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news is strong. Unlike network news, televised ads provide little background or depth to the issue positions they present. They are not a news source and do not contribute continuous information about events underlying political issues. But as communicators of statements about issue positions, and minimal information supporting these positions, televised ads are both heavily laden with and effective disseminators of important political information.
In these concluding remarks, we suggest several ways to use
television more effectively in American politics. While our
proposals generally require only voluntary compliance by the affected parties, one proposal would require legislative approval.
These suggestions are intended to maximize two widely shared
values about political campaigns, which underlie many proposals for campaign reform, but which are seldom explicit and the implications of which are seldom carefully considered. First, we believe it is desirable that potential voters be as fully and reliably informed as possible about office-seekers' stated policy preferences. Second, we believe it is desirable not to add to the rising costs of political campaigning. Many recent campaign proposals have been concerned with
campaign costs, while overlooking the crucial importance of campaigns
in informing the electorate.
Television news content reflects, in part, what network executives believe the people want. Ostensibly, heavy coverage of such "pseudo-events" as campaign rallies rests on a perceived audience preference for political hoopla. (Certainly, the informational value of these stories does not justify their ubiquity.)
Without doubt, coverage of campaign rallies excites some viewers. They may watch these stories because they offer a vicarious brush with political campaigns. But we doubt that many voters watch television news for this reason alone. Some people may be attracted to television
because generally it offers action and because generally it adds a
video dimension to the news. But certainly the size of the television news audience does not depend on the way it handles specific events.
So within very broad constraints, stories about specific events
can be approached in different ways. To cover political campaigns in the same way that wars, demonstrations, and presidential trips
abroad are handled is neither necessary nor informative.
In fact, respondents in our survey convincingly fail to endorse
current directions in television news' campaign coverage. Voters' preferences are away from rally and crowd stories and toward candidate
Alternatives other than candidate interviews also exist. During the
last week of the 1972 campaign, for example, one network used imaginative graphics and previously acquired film footage to carefully trace the candidates' stands on a series of salient issues. Each of these stories was approximately five minutes long and laden with issue content; and, from responses to our survey recall questions, voters
were quite attentive. Of course, such stories would have to be run
throughout the campaign if they were to widely inform a large segment
of the electorate.
A shift in network emphasis away from campaign rallies to more issue-oriented presentations would have an added benefit for the
networks. The networks operate under rather severe resource con
straints that are not eased by having a large crew of reporters and technicians chasing candidates all over the country to film rallies (all of which have a startling resemblance to each other). Candidate interviews and reconstructed issue presentations involve fewer costs and contribute more to voters' information.
candidates should also end their complicity in campaign "pseudoevents." For example, although television news gave little coverage to George McGovern's issue stands, McGovern himself shares the responsibility. With his numerous rallies, staged with network news in mind, McGovern provided the "pseudo-events" which dominated television's coverage of his campaign.
candidates and their staffs may now spend more time preparing the setting for their campaign rallies than in preparing the content of their speeches. Traditional evening rallies have given way to elaborately staged morning or noontime extravaganzas that are directed, not at the attending audience, but at the millions who will be watching the television coverage. Candidates' involvement in these spectaculars often obscures any serious messages they might have for the viewers.
We doubt if stories of these rallies help candidates' campaigns. There is a stifling monotony to them, and as the campaign progresses, voters tune them out. Further, such stories lack substance and provide no solid basis for voters' evaluations of candidates. Press conferences and interviews, with an occassional televised rally, would serve candidates' strategic purposes better than their present efforts. This approach would also make campaigns more meaningful for the voters.'
A final suggestion is that television news consider the merits of fewer, more lengthy stories rather than continuing its current policy of many. brief items. The 30 minutes in a network news program could
be put to better use than accomodating a headline service. Although networks commonly run 15-20 stories per evening, there are seldom so many stories of compelling national importance. We believe more extensive coverage of fewer stories would overcome the confusion and inattention which results from the montage format and would better inform the public.
Televised Political Advertising
Political spot commercials have been frequently criticized.
Two of these criticisms are properly directed at advertising: ads oversimplify political reality and are expensive."
Televised ads are, indeed, oversimplificat ions. They address those few, limited themes that candidates feel can be communicated effectively within a short period of time. But there is a specious component to the oversimplification criticism.
Seldom do political messages, regardless of source, completely elaborate on an issue. Newspaper and television news stories are
Issue information invariably flows in bits
and pieces to the electorate, and voters are always left with the
task of putting it together.
If televised ads present limited
information to voters, the difference between them and other information
* We will not try to counter objections that are properly directed at candidates rather than commercials. For example, the charge that ads frequently contain lies and appeals to prejudice should be directed at candidates. A 60 second televised deception is no worse than a lie occurring on a 30 minute broadcast or spoken by the candidate or appearing in print. In fact, a little reflection on past presidential campaigns reveals that most appeals to prejudice and most intemperate remarks appear, not in televised spots, but in news stories, reflecting the fact that most such indiscretions occur on the stump or during press con ferences. Because ads are directed at a broad audience, and because the content of ads can be carefully considered before being aired, political ads are usually less inflammatory and untruthful than several other message forms.