Television journalists can thank their lucky stars they have a Kennedy to kick around. The presence of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D.Mass.) in the presidential election ahead is providential for TV; it assures much higher levels of viewer interest in the campaign than would otherwise be the case.
To some extent, it means there will be an additional contest to watch: Kennedy versus the boys on the bus, a square-off held to determine who will be able to make the more advantageous use of whom. Lot of TV newsmen would trade a lifetime supply of hair spray to be as mesmerizing on television as Kennedy is.
At the moment, the consensus is that television is winning, that Kennedy suffered a setback in his exhaustively discussed fray with Roger Mudd on the CBS Reports broadcast, "Teddy." He did not "come off well," it is commonly said; he appeared indecisive and inarticulate. Perhaps he was the victim of willful Mudd-slinging.
At a recent House communications subcommittee hearing, a Texas Republican joked to network executives that he'd be very happy if "you would just do to Carter what CBS did to Kennedy." Nobody wondered what he was talking about.
Howard Stringer, executive producer of the program, says Kennedy's people are now claiming to have been "sandbagged" by Mudd and CBS News. Andrew Lack, the producer, says, however, "I think whatever was seriously damaging to Kennedy's image was brought on by himself. It comes from what he did."
Kennedy forces cannot complain too publicly because that would be tacit confession that their man looked foolish. Tom Southwick, Kennedy's deputy press secretary, will not concede that the broadcast is a liability to be lived down. "I don't think you can say that; there are lots of things that appear on television and in newspapers during a campaign," he says.
Southwick does feel one aspect of the show was misleading. Kennedy looked most awkward and ill-at-ease over the simple Mudd question of why he wanted to be president. "That interview was filmed before he had really made a move towards it [the nomination]," Southwick says. "He had a lot going through his mind about whether or not to run. But the show ran after the commiiiee had been formed, and this time lag may have made a difference in the impression people got."
The pundits have been circling over this carcass for weeks now; at CBS News, they can't remember a broadcast that generated more newsprint, more columns and editorials. Most pundits speak from within a closed world, however; the people have yet to be heard from.It is likely that the serious damage to the Kennedy image has been greatly overestimated.
"People need to know more about the construction of a television program before they can say this man looked indecisive, or that reporter is brave," says Barry Jagoda, former media advisor to the Carter administration. Carter people were so delighted with the "Teddy" show that they acquired transcripts and were passing them out two days before the telecast.
But Jagoda says of the program, "I was sort of taken by it," and thinks the positive material on the program may have as much effect on viewers as the negative material so often cited in print.
"The reason these things are so important is that people often date their decision-making about a candidate from a particular media event," Jagoda says. "TV has a way of fixing little sterotypical instants in our minds.
"To the 'astute political observer' the Teddy and Roger Show was devastating for Teddy, but we all know that what televsion does most effectively is reinforce already-held views of people," Jagoda says. "Those for whom Kennedy is a hero probably saw nothing in that program to change their opinion. Those who have doubts about Teddy, that he is a glamor boy with no substance, certainly had them reinforced."
Could this mean the bad and good cancel each other out and the program has no effect, other than on traditional pundit wisdom? Not necessarily. We must remember the striking, evocative, memory-stirring Kennedy scenes that opened the program. Teddy and his brothers. Teddy and his children. Teddy on his sailboat.
Teddy walking briskly down a road in the last outpost of Camelot, Hyannisport. Producer Lack says he tried to downplay the usual souvenir-shop Kennedyana as much as possible -- "the touch football games," and all that. But the few images that did appear were worth far more than 10,000 words.
For the American electorate, which gets most of its ideas about political figures from what it sees on TV, the Kennedy family saga has become an incredible, ongoing, heart-wrenching novel-for-television. It's "Roots," but it's happening right now.It's "The Rich Waltons," resonant with echoes of America and family values, and it's real.
The story has everything -- passion, tragedy, glamor, and glory. And ordeals. Lots of ordeals. It could wll be that many viewers will look on "Teddy" as another of Teddy's Ordeals, an ordeal by Mudd from which the senator will recover and over which he will dramatically triumph. The TV news boys can parade their journalistic credentials until their Guccis wear out, but the fact remains that television inevitably turns issues into personalities and reality into melodrama.
As an American catch phrase, after all, "The Media" does not necessarily provoke the warmest and fondest feelings in tens of millions of people. And in the role of victim and tragic figure, Kennedy could by highly attractive.
On NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, he was indeed firm and emphatic, and articulate, but most effective when badgered about Chappaquiddick and how it might effect his campaign and presidency.
"The fact of the matter is, I have been impacted over the course of my life by a series of crises," said Kennedy, his eyes glistening and his face full of heroic determination. "I have lost my brothers under the most trying and tragic circumstances. I have also faced the illness and sickness of a child that has been impacted by cancer. I have had other tragedies in my life, and I have responded to those challenges by, one, acting responsibly and, two by the continuing committment that I have to public service."
It was a moving and electrifying moment and the most important one on the program. It also helped offset another instance of Kennedy hemming and hawing broadcast the night before on the CBS Evening News, which took a curiously rough poke at the senator's performance on the campaign trail.
Anchorman Bob Schieffer noted Kennedy's "unsuccessful" bid for support in Florida, said "his campaign is still having some problems," and then reporter Phil Jones, with the Kennedy campaign in Iowa, detailed some of them. He heard "the familiar rhetoric that helped establish the Kennedy mystique," Jones said "however, a few detailed Kennedy alternatives to Carter policies have surfaced."
Kennedy was getting "increasingly strident" in his attacks on Carter, Jones reported, "but when it comes to questions of his own policies, he often appears to be a man without a plan."
CBS News then showed a clip of Kennedy fumbling and stumbling in response to a question about what he would do for minorities if elected. Kennedy was seen saying "I will speak to it, and, uh, uh, make an outline, uh, I mean, that, uh, I mentioned, uh but I mean that, I think, is the best example."
This certainly was an unusual approach to take in reporting on the early compaigning of a candidate. Will CBS News broadcast the out-takes of other candidates as well? Was the report an attempt to reassure viewers that Mudd and CBS had played fair in the manner they edited and presented the Kennedy interview material on CBS Reports?
It's not that there's a Get Teddy conspiracy afoot -- only another case of the press, sensing its role in having created a legend, trying to break it down again. Jagoda sees it as kind of an arbitrarily motivated assault, part of the media's lust for "constant change and novelty."
The fascination with Kennedy's every move and every gaffe suggests that what TV is covering is not a broad political story in which he is a key figure but instead another chapter in the continuing American soap opera, "The Kennedys": This one is Teddy's Torment.
It could be that every time Kennedy exhibits a vulnerability, he will be ritually chastised for failing to live up to deja vu, our foggy memories of John and Bobby as having been living saints. The greatest danger of the Kennedy candidacy may lie in its potential to reawaken in a discouraged nation unrealistic yearnings for a super-hero to lead us into Utopia.
No matter how many things pundits and commentators say to offset this image, the spectacular impression Kennedy is capable of making on television will be there as visual refutation. Kennedy has been caustically referred to as "the People magazine candidtate" for president, because he and his family are so fabulously photogenic and reportable.
America is now a picture culture and not a work culture, and we have television to thank or blame for that. It was TV's picture of the American flag being burned in Iran -- more than anything spoken or printed -- that precipitated the recent surge of American outrage against the Khomeini regime and Iranians in general.
TV cameras, for reasons beyond the control even of those who operate them, will be kinder to Kennedy than to any other presidential hopeful during the weeks and months ahead. Maybe that's why TV reporters seem to be after his hide; they may feel a mission to counterbalance the pictures on the screen.
Television is not an issue medium. Television is a personality medium. It can't help itself. In one crucial respect, then, Sen. Kennedy is clearly the front-runner: he is the Television Candidate for President.