TOPICS > Politics

Improving the Process

April 3, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It’s a new idea for Presidential candidates, and if it catches on, for other political hopefuls as well. It’s free air time for the candidates for the last month of the campaign. So far, five former network anchors, Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, Roger Mudd, Howard K. Smith, and Robert MacNeil, have joined in support of the idea with four senators, five former party chairmen, and others who run the gamut of the political spectrum. The drive is being organized by former “Washington Post” reporter Paul Taylor, now a consultant with the Pew Charitable Trust. I spoke with him earlier today.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Paul Taylor, thank you for joining us. Spell out for me the details of your proposal for offering free time to the Presidential candidates this October.

PAUL TAYLOR, Former Washington Post Reporter: Well, I’m trying to persuade the networks to offer two to five minutes a night in the heart of prime time in the last month or so of the general election, so from roughly October 1st through election day. The key to me is in the heart of prime time to reach out to an audience, they may have sort of dropped out of the public square, they may not watch the nightly news, they may not read their newspapers, and they may not vote, and try to give them substance, give them a format, a couple of minutes a night, long enough for the candidates to say something substantive, short enough to engage their attention, and, and the other critical thing is to make sure the candidates, themselves, are on the screen. I think what a lot of people don’t like about the way the conversation is now held on television is that it’s either these 30 second attack ads, or these eight or nine second sound bites on a network evening news. The 30 second attack ad, in 30 seconds, you don’t really have enough time to make an affirmative case for who you are or what you believe in, but particularly in a cynical culture, you have plenty of time to gouge the other guy’s eyes out, and, and so that’s why you get so much attack in these 30 second ads. Rarely, these have the candidate carry the attack. It’s usually some unseen narrator or some visual image. Let’s have the candidates talk. If they want to attack their opponents, fine, but then bear responsibility for it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How would this work? I mean, would they have–would you have a moderator, or would they just stand there and talk to each other? Explain that to me.

PAUL TAYLOR: No. In the model I’m proposing no moderators, no journalists, and no surrogates–you know, if we project forward to this October–Clinton gets five minutes on a Monday night, let’s say, 8:55 or 9:55 in the evening, Dole gets the same five minutes on a Tuesday night, Clinton again on a Wednesday. You build in some mechanism for third parties to qualify. You know, I’m an ex-journalist. I spent 25 years as a journalist, and I believe journalists have a vital role to play as vigilant watchdogs and independent analysts of what the candidates say, but I think particularly on television the journalists have–need to occasionally back out of the screen.


PAUL TAYLOR: Well, there’s a group called the Center for Media and Public Affairs which their content analyses are the network evening news broadcasts, and when they cover politics, you get eight minutes of reporters and pundits for every one minute you get of the candidates. I think we need to carve out a new format of communication on, on network television which gets to the biggest audience and give the candidates in this last month a clean shot at the voter.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Why is that? Why do they need that?

PAUL TAYLOR: Well, I mean–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I mean, what is this designed to achieve?

PAUL TAYLOR: This is designed to arm voters with the information they need to make the most important choice any democracy makes, which is to elect the highest office, officer in the land, and I think at the moment, the, the candidates don’t get an unfettered message, that we currently have the debates, which I think are terrific, and they get a big audience. They happen–they’ll happen four times this year. But this is an effort to have an ongoing format night after night that sort of carries the conversation for the final month. Now, the conversation, as I say, is carried in these short sound bites and in these attack ads and I think the net, the net result of that is for the viewers to sort of look at it and look at the sort of circus, what I call kind of the pro wrestling of campaigning, and say, doesn’t interest me, there are these two jokers, they’re going after each other, and they have surrogates going after each other, and one of the results is you’ve got the lowest voter turnout in the world, or one of the half dozen lowest voter turnouts in the world. Virtually every other country in the world, every other mature democracy, does make time available to its candidates in this kind of format to ensure substance and civility.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What assurance do you have that the candidates would rise to a different level of discourse? I mean, why not–I think it was Marvin Kalb who in a somewhat critical article on this approach said that in those last few days the candidates were more likely to be cautious or more likely to try and attack their opposition.

PAUL TAYLOR: I’m all for the candidates doing whatever they want to do. It’s their campaign. What I’m suggesting is we would like to create a format–right now the debate is carried by attack ads and sound bites. Let’s make the most important thing they do for the last month a two or three or five minute speech to the biggest audience America assembles. Will they rise to the occasion and give us better discourse? I don’t know. But if they don’t, I trust a jury of the American public to punish them for it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You’ve taken this idea to the, to four networks.


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What’s been the reaction?

PAUL TAYLOR: Well, Rupert Murdoch, Fox Network, came on their own, having nothing to do with my efforts, came forward about a month ago and proposed something similar. I’ve gone to the other three. I’ve gotten a good, respectful hearing from them. I think they’re considering it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Comments I’ve seen in the newspaper, though, from the network executives range from ABC saying that they already have public affairs shows like the Brinkley Show, which gives an opportunity for more than sound bites, thoughtful discussion. CBS’ vice president said this abrogates journalists’ responsibility just to turn it over to the candidates to let them have at it. On those two points.

PAUL TAYLOR: Yes. You know, if you are a conscientious consumer of political information, you can get more on television in 1996 than you probably could get at any time in human history, and that’s all to the good. But the fact is there are a lot of people who aren’t conscientious consumers, because there is something in the way that the conversation happens on television that does not draw them into the democratic process; it drives them away. I think part of what drives them away are the reporters. And, again, I spent 25 years as a reporter. Cronkite, Chancellor, Mudd, MacNeil, these are all pretty serious journalists. I don’t believe they would advocate anything that suggests that journalists don’t have a vital role to play. Of course, we have a vital role to play. What I’m suggesting is I think in some ways we perhaps overplay our role and overplay our hand, and there are moments where part of our responsibility is to back out of the screen a little bit and let the candidates get direct, clean shots at the voter.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Give me a specific of how journalists get in the way.

PAUL TAYLOR: Well, one oft quoted statistic is the shrinking sound bite. Twenty years ago, on the network evening news, presidential candidates got an average of 42 seconds of uninterrupted speech when they, when they were shown. Now that’s down to eight seconds. And the, the people who have replaced the candidates have been the journalists, themselves. Yes, there have been a proliferation of, of talk shows, but what you get is more and more talk from more and more journalists sometimes in a rather cynical mode that it seems to me encourages viewers to sort of tower above the political system and look on it with a smirk.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The other argument I’ve heard against this idea from network executives who don’t necessarily want to go on the record, but they say that–to us and to our reporters, people won’t watch, they just will not watch two minutes or five minutes of talking heads.

PAUL TAYLOR: That’s part of the reason to put it in the heart of prime time. Go fish where the fish are. That’s where most Americans are at 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening, settled down to watch their favorite shows, try to borrow their time. There’s something a little bit intrusive about this, I’m the first to acknowledge. People have said it’s kind of an “eat your peas” sort of approach. Pay attention, it’s the presidency. I think in the last month, you know, in October of a presidential year, I think the vast majority of Americans would watch, would be interested, and if you, again, did it night after night, they would remember what Clinton said last night and they’d be maybe curious about what Dole had to say in response. Meantime, the other thing I hope would happen is in the intervening 24 hours, all of the journalists, all of the pundits would get their wack at this. I mean, we, of course, would have a role to play, but this would then become sort of a base line for defining what happened that day, rather than the photo op, the sound bite, the little snippets. And I think it’s a much healthier base line–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Why television and not print?

PAUL TAYLOR: Well, I would say two reasons. First, television is the most important medium for political communication, but I would think that if, if this were to happen on television, virtually every newspaper in the country would carry transcripts of these two or three or five minute speeches because they would be the most newsworthy thing that happened in the campaign that day. The second distinction is that the air waves belong to the American people. They are licensed to broadcasters, the broadcasters have a public interest obligation. Printing presses belong to publishers, and there is no government license, so there is a distinction there as well.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Why would networks give up millions of dollars in advertising revenue, which is what they would have to do, in order to give these minutes? Why would they do that?

PAUL TAYLOR: Because it’s good, it’s good–I think it’s good for America, I think they feel sensitive, I think they should feel sensitive that many people in the political system and many voters are not happy with the way the political conversation is currently conducted on television.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Could this be ready by the Fall?

PAUL TAYLOR: Oh, it can happen tomorrow. I mean, there are mechanical and logistical problems, but all you need is a nod of yes from the networks, and this will happen.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Are you optimistic?

PAUL TAYLOR: I’m very optimistic.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Let me ask you this, Paul Taylor. You, yourself, had something to do with changing the political discourse in America years ago when Gary Hart was running for President. You asked the “A” question: Have you ever committed adultery? Looking back on that and looking at the thing you’re working on today, what are your thoughts about that? Did you make a mistake?

PAUL TAYLOR: No. I don’t think I made a mistake, although it did, it did lead me to doing a lot of soul searching about what the nature of journalism was in this era. Here was a case where a candidate was found to have spent a weekend with a woman who wasn’t his wife and half his age, and he denied any impropriety, and he had, he had said, you know, judge me on my record, I’ve always held myself to the highest standards of morality. It seemed to me that that opened a normal line of inquiry to what his standards of morality were. But to the extent–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Would you ask it today?

PAUL TAYLOR: Only if you had–if you had the same set of circumstances, absolutely, but one of the things I reacted to was the notion because that question had been asked once of a presidential candidate and was perceived to have led to his, you know, the demise of his candidacy, this was now a threshold test that we should ask every public official, to which I said, ah, come on, that’s ridiculous. And, you know, what, what we saw between ’88 and ’92, in ’92, Bill Clinton had his own sort of firestorm, you know, on the adultery question with Gennifer Flowers coming forth, and there was the usual media frenzy, and everything else, and the public took it all in, was titillated to some degree by it, but the candidate got beyond it. In some ways, the country got beyond it, so–and so I, you know, my sense is I really do have a lot of faith in the American public, and they sort these things out, and they decide what it’s important and what isn’t.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Paul Taylor, thank you.

PAUL TAYLOR: Thank you.