Unfortunately for a democracy, good politics makes bad television and bad politics makes good television. Discussions of "The Issues" -- which citizens' and consumer groups are forever clamoring for -- are often boring on TV. They barely get watched even by the chickens in the henhouse who can't change channels.
Barbara Waters could get much better ratings and put on a far more entertaining show by barging into Jerry Brown's house and asking him if Linda Ronstadt wears PJs or a nightie.
We expect everything on television to be entertaining and so are disappointment when the business of politics turns out to be dull or to demand such an arduous exercise as, say thought. Television has conditioned us to the quick and the easy. It now fills not the role it might fill in society but the role to which it has made everyone accustomed. The goal of many TV reporters during political campaigns is not to impart what is happening, since that might not be very amusing, but to make it seem as though something constantly is happening, and to make things happen if necessary.
Around the time of the Iowa primary, voices cried out that there had to be debates between candidates on television. Formal debate is an 18th century device not necessarily the best one for eliciting unvarnished information.Television is a conversational medium and the rickety old rules and strictures by which debates are conducted look foolish on the air; talk shows have led us to expect people to mix it up a little, not stand idly by while an opponent makes points, lounging like a patient spelling bee contestant for the proper time to respond.
And when the Republican debate finally was shown on TV from Iowa, admittedly with star candidate Ronald Reagan absent, hardly anyone watched. Even for PBS, the ratings were teensy, the kind "The French Chef" would sniff at. Of course print journalists watched the debates and wrote about them and then broadcast journalists read those reports in the newspapers and took some of their leads from them. This is the kind of merry-go-rounding we can expect as the political campaigns continue.
Groans one veteran TV reporter: "It's like watching 'Naughty Marietta' for the sixth time.
What people really mean when they say they want political debates on television is that they want confrontation. They remember the exhilaration that went with the confrontation and the mere contrast between Kennedy and Nixon in 1990. Choice was made so wonderfully blunt and graphic; who would want that blubbery, stubbly older man when we could get that spiffy, handsome younger one? When we go back and actually examine the content of those debates, we find endless dalliance over forgotten topics like Quemoy and Matsu. Surely Americans did not rush to the polls in passion over subjects like that.
In practical terms, it's probably too late to wring hands and cry havoc, or to make all those other socially responsible protests about television's impact. Television is now such an integral part of the political process that it some day may in fact be the political process. If an when the nation gets wired with two-way cable along the lines of the Qube system in Columbus, Ohio, we may someday be able to sit in our homes and vote for president of the United States with the push of a buttom that is linked to a central computer.
There are only two hopes worth seriously clinging to. One is that a substantial number of voters will continue to supplement the impressions, images and melodramatic news reports they get from television with the occasional reading of newspapers, magazines and books. There is the distinct possibility that this will continue to occur for, oh, maybe several more years.
The other hope is that no matter what the media experts and manipulators and J-school scholars might say about the pervasiveness of television, the death of substantive issues as components of a campaign, or the tyranny of television in requiring all political candidates to be good performers, there is still the chance that in spite of it all, The People may be able to think for themselves and still manage to come to an intelligent decision. The People, yup.