Making sense of media manipulation

    Six, three or even one month ago, the attitude of Dean for America ó the movement to put Howard Dean in the White House ó was optimistic and enthusiastic, with the campaign making especially impressive headway with traditionally disaffected college students. As the Guardian reported Feb. 2, UC employees overwhelmingly favored Dean over any other candidate, collectively contributing over $45,000 to his campaign.

    The money that UC employees gave to the former Vermont governor is chump change compared to the $14.8 million he raised in a three-month period, which makes Dean the most successful Democratic fundraiser in history. Most of this money was raked in through small gifts ($100 is the suggested donation) through his Web site, the hub for grassroots organization the likes of which America hasn’t seen since ó older generations tell me ó McGovern’s 1972 campaign.

    It seemed that Dean was unstoppable, or at least a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination. And then a “”Yeeeeeeeah!”” spelled “”no”” for the campaign. After the press painted Dean as angry, the formerly promising candidate made a disappointing showing at the Iowa caucus and, much more importantly, made the speech that signaled his demise.

    The speech itself was a variation of his stump speech, a pep talk to his supporters coming out of an unexpected Iowa defeat. He ended it with the “”yeah”” that echoed ëround the world ó or at least U.S. media outlets ó in altered form, with the volume of Dean’s voice cranked up while the volume of his cheering supporters was cranked way down.

    Was Dean’s speech, or the cry at the end of it, out of the ordinary? Hardly. Did the doctored version make him look like a red-faced idiot with deafening vitriol spewing out his mouth? Yes.

    The impact of such a misrepresentation can’t be underestimated; even staunch Dean supporters found themselves wavering, as Dean seemed to morph into a monster before their very eyes.

    All this shows that it doesn’t take votes, an honest debate or a superior candidate to take down a presidential hopeful. Instead, it simply takes a negative media portrayal engineered by a behind-the-scenes technician with sound editing equipment. The message is clear: Videos and sound bytes make or break candidates, and it only takes one damning media image to send a candidate on a downward spiral.

    This is more or less common knowledge ó President Bush, for example, knew that an image of him in a flight suit would burn into viewers’ minds a conception of him as heroic and hands-on ó but it’s shameful that such manipulation still dominates TV airwaves and that viewers don’t realize they’re being misled.

    Political candidates continually call for honorability, accountability, honesty and elections that focus on the issues. Somehow, this message never makes it through to TV newscasts, which continually ignore the issues upon which the election rests, dishonestly represent candidates and are held accountable solely by pundits who are quickly labeled “”conspiracy theorists”” or “”radicals.”” The power of TV as a medium comes from the power of images. How is it radical to acknowledge the power that these images truly have over us?

    Social psychologist Joel Charon writes, “”Humans act in a world they define, and although there may actually be a reality out there, their definition is far more important to what they do.”” American TV media outlets portrayed Howard Dean as a raving lunatic, and voters tailored their definition of him accordingly. Now his campaign is struggling, with Dean speaking of “”making his last stand”” in Wisconsin, dropping out of the race if he loses that state’s primary.

    Too often, current politics come down to simplistic assessments, sound bytes or flashy images. Wesley Clark blinks too little. George Bush blinks too much, stutters and smirks. John Edwards looks “”too young to be president,”” even though he’s 50 years old. John Kerry looks like the victim of botched plastic surgery. And Dean? He’s nothing more than a thick neck, a reddened face and a “”Yeeeeeeeeah!””

    Americans have a myriad of ways to cut through the TV media spin and go straight to the sources (like the candidates’ Web sites), but we prefer to bite off our news in spoonfuls of already-digested simplifications. In theory, watching the TV news is much better than not exposing oneself to any news at all, but when TV anchors do such a terrible job of fairly representing reality, the whole point it lost.

    As the Michigan and Washington caucuses approached ó in which Dean finished second ó the Boston Globe reported that the former Vermont governor is “”back in the ring.”” But was he ever out of the ring? Not to the 50 percent of voters who, according to a Feb. 6 Associated Press poll, disapprove of president Bush. In light of the admission that our reason to wage war on Iraq ó a cache of weapons of mass destruction ó doesn’t exist, support for our current president is slipping. His support is already down from the 56 percent that it was a mere month ago. In the same Associated Press poll, 43 percent of respondents said they would definitely vote for someone else, compared to 37 percent who said they would definitely vote for Bush.

    Most likely, these numbers come as surprising news. So far, the Democratic primaries have been treated like a joke, with Democratic candidates’ criticism of President Bush dismissed as partisan ramblings. Yet, Will Lester of the Associated Press reported, “”Bush’s 47 percent approval rating is the same as his father’s at this stage in his presidency 12 years ago before he lost to Bill Clinton.”” History could repeat itself this year.

    That is to say, while there may not be hope for Dean, there is most definitely hope for the other Democratic candidates. Just like in 2000, the election could come down to mere thousands of votes, and these thousands of votes will largely depend on how Democratic candidates are treated in the media. With Dean an easy target for negative media portrayals, John Kerry might slip past the media gauntlet mostly intact, with Democratic voters seeing him as a sane alternative to Dean’s angry, out-of-control ways. Perhaps this is already happening, as Kerry’s support is increasing exponentially.

    For Dean, everything depends on the Feb. 17 Wisconsin primary; he’s vowed to quit the race if he loses Wisconsin. What irony, considering that his staunch opposition to the Iraq war has been vindicated by Bush Administration officials’ admission that, in the words of former top U.S. weapons inspector David Kay, “”we were almost all wrong”” about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Yet stranger things have happened. An otherwise mundane moment has grown to define his entire campaign, thanks to some clever manipulation by an unseen hand.

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