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Image-Conscious Leaders Choke Off Information at Risk of Discouraging Real Support

February 04, 1988|ROBERT E. HUNTER | Robert E. Hunter is the director of European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington

On the same evening last week Americans saw two extremes in the political uses of television. George Bush sparred angrily with Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News. Then Ronald Reagan gave a letter-perfect State of the Union performance before a joint session of Congress. Yet neither provided a useful look at leaders, their competence or their stewardship of power.

In the American democracy the media have always been the "fourth branch of government." But that role changed with the advent of television. Most apparent is the competition between politicians and TV journalists to dominate the medium and control the message that goes into American homes.

When it suits his purpose, the politician wants as much television coverage as possible--under his own terms--but as little as possible when it does not. For their part, TV journalists want to set the rules and pursue the "story." Intentionally or not, they play a powerful role in defining issues and at times in deciding the outcome.

Neither in a presidential campaign nor after the election are the American people as well served by this process as the healthy functioning of democracy requires.

As voting Americans struggle to learn what they can about the competence of candidates for the nation's highest office, they no longer have the services of the political parties. A significant role for party professionals and elected officials in choosing nominees has ended; peer review has largely disappeared. Television has filled the vacuum, from the ephemera of the purchased ad and the 60-second news story to the televised debate that gives most voters their rare chance to see the candidates unedited.

These debates tell us much about the intelligence and wit, the wisdom or foolishness of the candidates. But they provide clues to only a small part of what it takes to govern: an ability to work with Congress, to reconcile competing interests, to respond to a crisis, to manage the government.

This year a partial answer has emerged: If there is to be one debate, let there be many--even if that bores the TV audience. At least there is less risk that a Gerald Ford will be irreparably damaged by a single reference to a free Poland, or a Jimmy Carter by Reagan's well-timed "There you go, again."

The limitations of television's current role become more striking as we try to judge the work and the worth of Presidents. It is no accident that Reagan, the "Great Communicator," shuns press conferences, at which he is far from adept, and shouts answers to reporters' questions over the whirring of his helicopter. He naturally revels in the Oval Office TV talk or the set-piece appearance before Congress. Nor is it an accident that television journalists clamor for the news-conference format and make a political issue of presidential reticence.

These sessions have largely ceased being serious occasions for exploring a President's thinking or for probing beneath the surface of policy. By reading the newspapers, any White House staff member can predict which questions will be posed. The unexpected or detailed question is often dismissed by the journalism fraternity as irrelevant or unfair, persistence on a single point is condemned as badgering, and deference to the Chief Executive is de rigueur.

Style over substance has become a high art, thus adding to inhibitions against probing a President's remarks. The prime-time news conference is now set against the backdrop of the White House state rooms. Under such conditions, any President should dominate the proceedings.

This is a far cry from Franklin D. Roosevelt's informal White House sessions with journalists, after which reporters could use their own words to convey a subtle sense of his thinking. The TV networks would now make a federal case out of attempts to exclude the cameras. Not surprisingly, the risk of making a policy or political error on live television leads Presidents to avoid being frank or taking risks.

From time to time Reagan has met with small groups of journalists for longer discussions. But these kid-gloves encounters still do not rival the routine questioning of the British prime minister in Parliament or in extended combat on television with a single journalist.

The U.S. political culture fuses in the presidency the ministerial function with the majesty of a head of state. Many Americans would recoil if the British rough-and-tumble were tried here. Putting image before information in infrequent news conferences may continue to be good presidential politics. But it is a recipe for more failed presidencies, as most have been since television has dominated politics.

Television can replace political parties as a springboard to the White House, but not in building constituencies and lasting support. That can now come only from a systematic effort to level with the American people through every means possible. The first President to learn that lesson is likely to be the first in the television age to retire as an enduring success.

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