Here's a letter to the editor of the SB NewsPress that I submitted this evening. I'll let you know if/when it gets published. (Update: It was published on 9/13/08.)
It began during the 1952 presidential election, when war-hero Eisenhower—“I like Ike”—beat untelegenic Stevenson—sloganless egghead. Next, handsome Kennedy’s appearance in a televised debate, contrasted with stubble-bearded Nixon’s, forecast the result of the 1960 election. By “it” I mean the indisputable fact that many Americans’ choice for president is dictated by commercial television’s superficial, capsulized diagnoses of the candidates’ proclivities rather than by the merits of his/her character and programs.
Sometimes, the outcome results from TV’s characterization of the eventual loser: Goldwater—warmonger; Humphrey—LBJ clone; McGovern, Carter, Dukakis, Mondale—wimps; Dole, Bush I—colorless; Gore—wooden; Kerry—waffler. Other times, it’s based on TV’s casting of the winner: Reagan—trustworthy, affable; Clinton—bright, bubba; Bush II—beer buddy. Occasionally, TV’s negative snapshot of one candidate, coupled with its positive image of the other, results in a landslide, as happened with both of Reagan’s victories.
The upcoming election reveals the frightening culmination of this process. With only weeks to go, it’s been reduced to Obama, newcomer rockstar, versus McCain, war-weathered maverick. Even the veep race has become infected by the image of God-fearing, gun-toting, game-changing Palin.
I fear for our nation, because with all that’s at stake, the many Americans who rely on commercial television for their news and views may once again cast their votes based on electoral information presented by the same folks who peddle beer and pretzels—and presented with the same degree of intelligence, depth and care.