SOLOMON: TV News Diet: "Sound Nibbles"

Soon after Richard Nixon moved into the White House, a new book -- titled The Selling of the President, 1968 -- caused an uproar. On the cover was the jolting image of a cigarette pack with Nixon's picture on it.Back then, the idea of marketing a candidate like a pack of cigarettes seemed scandalous. Today, we don't give it a second thought: We just assume that high-powered ad campaigns will pitch candidates much like any other "product".In contrast to the TV commercials bought by politicians, news on the tube is supposed to be informative. Yet, in the real world, TV news coverage is more superficial than ever.During the 1968 presidential race, when Nixon squared off against Hubert Humphrey, the average length of one of their sound bites on network TV news was 43 seconds. By 1988, when George Bush and Michael Dukakis ran for president, the average length had dropped to nine seconds.These days, the notion of sound bites is obsolete. A more fitting term for televised snippets of political rhetoric would be "sound nibbles". Which should raise a key question: What, of substance, can be said in nine seconds?About all that a politician -- or anyone -- can hope to do in nine seconds is reinforce existing assumptions. Most politicians try to do that with a vengeance, pushing buttons that are already well established.Although the media bias in favor of brevity may seem evenhanded, appearances are deceiving. Actually, some candidates benefit from TV news reporting that gives short shrift to what they say.For one thing, modern newscasts leave a vacuum for paid commercials to fill. The TV ad blitz by Steve Forbes was the main reason that he could begin this year as a serious presidential contender.What's more, if candidates are heard for only a few moments on the evening news, the advantage goes to the ones who appeal to pre-existing prejudices. Sound nibbles can come off as snappy and cogent if they reinforce what people have heard many times before -- and are already inclined to believe.But, what if someone running for office has a perspective rarely heard in mass media? That outlook will probably require some explaining in order to make much sense. However, it's just about impossible to get beyond prevalent assumptions in a few seconds.Granted, many politicians do very well when they're heard in a jiffy. Some even need an extremely short time-limit to sound good. Take Ross Perot, for instance. He can be a real nine-second wonder. But, if you listen to his efforts to expound for much longer than that, you might start to notice that he has a lot of trouble connecting the mental dots. Brief aphorisms can be charming -- but, strung end to end, they're apt to wear thin."Stories with more issues content have longer sound bites," says media scholar Daniel Hallin. And, when television provides a few uninterrupted sentences from politicians, "you get some sense of how they think."Hallin, an author who studies TV news, has observed that a half-minute excerpt from a politician "affords the viewer a chance to perceive something of the person's character and to assess the merits of his or her argument in a way no 10-second sound bite can."Even in prolonged settings, many political pros are all too glib. The consummate French politician Charles de Gaulle once began a press conference by telling reporters: "Gentlemen, I am ready for the questions to my answers."It's true that listening to a politician at length is ordinarily no treat. But, right now, in the era of the sound nibble, we're becoming accustomed to a meager diet that doesn't allow us to digest much of anything.When politicians can get away with talking like bumper stickers, we get used to listening for slogans -- and not much else. Sadly, our attention span tends to parallel our thinking span. Overall, what passes for TV journalism encourages us to mistake buzzwords for ideas.As the 1996 campaign lurches forward this spring, many Americans might be able to identify with a comment made long ago by Groucho Marx: "I find television very educational," he said. "Every time someone switches it on, I go into another room and read a good book."***********************************************POLITICS '96: THE POWER OF BABBLEBy Norman SolomonTHE GOP'S CHOIR AND BRIMSTONE"I've been tested and tested and tested. I won't lead you off a cliff." -- Bob DoleIn other words: Count your singular blessing, namely me. I could be a lot worse.***"What are they going to do to me? Kick me out of the convention? So what! Let them try! If they slam the door and don't let me have a speech, then they're slamming the door on our people." -- Patrick BuchananIn other words: Give me that prime-time speaking slot or I'll raise hell.***"It is about character. It is about growing up in America. About knowing America. About knowing what made America great. About having made a little sacrifice for America. It is something that a lot of people didn't experience. It certainly changed my life and made me recognize that there are a lot of things happening out there that we sometimes overlook." -- Bob Dole, speaking in the hospital ward where he recovered from wounds sustained in World War IIIn other words: I'll revisit my terrible war injury and turn it into a PR commodity as much as necessary to boost my poll numbers.***"Did you all see The Graduate many years ago? At the end of The Graduate, the girl was at the altar, and it was an arranged marriage. And she didn't want to stay in that marriage, and so Dustin Hoffman gave her a way out. And she finally bolted at the last minute." -- Patrick BuchananIn other words: I'm like the hero of The Graduate, and the Republican Party is my unrequited sweetheart. Like my hero Ronald Reagan, I'm delusional enough to confuse Hollywood movies with real life.

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