The Press, Politics, and Psychology, Part I

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Kathleen Hall Jamieson
Title: “The Press, Politics and Psychology”, Part I
VTR: 6-15-95

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And until last evening, I had never even met today’s guest, the seemingly ubiquitous and deservedly quite widely quoted media maven who these days so often and so wisely comments on the press, print and electronic alike, from her position as Dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. But though Kathleen Hall Jamieson personally and professionally prefers the long form of political communication, meaning as many of the facts – the real facts – as possible, and as much thoughtful analysis as the reader/viewer/listener will tolerate, over the last few years she has herself been quoted so succinctly, as well as so often, that I’ve come to think of her as an honored and familiar friend. Which is why, I suppose, that Dr. Jamieson’s emphasis on the power, and therefore, the undeniable responsibilities, of the press delight me so. It puts her distinguished imprimatur upon a position we all ought to hold dear, but that too many media types, at this very table, have so often demeaned and denigrated. Or, should I ask Dean Jamieson if I’m reading too much into her sound bytes as well as into her scholarship?

What do you think? Do you really feel strongly about the power of the media, as I hope you do?

JAMIESON: Yes. I feel very strongly about the power of the media. And the reason that I do is because every time we’ve done a study of anyone, adult, child, someone who says that he or she isn’t a high consumer of the media, we found some effect. The most interesting occurred in 1988 when we had highly educated viewers in a focus group who were insisting that the ads made no difference, they had no impact on them. And then we asked them to talk about the issues, and they talked about Michael Dukakis’ revolving-door prison policy, thereby taking the phrase right out of one of the most influential ads.

HEFFNER: So you would put your emphasis first and foremost on advertising in the media?

JAMIESON: The people who are not high-involvement viewers, people who don’t watch a lot of news, get most of their information about politics from such forms as prime time television and advertising. Different people get their influence in different places. People who are high consumers of new, interestingly, in our studies, are more likely to structure the political world as if it’s a game, because news so often structures the political world that way. And so all of us are affected differently because we have different patterns of media consumption.

HEFFNER: When you say “game”, you mean who’s winning and who’s losing.

JAMIESON: Uh huh. Yeah. We did a study of the health care reform debate, which I found a very real concern. Because we took what we thought ws the best of journalism – and I am a great admirer particularly of what I consider to be good newspaper coverage – and we took issue coverage which I thought did a good job laying out the distinctions of the health care reform debate. Now, we took what I call “strategy coverage” that focuses on who is gaming best, who had the best tactic to be re-elected based on the plan that he or she was offering. We took coverage about the groups, what the AMA had said, what the insurance industry had said, and what was happening in Congress, the deliberative process. And we gave different people in different groups that we studied across the country exposure in very great detail, more print than they probably would have ordinarily have read, to those kinds of coverage. And we found that even the people in the group that had a high amount of issue coverage became more cynical about the health care reform debate as a result of reading the print journalism that we thought was good journalism.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s interesting that I gather, as I read the record, that your initial concern was with political…

JAMIESON: Yes.

HEFFNER: …advertising, with the impact of media upon our political structure, upon the way we conduct our politics, and that you were appalled at the misreading of the facts that was conveyed by political advertising, you asked for something you and others called “adwatch”; let’s watch and analyze the ads. You found, if I understand correctly, that that worked a bit in the previous presidential campaign, but that when it came to the health issue, there is no longer an adwatch.

JAMIESON: Yeah. I was very naïve about how the media functioned. I thought that once you got a change and the adwatches, which began in 1990 in print press, and then 1992 occurred all over in both print and broadcast journalism, were there to stay. Once you get a change, I assume the change would hold. But in the health care reform debate, reporters who hadn’t covered the campaign were now assigned to the health care reform debate, and when they were, the editors responsible for it were not the editors who had adopted the adwatches. And so the underlying structure of journals had been set up to cover ads in political campaigns, but it hadn’t been set up to cover them in a public-policy debate.

HEFFNER: Well, what do you mean, precisely, by “adwatch”? How do you define that?

JAMIESON: In 1988, we were studying the ways in which audiences responded to the political campaign. And we found that audiences were telling us about what they said they’d seen in news, but in fact, they were describing advertising. And we asked why it was that they had such a high recall of material that was advertising but not about the content that the reporter had offered them about the ads. Specifically, Richard Threlkilt had one a piece of journalism that I thought was admirable. It was the only major critique of advertising in the 1988 campaign in broadcast. And he had analyzed the bush tank ad and Dukakis ad on Social Security. Both of them had serious elements of deception in them. And he corrected the ads. He told viewers what was wrong with the ads. But as he told them, the ads aired full-screen on your television set. And our viewers remembered the ads; they didn’t remember his corrections. From that experience we generated a series of experiments, and found that when something airs full-screen in the middle of news, people take it to be news. And advertising’s more evocative than someone’s orally stated words. And so the ads were actually being put in place at the expense of the news media, not the politicians in news, which wasn’t what the reporters intended. We asked, “How could you analyze ads, which reporters ought to be doing, without magnifying their power?” And came up with a structure that lets the reporter’s voice be heard over the ad: that was the adwatch…And now when you watch network news and you see an adwatch, when the ad moves back on the screen and they tilt it at an angle and they put print up top to correct, they’re using a structure that we helped develop in order to increase the likelihood that you’d hear and see the corrections. So the adwatches were an attempt by the industry to correct a problem that many people identified as a result of the 1988 campaign: to much deception, too little correction, and when there was correction, the correction wasn’t getting through to viewers.

HEFFNER: But, Dean Jamieson, let me ask you this question: I understand that you developed a technique by which deception could be pointed out effectively rather than…

JAMIESON: But more effectively.

HEFFNER: Okay. More defectively, rather than having it emphasized by its being repeated. What kind of situation is this in which we have to put so much emphasis upon correction? Wouldn’t you feel that we are competent and sophisticated and intelligent enough to be able to prohibit false advertising?

JAMIESON: The problem with saying that we want to regulate advertising is: who is going to regulate? Who are you going to trust with political speech in making the judgment that something should or should not be heard? And I think you can make a distinction between political speech and other forms of speech. Political speech, I think, has absolute protection under the Constitution. But the reason that I am particularly concerned is because of my understanding of history. Before the networks and the stations were required to air aids from bona fide political candidates, the ads of one party were being routinely shut out by the party that basically had ideological control of most of the station owners. Republican station owners were not airing Democratic ads. One of the reasons for saying that ads need to be aired by bona fide candidates for both sides when they’ve been aired on one side was to ensure that someone who owns a broadcast station couldn’t close out the other party or couldn’t basically become a vehicle for advancing one candidate’s political interests against the others. But once you’ve said that you have to air all sides, then the question is: what happens when both sides deceive? We actually tolerate deception in political advertising, and we don’t tolerate it in product advertising. As you know, because you’ve worked with the industry for a very long time, the networks, can say about a product ad, “We’re not going to air that. That’s not a truthful product ad”. The stations can say the same thing. In fact, they have to say the same thing. They have obligations to try to make sure that what is on the air is accurate. And they have some responsibilities for it. But in political speech, they don’t have the same obligation. Indeed, they can’t censor the ad. The reason is a long-lived concern that political speech can be played with, in ways that are very dangerous, by people who have ideological interests. Who are you going to trust to indicate what is and is not deceptive? So we shift the burden to the American consumer, and we also shift the burden to the press to help the consumer find out what is true and what is false.

HEFFNER: Yes, you say who is to decide what is deceptive or not.

JAMIESON: In the heat of a campaign.

HEFFNER: Do you think we’re not capable of deciding what precisely is political speech? I think you’re quite correct. Political speech is what the founders wanted to protect, not commercial speech.

JAMIESON: Not commercial speech.

HEFFNER: That’s a newer idea, which we could just as easily do away with as we have embraced it.

JAMIESON: Uh huh.

HEFFNER: Okay.

JAMIESON: And we also have put some really severe strictures on commercial speech when we say to stations and networks, you know, “You have some accountability for what goes on the air”.

HEFFNER: But now you feel that there’s no way for us to say – time, I used to think that only God could buy time, but we do it now, we do it for our commercials, we do it for our political commercials – say that political speech is so important that it has to be limited, or it has to be enhanced – forget the word “limited” – enhanced by having candidates speak, speak to each other, speak to the audience, and not run the risk that we’re hamstrung by or won uneasiness about doing anything about political speech?

JAMIESON: There have been a number of proposals that suggest that we ought to have candidates carry their own messages in political advertising, which is different from saying we’re going to have somebody police what is in the ad and say, “That ad can’t air; that ad can air”, or , “that piece of it has to be taken out”. The merit of that argument, part of what is clear about that argument is that candidates are more highly accountable when they speak in their own voice. Part of what I learned historically when I was writing a book called “Dirty Politics” was that the more divorced the message is from the candidate, the more likely it is to deceive. And so things that are in print that is anonymous print are more likely to lie than radio, even if the candidate isn’t in radio, but radio is more likely to be deceptive than television because radio is still less personalized. People don’t exactly remember who the source of the message is. If you have a candidate have to put a disclaimer on the bottom of an ad – which we do; the FCC requires it – you increase the likelihood that the candidate will take some accountability and hence won’t deceive. Your most deceptive television – television is actually the least deceptive of the forms – doesn’t occur in what is said; it occurs it the visual elements that come into the ad, which, when juxtaposed with each other, invite false inferences. And so, for example, in 1988, an ad by Michael Dukakis shows a Social Security card being torn down to a fragment. The ad’s verbal statements are comparatively accurate. The visual statement is saying “George Bush will destroy Social Security”. The most distortive ad on the other side, in my judgment, aired by George Bush, is the furlough ad, which shows supposed prisoners going through a revolving door, and it talks bout the problem with the prisoners escaping, and it puts up “268 escaped” after the announcer had said, “First-degree murderers not eligible for parole out there wandering in the streets in Massachusetts, a false inference that literally wasn’t in the ad, it was in the audience’s piecing together two parts of the ad. So deception tends to occur through visual juxtaposition in television advertising. One of the recommended solutions is: have the candidates have to voice their own ads, on camera, without visuals.

HEFFNER: Would you embrace that suggestion?

JAMIESON: I would like to see candidates voluntarily adopt that suggestion.

HEFFNER: Okay, okay, okay, Dean Jamieson, so would I, but…

JAMIESON: And I’d like to create an incentive for them to do it. My incentive goes like this: The other problem with political ads is their brevity; in 30 seconds you can’t make much of a case for anything. And as a result, we get highly telegraphic forms of political assertion; we don’t get argument. What I would prefer to see is the networks and the stations – and I believe the airwaves are publicly owned, and as a result they have a strong obligation to contribute to democracy – make available five-minute segments of time for the candidate, thereby taking money out of the equation for the candidate who has merit but isn’t rich and doesn’t want to pander to the lobbyists and the special interests who can otherwise contribute to the campaign. And I’d like to see that five minutes by given only if the candidate speaks directly to camera about a topic that has been present based upon the national polls indication of what the electorate would like to learn about, and I’d like to make the time available to all bona fide candidates, so that in a given week you’d hear the major candidates in time they didn’t have to pay for, but only if they talk directly to the American people about that topic. I think that would have a number of major advantages. First, it takes the visual distortion out of the process. Secondly, it extends the political discourse. You get away from telegraphy, and away from assertion. Third, it increases accountability. Candidates have a much more difficult time lying to the American people when they are personally making the statements. And finally, it minimized the power of money in the process. And I know you’re very concerned about that. I’ve read a work that you wrote about it.

HEFFNER: Well, I mean, we’re into June 1995. I don’t know when the program we’re doing today will be on the air, but it’ll be approximately in this general time period. It was back in 1968 and 1969 that Newton Minnow, who had been chairman of the FCC, chaired a commission underwritten by the Twentieth Century Fund, that I had the honor of serving as executive director. And yeah, we came up with the conclusion that we ought to have voters’ time, and that’s what you’re arguing for.

JAMIESON: That’s exactly what this is. Yes.

HEFFNER: That the persons who should be concerned are the voters. Now that’s 1968, 1969. One of our commissioners, Tommy Corcoran, said to me one day, “You’re going to be very disappointed when our report comes out. You’re going to see nothing happen. But in time it will”. And there certainly have been signs in all these years that things are happening. Government money, etcetera. What do you think is going to happen? You know what you’d like to see happen. What do you think will happen in the present climate?

JAMIESON: The public hasn’t made a clear national statement about the need for campaign reform. It isn’t yet on the national agenda. If the public insisted that it happen, I think it would happen. There have been serious reforms since 1968. The campaign finance reforms came into effect, but it took a national trauma to produce them. We wouldn’t have the campaign funding that we have available right now were it not for Watergate. Unfortunately, it takes a national crisis to catalyze public sentiment, and to catalyze those responsible individuals who, in my judgment right now, as good citizens ought to take on this responsibility, but aren’t likely to until they see that congress is likely to move in that direction anyway. And Congress is moving in exactly the opposite direction right now. Congress is moving toward deregulation of virtually everything. And also unless they see very strong public sentiment. And we have a public that is more alienated about its institutions than it has been any time in the last 30 years. So is the likely to happen on its own without a crisis? Unfortunately not. Does that mean that we shouldn’t all stop agitating for it? No. Every voice that comes out for it is one more voice to help create that social pressure.

HEFFNER: Let’s talk about this question of regulation. This is the age of deregulation. It is a mantra: deregulate, deregulate, deregulate. Strange, it seems to me, who was brought up in the New Deal period where regulation was not a sign of degeneracy, but rather a sign of trying to protect what this country stood for. What’s your own feeling, as a good First-Amendment person, as a communications expert, what’s your own feeling about the relationship, the appropriate relationship between regulation and the media? Big question.

JAMIESON: Good discourse occurs in an environment in which you hear competing points of view, you hear multiple sides. The Fairness Doctrine was designed to ensure that that would happen. The argument against the Fairness Doctrine, which we no longer have, is that we have so many available channels that the competing points of view have a way to get access into the system. Every time academics, however, have content-analyzed what happens in those channels, what they’ve found is you really just have much more of the same. You don’t have a whole lot of diversity coming out of all this alternative access. I am a champion of the Fairness Doctrine. I think we ought to have the ongoing mandate to broadcasters to think, in every occasion in which they are offering the public speech – and we ought to be encouraging them to offer political speech from multiple points of view – have the alternative points of view, in fact, be heard.

I am also concerned that we have created a structure in which the political process minimizes the likelihood that voices will be heard. The problem with regulation is the law of unintended consequences. One of the reasons for campaign finance reform was to try to take money out of the system or try to minimize the power of money in the system, to let more people come into the system using public finance if they could show that they had enough legitimate interest to have a stake. And so candidates who have raised a certain threshold of money have access to federal financing for the primaries. But once a candidate becomes the party nominee, that candidate gets a very large amount of our money in order to run in the general election. Most of this is structured to create a political advantage for two political parties. The way in which a candidate like Larry Agran, for example, gets heard, is to come into political debates in the primary season. If he’s closed out of political debates, he’s less likely to get access time to the broadcast airwaves. To the extent that we’ve structured campaign finance to benefit the parties – and the parties sponsor the primary debates, the primaries are designed to elect one candidate to head one party – we’ve made it harder for third-party voices to emerge, and for independent candidates to emerge. Unless the candidate is independently wealthy; that’s a Ross Perot. I’m interested in formats that encourage the alternative voices to come through. A modified kind of Fairness Doctrine that simply doesn’t conceive two-sidedness as what you’re expected to do, but multi-sidedness, is, I think, something that’s very beneficial.

HEFFNER: But didn’t we determine – and I don’t, you talk about the people, the public, but I would talk about leadership, the Congress – didn’t we start down that slippery slope with the first great debates, when we misinterpreted, purposefully, and sort of eliminated, without doing so legally, the equal time provisions which were legally suspended for 1960 for the presidential and vice presidential campaign? But thereafter we simply have ignored the requirements of the law. There have been no suspensions since that time. We just decided we wanted the Democratic candidate and the Republican candidate, and then, most recently, Ross Perot, to participate in debates. But the wisdom of Section 315, the Equal Time Rule, that’s just been set aside. We’ve never repealed it. Do you think it ought to be enforced?

JAMIESON: The problem with the equal time provision is in determining who the bona fide candidates would be who would be able to get access. And part of the problem is, by the time you get to the general election period, the public sentiment has already catalyzed behind those people who have been very visible through the primaries. I think the real problem is trying to find a format in the primaries that will let the alternative voices build the constituency that would let them establish that they should have a place in the presidential debates and the general election.

HEFFNER: Do you think that can be done?

JAMIESON: Unfortunately, given the nature of money in the system right now, it’s very difficult to do. We have two problems. The first is, the parties control the political debates pretty effectively, and money in the system minimizes the likelihood, unless you’re able to raise a large amount of money, that you’ll be able to get the ballot access that is required in order to pass one of the threshold tests to qualify to get into the presidential debates and the general election. We’ve effectively right now turned the presidential debates over to the Presidential Debates Commission. They ran it in the last election. The presidential Debates Commission is functionally an extension of the two political parties. The reason that Ross Perot got into the debates was because neither Clinton nor Bush was willing to alienate Perot supporters. If the Debates Commission has integrity, as I think it does, it will try in the general election to put forward for the American people any candidate who has ballot access in a significant number of states and has demonstrated a substantial amount of public appeal that will let that candidate be elected. Those were the criteria that the Debates Commission set up for 1992 and followed in the case of Ross Perot. The problem then for a candidate to pass that threshold test is, in the absence of access to debates in the primaries, in the absence of access to news coverage in the primary, unless you’re very wealthy and can afford advertising, you’re not likely to get enough public sentiment to gain enough of the resources to et on the ballot in order to pass the threshold test. Three-fifteen isn’t really a barrier in the general elections, because they’re covered as bona fide news events. But the problem is, the threshold to get into the bona fide news event requires that the primaries be structured differently to let some of the alternative voices be heard. The Libertarians, for example, have fielded credible candidates with alterative points of view that we ought to take seriously. And I know your background in American history is extensive. How would you have gotten the main ideas that came into the political system through third parties had it not been for a system that was far more open? Much percolated into the American system because alternative party candidates who never won the presidency were nonetheless able to be heard ultimately. You know, for example, we’ve now created an environment in which it is virtually impossible, if you have a credible point of view that’s outside the mainstream, to get enough access so that even if you can’t be elected – and you probably aren’t going to be from a third-party perspective – but that idea can still come into the system to help reform the political process. And that’s constrictive in a away that I think is counterproductive.

HEFFNER: Scary. I mean, you say “counterproductive”, but it’s scary because it says we have nothing outside of the essential two-party system now, no entry point.

JAMIESON: No entry point for ideas. The second problem is for the people. But I’m as interested in the process by which ideas come into the political discussion process. And if you make the assumption that this is basically going to be a two-party system, you’re creating a very constricted range of available solutions to the problems facing the country.

HEFFNER: In the one minute we have left, as a student of politics, do you think that a continuation of that notion will mean that we’re going to come to the point where the two parties will be so split rather than be so similar to each other, be so very different, one from the other?

JAMIESON: I think, had we not institutionalized through money and through party control of debates in the general election system that we have, the likelihood now that a third party would emerge would be much, much higher. In the past, under these circumstances, a very unhappy electorate, you would have seen a third party emerge by this point.

HEFFNER: But the dichotomization, Republicans who are thoroughly conservative, Democrats who are thoroughly liberal, can we function in those terms? Would we choose to? In 20 seconds.

JAMIESON: I don’t think the old, Democratic, liberal, conservative view is one that is held by anyone out in the electorate right now, which is why I think you’d have a third party emerging.

HEFFNER: Okay. How about staying where you are, and we’ll do another program after this one, so our viewers can hear more about what you feel and think about communications. Thanks for joining me today, Dean Jamieson.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you too join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about our program today, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $4.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

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