Congress, Cover Story, Domestic, Election, Media — May 1, 2005 at 12:02 pm

Left Hanging

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Illustration by Aaron Rosenberg

If a donkey brays in the woods, but nobody hears it, does it make a sound? Democrats must wonder. And what makes them all the more ignorant is that donkeys aren’t normally found in the woods.

In the elections of 1954, the Democratic Party gained control of the House of Representatives and the Senate. It was not to lose control of either chamber until 1980, and, even then, it held onto the House, Senate, or presidency for the next twenty years. One Republican senator’s renunciation of his party then threw the Senate back into Democratic hands, but it was not to last. For the past twoand- a-half years, the Democrats have found themselves disempowered, and they can’t figure out what to do.

When they were last in this situation, during the first two years of the Eisenhower Administration, television was only beginning to establish itself as a tool for political communication. Since then, the personalization of politics in the press has grown to make the Democrats’ current problem as bad as possible. The media aren’t biased against liberals; rather, liberals need to learn how to use the media.

The most clear-cut illustration of this personalization is the increased focus on the presidency that television heralded. “Before 1963 and the advent of thirty-minute, picture-driven television news, Congress and the presidency got about equal coverage,” said Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “As television whetted the appetite for news about presidents, newspapers followed along, so for both of them now, on average, it’s pretty close to two to one, presidency news versus congressional news.” The trend has larger implications than what citizens see each night on the news; it also affects how they view government as a whole. “Most Americans think that the presidency is the heart of the system,” said Patterson, “even though, if you look at the Constitution, that’s not true.”

“It’s just much easier to think of the government run by the president than it is to think of the government run by the president and the courts and the two houses of Congress,” said Marion Just, Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and Research Associate of the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at the Kennedy School; “[The president is] one person, you get to know him as a person, he has a wife, he has a dog.”

The wife is Laura. The dog is Barney. The president is George W. Bush, as seen on TV.

The Emergence of the TV President

The second half of 1963 is not easy to forget. Alabama Governor George Wallace was shutting down schools in Alabama to prevent integration. Black protesters were being suppressed with clubs and tear gas in Louisiana. American “advisers” were in the early stages of being slaughtered in Vietnam. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. It’s no wonder that CBS’s extension of its evening news broadcast from fifteen minutes to thirty minutes doesn’t show up in most high school history textbooks. But, in terms of its influence on American politics—or, rather, the influence of the trend it foretold—it’s every bit as worthy of attention. Television producers were immediately aware that longer broadcasts allowed for more personal interaction with newsworthy figures: the main feature on the first extended news broadcast was an interview with President Kennedy. A week later, when NBC extended its broadcast, too, whom did they decide to interview? JFK.

There were no flashy or fantastic effects when Walter Cronkite, reading from a paper on his desk, welcomed America to the first ever half-hour nightly news broadcast. His Kennedy interview began almost immediately, delayed only by the brief, obligatory recitation of major headlines. The camera captured Cronkite and Kennedy sitting awkwardly on the beach in front of Kennedy’s “Summer White House” (somehow even harder to take seriously than Bush’s “working holidays” at his Texas ranch) in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. The most striking part of the interview for anyone under the age of fifty is how uncomfortable both men looked, but it’s more evident, surprisingly, in the famously telegenic Kennedy. He slouched in his chair, his left shoulder slanting out of the frame of the camera. He spent much of the time looking down, and a wide view showed him picking something off of his pants. Occasionally, between sentences, the camera would present them from behind, showing both men with the ocean in front of them.

This was Cronkite’s first question: “How seriously do you think this civil rights situation is going to affect your chances, assuming you’ll be the nominee of the Democratic Party next year, in 1964?” Kennedy’s answer, notable more for length than for content, endured uninterrupted for one minute and fifty seconds, and that was merely the first of many questions. (That doesn’t compare, though, with the three minutes and eleven seconds of footage that would be shown later in the broadcast of the Tokyo production of “My Fair Lady,” which took thirty minutes longer to perform than the Broadway version “because,” the correspondent explained, “it takes that much longer to say it in Japanese.”) In other answers, Kennedy touched on the economy—we need a tax cut because of “the lift it would give the economy, the assurance it would give us against another recession” (take that, Democrats!)—and Vietnam—“I know people don’t like Americans to be engaged in this kind of an effort, 47 Americans have been killed in combat with the enemy.” But one’s lasting impression is of the interview’s pace, informal and measured. If the relaxed quality of such interviews was not to last, the fascination with the presidency surely was.

The next day, The New York Times published this assessment of the broadcast: “The C.B.S. News Department could hardly have picked a more difficult evening to introduce the advantages of having a half-hour rather than 15 minutes to cover the news. The Labor Day Weekend is traditionally barren of hard developments in journalism and C.B.S. had to do a bit of padding.” It’s an astounding review, considering what was happening in Alabama and Louisiana at that very moment. Plus, travel that weekend was the deadliest in Labor Day’s history; one automobile collision in Texas killed nine people. The next day, the federal minimum wage was to rise a dime to $1.25 an hour, but that news was glossed over in bulletin form. Late in the broadcast, Cronkite offered a one-line “post-script” to the integration story, saying that the school board in Alabama, rather than defy the Governor’s orders by opening schools Tuesday, would wait until Friday. If that was a weekend “barren of hard developments,” then today’s world is comparatively unexciting. But 24-hour cable channels have somehow, thank heavens, found a way to fill the time without ever resorting to padding.

The American Civil-Uncivil War

When Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” was a guest on CNN’s “Crossfire” last October, he explained his decision to appear this way: “I made a special effort to come on this show today because I have, privately, amongst my friends, and also in occasional newspapers and television shows, mentioned this show as being bad. I thought that that wasn’t fair and I should come here and tell you, I don’t—it’s not so much that it’s bad as it’s hurting America.” The main difference between “The Daily Show” and “Crossfire,” Stewart explained, aside from one’s being a comedy show and the other’s being, um, something else, is that “we [at “The Daily Show”] have civilized discourse.” Stewart inadvertently illustrated his point about incivility by telling “Crossfire” co-host Tucker Carlson, “You’re as big a dick on your show as you are on any show.”

The contrast between current debate shows and early news broadcasts is stark, but the trajectory from one to the other is fairly straightforward. When an audience watches the news, it seeks a personal connection with not only the subjects of the stories but also the news anchors delivering the information. It’s true more with television than with radio and much more true with television than with newspapers. Perhaps that’s why, since the early sixties, survey respondents have been more likely to trust the television than the newspaper, should facts presented by the two media conflict. That had been true of radio, too. In a 1941 Roper poll, 38 percent of respondents said that radio provided “more accurate” war news, compared to 21 percent who said the same of newspapers.

ABC was a latecomer to thirty-minute nightly news, introducing it four years after its competitors, and even then its ratings suffered. What followed is spelled out clearly in Eric Alterman’s Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy. Like other networks, ABC featured nightly commentaries on the news, but the men who delivered them changed from night to night, and, though audiences liked the concept, they wanted consistency—they wanted news stars. So the network chose a liberal and a conservative to appear together every night, anointing them television’s first daily pundits. The arrangement was short-lived—the news department was uneasy about having commentaries by people who had no previously unreleased information. But the concept had been created, and the next year, “Agronsky & Company,” starring opinionated journalists, debuted on CBS. It was what Alterman called a “pundit sitcom” with stock characters, each having a well-defined and predictable pattern of thought and speech, who were encouraged to become impassioned. It remained on the air for eighteen years.

By the time its run ended, “Agronsky & Company” had spawned modified imitations, the most notable of which was “The McLaughlin Group,” which arose in 1983. Rarely, Alterman noted, had any show “eliminated the politician and allowed journalists to question one another.” Moreover, “some panelists were only nominally journalists.” The show preserved the idea of stock characters; moreover, panelists would scream over one another, and the content of the show changed with the host’s whim. In other words, “The McLaughlin Group” was a show that needed only flashier graphics and more attractive panelists to look completely modern ( incidentally, both the graphics and the attractive panelists are still missing).

Television in this format has grown in prominence for several reasons, not the least of which is its cost-effectiveness. The other is the tendency of the media to play up conflict, a tactic offering a bounty of benefits to reporters and producers.

In her book Common Knowledge, Just, along with co-authors, lays out the various frames through which people view the news. Someone watching a story about Social Security through an economic frame, for example, might have a different reaction from someone watching the identical story through a human impact frame. The frame that the media have found most accessible, though, is the conflict frame. Although people can understand even complicated issues, like Social Security, that affect them personally, Just said, “if you start to say to people, ‘private accounts, invest this, invest that,’ a little bit of the ‘My eyes glaze over’ starts to take effect.” Certain economic issues are presented especially poorly in the media because, she speculated, “I think most journalists don’t understand numbers.”

Where comprehension ends, conflict begins. Journalists turn to conflict not only because it gets people’s attention but also because it allows them to report about issues that they don’t actually understand. They can present a fight rather than a discussion of economic policy. Consider pundits on television debate shows who talk about the economy, the military, social issues, and more, all in one night. Then, imagine the ramifications if they were expected to understand what they talked about.

Another reason for how common these shows have become is that the news now competes for ratings with entertainment, not just other news shows, and conflict is entertaining. When debate is presented with too much insolence, however, it can have serious effects on the way that people view their government.

The February 2005 issue of the American Political Science Review contains an article by Diana C. Mutz and Byron Reeves called “The New Videomalaise: Effects of Televised Incivility on Political Trust.” The authors conducted an experiment in which they exposed subjects to televised debate, some civil, some uncivil, and tested their impressions afterwards. They argued that, while political incivility hasn’t necessarily increased in recent decades, television exposes people to incivility more often and more intimately. “We propose,” they wrote, “this means that people expect political actors who appear on television to abide by the same social norms acknowledged by ordinary Americans.… We hypothesize that when political actors violate interpersonal social norms on television, viewers react as they would if they were witnessing the same interaction in real life.”

What they found is that, when exposed to a high level of incivility, viewers have less trust in proponents of the opposing view. “I find that attitudes toward the side that you are on, that you agree with, are not harmed at all by them being expressed in an uncivil fashion,” said Mutz, Samuel A. Stouffer Professor of Political Science and Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “But your attitude toward the opposition, the other side, does become delegitimized when they express preferences in that way.”

The problem is that it’s that very same uncivil discourse that attracts the most attention. Mutz said, “I paid a professional editor to edit these shots together for me—they were done on a talk-show set, and so forth—and, I mean, even he thought the civil versions were incredibly boring. He’s like, ‘God, I’m gonna fall asleep editing these.’” Jon Stewart, in his “Crossfire” appearance, expressed a central dilemma of the news media: “I watch your show every day, and it kills me. Oh, it’s so painful to watch.” One wonders why he watches “Crossfire” every day—surely, he could have others scan it for “Daily Show” fodder—if it causes so much pain. One could wonder, with academic detachment, why people watch uncivil shows at all, but such shows nonetheless routinely grab more viewers than civil ones do. “Politics is not that intrinsically interesting to most people,” said Mutz, providing a likely explanation, “but watching the drama of human conflict can be interesting even if you’re not that interested in politics.”

A discussion about Medicare might not enthrall anyone, but if Mr. Liberal is about to kill Mr. Conservative over it, right there on the television screen, who could look away? Whatever happens to be the topic of discussion is secondary to the human conflict between the pundits.

But there’s a problem, even aside from losing trust in an uncivil talking head. Mutz and Reeves found that the civility of the conflict affects the extent to which viewers retain information. “We found no difference in the extent to which people felt they were informed by the program,” Mutz said, but “there is a difference in the level of information they retain. They don’t remember much of anything about the other side except how mad they were” after viewing uncivil discourse.

Fighting for Attention

Imagine being a Democrat in Congress, with no access to the White House Press Corps and, as the minority in both the House and the Senate, no ability to call hearings. Your problem isn’t that the media will completely ignore your party; rather, it’s that you’re likely to be portrayed from the standpoint of conflict. “[Democrats] are relegated to being the other voice, you know, the responding voice, for the most part, in the news,” said Patterson. “Journalists seek that voice out; they like the conflict, so it’s not as if they’re going to ignore these people, but it’s a pretty weak media platform.”

The most convenient way for Democrats to garner media attention is to appear on TV debate shows, which thrive on an atmosphere of hostility. It’s convenient because shows like those need two opposing sides, which, in the narrow confines of TV talk, usually means plucking guests from different points on the liberal- conservative spectrum. Thus, Democrats are invited without having to push through major legislation. Inevitably, that applies only when those shows invite politicians in the first place, rather than rely on their regular hosts. Even when guests are invited, hosts remain in control and make conflict impossible to avoid. On shows like “Crossfire” and Fox News’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” if the guest remains steadfastly calm, the host(s) will pick up the slack and get angry.

A causal relationship between the rise of constant television news and negative reporting on politics is only arguable, but a correlation is evident. Referring to the press playing up “the underside of politics,” Patterson said, “It got regularly worse as you went through the sixties to the late eighties. And certainly the tip of that iceberg is in the nineties with the coverage of the Clinton presidency.” When asked how much negative coverage affects the way that the public views its leaders, he said that “about half of the presidential nominees over the last 25 years or so, by the end of the campaign, have had a negative image or nearly. To go back and look at the early years of the Gallup Poll, there’s one out there in the first thirty years or so—Barry Goldwater.”

Surveys have shown that people hold seemingly contradictory opinions about conflict in government. At the beginning of 1977, when Democrats reoccupied the White House and still maintained their congressional monopoly, several polls asked citizens about the implications of one-party rule. A Roper poll asked whether respondents thought that it’s “better to have one political party in control of both Congress and the White House, or that it is better to have opposite parties in control of the two branches?” Forty-eight percent of respondents preferred two-party rule, while only 36 percent chose one-party. A CBS News/New York Times poll from January of that year asked, “Do you think the government will work better now that the President and the majority of Congress both belong to the same political party, or don’t you think it will work better?” In this case, 75 percent said that the government would “work better” under the new conditions, and only fifteen percent disagreed. That 75 percent figure dropped dramatically by April, after Congress and the President had been forced to work together for a few months, but people still said the government worked better under one party-rule by a ratio of almost two to one.

A possible explanation is that most Americans have some understanding of the balance of power among the branches of government, and, at least in principle, they approve. But “Americans don’t like to see conflict in Washington,” said Just. “They would like people to have their best interests at heart, and they imagine that those are unitary. You know, ‘Do what’s best for us, and don’t argue about it. Don’t seek political gain, just go ahead and do that one thing that’s going to make things better.’” So Democrats who secure public attention by creating conflict might also secure public ire.

This could relate back to Mutz’s study about civility in government. The same people who understand that conflict is necessary react negatively when it’s presented to them in an in-your-face fashion. That type of conflict increases the public’s irritation with politicians because the opposing side appears to look increasingly ridiculous and, perhaps more damningly, groundless. Much fuss has been made recently about the rising levels of polarization in national politics, and Mutz believes that conflicts played out on television in a confrontational manner may contribute to that. “It’s a polarizing influence because both sides come to see the other side as less legitimate,” she said. “The chances for compromise and that sort of thing become less and less because both sides become convinced that the people on the other side are just a bunch of idiots… so it works against a politics of compromise.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with a refusal to compromise, unless you’re in the inopportune position of having very little political power, as Democrats seem to be.

What’s a Democrat to Do?

One disappointing feature that has accompanied the rise of uncivil discourse on television has been the decline of investigative journalism. Journalists rely increasingly on news releases that come directly from government sources, rather than digging for news on their own. During the first Persian Gulf War, over half of the lead stories on evening news broadcasts could be traced back to the White House, State Department, or Pentagon, all of which fall under the Executive Branch. Thus, when liberals accuse conservative commentators of inanely rehashing government talking points, they’re right to do so; that’s the job of real journalists. A former New York Times White House correspondent once said, “I’ve had stories on page one just because the president burped” (which further reinforces the idea that Republicans need not worry that their agenda will be disseminated widely).

A main problem with less investigative journalism— and one that relates to uncivil discourse— is that the media commonly report what is said, not what is happening. If two opposing sides dispute whether a statement is true or false, the media might cover the disagreement but not say who is right, either to prevent the illusion of bias or to avoid doing more work. What this means for Democrats is that their side of issues will not automatically be depicted in the media—they have to speak up, which is harder than it may appear. A major impediment to that is their minority status in both houses of Congress, meaning that they cannot call a hearing on any issue. Not only are hearings sure to draw attention to a cause, but they present that cause in a way that is usually civilized, without forcing Democrats to speak too harshly. “The nice thing about hearings, very much like the nice thing about the 9/11 Commission,” said Patterson, “is that it allows you to call people and have other voices, and then in some ways, what you’re doing is, you’re merely shedding the light.”

Given their minority status, there is only one way besides conflict to ensure coverage, maybe even positive coverage, in the media: personality. Once Democrats figure out what they want to say, they’ll need to find someone who can say it. That person needs to reach out, through the media, at a personal level. “My more recent research is on emotional connection between candidates and the public,” said Just, “and I do think that’s what the Democrats were lacking the last two [presidential elections].”

As of when this magazine went to press, the Democrats had not rallied enthusiastically around any national figure. They were fond of Sen. John Kerry when he ran for president, but the hollowness of their affection became evident immediately after the election, when Kerry dropped from view. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois is popular and articulate but has served in national office for fewer than four months and, as a junior senator, is abiding by the rules of propriety and keeping quiet. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has institutional authority but has yet to prove his ability to reignite the party. Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts is well-known but is perceived as perhaps too liberal and is certainly not part of the party’s future: he has served in the Senate continuously since before the advent of thirty-minute nightly news broadcasts. Plus, the second picture on the biography page of his website shows him shaking hands with a dog.

Whom does that leave? The options are slim. “You can see [New York Sen.] Hillary Clinton coming up into view in that way,” said Patterson. “She’s getting pretty good press right now, and she’s getting quite a lot of it.…I suppose, right now, she’s probably the one who predictably could speak out on an issue in the name of the party and get attention.” Aside from being well-known, Clinton is unquestionably the senator—from either party—with the most famous family (well, living family; sorry, Teddy), which helps to humanize her against the backdrop of Congress as an institution. Not to mention that her husband was the last Democrat who connected to the public in the way that none of them can today.

It goes without saying that Clinton has her drawbacks, and this article is far from an endorsement of her. But if she or any other Democrat can make a personal connection with voters, then Democrats should be prepared to accept it. In the name of party unity, high-level Democrats are currently working out the kinks in their message and contemplating the nuances of how much room there is for dissent and public opinion. All of that work, though, is futile without an ambassador to the public, and it might be he—or she—who ultimately is empowered to decide the message of the party. If it seems undemocratic to let a single figure, chosen by likeability, determine a party’s message, bear in mind that Democratic officials are presently crafting that message based largely on what they think would win the most votes. It’s democratic, if not pretty, either way, as long as the person or the platform has public support. Currently, though, the Democrats with the most institutional power lack national popular appeal. It might soon be time for the party to see if it can rise to the challenge that it has often bestowed upon others: let the popular displace the powerful. Then the media might start to pay attention.

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