Dissatisfaction and Discontent

The 1988 campaign was a desolate, seemingly interminable affair.  The Bush and Dukakis campaigns set the tone; both managed to avoid serious discussion of many of the problems facing America and engaged in what journalists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover called "The Trivial Pursuit of the Presidency."  The media and the public also bore some responsibility for the shallow debate.  The media co-produced the whole endeavor.  The public, although some complained, proved unable to elevate or shift the debate. 

Following the 1988 campaign, academics and journalists assembled myriad reports and articles on what went wrong and how to improve matters in 1992.  Many analyses of the 1988 campaign focused on the media, and television drew particular attention.  Some examples are summarized below.   

Discontent with politics continued to build following the 1988 presidential campaign.  The savings and loan mess, quibbling between Congress and the president, the inability to address the budget deficit, the contentious Clarence Thomas hearings (he was confirmed Oct. 1991), the House banking scandal (early 1992), the Rodney King beating and rioting following the acquittal verdict (Apr. 29, 1992) and myriad other problems provided evidence of a political system that was not working and was disconnected from the concerns of ordinary citizens.  In his book Why Americans Hate Politics (1991, Simon & Schuster), E.J. Dionne described how phony issues had come to dominate political discussion.

In the summer of 1990 Florida retiree Jack Gargan took $45,000 of his own money and placed a newspaper ad calling on people to "throw the rascals out."  By the end of the 1990 cycle, over 100,000 people had sent in contributions supporting THRO's ads.  Also in 1990, term limit initiatives began to appear on the ballot.  In February 1989, 45 percent of respondents to the Gallup Poll indicated that they were satisfied with the way things were going in the United States; at no point in 1992 did the figure rise above 26 percent. 

Throughout the 1992 cycle, discontent was a major undercurrent, from the Clinton campaign's "change vs. more of the same" argument to the success of Ross Perot's independent candidacy.  In fact, irrespective of the many reforms proposed by academics and journalists, a good argument can be made that the uncertainty caused by Perot's candidacy markedly improved the quality of, and interest in, the campaign by forcing the two major party candidates to move beyond facile attacks on each other.

"Five Ways to Put Some Sanity Back In Elections"

By David S. Broder, Washington Post, Jan. 14, 1990, page B1.

In an influential January 1990 column, Washington Post political reporter David Broder called for the press "to step up to its responsibility in policing the political arena."  He offered five strategies:
The preemption strategy.  "The first step--and the most important--is to challenge the operating assumption of the candidates and consultants that the campaign agenda is theirs to determine...The campaign really belongs to the voters."

Inoculation.  "Early in the election cycle, it would be helpful to remind people of the way their emotions were manipulated by negative ads in the last campaign.  Seeing them [negative ads] again, before the new versions go on the air, might help inoculate viewers against the effects of this political poison."

Interrogation.  "The candidates will be available to answer questions about every ad, every piece of direct mail, that goes out of their headquarters, at the time it goes on the air or into the mail."

Investigation.  "We should treat every ad as if it were a speech by the candidate himself...Demand the supporting evidence from the candidate airing the ad, get rebuttal information from his opponent and then investigate the situation...ourselves."

Denunciation.  "...columnists, commentators and editorial writers have the license--and the obligation--to apply verbal heat to those who sabotage the election process by their paid-media demagoguery."

"For '92, the Networks Have to Do Better"
Op-ed piece by Timothy J. Russert, New York Times, March 4, 1990, page E23.

Russert, the Washington bureau chief of NBC News, suggested five ways in which the networks could do better in 1992:
Stump speeches.  "Nothing defines a candidate better than the words he uses to present himself to the voters.  Early in the campaign, the networks should broadcast the 'stump speech' in its entirety in a series of featured reports on their news programs.  Its content should be thoroughly analyzed for accuracy and acuity."

Photo ops.  "In the future, the 'photo op' should be used only as a brief introductory news peg for a substantive report.  Thus a campaign item might begin: 'The Bush campaign staged this photo op at the Boston Harbor today as the candidate declared himself an environmentalist.  Here is a report on the Bush environmental record.'"

Campaign planes.  "Traveling from airport to airport allows little opportunity for research and reporting...I say keep the seasoned political reporters home reporting on the totality of the campaign and not distracted by the flying sideshow."
Commercials.  "The media must vigorously hold the candidate accountable for truth in advertising."

Debates.  "Let's have the four major television news organizations -- ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC -- commit to broadcasting four prime-time debates each moderated by their anchors."

See How They Run: Electing the President in an Age of Mediaocracy
By Paul Taylor.  1990.  New York: Alfred A Knopf, Inc.

In See How They Run, Paul Taylor suggested a "five-minute fix."
"Starting with the 1992 campaign, each major candidate for President should be given five minutes of free time a night--on alternating nights--simultaneously on every television and radio station in the country for the final five weeks of the campaign.

"...In return for this grant of free time, each candidate would agree to one simple format restriction: He (or his running mate) would have to appear on the air for the entire five minutes.  No Willie Horton.  No opponent.  No surrogate.  No journalists.  Just the candidate, talking into the camera, making his best case to an audience of roughly 60 million viewers for five minutes a night."
Taylor developed this proposal at considerable length in Chapter 11 of his book.  While conceding that it was "not a cure-all," he believed it would "elevate the political discourse across the board."

"The Markle Commission on the Media and the Electorate: Key Findings and Recommendations"
Released by The John and Mary R. Markle Foundation on May 6, 1990.

The Markle Foundation, founded in 1927, is a nonprofit foundation based in New York.  Since 1969 the Foundation has focused on mass communications in a democratic society and on uses of communications and information technology for social benefits.  The Markle Commission on the Media and the Electorate was set up in June 1988 and consisted of eight individuals drawn from the fields of politics, the media, political science and public policy analysis: James David Barber, Bruce Buchanan, Ph.D., John C. Culver, Joan Konner, Charles McC. Mathias, Robert M. O'Neil, Eugene Patterson, and Eddie N. Williams.

The Commission examined "the role of citizens, candidates and the media during the 1988 Presidential election."  It found "citizen abdication of their role in the electoral process."  The Commission's report, citing public indifference, low voter turnout and voter ignorance, stated that, "American voters today do not seem to understand their rightful place in the operation of American democracy."  The report also criticized the media for insufficient coverage of issues and for the overall quality of its coverage, and it condemned the candidates for taking "the low road." 

The full report was published as "Electing A President: The Report of the Markle Commission on the Media and the Electorate" by Bruce Buchanan (University of Texas Press, 1991).

Among the Commission's recommendations:

For citizens.
  • "Establish an 'American Citizens Foundation' -- a permanent, non-partisan organization  devoted to improving democratic practice in American electoral politics."  The Foundation, to be funded by a tax check-off, would create advertising and educational initiatives. 

For the media.
  • "Congress should direct the FCC to call upon the networks regularly to offer public service airtime during Presidential campaigns to educate the electorate on the democratic process."
  • "Broadcasters and publishers [should] assume a more substantive role in seeking the truth of candidate claims in advertising -- both claims made in candidates' own statements and in those made by others in their names."
  • "Create internal initiatives within the news media to re-examine and refine the traditional methods of Presidential campaign coverage to counter the cynical misuse of media susceptibilities in order to manipulate the public's perceptions." 

For the candidates.
  • "Make four Presidential debates permanent and condition public campaign funding on candidate participation."
  • "Make available matching funds for campaign expenditures only during the calendar year in which the election occurs."
  • "Candidates [should] pledge to conduct clean campaigns."

  • "Institute simultaneous poll hours throughout the 50 states by establishing a 20-hour election day."
  • "Congress should act upon the broadcasters' good-faith commitment and elicit publishers' cooperation not to make public projections or announcements of winners in any elections in any state so long as any polls remain open in the 50 states."
  • "Simplify voter registration."

"The Voters' Channel: A Feasibility Study."
Report prepared by Alvin H. Perlmutter, Inc. for The John and Mary R. Markle Foundation.  June 1990, 132 pages.

In February 1990, the Markle Foundation commissioned Alvin H. Perlmutter, Inc. "to conduct a major feasibility study addressing the potential role of public broadcasting in enhancing the quality of discourse about candidates and issues in the 1992 Presidential election."  The Perlmutter study group interviewed 120 people including print and broadcast journalists, educators, politicians and political consultants; a questionnaire was sent to most public television licensees. 

The resulting report, "The Voters' Channel: A Feasibility Study," contained 22 recommendations for improved campaign coverage.  For example, it envisaged three phases of election coverage: specials from January to August, weekly programs in September and October and daily programs for the week leading up to Election Day.  The report suggested three main themes for election coverage: the voice of the people (the voters), decoding the message (analysis of political communications) and the state of the nation (problems and options). 

The report, which proposed that the Public Broadcasting Service set up a production company called The Voters' Channel to develop and produce the new television programming, was presented to PBS directors.  The Markle Foundation pledged $5 million toward the cost of the broadcasts.  However, disagreements and delays by PBS led Markle to withdraw its offer in June 1991.  In October 1991 Markle reached agreement to provide CNN a $3.5 million grant for expanded campaign coverage.  The Markle-supported programming was identified by the "Democracy In America" title; supporting materials were also produced for schools.

"Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street America."
Prepared for the Kettering Foundation by Richard C. Harwood, The Harwood Group.  June 1991, 68 pages.

"Citizens and Politics" was based on a series of focus group discussions conducted in 1990 and 1991 in ten cities.  The report concluded:
"The challenge before us today is to reconnect citizens and politics -- to find a place for citizens in the political process.  This requires changing the conditions that shape our political environment.  Merely making adjustments in campaign finance, ethics codes, term limits, and other laws will not address the underlying problems Main Street Americans find in politics."
The Citizens and Politics report offered a six-point "discussion agenda:"
  • Find ways to refocus the political debate on policy issues and how those issues affect people's everyday lives.
  • Find ways for citizens to form a public voice on policy issues -- as an alternative to the clamor of special interests -- and for public officials to hear that public voice.
  • Find public places where citizens -- and citizens and public officials -- can consider and discuss policy issues.
  • Find ways to encourage the media to focus more on the public dimension of policy issues.
  • Find ways for citizens and public officials to interact more constructively in the political process.
  • Find ways to tap Americans' sense of civic duty in order to improve our political health.

"Campaign Lessons for 1992."
Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
November 1991, 157 pages.

The Executive Summary of "Campaign Lessons for 1992" highlighted five shortcomings of 1988 campaign coverage:
"The press has generally adopted too much of an insider's approach to its campaign coverage."

"The emphasis on political strategy over substance has allowed political advertising to supplant reporting as the most important vehicle for transmitting policy information to voters."

"The production demands of television, which place a premium on symbolic visual elements and powerful emotional moments, have come to dictate the daily activities of presidential candidates and to drive out the extended explanation of issue positions."

"Reporters have responded to this development with an ill-advised new form of reportage, a kind of 'theatre criticism' about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of event staging."

"Television, with its emphasis on the individual candidate and his or her skills in projecting a message, has contributed to the decline of political parties as organized screening mechanisms and abetted the rise of a personality-based politics which tends to diminish discussion of issues."

    —"Campaign Lessons for '92" pages 8-11.

The report offered news organizations five recommendations:
Find Ways to Turn Manufactured News into Real News
Plan Campaign Coverage in Advance of the Campaign
Use Polls to Do More Than Indicate Who's Ahead
Avoid 'Theatre Criticism' and 'Spin Doctors'
Base Campaign Journalism in Research Rather Than Events Coverage Alone
    —"Campaign Lessons for '92" pages 12-14.

"Nine Sundays: A Proposal for Better Presidential Campaign Coverage."
By John Ellis.  Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.  1991, 45 pages.

John Ellis, then a fellow at the JSB Center, proposed that during the fall campaign a series of live issue-oriented "Conversations with the Candidates" be broadcast by the networks on Sunday evenings.  In addition to five such conversations, three debates and a final address would fill out the nine Sundays between Labor Day and Election Day.  The candidates would appear for 30 or 45 minutes each, and each broadcast would be devoted to one of three broad areas -- National Security, National Economy and National Culture.

Three points should be kept in mind when reviewing critiques of the 1988 campaign and considering the 1992 campaign: 

  • First, the media are not a monolithic entity, but comprise a broad range of outlets including local and big city newspapers, magazines, radio, local, cable and network television, and the wire services.  This became increasingly evident in 1992.
  • Second, the media, the campaigns and the public all bear some responsibility for the tenor of a campaign.
  • Third, political party rules, the federal code, and state laws significantly influence how presidential campaigns are conducted, meaning that some reforms can be difficult to implement.