With so much media coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign focusing on meaningless "polls, gaffes, stereotypes and other show business values," it's a good time for students of media to watch "The Made for TV Election," which is available in 19 clips on YouTube and has been released on DVD.
Using the 1980 election as a case study, the producers of this documentary contend that television distorted reality and manipulated public opinion to "to create winners and losers in a drama of their own making to pump the ratings--and distract you from what you need to be an informed citizen and understand what's really happening in America."
Watching this documentary, it's very difficult to believe in a liberal media bias against Ronald Reagan or conservatives in the 1980s. It makes a strong case that the three major television networks enabled Reagan's victory.
"By revealing TV's role as catalyst, The Made-for-TV Election dispels the Made-for-TV myth that Ronald Reagan's landslide victory represented a "rising conservative tide in America" mandating the "Reagan Revolution" and "a sharp right turn in 1980, both from its own previous half century and, perhaps even more tellingly, from the economic, social and political norms of other developed countries..."
"This detour into business values, privatization and commercialization of the commons "has come at profound cost to Americans' common good. We work far longer hours, pay more for worse medical care, live shorter and more brutish (less educated, less leisurely, less informed, less equal, more polluting) lives than our European counterparts. That there are no easy solutions should come as no surprise..." From a review of Dean Baker's "The World Since 1980" by Leslie Thatcher, Truthout."
The documentary even tarnishes the image of Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman once viewed as "the most trusted man in America." While I can certainly agree that it was not a good thing that so much political and media power was concentrated in the hands of a few TV network news executives, the implicit if not explicit message of the documentary is this:
For the sake of TV drama and Hollywood values, TV manufactured the gas crisis of 1979 by implicitly urging people to top off their gas tanks – there was a shortage but not a crisis – and then blamed Carter for it.
TV created images of Carter’s impotence and incompetence because he so heavily emphasized the importance of energy conservation and yet his energy bill stalled in Congress. It did not take final action on it until much later in his term. CBS News correspondent Ed Bradley says in the documentary:
“Jimmy Carter had no show business talent. He came across as a dud on television. He did much better with a live audience, in a small room. One on one, he could convince you to sell your socks and shoes. Very impressive man. You put him on television and he comes across very uncomfortably.”
The TV media forced Ted Kennedy into the race by talking constantly about meaningless polls and how weak Carter was, led Ted to believe winning the race would be “a piece of cake,” as he said. Then after Kennedy entered the race, for the sake of drama, TV news resurrected the 10-year-old story of Chappaquiddick, hyping it frequently, and portrayed Kennedy as making an unpatriotic gaffe when, in response to questions, he stated the facts that the Shah of Iran had run a brutal regime and routinely violated the human rights of Iranians.
TV news labeled and ridiculed a speech Carter gave as the “malaise” speech (though Carter never used the word “malaise,”), hyped the Iranian hostage crisis far beyond its importance, made Carter look impotent for not being able to free the hostages, forced Carter into a Rose Garden strategy to show his concern for the hostages, which embittered Kennedy who wanted Carter to at the very least debate him and validate his reasons for running.
TV news turned the losing Kennedy into a gallant hero who, though he couldn’t win, could greatly damage Carter. TV news manufactured the idea that Gerald Ford would become Reagan’s running mate for the sake of drama, let Reagan get away with going to ghettoes and talking about Carter’s broken promises though no president could have resurrected the ghettoes, hyped liberal Republican John Anderson's candidacy enough to persuade him to run as a third party candidate (taking more votes away from Carter than Reagan), ignored the Republicans' theft of Carter's debate briefing papers (giving Reagan an edge) though the theft became a matter of public record during the campaign, hyped and ridiculed Carter’s off-hand remark that he consulted with his daughter Amy on foreign policy, called the election for Reagan before the polls closed and before Carter’s people in the West had voted, and declared a landslide for Reagan when in fact he won with just 51% of the vote.
While I can agree that the three major television networks had too much political power in those days to set the nation's political agenda, and Jimmy Carter certainly looks better with time, even visionary. Still, it’s a big stretch to suggest, even implicitly, that Carter would have won and Reagan would have lost without TV “manipulation.” Given double-digit inflation, high unemployment, high gas prices, and his uninspiring speaking style, Carter was going to have a tough time winning re-election under any circumstances. And as I pointed out in a related post, the Democratic Party was deeply and substantively divided over the direction it wanted to take the country. It's difficult to imagine Carter as anything more than a beleaguered president once re-elected -- it's hard to imagine him as a re-energized and successful president into the 1980s.
Even so, the "Made for TV Election" is a thought-provoking documentary on media distortions and political power.