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Beyond the Sound Bite:
Politics and Public Affairs for TV

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Technological changes make core journalistic values even more important

By David LaFontaine and Taylor Elmore

It’s hardly a secret that technology and the audience’s ever-shorter attention span have changed, and are continuing to change, the way television news is produced and delivered, Western Knight Center keynote speaker George Lewis said. 

“I kid you not,” Lewis said, “I actually had to get out of doing the cell-phone news tonight so that I could be here on time.”

But no matter how high-tech the gadgets to gather and watch the news, no matter how instantaneous the delivery is, the real fight is to preserve the core values of good journalism.

With America’s attention span for television news growing ever shorter, “fast-paced wins out over in-depth every time,” said Lewis.  “As newscasts have gotten faster-paced, sound bites have grown shorter.”

Modern sound bites may run 7 or 8 seconds, with 2-or-3 second “bitelets” becoming more and more prevalent.  Candidates and politicians yearn for quotes recognized more for being powerfully memorable ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!") than memorably embarrassing ("Brownie, you’re doin’ a heckuva job!"). 

As a result, “political candidates in campaigns are more choreographed, more orchestrated, more scripted than ever before,” said Lewis.  Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2003 California gubernatorial campaign was an amazingly well-scripted, well-packaged tour-de-force, featuring recycled quips from his movies such as “I’ll be back” or “We will terminate the special interests.”

“Never mind that he only spoke in vague generalities about what he intended to do if elected,” Lewis said. “Or that he didn’t spend much time answering tough questions from the press.”

Schwarzenegger was able to overcome the gender gap caused by allegations of his groping female colleagues by going on Oprah with wife Maria Shriver and talking about how much he loved bringing her coffee in the morning.  “Cut to women in the audience going ‘Awwww,’” Lewis said.  “Overnight, the gender gap disappeared.”

The Governor’s ability to work media in his favor evokes the playbook left behind by another actor-turned-politician: Ronald Reagan.  “It doesn’t matter what they say about you on TV as long as you have these wonderful photo opportunities that show your candidate in all his glory,” Lewis said. “The pictures drown out the words uttered by those pesky journalists.”

Cut to Schwarzenegger, smiling triumphantly on the state capitol steps, broom in hand, ready to sweep the place clean.  “A real, live action hero riding to the rescue,” Lewis said.

Two years later, noted Lewis, there seems to be some buyer’s remorse regarding “The Governator.” Schwarzenegger’s poll ratings are low and opponents are spending money to keep them that way.  As he raises money to counteract that, his promise to “terminate the special interests” seems somewhat hollow.  “The action hero has become just another politician,” said Lewis.  Still, Schwarzenegger’s continuing expertise at handling media ensures that it is too early to write him off completely.

The disastrous responses to hurricanes Rita and Katrina have taught us “action or inaction at every level of government is an important thing that really matters.” Journalists and viewers woke up to that when they heard promises that “help is on the way,” only to discover that was not the case.  Lewis said this phenomenon harkened back to his coverage of the Vietnam War, where he witnessed that battles would go terribly wrong for American forces, after which military officials would describe those same battles as “great triumphs for our side.” These briefings became known as the “five o’clock follies.” The inconsistency between what government leaders were saying about Katrina and what was happening on the ground is another form of folly, and a particularly deadly one, said Lewis.

“When there’s a disconnect between the truth and the official version of what happened, I think it’s our obligation as journalists to jump all over that,” he said.  Journalists have become intimidated, self-censored, too reluctant to dispute the official version of events in recent years.  “What happens when journalists pull their punches, pander to their audiences, sell out to commercial interests? What happens when we fail in our mission to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted?  I’ll tell you what happens: society loses – big time,” Lewis said.

Whatever the changes in media by which news is delivered to the public, the fundamentals of serious journalism remain the same. 

“Hemingway once described the art of successful writing this way: ‘All you have to do is write one true sentence.  Write the truest sentence you know,’” said Lewis.  “And I might add, in television, if the producer only gives you a minute-thirty, write the ten truest sentences you know – and raise hell for more time!”

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