Power and the Public

Hedrick Smith’s television series “The Power Game” proves again that even public television can succumb to pressures to please viewers at the expense of informing them (“Potomac ‘Power Game'--Rule No. 1 Is . . . Take Care of No. 1,” by Howard Rosenberg, Jan. 2).

Interviews with leading players in the “power game” drove home once again the expertise of the Reagan entourage in favorably shaping the President’s image. But the account also distorted our understanding of how political power is constructed.

A more balanced analysis of Reagan’s success would note that the public credited him with overcoming the inflation that had plagued President Jimmy Carter and with producing an expanding economy. Furthermore, without this foundation of public support, constructed largely out of economic conditions, the clever working of the media upon which Smith dwelled would have come to naught. Smith is quite aware of this. But why confuse viewers with the dry economics after the lively interviews with power brokers?

Nor did Smith pause in his contrast of Carter and Reagan to point out that Carter’s reliance on facts in his speeches failed for the same reason Reagan’s image-building succeeded: The public would rather be entertained than confronted with unengaging facts.


The irony is that Smith stands guilty of the same superficiality in his drive to please viewers that he finds objectionable in Reagan’s methods of pleasing voters. But perhaps the more important lesson of this disappointing public television episode is that even our best political analysts often fail to tell the public of its responsibilities in driving the power game because the public does not wish to listen to this.


Professor of Economics

Cornell College

Mt. Vernon, Iowa