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How The Media Seduced And Captured American Politics
A noted historian argues that television, a relative newcomer, has nearly destroyed old—and valuable—political traditions
February/march 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 2
At the center of the effort is the purchasing of paid television commercials. They are the modern substitute for conventional campaigning. The candidate is not seen live; the message, in fact, is often delivered by a professional voice. The purpose is to project a candidate who is like the viewer, but better: one who arouses but does not agitate; one who elevates but does not disturb; one who exudes morality but not righteousness; one who conveys strength but not arrogance; one who is experienced but not cynical; one who has convictions but avoids controversy. Since such people are in as short supply in private life as in public affairs, a good deal of contrivance is demanded, and the commercial permits it.
The commerical does not seek truth but plausibility. It confines itself to a handful of “issues” that are the candidate’s long suit and that are reiterated until the viewer is convinced that these are of paramount interest to other voters even if they are not so to him. The idea is to define the argument on the candidate’s own terms. All this is done in the context of constant polling, telephone feedback, and, it must be added, old-fashioned political instinct. As the campaign continues, one spot will be dropped, others altered, and still others emphasized.
The central fact about commercials is their cost. For maximum advantage they are artfully spliced into programs with large voting audiences. Since most advertisers head for the same viewers, the price is very high. In 1980 thirty seconds in the prime-time New York market cost $5,000; ninety seconds cost $15,000. Even in South Dakota these figures ran as high as $250 and $500.
The financial risks attendant on a media campaign are borne solely by the candidate, not by the media managers. Bookings for commercial spots have to be made far in advance and the money paid on the barrelhead. In the past, suppliers of campaign materials—printers, hotels, and airlines—were more tolerant. Some creditors had to wait years for their money and then settled on a percentage, often small, of the original bill.
But now media consultants get their money on schedule. The most common plea at a fund raiser as election day approaches is, “If we don’t have the money by tomorrow noon, the candidate is off the air.” This is shorthand for saying, “Unless you cough up, the election is over.”
The media people have so convinced the public and political donors that the commercial is the campaign that only the penurious or uncommitted will resist. And the media’s demand is insatiable. If the consultant’s polls show the candidate is behind, then a large buy is crucial; if ahead, then the turnout is critical. In either case, the cameras roll and the candidate pays.
For the donors it is a cheap ante: they are ultimately repaid by the finance committee. After the election a few galas retire the victors’ debt. For the losers, debt is a persistent nightmare.
Many people can afford political giving, but few do it. The result is a hectic and not always elevating courtship of a handful of wealthy people by the candidate and his finance committee. Some potential donors have only a dilettante’s interest in politics, but most have interests that are more than marginally related to government. They expect what the trade euphemistically calls “access” to the winner.
The influence of money in American politics is, of course, not new. But the media has introduced a level of spending never known before. In the 1960 presidential campaigns about 10 percent of the budget went to television; by 1980 it had reached 80 percent. David Garth, the most successful practitioner of the new politics, succinctly summed up the present reality when he asserted that political effort outside commercials “is a waste of time and money.” The result is that the inordinate power of money in American politics is larger now than it was a generation ago.