How media fantasy swayed an election
“Photo ops” have TV news organizations right where candidates and their image-makers want them. How do we break the “hot” picture addiction?
By David Zurawik and Christina Stoehr
David Zurawik is TV critic for The Baltimore Sun. Christina Stoehr, formerly TV critic at the Detroit Free Press, teaches writing and criticism at Southern Methodist University.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 8 (November/December 1990), pp. 4-5.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
Were Texans voting for Ann Richards on Nov. 6 or Victoria Barkley, the matriarch played by Barbara Stanwyk on television’s “The Big Valley”?
And what role did television news play in allowing such a media fantasy to be substituted for the real thing?
Much has been written about the Texas governor’s race between Ann Richards and Clayton Williams, but these two questions deserve more attention. They are at the heart of how we elect candidates and the ethical responsibilities of television news in covering those elections.
The process begins when the candidates and consultants decide on an image and then produce advertisements showcasing that image.
In Williams’s campaign, the imagemaking began with the “chuck-wagon” ads, which featured Williams dressed as a cowboy out on a cattle drive.
His popularity zoomed when the ads started airing.
That’s only half the battle, though. For one thing, no one believes everything he or she sees in a television ad.
But, as an image-maker, if you can control photo opportunities and media events so that the fictional image of the advertisements is repeated on the nightly news, that’s a real victory. The nightly news has more than credibility: Television news has convinced many of us that it is our very “window to the world,” that it is actually showing us reality. And it’s free. Not a bad deal if you can get it.
Both candidates got it in Texas. In the end, though, Richards got it better than Williams — mainly because she stayed on the carefully marked image-makers’ path, while Williams wandered off in the campaign’s final days and shot himself in both feet.
In the primary, Richards had established herself as tough enough to be governor. She reinforced that with such photo opportunities as her toting a gun and going hunting.
Down the stretch, as Williams showed himself belligerent (refusing to shake her hand and saying he’d rope her “like a heifer”), Richards started to stress the other side of the frontierswoman — appearing in postures that showed compassion, modesty and the pioneer woman as keeper of such civilizing values as education.
And Texas TV newscasts showed the posed pictures that reinforced the image. Richards sitting alone and modestly sewing a button on her dress on the campaign plane on election eve. Richards carrying bouquets (to emphasize the feminine and the idea of winning). Richards surrounded by persons of color and promising better educational opportunities.
It all came together in one of the last images viewers of KXAS-TV (Channel 5, the NBC affiliate in Dallas and Fort Worth) saw of Richards before they went to the polls. It led the station’s 6 o’clock news report on Richards Nov. 5. It began with Richards bent over an African-American boy of about 10 with his chin gently cupped in her hands.
As viewers saw this, they heard the Channel 5 reporter say, “And she pleaded with a little boy to remember her as the gubernatorial candidate who wanted more money for poor school districts.”
The camera stayed tight enough on Richards and the boy to give viewers the sense they were eavesdropping on a very private moment. And, then, viewers heard Richards say to the boy, her voice cracking with concern, “I want you to do something for me, Chad. I want you to study hard when you go to school. And I want you to go to college.”
It was the kind of emotionally-hot picture TV cameras can’t or won’t ignore. And that’s the problem. Savvy political consultants know that if they can stage such pictures, TV news will show them.
There have been attempts to improve coverage in this governor’s race.
WFAA-TV (Channel 8 in Dallas and Fort Worth) managed to show Williams talking to aides about how he was about to stage a confrontation with Richards for the TV cameras at one gathering. According to Dallas Morning News TV critic Ed Bark, showing that instance of calculation hurt Williams badly.
KERA-TV (Channel 13, the public television station in Dallas and Fort Worth) kept after Williams when he refused to appear in public debates, offering him alternative forums in hopes of getting him in a situation not totally controlled by image-makers. Williams finally agreed to an interview just before the election.
During that interview, the journalists got a flustered Williams to confess that he didn’t know what the one proposition on the ballot was about (gubernatorial appointments) and that he couldn’t remember how he voted on the proposition when he voted by absentee ballot.
But, overall, the fundamental dependence on staged pictures has not decreased. Part of the problem is that the relationship is not widely understood. Several newspapers, for example, tried to dissect candidate ads this fall. But they dealt only with the accuracy or deceit of the words, instead of what the image projected.
Ultimately it is a matter of conscience. ABC anchor Peter Jennings said that there are times when television news operations have a responsibility to avoid hot pictures that make for “good television” in hopes of facilitating rational discourse and understanding.
Is Jennings saying that there are times when television must dare to be boring?
Jennings himself took the dare in a prime-time “Peter Jennings Reporting” special on the politics of abortion Nov. 1. Jennings said in a pre-air interview that he and his producers had purposely avoided the hot pictures of confrontation — what he called “the shouting and the screaming and the saliva” pictures — “because it is an issue which is so emotional.”
Jennings’ report was panned in The Washington Post, because “it strips the abortion debate of the passion and personal depth of feeling that . . .pitted opponents against one another with the ferocity of opposing armies.”
If the high road is paved with reviews like this, you can understand why broadcasters might not be lining up to take Jennings’s dare.
After all, Victoria Barkley, frontierswoman from “The Big Valley,” makes for better television than Ann Richards, civil servant from Austin.