The TV Campaign

The morning after the first televised debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush, I awoke to the voice of an earnestly boyish reporter on National Public Radio proclaiming that at long last America has been allowed to hear its candidates "without the filter of the news media." At which, in wearied frustration, I promptly fell back asleep.

I dreamed about an uncanny universe whose logic is slightly askew from our own. Its two most ostentatious planets orbit each other in binary symbiosis, but curiously, the astronomical charts call them adversarial entities.

I awoke. And suddenly I understood the relationship between the presidential candidates and the media that "cover" them.

Over the past six weeks, I have spent a portion of nearly every evening flipping among the three networks' nightly news shows, watching their campaign coverage. It didn't take long, just two or three minutes most nights. (It would have been longer had NBC not given over so much time to covering its Olympic Games, Tom Brokaw standing up each evening outside Stadium Australia with its five-ring glyph positioned neatly in frame above his right shoulder.)

I left the cable channels and the Internet out of the survey. Breathless statistics inform us that they're up and the networks down, the loss of cultural cachet signaled by the products advertised during the networks' commercial breaks: laxatives, denture creams, gas neutralizers. Forget about this. What statistics aren't able to think about is form. Electronic electioneering is an art of mass persuasion, and it remains the networks, with their bigger-than-any-alternative dominance, with whom the campaigns negotiate the unspoken rules of the game--its constitution, in the sense Great Britain has a constitution. It's the networks that teach us what counts and what does not, that instill in us all the metaphors that soon become nothing like metaphors at all because they are tunnels for thought, not bridges: in play, battleground state, middle-class, filter. It is they who have scripted this year's Kabuki theater of dirtyclean, which has come to dominate the two main campaigns: You must never "attack" your opponent; you must wait for him to "attack," for which you may attack him back. The efflorescence of cable and Internet coverage is deceiving. Instead of one hundred flowers blooming, we have a coral reef--each new iteration merely adding an operationally identical component to the sprawling whole.

On CBS one Tuesday night, we learn about Bush's new turn toward "policy" and his pamphlet A Blueprint for the Middle Class, featuring pictures of women on every page. Explains the candidate: "Mine is a plan that speaks to the aspirations and hopes of middle-class Americans." Interprets the network: Bush's "former lead among women has evaporated... . Al Gore has made something of a personality breakthrough... . There was, of course, the kiss."

Around that same time, Gore makes the "gaffe" about his mother-in-law and the family dog. Thursday night he "finally" (as CBS explains it) proffers his lame explanation. "It took the campaign two days just to come up with that response," the network reports. "Just the kind of opening Bush is looking for."

Next evening, dog days bygone, oil prices rising, Gore is reported to be in his worst position "in months." Within the week comes his proposal to open the strategic oil reserve. The next night: "Yesterday's proposal to open the strategic oil reserve was labeled 'political.' So today Gore is emphasizing ... "

Such is the freaky syntax of this parallel world, where there is much talk of character--which both candidates, mostly, are said to possess. But on the planet where we live, a dictionary couldn't give a better illustration of absence of character than the following: Yesterday his proposal to do X was labeled "bad." So today he says, "Not X."

In this parallel universe, but nowhere else, a politician is taken at his word, and a change in rhetorical positioning can change the picture of a man's soul in all the time it takes a soap bubble to live and die. There is a "daily message."

Television knows, if nothing else, how to divide the world into "episodes." This becomes the engine of the entire political process. It is why the network news shows pronounce so incessantly this year on the eminently episodic witticisms of their late-night comedians. It is the logic of the "gaffe": The attention to contextless words or phrases always makes for something new to cover--for even if there are no gaffes, that, too, can be a "story" (the candidate is now "doing well"). It seems a device lifted from FOX, from those irresistible shows where daredevils perform impossibly outrageous stunts and the payoff is watching whether they can walk unscathed from the wreck.

Networks have their own organic reasons for doing what they do, structural conditions that determine everything from their fixation on the gaffe to the colors of their logos to the number of their overseas bureaus. Once upon a time, the networks' signal style of presenting the news--a high-minded paternalism that forsook popularity for the embrace of "respectability"--was determined from such social forces as anxiety over the untested novelty of a new medium, an emboldened regulatory state, and the habits of a culture more comfortable with hierarchy than our own. Now--it is a simpler world--you can explain what networks do by reference to a single variable: Market Share. "Dave will be having more fun with Campaign 2000 tonight," an anchorman promises one evening--on David Letterman's CBS, of course.

October 20, the Games finally completed, NBC devotes goodly time to graphic footage of a Palestinian kid getting picked off by machine-gun fire as his father attempts to shield his body; then to an "in-depth report" on that very footage, giving license to show the whole thing all over again. Then it is on to discussion of the upcoming Boston debate--the one, remember, where Gore played the pit bull prior to switching his demeanor (at the next one) to that of a pussycat. Gore, we learn on NBC News, changed because he had seen the devastating parody of the first debate on (NBC's) Saturday Night Live.

That debate, of course, was where the claim of "filterlessness" was most dramatically belied and the terms of the unstated mutual-protection pact between medium and message most plainly revealed. There are the rules of dirtyclean, for instance. (These allow the candidates each to protect the sanctity of their personal dealings--neither can withstand scrutiny in this department--and TV to look high-minded; the candidates get to fight without appearing to do so even as TV gets to showcase a fight without appearing to do so.) The elaborate system of silences is so complex Michel Foucault couldn't disentangle it. (When Bush hits the administration's lack of results in the past eight years, Gore isn't allowed to mention the Republican Congress, to preserve the mano à mano mirage all present have a stake in; when Gore pronounces, "I have not actually questioned Governor Bush's experience; I have questioned his proposals," he is vouchsafed that appearance of dignity.) The compulsion of all concerned is to celebrate deep-dyed "philosophical differences," entirely neglecting a September 20 study showing that voters can't tell the candidates apart. The networks refuse to examine the stage set that supports the spectacle, erected by the shared labor of all concerned. (All debate audiences are preselected by the campaigns. How does that happen, one wonders, though the networks' news programs don't address this question.)

Other times there are occasional outbreaks of peek-a-boo candor, the better to demonstrate that if we know we're being tricked, we're not really being tricked. A Gore adviser says the candidates think of swing voters as "like Jell-O"; CBS allows that the Feds supply only 7 percent of educational funding, so the issue really doesn't matter anyway; a commentator--George Stephanopoulos of ABC--gives up the entire Potemkin village after nattering endlessly about the candidates' latest opinions, by admitting, "We push them to opinions they might not yet have."

Why the acres of off-limits issues? Because though TV wants conflict, it doesn't want unmanageable conflict--conflict without neatly resolvable plot lines, conflict that points to unseemly complexities, conflict that threatens, conflict that tears up the scenery and turns off the viewers. Those who rely on the networks for their news, for example, likely didn't learn that a ticket-wielding Ralph Nader was turned away from the Boston debate or that he was cheered on there by 12,000 protestors. There's no room for that in the script. Coverage of a third combatant, or a fourth, would mean an entire messy new narrative system would have to be painstakingly constructed from the ground up--all that hard work, all those settled patterns of thought, all that predictability, wasted.

Perhaps you will disagree with my portrait of this neat co-evolution; perhaps you will not grant the networks so much agency in erecting the political world we now navigate. You will have to grant, on the other hand, their plenipotentiary power to make things better.

"Press avails" are what the actors involved call the chance--which you'd think a democratic system would take for granted--for reporters to openly question the candidates. Gore, however, gives virtually no press avails. Bush once gave of himself frequently, but later stopped. (It happened after the "subliminable" slip.) Faced with reversing this reality, the networks would seem to have the candidates by the proverbial short hairs: No press availability, they could announce, no campaign coverage. See how fast the candidates would suddenly make themselves more available.

Such a game of chicken, however, would require a measure of moral authority that the networks now clearly don't possess. One of them recently killed stories about a cruise ship because its corporate owner owns a rival line, and about skyrocketing executive pay so as not to embarrass that corporation's overlord, who is compensated in the nine-figure range.

The olden days of deeper reporting and higher-mindedness came in a time when television news maintained the semifeudal mentality of a professional guild--regulating itself by shaming members who transgressed their mutually accepted code of conduct. Doctoring used to be largely regulated that way too--one of the rules was you spent as much time with the patient as the patient required--but now such matters are regulated by a market mechanism: the HMOs and their accountants. Now news, too, has been dissolved in the Market's universal solvents, because there is no other way of conceiving value. There is no campaign "coverage" left, in the proper sense of the metaphor, because there is no wisdom left. The campaigns and networks now form a closed circle, and it is a noose. ¤