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TV's "Reality" a Kind of Domination
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 new reality.

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 popularity.

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 event.

Perhaps the most useful part of the book is its concluding chapter on reality.

"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 support?

"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

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