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The Great American Video Game: PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS IN THE TELEVISION AGE by Martin Schram (Morrow: $17.95; 320 pp.)

May 10, 1987|Alex Raksin | Raksin, a former writer and producer for news radio and TV news syndication, edits and writes for The Book Review

July 4, 1984: Car 44, driven by Richard Petty, races around the vast track at the Indianapolis 500 as Air Force One swoops by in the background. When President Reagan arrives, country and Western singer Tammy Wynette begins crooning "Stand by Your Man," kissing the President when done. After the finish, Petty, the winner, toasts Reagan with his victory champagne.

The real winner, of course, was then-Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, who carefully contrived these media events, transforming that asphalt track into an American heartland. And as the warm images resonated on Fourth of July network newscasts, Reagan's victory in November not only seemed as assured as Petty's, it seemed America's victory, our victory.

To a leading school of liberal American media theorists, the images told a less heartening story, one of powerful politicians pulling on the strings of the media elite. But as Martin Schram's collection of largely affectionate interviews with anchors and producers illustrates, what TV journalists do air, they air by choice, though sometimes with reluctance and words of caution to their audience.

"Mr. Reagan tries to counter the memory of an unpopular issue with a carefully chosen backdrop that actually contradicts the President's policies," CBS news correspondent Lesley Stahl pointed out a month before the 1984 election. "Look at the handicapped Olympics, or the opening ceremony of an old-age home. No hint that he tried to cut the budgets for the disabled and for federally subsidized housing for the elderly."

Other anchors and producers interviewed in these pages display a similar shrewd awareness of political motivation that seems inspired as much by pride as by a sense of social responsibility; all feel they have to earn their well-publicized salaries by doing more than reading from a teleprompter.

Tom Brokaw, on why NBC didn't air a speech Reagan gave to Kennedy Democrats: "It was short on form, no substance . . . it struck us as the sheer exploitation of our medium."

Dan Rather, on TV's tendency to spotlight only a two-man race: "I think all of that is legitimate criticism. . . . We have nothing to be proud of in this area."

Peter Jennings, on his concerns about being too jocular or too political in an interview he did with Reagan at the 1984 Olympics: "God, it was awful . . . interminable! . . . Here you have what is in global terms a nonpolitical occasion, with the President of the largest free country in the world opening what turned out to be great Games. But it's also right in the middle of a political campaign. So how could I look like anything but a wimp either way?"

While this self-searching has convinced Schram that TV reporters are their own best critics, his lively interviews with TV news shapers actually reveal quite the opposite. The anchors' talk is tough and sincere, but their editorial decisions, which Schram admits "determine what our view of campaign reality is," are often made uncritically. And Schram, bathing many of his interview subjects in glowing light, seems to share their narrow definition of "hard-hitting reporting."

He thinks, for instance, that one of the most "relentless attacks ever leveled" at presidential candidate John Glenn came from a reporter who asks, "How can you possibly go on if you don't finish second (in New Hampshire) tomorrow?"

Having adjusted his standards to fit those of America's video game, Schram doesn't seem to realize that this is not muckraking journalism aimed at stimulating enlightened political debate, but horse-race reporting, concerned with only the most superficial aspects of the campaign.

Thus, Schram, an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, believes that reporters hit hard not by forcing candidates to articulate clear stands on issues but by turning politics into soap opera. Take this example of a report by NBC's Mondale correspondent Lisa Myers, which Schram cites as being particularly "tough": "Having silenced cries of 'wimp,' Mondale came home (to Duluth, Minn.) to ask those who know him best to save him from further indignity. . . ."

It would be unfair to criticize Schram for celebrating the fact that TV lets viewers measure "candidates for President in those intangible, up-close-and-personal ways that the newspaper page can never fulfill." After all, the Nielsen ratings tell us that this is what the public wants most.

Schram, however, goes beyond saying that sensationalism is TV's understandable attempt to flee from the perceived boredom of policy specifics. Since the actual issues are "unknown," he argues, "TV performs a great service . . . in democracy's rites of succession," offering images that suggest a candidate's actual leadership abilities.

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