Bands play, balloons float upward, crowds gather and wave signs. On the little electronic box in the living room, the sights and sounds suggest that this really is an Anerican presidential campaign. But the content of the television news belies that impression.
The content is often no content. The fluff of political coverage is regularly the whole story. Politicians, who usually complain about the quantity of the news coverage, are this season grumbling about the low quality that they cannot get their message through the media.
As a matter of fact, this campaign is not even much of a media event. The 1980 contest over who should live in the White House looks more like "Family Fued" than a serious democratic election campaign. If the voter turnout on Nov. 4 is the 50 percent or so that is now widely predicted, future historians will have to look no further than the videotapes of this campaign as it appears on national television to find one good reason why. If this were a Broadway show, it would have closed unceremoniously in New Haven.
There are three stock formats for the basic television new report on the 1980 campaign. Format One might be called "Charge-Countercharge." It begins with a film clip of Carter or Reagan saying something nasty about the other fellow, then shows the other fellow's riposte. If there has been a really juicy accusation -- most recently, for example, Carter's suggestion that Reagan as president would divide North from South and Christian from Jew -- the networks happily devote the entire day's coverage to the exchange. This was a real plus for Reagan Tuesday night, because the tone of all-suffering forbearance he adopted made splendid television.
Format Two is a familiar one from campaigns past -- a day in the candidate's life on the road. Some days the candidate's message (which his handlers have devised primarily to attract the networks' attention) gets on the air relatively directly. On other days, the correspondent's explanation of why the candidate is saying what he is saying, or a prediction of how the candidate is doing in one state or another, is the main news. But if the "Charge-Countercharge" story is lively, it takes over the time alotted to politics, and the candidate's days on the hustings simply disappear.
Format Three is the handicapper's report from one of the major racetracks, an evaluation of the horse race in one of the big states.
All three of the networks' basic formats share a common characteristic: none of them conveys much information to voters that is likely to help a serious but undecided voter make up his or her mind about how to vote.
Take an example -- in fact you could take almost any day's example -- but take this one. Tome Pettit, NBC's chief political reporter, got two minutes and eight seconds on the NBC Nightly News the other evening for a report on the presidential campaign in Pennsylvania. This is how Pettit began:
"Pennsylvania, battleground of strategies to win 27 electoral votes, and Reagan has been leading. With his blue-collar strategy and Carter's white-collar strategy, each guy is aiming at the other guy's own guys . . . Reagan goes for workers, unemployed or otherwise hurt by the economy, disaffected, Catholic, Eastern European, conservative or Kennedy-ite. It's working . . ."
The evidence? A woman is interviewed: "I'm a registered Democrat and I'm voting for Ronald Reagan." Reagan's state chairman is interviewed: "Right now we're smoking red hot here in Wilkes Barre."
Two minutes, eight seconds is a long time on network television; Pettit and his producer used it up without giving their 20 million viewers a lone morsel of useful information about the candidates, the issues, the future of the republic or even the likely outcome in Pennsylvania. This is not to pick only on Pettit and NBC -- all three networks are doing essentially the same kind of meaningless reporting, with a few exceptions.
In The New York Times yesterday, columnist William Safire complained that "the three candidates seeking to get across to millions of Americans must pass their messages through an unprecedented filter of media cynicism." (Similar accusations have been directed at newspaper reporters for years.) Safire said he thought the television coorespondents were competing with the candidates "for time and popularity," and thus insisted on interfering with the communication between candidate and voter.
In any case, none of the networks' three basic formats except "Charge-Countercharge" -- and it relatively rarely -- has made big news on the networks' evening programs. The Iran-Iraq war makes big news. The misalliance of Rep. Robert Bauman (R-Md.) and the fate of Rep. John Jenrette (D-S.C.) make big news. A regular viewer of all three network news shows gets the impression that their producers think almost anything startling can make bigger news than this election campaign. Up to now, the 1980 campaign has been a room-emptier.
Many a night recently the networks have skipped over the political news in the choice early segements of their broadcasts. And the major newspapers are doing the same thing. Bill Green, the ombudsman of this newspaper, did a computation this week showing a dramatic change in the way The Post has been displaying campaign stories.
"After trumpets and timpani announced the beginning of the campaign on Labor Day," Green wrote in a memo to the editors of The Post, "the music faded. By the end of the month [September], the campaign had moved inside the paper and the melody was on muted strings."
In the first week of the campaign, the ombudsman calculated, The Post ran 100 column inches of news about it on page one. In the last two days of September, there were just six column inches of campaign news on the front page.
Enough about the messenger. What about the message? For all its vaunted power, the news media cannot transform a dead political campaign into an irresistable public spectacle. And in some fundamental way this is a dead campaign so far.
So far, at least, neither Carter nor Reagan (nor John Anderson) has been able to communicate a theme, a sense of purpose or vision that seems to stir the citizenry, that catches the national mood of 1980. Carter did do this in 1976, just as Richard Nixon did in 1968 and 1972. Not even Walter Cronkite can transform "Family Fued" into compelling historical drama.