Columns

Politics in the post-TV age

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 18 2000
Columns

Politics in the post-TV age

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 18 2000

Politics in the post-TV age

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Columns

So, spent any time lately wondering what politicians really think of the reporters who follow them around? In at least one case, we now know. When George W. Bush spotted New York Times reporter Adam Clymer at a campaign event last week, he leaned over to running mate Dick Cheney and— not realizing an open mike stood nearby—whispered that

Clymer is “a major-league a-----e” (while actually, of course,

filling in those blanks). Told later that he had been overheard, Bush said he regretted that—but, pointedly, didn’t apologize to Clymer, who he feels has been biased against him.

The interesting thing about that mini-fuss was that even some journalists thought Bush did himself no harm. Roger Simon of US. News & World Report suggested that calling a reporter a foul name “could never lose votes in America, and might gain some.” Others said the incident humanized Bush to voters, who otherwise only hear him in carefully prepared sound bites. Some members of the Washington press corps who know Clymer thought Bush described him pretty well.

The real wonder isn’t that Bush harbours such sentiments, or that he got caught expressing them. Rather, it’s that so many politicians submit so tamely to the pummelling that they regularly take from journalists. Start with Bush, who’s had to endure the media rummaging around his private life to try to discover if he ever did cocaine when he was younger. That kind of poking about by reporters is routine in American politics, which is one reason why a lot of qualified, interested people don’t enter public life. In Canada, we tend not to do that sort of thing—partly because most of our political leaders live such staid lives. But there are plenty of other irritants among journalistic practices—some justifiable, some not. You could practically feel the heat across the nation at the sight last week of reporters on death watch outside Pierre Trudeau’s house after the family asked to be left alone. But how many of those irritated people relied on reports from those same reporters to keep abreast of the situation?

Another issue that even those of us who work in print have long acknowledged is the huge influence of television—all the more so in these days of all-news networks. It’s hard to even conceive how Franklin D. Roosevelt governed the United States for more than a decade while most voters weren’t even aware that because of an earlier bout of polio, he couldn’t walk. (Given the different media ethics of the time, if Roosevelt had made a remark similar to Bush’s on an open mike, it’s likely no one would have reported it.) TV has made government less formal, more democratic and the candidates more familiar—and the early signs are that the Internet will accelerate that process. The American spinmeister Dick Morris, in a new book called Vote.com, argues that die Web is

supplanting traditional media as the driving force in political life. Soon, he predicts, money will be less important in politics because the free Web will replace paid TV ads, and the ability to talk back to political figures via e-mail will encourage direct dialogue. This, he says, will sideline traditional media pundits, because they (all right, we) will become unwanted intruders into that conversation. Perhaps—although this presupposes a level of interest among ordinary voters that doesn’t exist these days. Just because you can reach your congressman or MP more easily, does that automatically mean you want to? After all, one effect of spending cutbacks in recent years is that people don’t feel government matters that much, since it has less influence on their lives.

In the meantime, we’re witnessing the disappearance of a fault line that has been increasingly apparent in politics in recent years. It’s the divide between politicians who have grown up with TV as a part of their lives and are comfortable with it, and those older ones who didn’t, and thus appear stiff and uneasy on camera. Because most people only ever see their political leaders up close via television, it’s the way they form impressions of them. That’s bad news for politicians in their mid-50s or older, who, as a general rule, don’t have a good comfort level with the camera. Trudeau, who shone on TV, was the exception. People like Brian Mulroney, John Turner and Jean Chrétien, who all have had problems with the medium, are much more the rule. The PM is a formidable House of Commons performer—and in small gatherings, he projects quiet dignity. But TV seems to accentuate his age and ongoing struggle with the English language. Stockwell Day, on the other hand, is made for TV: telegenic, relaxed, and a compelling speaker. You saw the contrast a few weeks ago, when the PM launched a sharp attack on Day at a Liberal convention, and Day responded in a scrum immediately after. People in the room with Chrétien thought he was terrific—but to those who caught it on the tube, he looked ill-at-ease and overwrought.

With that in mind, Morris’s hoped-for world might bode well for politicians who aren’t camera-friendly. If the Web lessens the influence of TV, that will reduce the emphasis on appearances, because the Web does a better job of transmitting words than live images. Content becomes king. On the other hand, that’s a difficult concept to get used to for politicians accustomed to dodging tough questions on camera by simply smiling a lot and talking fast. What happens if thousands of voters start regularly sending their leaders pointed questions that are as unfriendly as some of the things journalists now ask of them? Perhaps politicians like Bush will discover they liked the old ways more than they realized.