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There Has to Be a Better Way . . .

The mood here is one of cautious optimism tinged with skeptical enthusiasm colored by restrained buoyancy marked by despairing joy over the possibility that what appears evident, obvious and irrefutable is merely illusory.

Amazing, wasn’t it? You probably pinched yourself in case you were dreaming, or blinked a couple of times to see if your eyes were fooling you. They weren’t. There on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN Wednesday morning was George Bush holding a press conference, live before the entire nation, fielding questions from reporters about his plans for the presidency and addressing important issues.

After the election.

The symbolism was striking. Here, surely, was the process in reverse: Now that we’ve elected you to do it, what is it that you’re going to do?

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This may sound a bit old-fashioned, but shouldn’t that TV press conference, and others like it, have occurred prior to the election, as a means of better informing Americans whether Bush had something in his brain that wasn’t put there by media advisers? Or is electing a President supposed to be like going on a blind date, when you have only a touched-up glossy to go on and you don’t know who you’re really going to spend the evening with until you’ve opened the door and it’s too late to back out?

Surprise! This time the evening lasts four years!

Not that Wednesday’s questions or answers were that significant. They weren’t. Not that President-elect Bush had not made himself available to reporters in some limited ways prior to his convincing Tuesday night win over Michael S. Dukakis. He had.

But not like this, not in a free and open forum on national TV where the opportunity for reporters to press him--realized or not--was relatively unlimited. It was refreshing. It was exhilarating. And it was also too late.

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The same would apply if Dukakis had been standing up there instead of Bush. Regular televised press conferences with the candidates would not necessarily have swung the election in Dukakis’ favor.

On the contrary, perhaps Bush would have won even bigger, for he handled himself pretty well Wednesday morning. No fumbling Ronald Reagan here. But regular press/candidate meetings on TV--as opposed to those inconclusive ersatz debates--would have made for a smarter electorate in a campaign that was depressingly high on illusion and low on illumination.

How do we reform?

The candidates won’t change unless the media change. And the media can change.

The self-examination--the inevitable we know something is wrong but we don’t know what it is or how to fix it--is under way. The media are now floundering in a desert of agony and self-flagellation, wandering aimlessly, wailing, pounding their chests and wringing their hands out of guilt, doubt and frustration. “We know we’ve been bad,” they are saying. “We know we’ve contributed to the emptiness of the campaign. But what can we do?”

Poor babies. They need help. We don’t want these miserable wretches wandering for 40 years. Moses will now lead them through the desert in time for 1992. It’s really quite simple. Newspapers will have to cooperate, too, but as for TV . . .

READ MY LIPS!

Unclutter the airwaves. Do not cover anything that is not news. Candidates are not news merely because they are candidates.

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Dukakis riding in a tank is not news. Bush touring a flag factory is not news. Dukakis calling Bush a snake is not news. Bush calling Dukakis a toad is not news. Old Glory is not news. Red, white and blue balloons are not news. One-liners are not news.

A candidate who manipulates the media is not news, even when you point out that he is manipulating the media.

What the candidate said yesterday in San Diego is not news again merely because he repeated it today in Los Angeles.

In lieu of genuine campaign news, devote 20 seconds at the end of each newscast to a terse review of the candidates’ activities that day (“George Bush kissed babies, Michael Dukakis wore a hard hat as he toured a plant”) and leave it at that. Once a week, as an object of ridicule, run an accelerated montage of candidates’ picture stunts.

Report polls only monthly.

Don’t worry if days or even weeks go by and you haven’t aired campaign news. If there isn’t any news, you’ve lost nothing but have gained the respect and affection of viewers for liberating them from campaignspeak and also gained airtime to cover some of the legitimate stories that were being neglected because of the campaign.

Don’t panic. You can do it. Remember, a sound bite doesn’t exist if it isn’t heard and a sight bite doesn’t exist if it isn’t seen. Thus, candidates and their advisers will soon realize that media stunts get them nowhere and that they will get free TV time only by addressing issues of substance.

Finally, after issues of substance are exhausted, candidates will be able to earn their way on TV only by submitting themselves to, yes, press conferences, during which reporters will be able to dig for the substance beneath the substance.

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With candidates having been exposed to the bone, so-called televised debates will be rendered obsolete, even as entertainment.

Everyone, candidates and voters, will be the richer for this experience--everyone, that is, except the professional pundits who have made their reputations appearing on TV to pontificate about the campaign news that isn’t news.

Will TV heed this advice and reform for 1992? Absolutely. And if you buy that, Moses would like to sell you this nice swamp in Florida.


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