Ben H. Bagdikian
The bond between communities and their news has been strong from the beginning of the American experience. In the eighteenth century, pioneers pushed inland from coastal cities, followed closely by itinerant printers who assumed that every settlement should have its own newspaper. Early radio stations were not limited to national centers like New York and Washington but broadcast in places like Medford Hillsides, Mass., and Stevensville, Mont. To this day newspapers take the names of their cities, and radio and television stations are required to operate in a specified community, with local studios to produce programs about local issues. It is not a quaint eccentricity. It is central to the special nature of governance in the United States.
Most developed countries set all important public policy in their capital. But not the United States. Voters in communities across the United States regularly elect 500,000 local officials to run 65,000 local governmental boards and committees. Local officials govern schools, courts, zoning, water, fire, police, and other vital functions. Even the national government has a locally based democracy in the House of Representatives, with 435 local districts, some consisting of only a few urban neighborhoods. It is a system appropriate for a country with extraordinary diversities of population, local culture, economy, and geography. But it is a formidable responsibility for voters.
Unlike other developed democracies, the United States does not have a parliamentary political system in which voters cast their ballots for parties. Parties in most countries have distinct commitments to differing national programs, differences easily discerned by voters. Citizens voting in those countries know that when they cast their ballots for a party’s candidate they are voting for particular policies. In the United States, voters cast ballots for individual candidates who are not bound to any party program except rhetorically, and not always then. Some Republicans are more liberal than some Democrats, some libertarians are more radical than some socialists, and many local candidates run without any party identification. No American citizen can vote intelligently without knowledge of the ideas, political background, and commitments of each individual candidate.
No national paper or broadcast station can report adequately the issues and candidates in every one of the 65,000 local voting districts. Only locally based journalism can do it, and if it does not, voters become captives of the only alternative information, paid political propaganda, or no information at all.
There was never a precise pattern of each voting district with its own journalistic media. But there was once something like it. In 1900, for example, there were 1,737 urban places and 2,226 daily papers. This came close to an average of a paper for every city; most cities had competing dailies and weeklies. Papers were based in a single city, and most papers pursued the intense interests of their particular readers within that city. It meant greater detail of information and political analysis. Readers had strong loyalties to such papers and they provided a greater proportion of those papers’ revenues than readers of the 1980s pay for their more bland dailies. In the past it meant more, smaller papers, and smaller papers meant it cost less to start new dailies. If existing papers ignored the interests of a significant part of the community there was a greater likelihood chat an entrepreneur or politically oriented publisher would start a new paper to capitalize on the untouched audience. As a result, turn-of-the-century papers more readily reflected changes in the needs and desires of the body politic.
Pursuit of advertising changed the versatility of American print media. It reduced the media’s responsiveness to reader desires. Publishers became more dependent on advertising revenues than on reader payments. Ads swelled the size of the paper each day, requiring larger plants, more paper and ink, and bigger staffs, with the result that it was no longer easy for newcomers to enter the newspaper business. As the country’s population grew and new communities arose, the old pattern disappeared. Instead of new papers to meet changing political forces, existing papers pushed beyond their municipal boundaries to the new communities and, increasingly, reached not for all the new citizens but for the more affluent consumers. Soon each metropolitan paper was pre-empting circulation in thousands of square miles with hundreds of communities and voting districts. The newly captured populations were inundated with ever-larger quantities of regional advertising, but the papers, and later the radio and television stations, could not possibly tell each community what it needed to understand its own problems and needs.
From 1900 to 1950 the American population doubled and the number of urban places almost tripled, to 4,700. But the number of daily newspapers dropped from 2,226 to 1,900. The citizens of the new towns and cities, unlike those of an earlier time, learned almost no systematic information about their own communities, and those of older cities learned less than before as their newspapers and broadcast stations turned their attention outward to wider areas.
The vast territory of each metropolitan newspaper and television station intensified a basic change in the country’s urban geography. After World War II, affluence and automobiles led many families to the suburbs. “Urban renewal” programs converted downtowns from coherent residential and local commercial centers to regional corporate headquarters. The change removed a major source of newspaper sales. A new interstate highway system encouraged the sprawl of residences, factories, and offices, further diluting the politics and news audiences of the inner cities. Ironically, the programs that destroyed central cities as living complexes were encouraged by metropolitan newspapers, oriented as they were to the desires of real estate and other developers, but all the changes were destructive to the traditional daily sales of newspapers. Demographic changes also hastened the demise of locally owned retail enterprises in favor of ever-larger national and multinational corporations, which, in turn, pushed newspapers and broadcasting farther beyond their community orientation.
After World War II, mass advertising steadily destroyed competitive dailies; monopoly became the norm. In the new l suburbs there were new dailies, but far from the number that had grown in American cities of the past. The new monopoly corporations in the central cities pushed outward to the suburbs, pre-empting the best advertising that might otherwise have supported a new local daily. Existing papers did not cover the new communities journalistically. In 1920 there were 2,722 urban places and 2,400 daily papers in the country. By 1980 there were 8,765 urban places and only 1,745 dailies. Today more than 7,000 American cities have no daily paper of their own.
The new pattern after World War II had a profound impact on the way news was reported. One change was a new category of “news” that was not really news. It was that gray area “fluff,” part entertainment of interest to readers but mostly light material designed to create a buying mood as bait for more advertising. The addition of fluff made newspapers larger and drastically reduced the proportion of each paper devoted traditionally to its heart-the breaking news and commentary. The priorities of newspaper companies were quietly rearranged away from the reporting of important political events toward advertising-centered editorial matter. The new emphasis changed staffs, administrative operations, and leadership.
The new form of papers affected the attitude of readers. In 1900 newspaper subscribers paid twice the percentage of their personal incomes for their daily papers as do subscribers of the 1980s. In 1900 each paper meant more to its readers because the news dealt more closely with the reader’s community and because each paper was more likely to meet its readers’ political and social interests. The responsiveness of earlier papers to their particular readers represented sensitivity to social evolution; as social forces changed, papers were more likely to change with them. Papers in 1900 were more accountable to their readers because their financial fate rested on reader loyalty. The news, which, among other things, meant intense concern with politics and social change, was a more involving experience for individual citizens.
Responsiveness of each paper to its own social group was not an unmitigated advantage for society. It was easier for different segments of the community to see the world differently. Papers’ special orientations often increased divisions within the community. But it is not clear that this was worse than the apathy resulting from a bland news system that avoids partisanship in a society whose political system is designed to be partisan. Nor is it clear whether the homogenized news for large areas serves citizens who are asked to make basic political decisions on a specific, local level.
The growth of monopoly and mass advertising diminished the amount of information about each community contained in newspapers. This changed newspapers long before broadcasting became a major news system, though radio and television soon adopted the same doctrine to meet their even greater dependence on advertising.
Newspapers neutralized information for fear that strong news and views pleasing to one part of the audience might offend another part and thus reduce the circulation on which advertising rates depend. Where once it was profitable to pursue particular issues and ideas of interest to the newspaper’s particular group of readers, such pursuit now became a threat to larger profits. Newspapers, and later broadcasters, wanted all potential affluent consumers regardless of their personal political interests. Consequently, if a group as a whole were poor, as was true of some minorities, papers wished to avoid news of them and their issues. Problems affecting lower-income communities generally did not become news until they exploded and therefore affected affluent consumers.
Blandness in the basic politics of the media became standard. Socially sensitive material of interest to one segment of the population might offend those with different opinions who, regardless of their differences, might possess the relevant quality of interest to newspapers-money to spend on advertisers’ products. News became neutralized both in selection of items and in the nature of writing. American journalism began to strain out ideas and ideology from public affairs, except for the safest and most stereotyped assumptions about patriotism and business enterprise. It adopted what two generations of news-people have incorrectly called “objectivity.”
The standard version of “objectivity” holds that it was created to end nineteenth-century sensationalism. To a large extent it did, and that alone made it appealing to serious journalists. “Objectivity” demanded more discipline of reporters and editors because it expected every item to be attributed to some authority. No traffic accident could be reported without quoting a police sergeant. No wartime incident was recounted without confirmation from government officials. ‘Objectivity” increased the quantity of literal facts in the news, and it did much to strengthen the growing sense of discipline and ethics in journalism.
But the new doctrine was not truly objective. Different individuals writing about the same scene never produce precisely the same account. And the way “objectivity” was applied exacted a high cost from journalism and from public policy.
With all its technical advantages, “objectivity” contradicted the essentially subjective nature of journalism. Every basic step in the journalistic process involves a value-laden decision: Which of the infinite number of events in the environment will be assigned for coverage and which ignored? Which of the infinite observations confronting the reporter will be noted? Which of the facts noted will be included in the story? Which of the reported events will become the first paragraph? Which story will be prominently displayed on page 1 and which buried inside or discarded? None of these is a truly objective decision. But the disciplinary techniques of “objectivity” have the false aura of a science, and this has given almost a century of American journalism an illusion of unassailable correctness.
“Objectivity” placed overwhelming emphasis on established, official voices and tended to leave unreported large areas of genuine relevance that authorities chose not to talk about. It accentuated social forces as rhetorical contests of personalities, with the reporter powerless to fill obvious gaps in official information or reasoning. It widened the chasm that is a constant threat to democracy-the difference between the realities of private power and the illusions of public imagery.
“Objectivity” tended to keep news superficial because too deep a pursuit of a single subject might bore or offend some of the audience. It strained out interpretation and background despite the desperate need for them in a century wracked by political trauma. Recitations of facts about world wars, genocides, depressions, and nuclear proliferation are useful but inadequate; mere recitations imply that all facts are of equal value.
The safest method of reporting news was to reproduce the words of authority figures, and in the nature of public relations most authority figures issue a high quotient of imprecise and self-serving declarations. Physical crime, natural disasters, and accidents were politically safe, which accounts for the peculiar American news habit of reporting remote accidents regardless of their relevance to the audience. News became more official and establishmentarian.
Perhaps the most powerful influence of the doctrine on working journalists was unconscious: It obscured and therefore made more palatable the unprofessional compromises with managerial imperatives and corporate politics. The subtle workings of the doctrine over the years and its rationalization of avoiding judgments made it easy for serious writers to remain silent about social ideas and political forces and to concentrate on contests of personalities. It produced the circular answer to the perpetual question “What is news?”-“News is news.” By mid-twentieth century “objectivity” had achieved the status of a received truth. The first major crisis that “objectivity” created for journalists in this century centered on Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was created largely by the assumption that journalists are not obligated to write what they can demonstrate as true and significant unless it comes from the mouth of authority.
McCarthy paralyzed much of government and created hysteria throughout the country from 1950 to 1954 with lies and distortions. He made increasingly wild claims about Soviet agents in high places, including in the offices of the president of the United States, among generals of the U.S. Army, and in the Department of State. In the vast political wreckage McCarthy left in his wake, the senator did not disclose a single Soviet agent that had not already been exposed. Many competent journalists had evidence that McCarthy’s statements were lies or clever distortions, some of it in the private admissions of the senator himself during his jocular drinking bouts with journalists and editors. But most journalistic organizations held to the doctrine that required use only of “official” statements by the most dramatic authority figure, and McCarthy was a United States senator.
Years of reappraisal within journalism after the debacle of the McCarthy years have not prevented subsequent failures of “objectivity” in an apolitical press. Race relations after World War II underwent powerful ferment, politically and socially, but not until they exploded in massive demonstrations and riots did they become major news, reported afterward mostly as police actions rather than as a profound change in the American scene. The same reluctance to report social forces made the persistence of structural poverty in a rich society an unreportable phenomenon until it became a physical phenomenon.
Emergence of broadcasting in the 1920s did not create an alternative news system that might have broadened the spectrum of coverage and provided genuine competition in generating news and analyzing ideas. Instead, broadcasting, with minor exceptions, simply read the printed news in truncated form. Radio and television newscasts, at their longest, provide less information than half a newspaper page. Some distinguished reporting from Europe immediately before World War II was an exception, although the radio journalism staffs that produced it were quickly dismantled. The vivid immediacy of television added a powerful dimension to news but shrank even the narrow spectrum of print.
Television’s chief impact on newspapers was commercial, not journalistic. Its stunning ability to sell goods and its inexpensive transmission over thousands of square miles led to a competition between printed and electronic media to reach ever wider groups of potential customers, the reaches so broad that it was impossible to report news about the specific communities exposed to the ads.
Television has obvious advantages over newspapers in immediacy, motion, color, and convenience. But it has one enormous disadvantage: Each station can transmit only one message at a time. If that message is too long or too controversial for some viewers, those viewers will turn to another channel or commit that terminal horror that haunts television entrepreneurs -turn off the set. Whenever a viewer turns a television dial, a television station loses a customer. Newspapers do not have that problem. If they choose, they can run a long story that will fascinate a particular set of readers. Other readers can move their eyes to the next column or turn the page, where they may find material more to their liking. Moving the eyes or turning the page does not mean that the newspaper publisher has lost a customer.
Television entrepreneurs found from the beginning that they had to maintain maximum attention among a wide disparity of consumers. Far more than in print, TV presentations-in regular entertainment, public affairs, news, or commercials- could not dwell too long on any one subject, and they could not be socially or politically controversial. Television found the answer early in its history. It was the twin sovereigns of attention-getting in history-sex and violence. Sex had to be used obliquely, given the national public morality, so it permeated television by innuendo, in themes of entertainment, in selection of actresses and actors, in double meanings in commercials, and in sophisticated appeals to the subconscious. Violence was easier to stress, given the prevalence of crime as a standard ingredient in printed news and the place of guns and violence in the mythology of the country. Violence could be politically safe in programs of cops and robbers, in which cops won by violence, or spy dramas, in which selected foreign enemies were defeated by violence.
Nothing in the history of public complaints has lessened the combined incidence of sex and violence. Some social scientists, as well as the Surgeon General of the United States, have measured the high incidence and concrete social consequences of sex and violence on television. If television producers momentarily reduce one in the face of organized criticism, they raise the level of the other.
The social and psychological costs of these television twins are incalculable. The Surgeon General’s studies have shown that television violence increases actual violence and acceptance of violence in children. Other studies have shown that children who watch a great deal of television are more cynical than are children who watch less television. The television commercial is the most expensive and highly skilled artifact in American society, using the most polished producers, actors, and technical reproduction and spending more for the creation and transmission of a series of thirty-second commercials than some school districts spend to educate children for a year. The artful construction of commercials has created thirty seconds as a basic attention unit, ideal for selling marginal goods but with negative psychological and intellectual consequences for the average American child, who, the statistics show,’ watches television for twice as many hours as he or she attends school.
It is not simple moral perversity that keeps sex and violence on the air and serious subjects off. It is television executives’ desire to maintain as large an audience as possible for as long as possible for the purpose of selling goods and services.
The same persistence, with more subtlety, has characterized emotional manipulation in television commercials. Commercials, too, have been immune to a variety of serious objections from consumer agencies, social critics, and parents. Cynical manipulation in commercials, like that in television programming generally, comes not from capricious malice but from the power of annual profit statements for both the corporations that advertise and the corporations that own the media.
Advertising occupies a powerful place in the American culture. It has become a worldwide symbol of the country’s reputation as the land of milk and honey, of endless material possessions for everybody. As an art form, ads are often clever, entertaining, and arresting in their graphics and sexuality. Some are practical and informative. Most ads create a fantasy experience, permitting the national nose to be pressed against the windows of exclusive shops that will never be entered. In all its permutations-as a symbol of national wealth, as a purposeful entertainment, as a guide to useful products, as a clever technique to engage the emotions-advertising has conditioned generations to accept it as an inescapable part of the landscape, as ubiquitous and normal as houses and trees.
Confronted with criticism of commercials, media owners say the public likes ads. Some people clearly do like some commercials, often more than they like the less carefully produced programs in which the commercials are imbedded. But whether the public approves of what it gets in advertising is questionable. The American Association of Advertising Agencies found in a ten-year study, from 1964 to 1974, a significant decrease in public belief that “advertising results in better products for the public” or that it helps raise the standard of living or lowers prices. And there was an increase in public feeling over the ten years that ads often persuade people to buy things they shouldn’t and that most advertising insults people’s intelligence.
In 1977 a survey by Louis Harris of public attitudes toward leadership of major American activities found advertising at the bottom of the list. The public seems to be repeating what the March Hare says in Alice in Wonderland: “You might just as well say that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like.”‘
To counter public resistance to television and advertising, the manipulation of emotions has become more sophisticated. Social science and psychological techniques have been added to television’s arsenal for conditioning human behavior. One firm advises advertisers on whether their products should appeal to the left (analytical) or the right (emotional) side of the human brain. The consultant staff attaches electrodes to scalps of volunteers to measure stimulation and types of brain waves evoked by certain images in commercials. They tell advertisers that ads for products like perfume and beer should be pitched to the right side of the brain; ads for cars and insurance should be directed to the left side. Most TV ads appeal to the emotions. The manager of public opinion research for General Electric says that “much of response to advertising is right-brain.”
Another firm uses infrared eye scans to record rapid eye movement in response to test images in television commercials, advising clients on elements of ads like the most effective juxtaposition of sex objects, for example, a woman in a bikini and the brand name of the advertised product. A Manhattan firm measures involuntary larynx reaction and uses computers to test people’s reactions to proposed commercials, often determining that even when people say they dislike an ad, it makes a lasting impression. A Texas firm uses electrodes attached to the fingertips of human subjects to see what symbols in commercials- sex, fire, ocean, forests-create the most arousal in connection with a product.
Chuck Blore, a partner in the advertising firm Chuck Blore & Don Ruchman, Inc., has said, “Advertising is the art of arresting the human intelligence just long enough to get money from it.”
If that is true, it arrests a great deal of intelligence. It is estimated that the average American child has seen 350,000 commercials by age seventeen and, in the words of Billie Wahlstrom of the University of Southern California, these commercials are “the propaganda arm of the American culture.”
The American Association of Advertising Agencies has estimated that 1,600 advertising messages are aimed at a consumer in an average day. The individual obviously is not struck by most of these and does not even become aware of all of them. The average consumer takes momentary notice of about eighty commercial messages. Only twelve make a conscious impression. But in order to maintain sanity and coherence in the midst of this clever and insistent bombardment, each individual has to erect a sensory screen that instantly, often unconsciously, detects the incoming signal and rejects it. A car driver, for example, catches a glimpse of a distant billboard and decides in a fraction of a second that it is of no interest and thus does not engage his or her mind with the content of the ad. The advertising creators know this, so to penetrate the screen that every human being erects to protect the senses, ad agencies need a constant supply of new symbols, images, and ideas.
The sheep’s clothing of sex, beauty, a trusted personality, or a semi-sacred symbol is needed to encase the wolf of the sales pitch. The human being often referred to by ad agencies as “the target”-on the alert to screen out unwanted symbols he or she has already seen, does not recognize a new image and, before it is recognized as the same old message in a new guise, the unidentified Iying object has penetrated the protective screen and made a hit on the deceived mind.
When parent groups and others complain to broadcasters about the impact of sex and violence on the young, broadcasters traditionally answer that sex and violence on television do not change human behavior. That answer has been contradicted by extensive studies and surveys by the Surgeon General of the United States. But each year broadcasters sell more than $10 billion worth of commercial time whose only purpose is to change human behavior. Presumably, the most sophisticated corporations would not continue spending billions of dollars if they thought they were not altering human behavior in their favor.
Furthermore, it is one thing to show that not everyone exposed to a commercial or to regular programming changes his or her overt, physical behavior. But it is another to suppose that there is no emotional or intellectual change from the experience, any more than it would be to argue that the soldier, at any moment untouched by bullets in the battlefield, is emotionally and intellectually untouched by the experience.
The reclothing of ads in ever-new symbols has contributed to the devastating attrition in the lifespan of symbols in modern culture. Advertising is not the only cause of this attrition. All modern communications has a hand in it. Two hundred years ago the common symbols of society were those of rulers and the church, their flags and icons displayed individually and seen solely by live audiences. Mechanical printing and other mass communications changed that. Contemporary society is filled with images, some in a constant state of change like television, or in continuously altered states, as in radio. Printing reproduces words and illustrations in multiples of billions and can be absorbed by millions. Through electronic devices and modern printing processes, flags, crosses, and other emotionally laden symbols can be mass-produced for huge audiences. But no single force has equaled the merchandising process in its use of all the sacred and semi-sacred symbols to create a culture of material consumption. Advertising is a source of symbol manipulation unknown to earlier generations. The advertising industry spends $1,000 per household in order to break through the resistance of human senses and sometimes of human intelligence. Selling symbols are in continuous flood for six and a half hours of television a day. Printed images are seen on countless billions of magazine pages every week and the four billion newspaper pages printed every day. As viewers and readers get used to the massively displayed symbols, the symbols change to the latest idea or personality or national emotion until it, too, in days or weeks, becomes meaningless, part of the continuous and deliberate slag heap of mass communications.
Sponsoring corporations will even use symbols they dislike and then trivialize them, in their voracious appetite for new sheep’s clothing. In the 1960s the psychedelic style in art and clothing, created by hippies as antiestablishment statements, was adopted almost at once in advertisements and editorial illustration by the establishment media, not out of sympathy but as a way of placing inviting and novel garments on old sales pitches. Symbols and terms of the intense antiwar movement during the Vietnam War were adopted in ads and programming even by corporations engaged in war contracts.
Perhaps the most easily measured damage of the media battle for consumers is inflicted on the American political system. Mass advertising, without intending to, has become instrumental in degrading the basic unit of American government.
News distribution is no longer designed for individual towns and cities. American politics is organized on the basis of the 20,000 urban and rural places in the country, which is the way citizens vote. But the media have organized on the basis of 210 television “markets,” which is the way merchandisers and media corporations sell ads. As a result, the fit between the country’s information needs and its information media has become disastrously disjointed.
The average television station sends its signal over more than 10,000 square miles, or about fifty counties. Metropolitan dailies, not by coincidence, cover about the same territory. (The Atlanta Constitution and journal, for example, circulates significantly in fifty-five counties, thirty-nine of which do not have their own daily paper. ) The average county has twenty-six local governments, of which twenty-two have taxing powers and five are school districts. This means that the average metropolitan newspaper and television station dominate the news for an area that contains 1,300 public policymaking bodies and elects large portions of state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives. If each policymaking body in the area met once a week and each metropolitan news medium reported only on those meetings and on no other events in the communities, a typical half-hour newscast would give five and a half seconds to each body, and a newspaper would give thirty-eight words. But in fact TV stations, radio stations, and metropolitan papers do not cover each of the policymaking bodies in the areas of their circulation or even the general news in each of the communities. Nor could they if they tried, given the vast areas and the numerous local districts. In other countries with centralized national policymaking, local news coverage is a negligible need. In the United States local coverage is crucial.
Though big-city TV, radio, and newspapers do not cover each of the communities they reach, they sell advertising to the major merchandisers for their region and thus remove the economic base for indigenous stations and papers. Many of the communities without daily papers have weekly ones and they often serve important functions; the best ones adequately fill the gap. But most communities either have none or have shopping papers with little or no significant social and political news. In fact, most daily papers issue such news-less advertising sheets in the smaller communities around their central city to further increase their revenues. By collecting local advertising in that way, they further pre-empt the basis for an independent local paper.
There is nothing inevitable in this pattern. In 1851 Horace Greeley, testifying before a committee of the British Parliament, described the pattern in the United States in his time:
When a town grows to have as many as 15,000 inhabitants, or thereabouts, then it has a daily paper; sometimes that is the case when it has as few as l0,000. .. 15,000 may be stated as the average at which a daily paper commences; at 20,000 they have two, and so on; in central towns . . . they have from three to five daily journals.
If the same pattern existed today, the country would have 4,600 daily papers instead of 1,700. Today 43 percent of the U.S. population lives in counties with no local daily paper. If radio licenses were granted on the basis of political and social needs, each county could have at least three indigenous stations instead of the present concentration of radio and TV stations in a small number of major metropolitan merchandising markets. This disparity between citizens’ and merchandising needs has made American elected office the prize of rich men and women or candidates backed by rich men and women. Traditional elective politics demanded that the candidates appear in person before special groups of voters. This produced a generous diet of rhetorical sound and fury, sophistries, cynicisms, and simplistic proclamations. But because the candidate appeared in person, often before groups who had intense interest and knowledge of issues that affected them, the effectiveness of empty rhetoric was limited. Farmers might accept sophistries about urban factory workers but they would have a high level of critical judgment about agricultural economics, and they would not hesitate to press the candidate for details. The same would be true for auto workers, corporate executives, railroad operators, or labor union chiefs. Each would want to pursue in depth the subjects that most concerned them. The mosaic of these interests put together by a candidate would decide success or failure at the polls.
But if a candidate could avoid firm positions, it increased the possibility of giving the appearance of being all things to all voters. For this, television seemed a perfect medium. It is an established American habit. Favorite programs are watched by a large, predictable audience. The insertion of emotional commercials into programs had become an accepted practice for a variety of products-perfume, laxatives, toilet paper, automobiles, underarm deodorants, adhesives for dentures, hemorrhoidal ointments. A commercial for a political candidate could fall easily into the accepted brief interval in regular programs. A carefully taped, meticulously edited political presentation with all the immediacy and simulated sincerity of a commercial, but without serious content, could be projected into homes where viewers would be most vulnerable.
Television stations reach more people than a candidate, other than a presidential candidate, wants to reach. But the candidate has no choice but to “buy” voters not needed for election, and at enormous cost. (The fact that most of the candidate’s message is irrelevant to most of the audience means that a portion of the audience might switch channels, which in turn means that television stations resist political commercials if they can. ) A candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from a district in metropolitan Chicago would find the economics of TV advertising impossible without heavy financial backing. The typical House district has 150,000 households. A Chicago-based television station that reaches a typical district also reaches three million households in thirty-five counties in four states. The candidate either pays for the 2,850,000 unwanted households or loses the television access to his or her district that a richer candidate can buy. (A prime-time, thirty-second commercial for a major sponsor can cost more than $250,000 to produce. Few political commercials cost as much, but the cost even for less elaborate political ads on television is so high that it has created an ominous barrier to entry into American politics.) Thirty-second commercials must be repeated to be effective. The thirty-second political ad on a Chicago station, repeated ten times, would cost more than $50,000 just for air time. The ad would then be broadcast over a station that reaches so large an audience that 95 percent do not vote in the candidate’s district.
Few candidates can afford to buy a fifteen-minute or thirty-minute block of television time, a period so long in commercial television for a non-entertainment program that most stations would refuse such a sale for fear of losing most of their audience. Even if a candidate wanted to buy this time, there are disadvantages: The longer the time, the harder it is to avoid serious issues. (In Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign for the presidency, the most expensive in history, 70 percent of his network time was for thirty-second commercials, 25 percent for five-second commercials, and only 5 percent for thirty-minute talks.) So, inevitably, television electioneering, which, combined with direct mail, is now the major mechanism of American campaigns, deals mostly with imagery and emotional manipulation engendered by the five-second and thirty-second commercial. It has displaced the phenomenon of the live candidate before live audiences and almost eliminated coherent debate. A whole generation of voters has not heard serious content in election campaigns; that this generation of voters increasingly does not bother to vote may not be unrelated.
If a Chicago candidate for the U.S. House decided to turn to a Chicago newspaper to reach his or her 150,000 households, he or she would not &d a substantial difference in cost or effectiveness. A major Chicago newspaper is distributed in thirty-seven counties with a population of seven million. To buy a half-page ad repeated ten times could cost $100,000.
Running successfully for public office is highly expensive, and the biggest spenders have been winning the campaigns at a rate of 4 to 1. Abraham Lincoln won by spending $100,000; McKinley in 1900 spent less than $4 million; Roosevelt in 1932, less than $3 million; Kennedy in 1960, $10 million; Nixon in 1968, $25 million; Reagan in 1980, $152 million. Between 1976 and 1980 the total cost of campaigns for all public office in the country doubled, to $900 million.
In California, where some of the best records are kept, the cost of a campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives rose 45 percent between the election of 1976 and that of 1978; the cost of a U.S. Senate race in those two elections rose 72 percent. Today it can cost a quarter of a billion dollars to get elected president and multiples of millions to become a senator or a representative in Congress. Not surprisingly, the role of wealthy, special-interest groups in campaigns has risen dramatically.
The inappropriate fit between the country’s major media and the country’s political system has starved voters of relevant information, leaving them at the mercy of paid political propaganda that is close to meaningless and often worse. It has eroded the central requirement of a democracy that those who are governed give not only their consent but their informed consent.
Ben H. Bagdikian