Column: can't judge a candiate by commercials

I'm sorry I have to bring this up, because I know you people who read my column are of higher intelligence, better informed and, on average, better looking than the general populace.

Nevertheless, surveys say that other people - the lesser informed, probably with dirty socks - tend to make up their minds about how to vote on candidates in the upcoming election by what they see on television.

Shocked. I know I was.

Anyway, it is possible to get a great deal of information about candidates by watching televised debates, listening to C-Span and videotaping the occasional in-depth interviews on one of the news channels.

I suspect, however, that's not the kind of viewing habits captured in the surveys. I suspect most people make up their minds based on what they see on the evening news, and by the commercials bought by the various candidates.

The problem with this, I believe, is that television news tends to cover campaigns with, um, shall we say, shallowness.

What was the most-played video clip last week? Gary Bauer falling off the stage backwards at a pancake-flipping contest. Within days, Bauer was out of the race.

Still, the real indictment should be reserved for commercials.

Oh, they'll start out with some softly lit, family-portrait stuff that makes each and every candidate look like they grew up with Joan Lockhart as their mother and Lassie as their best friend. We'll be all warm and tingly, believing that our future leaders are the kind of people our mothers wanted us to be, if only we hadn't started hanging out with that crowd in high school.

That image lasts about a week. Maybe two. Then come the attack ads.

Suddenly, the Heroes of Democracy are portrayed as slovenly liars and cheats who have hidden pasts - possibly a felony or two, if they hadn't been bribing the judge - and the sort who are commonly chased down desolate lanes by torch-carrying mobs.

My, my. How do the hoi polloi make up their minds?

Well, a group called PLAN has a plan.

Kathleen Dickinson, who works for Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, told me about it the other day. She calls it the 5/30 standard, and it's aimed at television news shows.

Dickinson has been running around the state asking television stations if they would commit to just five minutes of coverage on candidates on each night for 30 days leading up to the election. It's part of a nationwide campaign by a group called Alliance for Better Campaigns.

Debates, interviews, forums - anything that would be informative for the electorate would qualify, said Dickinson. Anything but attack ads.

"We're not looking for ads, we're looking for news coverage," she said.

When she got to Northern Nevada, she went to the Reno television stations to hear what they thought of the idea. It would all be voluntary, of course.

The folks at KOLO told her they would have no problem with such a standard. They'll be interviewing the candidates anyway, they told Dickinson, and felt pretty comfortable that they could provide at least that much coverage every night.

Over at KRNV, Dickinson said, they were a bit less receptive to the idea, and KTVN folks didn't want to commit.

It remains to be seen how successful the Alliance for Better Campaigns will be. Perhaps stations will be swayed by the likes of former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford and ex-CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, who are calling for a way to "break the chokehold that money and ads have on our political system."

It could happen. It's also possible that all the candidates will show tasteful, issues-oriented advertising this campaign season and prove all of us cynics wrong. Maybe I'll hit the California Lotto, too.

Why pick on television? Newspapers take advertising from candidates, too, don't they?

That's true, but newspapers don't get rich off political advertising. In 1998, $515 million was spent nationwide on political advertising. The prediction this year is that it will top $600 million.

A survey of local television stations in the fall of 1998 showed viewers in 25 states were "four times more likely while watching that newscast to see a political ad than a political story," according to the alliance.

One more thing about television. It operates on the "public airwaves." In 1997, when the federal government was giving away band space for digital television, some people said those rights had a value as high as $70 billion. Some people thought television should provide more than lip service to its obligations to serve the public.

At this point, I have to ask whether anyone would actually watch candidate forums or political discourse of any form. Isn't that why attack ads work? They're entertaining, if nothing else.

I'm sure the television geniuses could come up with some idea.

Far be it from me to suggest that they put Al Gore or John McCain in a chair across from Regis Philbin and have him answer a few questions for an episode of "Who Wants to Be President."

Barry Smith is managing editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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