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TV as Participant in the Political Process

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SELDOM has a political event disturbed me so much as the so-called first TV debate among the Democratic presidential contenders. One of the six presidential hopefuls would make a comment. But before he could fill out his thought someone would interrupt.Then someone else would interrupt. Then someone would get angry. Then someone would smile or even giggle. No one looked faintly presidential. How much was this TV confrontation really helpful to the election process?, I asked myself. What I was seeing was like some political talk shows where journalists yell and interrupt and seek to entertain more than really inform. One of my friends after making an appearance on a talk show said it "was more like mud wrestling" than a serious exchange of views. The TV presidential debates have always been less than satisfactory. Too often they seem to have turned on trivialities. Richard Nixon didn't have enough makeup. Jerry Ford misspoke about Eastern Europe. Ronald Reagan turned to Jimmy Carter and said, "There you go again," and thereby made his opponent look bad. President Ford made a point of shaking Mr. Carter's hand in order (one of his advisers told me) to make sure the audience saw how much taller and bigger he was. Later the two stood like statues at their podiums for minutes on end when the audio failed, fearing that even the slightest move might convey an impression of weakness to the vast TV audience. Such nonsense. But that's what TV does. I still favor debates even though the one the last week was of little worth. They provide an opportunity for the public to get a look at the candidates, hear how they stand on the issues, and see how they handle themselves in a tense situation. I often wonder, though, whether TV reveals the "real" people we see on the screen. Or are these merely "actors" who are putting on a performance? Indeed, is this why that professional actor, Ronald Reagan, fared so well before the TV cameras? Did we ever get to know Mr. Reagan? I doubt very much that the same kinds of people are being elected president in the age of TV that we put in the White House in the pre-television period. Television makes a special demand on candidates. It's an intangible element. But the TV image must be one that appeals to voters. That image may or may not be of a person who is equally appealing away from the cameras. John Kennedy was the first presidential candidate who, as they say in show business, "knocked 'em dead" on TV. Mr. Nixon, who was a great stump speaker, when speaking on TV always looked to many viewers as someone they couldn't entirely trust. He overcame that liability in 1968 and again in 1972 when he schooled himself in the art of making more favorable appearances on TV. At least, he kept that black beard closely shaved and had a makeup helper close at hand. Apart from the political stage, television still is on trial in certain important corners of the public domain. The TV cameras that were turned on the William Kennedy Smith trial have left a lot of uncertainty as to whether this was a proper use of TV. It drew a big audience. It titillated. But was it in the public interest? Did the presence of TV there affect the trial? Those on the jury must have felt the pressure, knowing that millions of people were looking on. Without TV, it would have been a most difficult assignment. With TV, each juror must have felt he was sitting in a hot seat. Most important, it's arguable that rape victims will be even more reluctant than they are now to come forward - knowing that the ordeal they will have to undergo will be worsened because the public, through TV, will be watching their every move. With regard to politics: I think it is very possible that some outstanding people who could make fine presidents don't come forward now and offer themselves as candidates simply because they don't want to go through that TV ordeal. Maybe even Abraham Lincoln, who regarded himself as homely, wouldn't have been willing to offer himself to the cruelty of the TV cameras.


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