Democracy rests upon the notion of popular sovereignty. For the people to exercise their power properly, however, they require adequate information about government, law, and the procedures by which they operate. As Justice Brennan wrote in Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia: “[F]or a democracy to survive… [requires] solicitude not only for communication itself, but also for the indispensable conditions for meaningful communication.” (Brennan, J. [concurring])
Those meaningful conditions include not only public access to important information, but also the ability actively to process that information in order to participate in critical reflection and debate.
But what if the conditions of communication not only skew public access to information, but also undermine the critical skills required for independent judgment? What if most people are in the habit of watching the screen only if they are entertained? What if important words tethered to undramatic talking heads trigger the impulse to surf away? And what if, knowing this, those who manage what gets on the screen produce a screen reality conducive to undisturbed watching?
Consider, in this regard, the 2000 presidentail election. Al Gore received a majority of the popular vote, but the outcome of the election ultimately depended on who won the electoral votes of Florida. When the Florida vote was questioned, a constitutional crisis ensued in which the core branches of government were pitted against one another – the state legislature of Florida, the Florida Supreme Court, the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. Supreme Court.
This political crisis raised an essential question: When the legitimacy of political and legal institutions is at stake, will the fourth estate, that mighty watchdog called the press, effectively check and balance partisan forces driven by the quest for power and self-interest? More specifically, was commercial television able to present to the public in a meaningful way the information it needed to express its sovereign power?
The events leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision in as a Bush v. Gore may be viewed as a landmark event in public relations. Two opposed political camps battled for the hearts and minds of the public by means of the most ‘telegenic’ images and story lines they could deliver.
Like advertising executives, political spin meisters begin with a basic assumption: TV viewers have internalized the structures of discourse that constitute and sustain TV reality. The challenge of changing those structures is overwhelming. The best strategy, therefore, is to work within the norms laid down.
What, then, we may ask, are the norms of the telegenic? And how did the Democrats and Republicans put those norms to use in the 36 days of uncertainty following the vote count debacle in Florida that culminated in the Supreme Court decision, Bush v. Gore?
First, telegenic narrative must be personalized.
People respond best to individual struggles, personal interests and conflicts, private lives and emotional meanings. The personal is far easier to capture and dramatize in visual terms than abstract categories and systemic issues. Rather than talk about institutional patterns or historic trends, or economic structures developing over time, the telegenic gives us real life stories, real faces, real emotions. It thus encourages an egocentric rather than a socially concerned or critical viewpoint.
Second, telegenic narrative gives us the familiar crisis cycle: something happens, action rises; it reaches a controlled climax of emotional tension, then it falls back, neatly and comfortingly resolved in the final denouement.
This is the familiar pattern of melodrama. It feeds on sharply drawn characters, clear distinctions between good and evil, and the requisite plot resolution – with the hero, after battling all sorts of temptations and evil forces, finally bringing back the grail of justice, restoring normality, before riding off into the sunset.
Telegenic stories rely on the personal, and on familiar emotional conflict, not only because they are simple to evoke in sharp relief and neatly resolve, but also because they are self-contained wholes, little monads that contain and make sense of fragmented reality.
One might say that telegenic resolution makes a home out of the fragmentary. It uses familiar symbols of authority to normalize reality – like the voices of high officials and dependable media anchors, those men and women who anchor our flight across the image flow.
Consider the TV news coverage of election 2000 in this light.
One may argue that it was the aesthetic dictates of telegenic storytelling that ultimately framed the viewing public’s understanding of, and response to, the Supreme Court’s resolution of the crisis in Bush v. Gore.
On this premise, it may be argued that the Republican camp more effectively exploited the telegenic aesthetic than their Democratic rivals.
To begin with, the Republican “theory of the case” was a natural for the media. They stressed, and at times actively provoked, highly dramatic images of chaos, all the while insisting on its containment and the need to return to the status quo.
By contrast, the Gore strategy was caught in the disagreeably un-telegenic position of relying upon the rule of law, an abstraction that lacks drama and requires experts to explain it – if explain it they could within the curtailed time constraints of the available programming slots.
As for the media, at least insofar as CNN news serves as an exemplar, the over-arching story frame was familiar and predictable enough. As the news anchors’ repeated use of metaphors made plain, this was a ‘war’ story. For example, each side brought out different “artillery” or found themselves “in the trenches.” At times “the battle” would “wind down,” while at other times things threatened to go “thermo-nuclear.” (The latter reference is how a senior journalist on CNN described the possibility of a recount of Florida votes proceeding in the face of the Florida state legislators’ determination to elect their own slate of electors for Bush.)
It was also a ‘sporting event,’ with new anchors keeping viewers abreast of how each ‘team’ was faring. This particular metaphor also nicely facilitated the media’s preferred role as ‘referee’ as well as the important telegenic norm of the ‘appearance of fairness.’ The referee role and the fairness principle help the media sustain legitimacy.
In practical operation, the appearance of fairness simulates a familiar dialectic. There is always a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis.
On TV, each “side” must be heard within the same segment of coverage – or the appearance of fairness may be lost. The promise of imminent synthesis (or normative resolution) serves as the ‘hook’ that takes us across the arc of commercial interruption.
Of course, equal coverage within such limited time constraints allows for only the briefest of sound bites. Explanation is at a distinct disadvantage here.
Let’s take a quick look at how the advocates for Bush and Gore made use of the time they had on the screen.
In Al Gore’s corner, we have Bill Daley (Gore’s campaign manager).
In George Bush’s corner we have James Baker (former Secretary of State and a Washington heavy weight in former Republican administrations.)
The Gore side’s mantra: “Be patient.” We have to wait for the courts and lawyers to do their work. Process is good. The system will works things out.
The Bush side’s mantra: “Stop the chaos now.” Chaos is bad, it devours order. We can’t rely on lawyers to set things straight. Use your common sense: lawyering a popular election can’t be good.
Gore’s core message: “It’s not really a crisis. It’s democracy at work. The system is strong. It can handle this kind of challenge. The rule of law can absorb the shock, so we should just let things play out.”
Bush’s core message: “We’ve got a real constitutional crisis on our hands, folks, and if we don’t cut it short all hell will break loose. Who knows what dark forces might be unleashed?”
Note that the Gore mantra has serious drawbacks. For one thing, it cuts against the natural populist belief of the TV viewer. “I watch, therefore I know; I know, therefore I judge. Don’t tell me to wait for some anonymous expert, worst of all a lawyer, to tell me what to think.”
But the stubborn fact remained: Gore’s message depended upon explanation. By insisting that no crisis existed, the Gore camp bore the burden of showing why this was so. The problem, of course, is that one cannot show that no crisis exists because the claim itself rests upon an abstraction. What is the rule of law? What are checks and balances? These things are systemic and complex. They resist simple melodramatic visualization.
Not so the Bush message.
Their emphasis is on chaos, and chaos is very easy to show. It is also fairly easy to arrange. All you need is a bunch of party loyalists willing to demonstrate it. Tell them to ratchet up the dissonance level. Make it seethe with anger. Show the potential for violence. Activate the rhetoric of revolt. Have House Republican Whip Tom DeLay announce that Republicans are prepared to declare ‘a holy war‘ before conceding to a Gore presidency.
Even Frank Sesno, CNN’s Washington Bureau Chief, was getting nervous: “Republicans are angry,” he tells the viewers following the pro-Gore Florida Supreme Court ruling. Then, more ominously, he warns viewers that if the Republicans’ anger grows it might “go over the line,” taking us into “dark, dangerous, and mirky waters.”
Pretty dramatic. Scary. (What lurks beneath?)
“C’mon. Who are you kidding?” says the viewer in the face of Democratic pleas to just wait and let the legal process handle things. “You can’t tell me this isn’t chaos.”
With no compelling image of their own to counter the Republicans’ highly dramatic images of disturbing, even violent chaos, Democrats urging patience sounded like fiddling while Rome burned.
There was, of course, some effort on CNN to explain some of the more technical legal events under way.
Consider, for example, the spot on why the December 12th (“safe harbor”) deadline was not a real deadline.
To carry this off required a fair number of words. It was not easy to follow. Its complexity cried out for repetition to help the audience assimilate some novel terms and learn a fair amount of new information.
Yet, this particular segment, unaided by visuals of any kind, never played again. It was manifestly untelegenic – no personal story, no action, no faces, no compelling visuals, no emotions, no good guy / bad guy delineation, no promise of normative resolution.
In short, it came and went. The effort to learn new and complicated information was most likely too much to expect of most viewers.
[Many commentators would later speak of the Bush v. Gore coverage as a giant civics lesson. But that claim is surely overblown. In fact, subsequent studies have shown little new was learned about the Supreme Court or about the legal or political system as a result of the post-election coverage. Moreover, the outrage of an unusualy large number of legal academics notwithstanding, the public’s faith in the Supreme Court’s legitimacy has remained essentially unshaken. Perhaps this is because it is enough to see the problem, whatever it was, finally worked out. That is what referees do. They make the call. You don’t have to like it, or even understand it. It is enough to get over the crisis, whatever that crisis might have been about.]
The upshot? Perhaps real meaning is of less importance on TV than the appearance of meaning.
Like the graphic that was shown on CNN after the Supreme Court’s decision was handed down throwing the election to George W. Bush.
CNN began the spot with an image (quite literally) of a ‘light at the end of a tunnel.’
What that light might be, or what made it dark before, was never explained.
It is enough perhaps that everyone knows darkness and light, and that it’s better to leave the one for the other.
After 36 days of uncertainty, the American people apparently were ready for the light. It was time for normalization to be restored. Time for the endgame. And CNN knew just how it should be played.
Well before Gore made his final speech on national television following the Supreme Court’s ruling which stopped the recount in Florida, media pundits had already scripted the speech for him.
He would graciously concede, of course. He would publicly acknowledge George Bush as his president, modeling for the rest of the nation the restoration of normality. This was the denouement that the post-election melodrama required.
Those who continued the tension of discontent – like Harlem’s longtime Congressman, Charlie Rangel, or activist Jesse Jackson – were ostracized. What they did and said lay outside the telegenic frame, the familiar architecture of permissible discourse. To the TV commentators, their failure to get with the program made them seem bizarre, absurd.
As former Reagan Drug Czar Bill Bennett succinctly put it on CNN, “Jesse Jackson doesn’t speak for America.”
In telegenic TV-land, the appearance of fairness goes on. Each side has its say, and in the end populist judgment prevails. At least, that’s the way it appears in accordance with the norm programmed into the visual art of telegenic persuasion.
Library of Congress (“Election 2000” Web Archives)
Parliamentary Library, Australia (good overview)
Talkleft (primary sources available)
CNN transcripts archive (James Baker statement)
CNN transcript archive (Bill Daley on Larry King)
For an eye-opening documentary that goes behind the scenes to examine the way votes are counted in America, see HBO’s “Hacking Democracy.”