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Celebrity Politics

The media don't want policy debates, they want human interest. So the presidential campaign has been reduced to a tabloid narrative.

October 22, 2000|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler is the author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

AMAGANSETT, N.Y. — When George W. Bush and Al Gore left their conventions two months ago, they had laid out the basic narrative lines for the election to come, what Hollywood calls a "treatment." Bush, taking a page from Bill Clinton, described himself as a different kind of Republican from the attack dogs who had hounded the president: compassionate instead of cruel, inclusive instead of intolerant, bipartisan instead of belligerent. Gore, taking a page from the William Jennings Bryan playbook, presented himself as a traditional Democratic populist fighting the rich and powerful to protect the average Joe. It was a pretty good scenario, contrasting philosophies and clarifying differences, and it promised a salutary debate predicated, as it was, on the idea that this is essentially a good and decent nation divided by means, not ends.

But that is hardly how the campaign has been playing out. As the debates amply demonstrated, instead of a serious and sustained engagement of issues, campaign 2000, like other recent presidential campaigns, has largely turned into a contest of ephemera and superficialities. Does Bush know the name of the new leader of Yugoslavia, much less how to pronounce it? Does he act sufficiently presidential, which amounts to standing straight and not throwing spitballs during debates? As for Gore, did he know he was telling a whopper when he claimed that his mother-in-law spent more for a prescription drug than he paid to get the same drug for his dog, or when he related the story of a Florida girl who had to stand in science class because her school lacked the resources to provide her a desk? These are the kinds of questions that have dominated political discourse for the last few weeks, and these are the questions on which the election is now likely to turn.

How did a presidential campaign again get sidetracked from a genuine policy debate to a game of gotcha? The answer lies in the nature of campaign coverage, which has changed radically over the last 25 years and which has changed the nature of the campaigns themselves. The media don't want policy debates. They don't want the dull recitation of positions and statistics that they know are likely to put readers and viewers to sleep. They understand that long election campaigns like ours quickly become tiresome if you don't provide some human interest. Rather than passively report the candidates' electoral narrative, they have chosen to create an electoral narrative of their own--one that has action, dynamism, drama for the audience, and one that empowers the media as traditional coverage never did. This campaign has become the product of that narrative.

The idea of the media writing an election narrative certainly isn't new, but the shape the narrative now takes is. In the early days of the republic and for nearly a century thereafter, newspapers functioned as arms of political parties. They promoted their own candidates and pummeled the opposition, and the narrative they fashioned was a Manichean battle between good and evil. By the end of the 19th century, the press had become less partisan and more professional, increasingly viewing its role as a custodian of the public trust. In the period before radio and television, when voters seldom saw or heard their candidates, the press related campaign events and laid out positions with at least a pretense of objectivity. The narrative here was the clash of policy and the ebb and flow of the campaign.

Whether it was rabidly partisan or neutral, though, the press let the candidates and parties set the agenda and frame the debate. The arrival of television and of the televised debates, which enabled candidates to reach the electorate directly, forced the media to redefine their coverage. What has emerged is something that looks suspiciously like celebrity reporting. Candidates' personalities are analyzed and their life histories exhumed as if they were movie stars. Again like stars, they are judged by whether they exceed or disappoint the expectations that the media have created for them, and their campaigns are dissected and then rated by how effectively they manipulated the media--the very people covering the campaign.

But the most important redefinition of coverage has been the substitution of the media's own narrative for the candidates' and parties' narratives. By now, everyone is familiar with the story line, which fits every presidential campaign with only slight modifications and which virtually everyone in the major media seems to sign onto. According to this formula, one campaign is always foundering, while the other is righting itself. We're told in exactly the same language, from one election to the next, that the foundering campaign hasn't found its message or it can't rally its troops or it is in organizational disarray. Thus Gore's campaign was rudderless and drifting in July, Bush's rudderless and drifting in September.

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