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Video Politics Create a New Frontier

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Now that TV has come permanently to the Senate, what effect is it having on senators and their institution? Seven-time Emmy winner Ted Koppel, anchorman for ABC News’s Nightline and one of the medium’s most respected journalists, discussed the impact on American politics, politicians and voters with correspondent Marsha Dubrow.

Will televising Senate debate change the Senate?

I think it will change only the surface appearance of the Senate. I don’t think it’s going to change the way that the Senate really does business. Rarely is it conducted on the floor in full public view. It’s still going to be done in the cloakrooms, corridors, office-to-office, person-to-person. We may get a tad more posturing than before.

Is there a danger that the most telegenic Senators will dominate?

The greater danger in that respect has already happened. The more telegenic politicians are coming into office as a direct result of their [TV appeal]. I don’t think live coverage of the Senate is really going to increase the factor very much. The main difference will be that the three main TV newscasts now can rebroadcast 20-or 25-second clips taken directly from the floor debate.

Will these clips increase the networks’ Senate coverage?

Sure. Insofar as we had to rely on artists’ sketches before, that tended to diminish our general desire to use parts of a floor debate. You couldn’t see it, you couldn’t hear it.

How important is a candidate’s TV manner to his or her getting elected?

Lamentably, it’s very important. If politics is the business of acquiring the greatest number of votes, there is a logical symbiosis between TV and political candidates who do well on TV. They need us, we need them. Ultimately, that projects them more into the voting public’s consciousness than another candidate who may have more substantive things to say, but lacks the skill to say them effectively on TV.

Has TV become too influential in campaigns?

No question about it. Clearly we are now in an era in which candidates have to depend on image makers, the reduction of complex ideas to a bumper sticker or 10-second-spot mentality. That is a negative development.

On another point some people come to the unwarranted conclusion that those of us either on television or in management exercise a disproportionate amount of influence. We cover people who make news, and as I’ve conceded to you, I think we probably spend more time covering those who make news in a telegenic fashion than we do the other kind.

How has TV become a major force in presidential politics?

One of the first milestones in politicians’ recognition that TV was a medium to be reckoned with was Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech. By the time that broadcast was over, telegrams poured into Republican headquarters urging President Eisenhower to keep Nixon as a running mate (despite Nixon’s alleged financial scandal). The Kennedy-Nixon debate clearly had an impact. If you ask people today, “What do you remember about the debates?” it’s rare if they remember the substance, like Quemoy and Matsu. All they talk about is who looked best—that Nixon looked pained, gray and gaunt and Kennedy looked young, robust, vital and very much in command. It was the impression that counted and not the substance. So, very quickly, politicians learned their lessons: 1. TV can have an immediate positive impact on what seems to be a doomed campaign. 2. Substance is less important than the perception you project. That’s why I say that the overall impact of television on the political process may not be as wholesome as many of us would have hoped.

What makes Reagan such a “great communicator” on TV?

Ronald Reagan has this wonderful communicator’s ability to convey to the public: “I know you’re smarter about some things than I am, and I know there are some things we both perhaps don’t understand as well as we’d like. I know that experts drive you crazy like they sometimes drive me crazy. Let’s see if we can get right to the heart of this issue. We’re talking about freedom, the American way, evil empires, patriotism, some of the old eternal values that seem to have been shunted aside.” This evokes a sympathetic response. Ronald Reagan rarely if ever talks over the public’s head. The public clearly responds very positively to that.

Also, television has this wonderful button that enables you to turn it on or off. There’s some little mechanism in the back of Reagan’s brain that always goes, “Careful, they might turn you off.”

Why isn’t Reagan harmed by his often poor press conference performances?

Because most of us, at one point or another, misspeak. Most of us are frustrated by people who try to trap us into saying something we don’t want to. Every time you watch television, you identify with someone on the screen, whether in a drama or newscast or news conference. In news conferences most of the public inclines toward a President. He has to actively work for two, three, four years at losing that sympathy before we finally identify, if we ever do, with those nasty reporters out there trying to trip him up.

How would you rate recent Presidents on their TV abilities?

Lyndon Johnson was such a great politician, yet such a lousy communicator on TV. He was one of the best wheeler-dealers in the history of American politics, but on television he came across as a hokey, too-broad-by-half huckster.

Kennedy was able to convey a wonderful sense of command and humor. He was always in total command of a news conference.

Nixon was a man with considerable substance who was always a little bit out of sync. In the ’68 campaign I covered, he would walk into a gathering sometimes and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, sit down,” and he’d raise both hands in the air. He would sometimes chop at the podium for emphasis, and he’d always be a half beat early or late. Little things like that diminish the effectiveness of the communication. He’s no good at small talk. He always wants substantive discussion, which is hardly a bad thing to say about a man. But when you’re talking about image, the public likes someone like Kennedy or Reagan with the capacity to joke with them and do it credibly.

Jimmy Carter transmitted basically one theme with great conviction, Christian brotherhood and love. He conveyed this really well in his campaign at a time when America was disillusioned in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. But he was a Johnny-one-note. There wasn’t much else he could convey on TV. He always had that slightly pained smile that had just radiated during the campaign. But the longer he was in the Presidency, the more painful his smile became. Those little visual symbols play with such unfair power on TV. Remember a race near Camp David when he collapsed after a few miles? We saw the President wobbly kneed and weak.

Gerald Ford tripped and fell while deplaning, and between that image and what [Chevy Chase of] Saturday Night Live did with the image, it was terribly damaging. Ford will forever be seen—unfairly—as an amiable, bumbling dolt because of that image.

Are there some Presidents who might never have been elected if TV had been around?

Coolidge, who was a great noncommunicator, would have been an awful TV President. That New England reticence doesn’t play terribly well. I suspect Woodrow Wilson would have been ineffective on TV. He came across a little austere, too professorial and too bright by half.

Which pre-TV Presidents would have lit up the screen?

Teddy Roosevelt coined the phrase that the Presidency was a “bully pulpit” and, Lord, he would have used that instrument of television. He would have needed some good TV adviser to say, “Don’t bellow quite so much, Mr. President, you’re going to overpower the microphone.”

What impact will Reagan’s TV skill have on presidential candidates, since he’ll be such a hard act to follow?

An impossible act, not just hard. A communicator like Reagan comes along once in a generation.