than novels, but scriptwriters still produce better television.
If the television scenario is too unrealistic, consider this: Ross Perot proved nearly impervious to the media this time. In the future, someone as wealthy as the Texan but not so blatantly nutty could run the 21st century's equivalent of the front-porch campaign, buying time for softball interviews and long infomercials and never leave the studio. Perot tried it this time, as did California senatorial primary candidate Mel Levine; neither was media savvy enough to pull it off. But one day, perhaps sooner than we think, we're going to end up with a president who wins after conducting an all-video campaign. And if video, computer and virtual reality technology keep advancing, we may well end up with a president who doesn't exist at all.



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