JUST ABOUT EVERYONE agrees that we have just lived through one of history’s most disgusting election seasons — everyone, that is, except for the nation’s TV stations.A mind-boggling $ 350 million has been lavished on political ads during this campaign, compared with only $ 200 million during the midterm election of 1990 — a sum far exceeding the forecasts of media analysts. Of the $ 350 million, probably $ 349 million was channeled into negative “attack ads.” While policy wonks have long argued about the impact of TV ads, some conclusions are, by now, unassailable: Voters have learned to hate government. They hate politicians. They hate the political process. What has taken place is “the enfeeblement of government by interest groups” that have mobilized the TV screen to advance their own agendas, intoned the Economist last week. “TV ads get more and more negative as each election goes along,” observes Fred Wertheimer, president of public interest groupMDSD Common Cause, “and these ads destroy the credibility of both candidates and make citizens question whether they can effectively govern if they win.” IT WOULD BE DOPEY to blame all our ills on TV, but the small screen not only magnifies the clout of negative ads but, by bloating campaign costs, puts candidates under the thumb of special interests. As we in California witnessed this year, TV also facilitates the creation of “instant candidates” like Michael Huffington, the Chauncey Gardiner of the ’90s, who pumped $ 20 million of his own money into his campaign. Jonathan Alter noted in Newsweek magazine that Sen. Dianne Feinstein has dominated the “free media” during her campaign — i.e., the newspapers — while “her largely inaccessible opponent, Huffington, was the all-time champ of ‘paid media.’ ” TV has proven that “going negative works,” Alter argues. “If millions were invested in TV ads arguing that a certain toothpaste rotted your teeth, would you buy that brand?” The impact of TV on politics becomes all the more relevant at this moment in time because TV itself is at a crossroads. The telcos are banding together to zap the cablers. The cablers in turn are figuring out how to zap the telcos. Meanwhile the satellite savants believe their dishes will prove both sides wrong. THE BRAVE NEW WORLD of the new media is about to unfold as interactive technology empowers the viewer to control what he/she sees and when. This in turn raises interesting questions regarding political advertising. TV stations traditionally represented a form of “pure” capitalism and hence remained relatively free of government regulation. The same cannot be said of the Baby Bells (which owe their existence to government intervention), or even of the giant cable companies. Suddenly new possibilities present themselves. Who is to say that government cannot rein in the monster of political advertising, or at least inhibit its access and content? If government doesn’t do something about the problem, why not permit the viewer to take control? The wonders of interactive media can purportedly permit me to decide when I can watch a given movie or TV show, so it should be easy to rig the system to screen out all political ads or to limit them to a single channel — the Nasty Channel, it could be called. Satellite dishes, of course, have already accomplished this by effectively obliterating local TV. During this year’s campaign, candidates used cable TV more than ever before to target specific sectors of the audience for their negative messages. If some politician can single out my neighborhood for his hate message, then I should be able to reciprocate with a flick of interactive dexterity. All this may sound too “iffy” to satisfy those who worry whether our republic can survive many more campaigns like the Nightmare of ’94. Never before has the power of negative campaigning so poisoned the political well. At a moment in history when the economy grew by 4.1% and unemployment fell to 6.1%, a majority of voters have lost confidence both in their economy and in their leaders. Just as television has helped inflate fears of crime and moral decay, so it has also placed new power in the hands of those who would turn that disillusionment to their own advantage. The warning signals are all around us. With TV at the crossroads, there must be a way to capture the moment with bold initiatives. If all else fails, let’s at least initiate the Nasty Channel as the great garbage dump for all the negative thinkers in politics.
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