Internet/Telecom/Social Media

Covering political rallies: Who decides what TV cameras show?

For months we in the US of A have been watching candidates for our presidency speak at rallies and the apparently endless debates hosted by, it seems, everybody but fast-food chains.

We know that candidates dicker with presidential debate sponsors on everything: sitting or standing, size of lectern if standing, boosters for the short of stature, position on the podium with respect to other candidates, favorable lighting, what television cameras may or may not shoot, and so on. Candidates negotiate for every possible advantage. They demand control. We expect this at debates.

But what about those loud, noisy, seemingly chaotic political rallies? Candidates stroll onto stage surrounded by cheering supporters (handpicked, I bet), American flags waving and red, white and blue confetti swirling in the air. We see these scenes repeatedly on CNN or Fox or MSNBC or the broadcast networks, especially during CNN’s “Ballot Bowl” —which offers “unfiltered views of the candidates.” (Ballot Bowl is usually bereft of reporting that challenges candidates’ messaging, which I detest.)

Regarding these campaign rallies: Who decides what the TV cameras show?

It’s no secret that candidates seek control over their images and their messages. But so much of that messaging is inherent in the televised image, which is overtly or covertly controlled by candidates’ handlers. Political consultants control who or what surrounds their candidates on screen. Writes Jim Hoagland in The Washington Post:

Funds raised on the Internet flow into the other part of the air war that could determine this election: the organizing and broadcasting of images containing subliminal or unstated messages for a national television audience. But neither the mechanics of Internet fundraising nor the selling of the candidates, 2008, have received the media scrutiny they deserve. [emphasis added]

Watch CNN (or your TV news of choice). See the candidate preen before a camera. It’s usually a tight frame on the candidate, or pulled sufficiently wide to see who is cheering behind or alongside the candidate — but usually not much more.

Writes Mr. Hoagland about Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s South Carolina speech on Jan. 26:

His mastery was impressive. And so was that of his image managers, I gradually concluded. I marveled at the sea of white faces nodding approvingly or cheering wildly behind Obama. Then I realized that only a sprinkling of the black voters and volunteers who helped power the candidate’s victory in my home state had made it onto the platform seats behind Obama, in range of the national eye.

Was it possible these voters had not come to celebrate their victory? Hardly. Reporters in the hall saw Obama campaign workers usher photogenic white families toward the platform as they entered. The scene they composed was an effective, calculated rebuttal of the Clintons’ effort to portray Obama as a black candidate whose victory depended on race …

Such manipulation has become so commonplace that few other journalists bothered to mention the Carolina campaign tableau in their coverage, even though [one journalist] estimated that 85 percent of the crowd was African American. [emphasis added]

(See Sen. Obama’s speech).

I’ve never worked in broadcast journalism. But I wonder: Who decides where cameras are placed at political rallies? Who decides what the cameras will or will not show? CNN’s (or other news organizations’) producers? Campaign organizers? If a big-time political rally is covered by local broadcast stations (which may not have the political heft of CNN or Fox or MSNBC), do those stations simply allow rally organizers to dictate terms of camera placement and coverage?

Is this all “pool” camera coverage in which several news organizations share a single camera feed? Even if it is, who decides what the camera shows? I don’t know.

I only I know what I see on the screen — and it’s usually not enough to provide me a fuller “truth” of the event. Isn’t “truth” supposed to be the work product of journalists? (Or am I just impossibly naive?)

Let’s not just pick on the campaign of Sen. Obama. From Mr. Hoagland:

Team Clinton is just as ruthless, if not as adept, in arranging on-message human backdrops. Clinton’s stage managers in Iowa flanked her with the experience-heavy faces of her husband; his former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright; and retired Gen. Wesley Clark. But defeat in Iowa got them cut out of the picture in New Hampshire in favor of teenage girls. Now Clinton appears most often alone on stage.

For his part, John McCain is customarily surrounded on stage by members of the Republican establishment, which shot down his 2000 campaign. Other photo mates tend to be veterans and national security figures, put there to recall McCain’s status as an authentic war hero and his promises to keep America safe. [emphasis added]

If I could attend a political rally of a presidential candidate (assuming I could get in; some candidates only permit true believers to attend), and if I could get my video camera in, and if some security guy didn’t snatch it away, I’d pan the crowd while the candidate spoke. I’d try to show everything CNN et al. did not show. Hey – isn’t that what YouTube is for? To show the rest of the story? To show the artificial messaging inherent in politics?

Presidential candidates are being sold to us through branding and messaging. We should be aware of the techniques they use and the degree to which the press is co-opted by candidates’ marketing ploys.

6 replies »

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  2. I’ve never worked in broadcast journalism.

    I think you left some quotation marks out – that should be “broadcast journalism.”

    Isn’t “truth” supposed to be the work product of journalists? (Or am I just impossibly naive?)

    We’ve been through this. Fact is the job of journalists. Truth is the domain of poets and bloggers.

    In any case, I’m reminded of Bill Moyers’ outstanding feature on “Consuming Images.” It’s remarkable how far we’ve come even since Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, isn’t it?

  3. “The scene they composed was an effective, calculated rebuttal of the Clintons’ effort to portray Obama as a black candidate whose victory depended on race”

    What’s wrong with that? I’m sick of hearing on CNN and Fox and blog after blog and comment after comment how Obama can only draw black voters, almost as sick as I am of hearing on CNN and Fox that as a Latino, I must be for Hillary. I’m certain Obama’s human, and was sick of it too.

  4. I, like Sam, was reminded immediately of Postman, Denny. In fact, of his appearance in the Moyers’ film in which he described the need for analytic tools for deciphering “visual rhetoric” – (Postman referenced the famous McDonald’s ad in which the busy dad takes time out to take his young daughter to Micky D’s where they get hamburgers, go to a park, and eat them with expressions akin to ecstasy). As far as I can tell, the pictures from political debates and especially from rallies and victory/concession speeches are all largely versions of that McD’s commercial even down to the use of tag lines….

    While YouTube offers rebuttal for some visual rhetoric, it doesn’t offer analysis. We’re still working at developing that. And we need to work harder….