Be skeptical of campaign news

January 18, 2008 04:06 pm

The 2008 presidential race has officially begun. Media bloviators were already drawing conclusions after the Iowa caucuses, conclusions these principled professionals would stick with until the next commercial break. New Hampshire saw John McCain's comeback and Hillary Clinton's brush with tears. The biggest surprise so far may be the winners in Iowa — an African American on the Democratic side, and for the Republicans a former governor/ordained minister whose campaign has one lone corporate friend: Wal-Mart. Welcome to the year of "change.''

... Sorry. Got carried away there. Caught up in the campaign play-by-play, which is, to paraphrase writer Ben Hecht, like telling time by looking at the second hand of a watch. And watching modern campaigns operate is like peering into a hot dog factory — the less you know, the better your appetite. But for the adventurous, this column — the first of an occasional series — will look at some of the campaign's innards, and will follow the candidates as the electoral mudpit slowly, painfully clears, leaving two contenders (and "minor party" candidates whose names you won't see or hear until election day) to face off in a process characterized by dignity, mutual respect for our pluralist traditions and humble acquiescence to the will of the electorate.

OK, maybe not. But there are a couple of basic principles that apply: First, money wins elections. The candidate who outspends the competitors wins about 95 percent of the time. Money buys media time (mostly TV), organization (to get out votes and raise money) and consultants. The 2004 presidential campaign price tag was over $1 billion — at least we got our money's worth. At least Halliburton and ExxonMobil did.

Second, know your geography. In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote by more than 500,000, but George Bush "took" the electoral college. Not all states are equal, though, and money is spent in populous "swing states" full of delegates. So instead of "broadcasting" to the masses, campaigns "narrowcast," using market research to peel off just enough segments of the electorate to gain a 50 percent plus one majority. With only seven delegates usually going to the Democratic candidate, Oregon doesn't get many campaign visits.

Commercial news media cover campaigns like horse races, obsessing with today's frontrunners and how much money is being raised. Why the field needs to be winnowed a year out, or why money should trump ideas and substance, do less well in ratings.

Media outlets score during campaign years by selling advertising time, and higher-than-normal ratings of news coverage increase overall ad revenue. Not surprisingly, sideshows sell advertising better than policy debates. And like a horse race, the more money bet on one candidate, the better the odds and the more pressure on the campaign to do whatever it takes to win.

Hence the hot dog factory. Consultants are paid well, not to ensure that democracy functions as the framers of the Constitution intended, but to win. They interview "focus groups" to identify what voters want to hear and which voters they can count on. They test certain words or phrases, which are fed to media as "sound bites" and inserted into brochures, commercials, interviews, debates, talk radio hosts' scripts and websites.

"Hope," "family," "future," "freedom" and (this year) "change" are good words for your candidate, while "decay," "bizarre," "socialist," "bureaucracy" and yes, "liberal," are bad words for your opponent (Hillary Clinton used the "L" word on Barack Obama recently).

Consultants produce "talking points," which are scripts candidates repeat as needed to stay "on message" and avoid sounding like former Vice President Dan Quayle ("If we do not succeed, then we run the risk of failure"). By July, heavy scripting reduces candidates' brains to an oatmeal-like state.

So unless a candidate is your neighbor, you don't know him/her — all you know is what the consultant thinks will sell, and this is often manufactured, right down to the policy, the "photo-op," the Texas drawl or the emotion and the practiced poses for the camera staged for the nightly news broadcasts. As Reagan's spokesman Larry Speakes actually said to a press gathering, "you don't tell us how to stage the news, and we won't tell you how to report it."

Last on this list is the smear campaign, ideally delivered by "third parties" untraceable to the candidate, based on "opposition research'' (where researchers dig up and air dirty laundry, or at least make it look soiled). Accusations, no matter how outrageous and inflammatory, force candidates to issue denials, putting them on the defensive.

And the outcome of all this money, calculation and subterfuge? Electile dysfunction. The victors know how to campaign, but not necessarily how to govern, a skill requiring consensus and compromise.

So be skeptical of campaign news. Remember that consultants are smarter than we are, and use the TV as it was intended — for entertainment, not information. Unless there's something good on youtube or the Daily Show.



Bill Grigsby is an associate professor of sociology at Eastern Oregon University. He researches, writes and teaches on the media, with a special focus on news, politics and the study of propaganda.