THE PRESS EFFECT
Politicians, Journalists and the Stories That Shape the Political World
By Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman
220 pages. Oxford University Press. $26.
”The press both covers events and, in choosing what to report and how to report it, shapes their outcome,” write Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman in their book ”The Press Effect.” The authors, who are the director and associate director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, respectively, try to prove their point by closely analyzing the way the press handled the 2000 election campaign, the Florida vote controversy that followed and response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
Too often, Ms. Jamieson and Mr. Waldman argue, the press organizes facts into preconceived ”frames” or ”narratives,” which then harden into the way the public sees those events. For example, during the 2000 election campaign, the press decided that the fundamental characteristic of Vice President Al Gore was that he was wooden with a weakness for making up stories to make himself look better. The frame around George W. Bush was whether he was smart enough or experienced enough to be president. Any missteps by Mr. Gore were seen as signs of dishonesty, while Mr. Bush’s verbal miscues were presented as raising questions about his acuity or preparedness.
The authors show that Mr. Gore’s statement that he had played an important role in the legislation that brought about the Internet (an ordinary, more or less factual piece of political bragging) was quickly transformed into the absurd claim that he had ”invented” the Internet, which was then repeated endlessly by journalists who never bothered to check the original quote. But because experience can be remedied while deceitfulness cannot, the authors argue, ”the dominant press frame in the 2000 election hurt Gore more than Bush.”
As for the second debate, they write, ”Over the days following the debate those who didn’t watch became less and less likely to describe Gore as honest,” while those who saw the debate for themselves were unchanged in their views of Mr. Gore, suggesting that people were influenced not by the debate but by the coverage of it. Perhaps the book’s strongest example of the press influencing events is its handling of the disputed 2000 vote in Florida in which the networks first called the state of Florida for Mr. Gore, then called it and the election itself for Mr. Bush, only to retract it less than two hours later. Dan Rather, for example, told viewers at around 2 a.m., ”Sip it, savor it, cup it, photostat it, underline it in red, press it in a book, put it in an album, hang it on the wall. George Bush is the next president of the United States.”
Millions of people went to bed thinking that Mr. Bush had won, only to wake up to a contested election. This created, Ms. Jamieson and Mr. Waldman write, the presumption that Mr. Bush had effectively won the election and that Mr. Gore was challenging the legitimacy of that victory. This played into the hands of Republicans who tried to portray Mr. Gore as a sore loser who was dividing the country. ”In all, in the 54 times during the five post-election weeks that the show hosts questioned the positions of the two camps, a Gore spokesperson was almost twice as likely to be challenged as was a person defending the Bush position,” the authors write. The presumption that Mr. Bush was the president-elect and not simply one of two parties in a lawsuit, they say, created the atmosphere that emboldened the Supreme Court to take the election in hand and rule in Mr. Bush’s favor.
The book also does a good job of analyzing the way in which the Bush team succeeded in framing the controversy involving overseas absentee ballots, turning it into one about counting military ballots, often failing to explain that not all absentee ballots were sent in by military personnel. The press uncritically repeated the term ”military ballots” and generally failed to point out that the Republicans were using a double standard, including irregular ballots from overseas while excluding ballots by ordinary Florida voters where any technical violation had occurred even if the voter’s intent was clear. But the relationship between press and public opinion may be more complex than the book’s thesis suggests. As the authors note, many news organizations that expressed a somewhat critical reading of the Bush administration’s handling of the Sept. 11 tragedy softened their coverage after being bombarded with angry faxes and calls from viewers and readers.
And while the frames used to define Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore during the campaign may have been crude caricatures of both men, they were not entirely press inventions. They were also short-hand ways of expressing genuine uneasiness that many voters felt with Mr. Bush’s lack of foreign policy experience and Mr. Gore’s authenticity.
In the end the biggest problem with ”The Press Effect” is that it doesn’t really attempt a structural analysis of the media in an era of television politics and corporate media. It assumes that the decisions made by individual journalists or broadcasts shape the way we see. But this focus on the professionalism of the individual journalist is itself just a ”frame” and one that tends to preclude a more systemic understanding of why the press works as it does. They note, almost in passing, that the fact we now worry so much about candidates being likable is a byproduct of television, which has personalized politics. The problem for Mr. Gore may not have been that he received a bad deal from the press (even though he might have) but that, like it or not, we all form many of our ideas about candidates from watching their body language.
Similarly, it is hard not to notice that many of the most egregious examples of bad journalism the authors cite were produced on television news. In an effort to seem objective and evenhanded, they avoid distinguishing between broadcast and print media, referring instead to a single ”press effect.”
Even if one quarrels with their thesis, there is much to be learned from the book’s point-by-point analysis and their appeal for higher standards in journalism.
– January 8, 2003
Published at The New York Times