Elections are the centerpiece of democracy. Through voting, people can voice their opinions, express their hopes and aspirations, discipline their leaders, and ultimately control their nation's destiny. According to democratic theory, elections are the public's source of power, but in order to use its muscle effectively it has to know where candidates and parties stand on public policy issues. Besides the people themselves, two groups have major responsibilities in this regard.

Those running for office must state their positions. Otherwise, there is no real choice and elections lose their meaning. But they are not solely responsible for the success of the system. The mass media have a duty to report thoroughly and accurately what the contestants stand for.

This role is perhaps the media's major challenge. All news is important, but campaign coverage is crucial because of its capacity to empower the electorate. What voters know about campaigns comes to them almost entirely secondhand from newspapers, television, and magazines. The table below shows, for example, that voters in 1988 rarely met candidates face to face but learned about them indirectly from television and newspapers. Therefore, in assessing how well the political system works in America, it is essential to inspect the media's treatment of elections.

In reporting on campaigns, the news media bring their usual procedures and tendencies to the campaign trail. In other words, far from simply mirroring all that politicians say and do, journalists select the information to be reported. Because time and space constraints do not allow speeches and rallies to be described in their entirety, certain parts are mentioned, others ignored.

Thus, once again the basic question is not whether the media are selective--they have to be--but what they include and exclude, and how these choices affect voters' beliefs and behavior.

Campaigns as Sporting Events






One wonders if these headlines from 1988 editions of Newsweek and Time described an athletic contest or a presidential election. Using metaphors is perfectly good journalism, yet Thomas Patterson, along with countless others, believes that the media take the metaphor literally: "The dominant theme of presidential news coverage is winning and losing." 2

Instead of examining issues, reporters tend to describe campaign hoopla: the size of crowds, surges and declines in the polls, organizational triumphs and failures, endorsements won and lost, and above all the ebb and flow of momentum. Elections are likened to horse races in which attention centers on who is ahead, who is behind, who is gaining, who has dropped out.3 What gets lost in the excitement is why the race is being run at all. The numbers in the next table demonstrate the point.

Focus of Television News Coverage
General election
Total: primary
and general

Similarly, Patterson analyzed Time and Newsweekarticles and showed that the "horse race" aspect and campaign maneuvers account for close to half of the election content in these magazines. Issues, as they are normally understood, receive only a fraction of the coverage. Over the years media scholars have repeatedly confirmed these sorts of findings. 4 One observer, himself a politician and campaign strategist, summarized the situation this way:

Political coverage has become too much like a pregame sports show, elevated to the color and drama of the athletic event.5

What is attractive about a sporting event? Its action--the faster, the better; its drama; its tension; its unexpected plays; and the uncertainty of the outcome. Perhaps these are the reasons why reporters tend to treat elections as athletic contests: Doing so makes them seem more interesting and appealing.

Still, a price has to be paid. Thomas Patterson, for example, believes that the electorate is flooded with the wrong kind of information. Patterson and Richard Davis found that a newspaper as prestigious as The New York Times spent nearly a third of its coverage of the last week of the 1984 presidential election on polls.6

The media do not enlighten voters but leave them mystified about complex issues. The following antedote illustrates the preoccupation with campaign hoopla.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter, the Democratic nominee for president, granted an interview to Robert Scheer, who was writing for Playboy magazine. At the end of the session, as the two men walked out Carter's front door, the candidate delivered a spontaneous monologue during which he said, "I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do--and I have done it--and God forgives me for it." 7

Needless to say, this offhand remark created an instant sensation. Carried by every wire service and network in the country, it stirred up a week-long political storm that nearly destroyed Carter's candidacy. It was one of the more memorable incidents of the election period and is, in fact, about all that most people remember about the Playboy interview.

It is debatable whether this confession deserved all the fuss it received. Carter did, however, say something else in the course of the interview that was at least as significant and, ironically, touched on the media's priorities:

Issues? The local media are interested all right, the national news media have absolutely no interest at all...the traveling press have zero interest in any issue unless it's a matter of making a mistake....There's nobody in the back of the plane who would ask an issue question unless he thought he could trick me into some crazy statement.8

Carter probably did not realize how close to the truth he was. For students of American government, this last statement is more informative than the furor over "lust in the heart," because it underscores the press's propensity to give not the whole truth but of necessity only a portion of it. What it chooses to present are frequently the surface elements of election campaigns--the personal and sporting aspects--while it downplays candidates' and parties' stands on major public disputes.

Candidates and the Media

It is not entirely fair to blame news organizations for issue avoidance. Office seekers themselves are often all too eager to duck controversies and show off their personalities and images instead. Many of them, along with members of the press corps, do not believe that voters are knowledgeable or interested enough to care about specific policy questions. Candidates do much better, they tell each other, to speak in easily understood symbols than to deal with the complexities of the economy. They also obscure their positions on contentious issues because of their fear of alienating potential voters. Whatever the reason, Richard Joslyn, a political scientist and student of the media, found, after carefully analyzing hundreds of spot advertisements, that relatively few ads disclose candidates' stands on issues.9

In fact, many candidates and their staffs believe that the media should be used mainly to promote and advertise campaigns, not to inform or educate the electorate. If any law of politics is true, it is surely that unmanaged news is the politician's worst enemy. Campaign strategists work with three principles in mind: First, because they know that people lean heavily on television to learn about candidates, television exposure outranks substance in importance. Second, due to space and time constraints, television news shows "stories" that can be told in one or two minutes and that depict people doing something visually exciting. Finally, newscasters hate "talking heads"--speakers droning on and on about some complex issue. What they want, instead, are short, pithy statements--sound bites, professionals call them--that can be aired in 30 to 45 seconds. An example: While criticizing his opponent's allegedly soft stand on defense, Bush told audiences, "I wouldn't be surprised if [Dukakis] thought that a naval exercise is something you find in Jane Fonda's workbook."10 Short and to the point, the remark could easily be squeezed into any broadcast, however brief.

Integrating this knowledge into their campaign strategies, office seekers attempt to manipulate press coverage for their own purposes. What is surprising is how successful they are. By carefully staging the location, timing, and context of their appearances, presidential candidates can virtually dictate how they will be reported on the six o'clock news. Former President Reagan was the master of this art, but his successors quickly caught on. Perhaps Bush's most brilliant effort to maneuver the media to his advantage came early in the 1988 campaign. In what CBS admitted was a "floating political theater," the vice president sailed around Boston Harbor, the very heart of Dukakis's turf, pointing out to hordes of reporters, camera operators, and photographers all the trash and slime in the malodorous water. Then the sound bite: "My opponent's solution--delay, fight, anything but clean up. Well, I don't call that leadership, and I certainly don't even call it competence."11 As Bush's advisers confidently predicted, the three networks dutifully aired the event on their evening news broadcasts; only one, ABC, tried to explain the extremely complicated history of the mess in the harbor and that Dukakis might not be totally to blame for it.

Although Bush's advisers may have been superstars in this game, they are certainly not its only players. Pseudo-events--staged visits to nursing homes, polluted beaches, orphanages, slums, drug rehabilitation centers, factory gates, and toxic waste dumps--are the lifeblood of electoral politics. They are popular with candidates precisely because everything is supposedly under their control; the "image" is not disturbed by placard-waving protestors or tricky questions from hostile reporters. This is how the game is played, and the press knows it.

Given this knowledge, however, one wonders why the news media go along. Speaking of President Reagan's ability to stage campaign events to suit his needs, Tom Brokaw of NBC said, "He's the best I've ever seen." David Brinkley conceded, "He certainly tries to use us, because he is so good at it--and he knows it. But we know it."12 Despite this awareness, the networks generally report campaigns as the professionals want them reported.

In an article entitled "How Television Failed the American Voter," David Halberstam summed up the media's acquiescence:

If they covered professional the same way it would go something like this: During the season they would not cover any games live but would instead give 75-second reports on the previous day's game. This would continue right through to the Super Bowl. Nor would they deign to cover the Super Bowl itself. After the game, however, they would cover--live and in color--the three-hour champagne celebration in the winner's locker room.13

Campaign Debates

"Okay," one might respond to these remarks, "the news is not perfect, but what about debates? Don't most candidates, including those running for the presidency, have to debate their opponents face to face? Aren't these affairs broadcast live by radio and television and published verbatim by newspapers? Isn't there a lot of give and take with no place to hide when a mistake is made? Don't the cameras and microphones expose falsehood, temerity, weakness, and lack of candor?"

Debates are commonplace these days, and, on paper anyway, they should well serve democracy by placing candidates and their programs in the limelight. Each presidential election year, for example, there are several debates--Democratic and Republican presidential primary contenders staged more than a dozen in 1987 and 1988--so one might believe that the manipulation of the media is somewhat blunted.

Yet appearance does not always match reality, since these affairs are not as spontaneous and freewheeling as they seem. In 1988 both the Bush and Dukakis camps laid down the ground rules, specifying the number of debates, the format for questioning, and the length of time for answers and rebuttals. No direct exchanges between the men were allowed; instead, a panel of three reporters interviewed each man. The candidates so controlled the planning that they had the final say on the timing (Bush's advisers insisted on the end of September and early October, when competition from the Olympics and World Series might dilute coverage of a Dukakis "victory"); positioning of the candidates (each man would stand, but Dukakis could use a box if he wanted to look taller); and the panelists (no one wanted hostile questioners).14

To see how self-serving such arrangements can be, imagine two contenders for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world meeting privately to decide the number and length of rounds, the dimensions of the ring, and the names of the judges. Then, when the fight starts, instead of punching each other they begin sparring with the referee.

Many observers are convinced that candidates participating in debates deliver canned speeches that have little or nothing to do with the questions they are asked; that they deal in platitudes, symbols, and images; that they evade controversies; that they frequently contradict their past statements; and that interviewers seldom have a chance to point out these evasions or inconsistencies. The overriding objective is to sell oneself, not one's program. Richard Joslyn's analysis of the 1960, 1976, and 1980 presidential debates concludes that policy discussions consist of general, vague, and widely agreed upon objectives such as full employment and the elimination of government waste; as a result, debates add little to the public's understanding of specific programs.15 Other studies of debates also show that the press tends to ignore whatever programmatic issues are raised.

Whatever programs and polices do get discussed in debates, the press tends to downplay them in favor of discussions of "winners and losers." Rather than asking if the candidates' pronouncements hold water, journalists are more apt to analyze how each side prepared, how it came across in the heat of the battle, and especially how its future chances were affected. The media are encouraged in this postmortem analysis by "spin doctors," campaign aides who immediately after the debate appear in interviews and press conferences to clarify or emphasize certain points, to explain away damaging statements, and especially to insist that their candidate won.

George Bush received this sort of "first aid" after his first debate with Dukakis. He had stepped in hot water when a panelist asked him if in the event abortions were outlawed, women receiving them should be jailed. Clearly rattled, the vice-president muttered "I haven't sorted out the penalties," leaving open the possibility that he might favor prosecution. But the next day his campaign manager, sensing danger in such a position, assured reporters that Bush was not really suggesting that these women would be treated as criminals.16 The press reported this clarification, and the issue quickly disappeared.

As it turns out, comparatively few voters seem to be swayed by debates. Their most common effect, in fact, is to reinforce initial preferences. A less common result is the creation of new opinions among those who were previously undecided. Only rarely does a listener switch sides as a consequence of listening to a debate. Polls bear out this assertion. Seventy-seven percent of the people interviewed by a Gallup poll after the first Bush-Dukakis debate in 1988 claimed that the debate did not change their voting plans.17

Still, the small portion of the electorate that does switch can be decisive in a close election. This possibility explains why candidates invest so much time and energy preparing for debates.

Are the Media Serving the Public

One may, of course, wonder if this description of how the media cover the news is not overly critical. Is it not true, for instance, that the press is in business to make money, and the way to do that is to give people what they want? Certainly, the news contains violence and drama, but that is what concerns most Americans. Granted, technical issues are not given prominence, but how many citizens would comprehend them anyway? The average voter understands personality better than foreign affairs or economic doctrine, so it is sensible, is it not, to talk about people rather than ideas? In short, how much can the electorate know, and how much does it want to know?


1Thomas Patterson, The Mass Media Election (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1980) p. 119.Go back

2Ibid., p. 22 Go back

3 See, for example, Michael Robinson and Margaret Sheehan, Over the Wire and on TV (New York: Russell Sage, 1983) pp. 147-48. Go back

4 Doris Graber, Processing The News 2nd ed. (New York: Longman, 1988) p. 78; and Marjorie Randon Hershey, "The Campaign and the Media," in The Election of 1988, edited by Gerald Pomper (Chatham, New Jersey: Chatham House, 1988) pp. 96-100. Go back

5 Alfred B. DelBello, "Campaign Reporting," New York Times, March 22, 1984, p.23. Go back

6 Thomas Patterson and Richard Davis, "The Media Campaign" in The Election of 1984 ed. by Michael Nelson (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1985) p. 124. Also see S. Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman, and Linda S. Lichter, The Media Elite (Bethesda, Maryland: Adler and Adler, 1986) p. 111. Go back

7Playboy, November 1976, p. 86. Go back

8 Ibid., pp. 66. Go back

9 Richard Joslyn, "The Content of Political Spot Ads," Journalism Quarterly, 57 (Spring, 1980) p. 94. Go back

10 Quoted in Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover, Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars? (New York: Warner Books, 1989) p. 403. Go back

11 Quoted in Ibid., p. 404. Go back

12 New York Times, October 3, 1984, p. 24. Go back

13 David Halberstam, "How Television Failed the American Voter," Parade, January 11, 1981, p. 7. Go back

14 Elizabeth Drew, Election Journal (New York: William Morrow, 1989) pp. 283-84; and Germond and Witcover, Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars?, pp. 425-29. Go back

15 Richard A. Joslyn, "Candidate Appeals and the Meaning of Elections," in Do Elections Matter ed. by Benjamin Ginsberg and Alan Stone (Armonk, New York: Sharpe, Inc., 1986) p. 107. Go back

16 Germond and Witcover, Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars, pp. 434-35. Go back

17 The Gallup Report, October, 1988, p. 13. Go back

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