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At the close of the 1988 presidential campaign, media maestro Roger Ailes explained to the New York Times why the candidates had lavished their energies on attacking one another from the stump.
''There are three things that get covered,'' said Ailes, then directing George H.W. Bush's media campaign, ''[V]isuals, attacks, and mistakes." A successful campaign, he continued, avoided mistakes and gave the TV networks "as many attacks and visuals" as they could.
Ailes, a showbiz veteran who has spun through the revolving door between politics (Nixon, Reagan, Bush I) and television (The Mike Douglas Show, TVN, CNBC) a couple of times, returned to the media in the 1990s and launched the Fox News Channel for Rupert Murdoch in 1996. At Fox News, he remains loyal to the visuals-attacks-mistakes mantra; all but a fraction of the channel's political coverage hews to this rule. Thanks to his success, MSNBC, CNN, and the broadcast networks have largely followed his example.
To really see the presidential campaign as it unfolds on television, try to watch it through Roger Ailes' eyes. First, be wary of the visuals the campaigns dispense and the corresponding visuals the networks transmit. Grandiose visuals—I'm thinking of those aired last night as Barack Obama pretended to be Julius Caesar at the Colosseum, collecting accolades from the people after smashing the Gauls—short-circuit even the most jaded voters' cognitive functions. The only way John McCain will be able to match the dazzling production—fireworks and 80,000 screaming supporters—will be to perform human sacrifice on the stage as he accepts his party's nomination.
Instead of decoding the Obama propaganda, the broadcast press mostly wallowed in it: Flipping the dial, I didn't hear much in the way of disparagement from the talking heads. Indeed, the fact that the networks paid $100,000 to install a Skycam to hover over the cheering hordes at Invesco Field proves how easily they can be co-opted by a campaign that spends the money to produce a terrific "show." The Skycam added no journalistic value to last night's coverage, only buckets of oomph for the Obama-Biden ticket. If you can't avert your eyes from such spectacles and the network anchors refuse to frame them skeptically, be prepared to discount the emotional effect they may exert on you.
The Ailes playbook instructs both campaigns and networks to concentrate on attacks and mistakes. Some of the greatest political mistakes have been visual, such as when a helmeted Michael Dukakis allowed himself to be filmed while joy-riding in a tank. Ailes extracted this mocking commercial from Dukakis' gaffe, and this along with Dukakis' other campaign miscues in 1988 helped project him as a woolly-headed doofus.
The only way a candidate can possibly avoid all mistakes on the campaign trail is by barricading himself in his basement and refusing to come out. Because mistakes, miscues, and gaffes are inevitable, viewers shouldn't get carried away by them just because the campaigns and the networks do.
So what if Barack Obama gave a rambling answer to Rick Warren's questions at the Saddleback summit? Or that his tongue betrays him from time to time? (The Chicago Sun-Times Lynn Sweet offers this nice collection of Obama fumbles.) Who cares if John McCain isn't as fast with a quip as he was in 2000? (See Politico's McCain assortment.)Gaffes and mistakes almost never matter as much as the broadcast press make them seem to matter. If gaffes really mattered, any intelligent observer would recognize that Obama and McCain have reached gaffe parity and that they no longer matter.
The networks overdo mistake coverage because 1) it's easy, 2) the other networks are doing it, 3) the opposing campaigns are goading them on, and 4) it creates space for yet another easy story when the candidate who has gaffed can point to a gaffe by his opponent. If gaffes really mattered, none of us would be employed, our spouses would have left us, and our children would have made a bonfire of our bones by now.
After ignoring the visuals (or at least discounting them) and snubbing the gaffe coverage, we're left with attack pieces. As a political consultant, Ailes excelled at the attack commercial, sticking it into his candidate's opponent and breaking it off. The faster you can determine that the source of a network story is an attack commercial made by either campaign, the faster you can change the channel. Beware of any segment or talk-show discussion that riffs off an attack ad. No 30- or 60-second commercial can give you the context you need to judge its contents. That the networks spend so much time playing beach volleyball with the attacks and counterattacks speaks volumes about their news values. That you allow yourself to get caught up in the pissing match says volumes about you. Don't be a chump.