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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Networks Dole Out Free Coverage

August 14, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Politicians are adept at kicking the media.

But television should kick itself for granting the GOP a panoramic strip of free air time this week to celebrate Bob Dole during the Republican National Convention in San Diego.

Just as it should for doing the same thing for Democrats when they seek to Bubbafy and propagandize America at their own coming presidential rally in Chicago.

Let both parties have their fun and play their games--in private. If they want TV exposure and have no real news to trade in exchange, they should have to buy the air time as others do.

It's time for serious campaign coverage reform.

That is the biggest news resonating from San Diego, not cheering Republicans, Colin Powell, Pat Buchanan, Nancy Reagan, keynoter Rep. Susan Molinari of New York or even expected nominee Dole and his running mate, Jack Kemp. This amazing partisan infomercial is being beamed to millions and millions of viewers. And many more who aren't tuning in the show are getting its drift (or spin) from newscasts, talk radio and newspapers.

Take Monday, for example.

How apt that the opening of the four-day GOP convention made the front page of the show-biz newspaper Variety ("GOP Gets Ready for Its Closeup"). And that NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw at 7 p.m. should define this thicket of self-congratulations as "a carefully orchestrated evening."

That's a banner headline? In fact, who among the TV media covering this event hasn't used "orchestrated" or "choreographed" or "scripted" to describe it in advance? No illusions here. No naivete. No getting blindsided. The media approached this week as the Great Known. Yet that none of this is a surprise, and that TV landed in San Diego anyway like the allies at Normandy, acutely symbolizes the absurdity of what is going on.

"This is the message the Republican Party clearly wanted out," proclaimed CNN's Judy Woodruff after Monday's lineup of rousing videos and speakers had brought the boosters inside San Diego Convention Center to their feet. And just because the party wants this pro-Republican message of euphoria and unity to be delivered, TV is obliged to be the messenger? Throw a convention and TV will come? Put on a show and the Red Sea will automatically part?

In fairness, shouldn't Psychic Friends Network receive the same courtesy?

Monday flashback:

The guts of the free infomercial is presented live and uninterrupted on much of television that evening.

Former President George Bush speaks. ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, C-SPAN and MSNBC are live.

Then a worshipful video on former President Ronald Reagan is run in the hall. All of the above are live throughout the video except CBS, which joins late, in time to hear Kemp say, "Here's to the Gipper. Thank you for what you did for America and the whole wide world."

Then Nancy Reagan speaks ("Just four years ago, Ronnie stood before you. . . ."). All of the above cover her live.

Then retired Gen. Powell, GOP light of lights, speaks ("I know this man. Bob Dole is the candidate most qualified. . . ."). Same boffo response. Same story. Live.

Good speeches, stirring speeches, heartfelt speeches. Above all, strategic speeches, as much designed to sell Republicans and the Dole-Kemp ticket to the nation as some commercials are designed to sell burgers: "If it doesn't get all over the place, it doesn't belong in your face."

Thanks to TV, Republicans are all over the place, and Democrats soon will be.

What to do?

Though flawed, a model for intelligent change is on cable's Family Channel. Yes, televangelist and GOP conservative muscleman Pat Robertson's Family Channel, which this week is running an extended paid Republican infomercial titled "The Unconventional Convention," a nightly two hours of live coverage misleadingly crafted to resemble regular media coverage.

An infomercial is by definition a commercial, usually program length, disguised as objective information, the purpose being to con viewers.

Although the party does keep a small GOPTV logo in a corner of the picture, the Family Channel should be much clearer about this being a paid program, something you learn from a graphic only at the end of each two-hour slab. That's inexcusable.

Otherwise, something along the lines of paid GOPTV is exactly the way to go.

If the parties want to blitz the nation with partisan messages at their conventions, make them buy a block of time for their infomercials as the GOP is doing on the Family Channel, a move that Republicans claim they were forced into to circumvent the "biased liberal media."

That's a sham, of course, for C-SPAN already covers both parties' conventions gavel to gavel without commentary, and, significantly, without public criticism from the GOP. If fairness is the issue, why not merely buy ads on the Family Channel encouraging viewers to watch C-SPAN?

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