TV's "Reality" a Kind
Politics and Television Re-Viewed, Gladys
and Kurt Lang,
SAGE Publications, 223 pages, $28.00 U.S.
Reviewed by Hugh Winsor
Richard Nixon appeared to sweat and fidget, John Kennedy became
president of the United States. John Turner couldn't control his
nervous cough. Brian Mulroney became prime minister of Canada. Last
November, a British Broadcasting Corporation television crew visited
the parched interior of Ethiopia and the Western World was mobilized
to fight famine.
Evidence exists to suggest that television as a potent communication
medium has tremendous influence, so much that it has in itself changed
the reality of both our politics and our policies. Indeed, the surrogate
eye was so pervasive that St. Michael's College professor Marshall
McLuhan spawned a whole new industry of communications research
with his contention that "the medium is the message."
The suggestion was that this new rearrangement of images had gone
beyond either political science or physics into the world of metaphysics
that there was something mystical and mysterious about the
new technology that would fundamentally change our familiar society.
Gladys and Kurt Lang, a husband-and-wife team of sociologists now
teaching at the school of communications at the University of Washington,
have spent much of the last three decades applying the research
tools of the political scientist to the television myth stripping
away a lot of the metaphysics of McLuhan in the process. They have
put together much of their academic work in a book. Politics
and Television Re-Viewed, published by SAGE Publications Inc.
This is essentially an academic book using the professional paradigms
and research language of sociology to deal with a popular medium.
But it is certainly a useful one for journalists of all stripes,
especially those concerned with the current phenomena of leaders'
televised debates, the pressure to allow the cameras into previously
privileged places such as Parliaments and their adjuncts, and the
whole business of image making.
It is not a "how to" book that will help political managers
prepare their candidate for the ratings battles. But it does systematically
attempt to indicate where television's impact can be measured and
where it distorts reality to create in the mind of the viewers a
Anybody who has shivered through a Grey Cup or Santa Claus parade
on a downtown Toronto street knows they amount to hours of teeth
chattering for a few moments of action. They also know that the
throngs of anxious wavers seen on the television are actually a
thin line of spectators stretched out along the sidewalks while
a block away life goes on pretty much as usual.
This gap between reality and broadcast "reality" was documented
by the Langs as early as 1951 when they assembled a team of researchers
and monitors to cover the visit to Chicago of General Douglas MacArthur.
He had been sacked by President Harry Truman for insubordination
(he wanted to use atomic bombs on China to limit Chinese support
for the North Koreans).
The television audience was told of the throngs and the emotional
enthusiasm that had transformed Chicago (a theme that was also taken
up and re-enforced by newspapers), a phenomenon that was deemed
at the time to have considerable political importance. Researchers
out in the crowd told quite a different story.
Most members of the crowd were there out of curiosity, responding
to the advance hype, and shrugged their shoulders after MacArthur
had passed. Yet years later, when the Chicago Tribune did
a flashback, the paper was still talking about the day the windy
city was transformed.
(The visit to Canada by the Pope last summer would have been an
ideal event for similar analysis. It probably was another case in
which the actuality along the route did not live up to the concentrated
image on television.)
As sociologists, the Langs were not particularly concerned with
the accuracy of news or television reporting however. They were
attempting to relate television coverage to behavior, to determine
whether being taken to the scene of the crime on videotape actually
counts as a form of participation in the events.
The type of survey research they undertook was on too modest a scale
to attempt a determination of television impact on an overall societal basis.
But their studies do provide a useful analytical framework for such
events as television debates.
For example, the determination of who won and who lost a television
debate has some impact on image formulation but very little on voting
behavior. Although it is widely considered that John Kennedy bested
Richard Nixon, the debates swung very few convinced Republicans
into the Democratic camp.
What the debates did do, however, was firm up the Kennedy image
and attract people who had either been considered undecided or who
were lapsed Democrats who had voted Republican because of Eisenhower's
Subsequent studies on the Jimmy Carter-Gerald Ford debate also underlined
earlier findings that people's preconceptions and their partisan
loyalties influenced how they viewed the debates. Republicans thought
their candidate did better than Democrats' did and so on.
The studies showed there was a big difference between perceptions
of the debates recorded immediately after it concluded and perceptions
measured later after the sample had been "contaminated"
by press commentary and follow-up analysis.
It is a phenomenon that was borne out again last summer in the Mulroney-Turner
debates. The perception that Mulroney was the clear winner evolved
slowly in English Canada although it was almost instantaneous in
Quebec. (Although both of the Langs have had experience in Canada,
there are no Canadian examples in the book.)
Did Mulroney's "victory" in the debates begin the landslide
or only reinforce it? There is little doubt in my mind that the
Canadian debates had more influence than the kind of research undertaken
by the Langs on American debates would lead one to predict. But
they would argue with justification that it is hard to isolate the
television debates from the successful management of other campaign
themes by the Conservative campaign managers.
The book makes a persuasive argument that television can change
the reality. The presence of television essentially changed the
substantive nature of the extensive Watergate hearings in the Senate
and the articles of impeachment in the House of Representatives,
the authors argue.
The consciousness of television's presence forced a decorum and
order that might not have been there if it was the usual barracking
committee procedure. But television also reduced partisanship in
the procedures because all participants realized they had to appear
scrupulously fair. And when Nixon finally resigned, the televised
hearings had prepared the American people to accept what was a momentous
Perhaps the most useful part of the book is its concluding chapter
"Television plays a large role in shaping the impression
of public support for public policies and public personalities.
Is the public then helpless against the machinations of the powerful
who make use of the media to build an impression of public
"To a certain extent it is. The media can direct attention
to some issues while ignoring others. They can build images of political
figures so that people feel they know them. They are forever suggesting,
simply by what they play up, what persons everywhere should know
about, think about, have opinions about.
"From this perspective, Watergate was indeed a media-generated
issue and every popular candidate (from Kennedy to Ronald Reagan
or from Kefauver to Gary Hart) a creation of the media. People are
rightly apprehensive about this form of domination. They have reason
to be suspicious of undue influence and to be on the alert."
While not claiming cause and effect directly, the authors do point
to a coincidence of timing between the rise of television as the
dominant news medium and a very marked decline in public trust and
confidence in just about every major government institution.
Food for thought.
Hugh Winsor is the Ottawa bureau chief of The Globe and Mail.
Published in Sources, Summer 1985
Sources, 489 College
Street, Suite 201, Toronto, ON M6G 1L9.
Phone: (416) 964-7799 FAX: (416) 964-8763
Include yourself in Sources
Mailing Lists and
Media Names & Numbers
Names & Numbers