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A Real Barroom Brawl Enlivens Primary Season, but Don't Bet on a Rerun

January 29, 1988|VAN GORDON SAUTER | Van Gordon Sauter is a former president of CBS News

All that hot air being generated by the presidential-primary system may provide welcome relief to the residents of Iowa and New Hampshire who are hunkered down in the winter doldrums, but it is debilitating for the rest of us who are systematically excluded from the process.

Not being residents of Iowa and New Hampshire, our candidate preferences are automatically discounted. And, given the low probability that the residents of California will vote in a meaningful presidential primary, we tend to vicariously live the elections through television.

But we find television itself exploited by the flawed process.

First of all, the 30-second commercial has become the most effective form of political communication. Candidates, except for Jesse Jackson, no longer seem to be certifiable human beings. Television is too powerful to allow any element of candidate spontaneity. They become products --carefully packaged, allocated specific shelf space, their true spirits and emotions hermetically sealed in translucent and impenetrable containers.

Even their "live and unrehearsed" performances in the television debates reflect the unreality of the commercials. Viewers with the stamina to sit through a debate can best observe this in the obligatory "candidate summations." One by one the candidates turn to the camera--head at just the right angle, body language correctly articulated, voices reeking of sincerity--and deliver to the precise second of allocated time a "summation."

Heaven forbid that anything other than the manufactured image would ever make its way onto television. Generally the risk is small. Because television is a key player in this process, it treats the primary process and its participants with a stifling decorum. Candidates and journalists mosey together through Iowa and New Hampshire as if the system were perfectly logical and the nation really wanted it to work that way.

The journalists are quite good, but their coverage of the presidential candidates reflects the politeness and the consideration of adults who are hard at work together at a thoughtful process. Different tasks, different perspectives, but shoulder to shoulder in the trenches of Iowa and New Hampshire, serving the public in their different ways.

That's why Dan Rather's "turn loose the dogs" pursuit of Vice President George Bush was startling to so many people. It wasn't polite. It wasn't considerate. It was good, raw, scuffed-knuckles journalism. It was the first certifiable mustard-gas exchange of the current political season.

And across the country people thought that they had dialed into a political version of "Divorce Court."

As television news consumers we are totally unaccustomed to the Rather-Bush style of confrontation. It was marvelous political theater. A classic barroom brawl with heavyweights had made its way onto television. Finally.

But the audience also found it unnerving. The bare-knuckles reporter-subject interplay is a rarity on television. It happens a lot--off camera. Between television reporters and newsmakers. Between print reporters and newsmakers. When the print reporter puts his story to paper, the process by which it is gathered--no matter how adversarial--is routinely and appropriately excluded. The process isn't seen. Just the result.

On television, showing an adversarial interview process can tend to overpower the story.

Broadcast journalists are understandably edgy about being seen in a no-eight-count, no-saved-by-the-bell kind of interview situation. It is distressing to viewers, who are prone to mistake a not-uncommon information-gathering process, an adversarial interview, for some diabolical form of insolence or advocacy. We're not used to an anchorman with a touch of the snarl in his voice, a sense of the jugular. And neither, for that matter, are their bosses. Rest assured that broadcast executives will next week be scanning the Nielsen numbers to see if the Rather episode caused some blip, up or down, in the ratings. And stand by for a rash of promotional blurbs heralding the fairness, intelligence and compassion of anchorpeople.

Given the uproar over the Rather-Bush imbroglio, don't expect a lot of television journalists to flog politicians publicly in the quest for a story. The balance of power, and tolerance, in the television/political-campaign business is too precarious to tolerate a lot of forays into the unknown of public opinion.

And so the television journalists will debate the Rather interview in seminars and at weekend homes in the Hamptons, but will avoid emulating it in the coverage of the primaries--and the election. The campaign managers, sensing Rather-Bush as an aberration and not a trend, will peacefully go back to manufacturing the television commercials that portray their fighters as fair, intelligent and compassionate individuals--just like the anchorpeople.

Yes, the presidential-primary system is flawed. And television has been sucked into the problem.

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