He never had a chance:
The U.S. media's portrayal of Ross Perot's exclusion
from the 1996 debates
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Wisconsin-Madison
5115 Vilas Communication Hall
821 University Avenue
Madison, WI 53706
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Paper submitted to the Qualitative Studies Division
of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
1997 convention, July 30 - August 2, in Chicago, Illinois.
He never had a chance:
The U.S. media's portrayal of Ross Perot's exclusion
from the 1996 debates
This paper examines how Ross Perot, his party, and his campaign were portrayed
in the U.S. media, especially during his fight to gain entry to the 1996
presidential candidates debate. Using a sample of approximately 120 media news
stories and qualitative analysis, this paper explores the media's use of routine
practices, marginalizing devices, and their focus on individuals as hegemonic
methods for supporting the two-party electoral system or the status quo.
The third-party candidate who has come closest to challenging the status quo of
the United State's two-party system in recent times is Ross Perot. In the 1992
presidential election, Perot received 19 percent of the vote -- way too close
for comfort. The next time around the power bloc of elites made sure Perot
would not look, act, nor be portrayed as appealing. In the 1996 presidential
election, he received 5 percent of the vote. This paper considers how the
mainstream media as part of the elite power bloc portrayed and represented Perot
in news coverage during this year's election and how the media operated to keep
him from being a contender. In particular, this paper concentrates on the media
coverage of Perot during the period of debate over whether he would be permitted
to join the presidential debates and after he was denied participation in those
debates. This analysis is based on a review of a sample of approximately 120
stories "covering" Perot during his 1996 campaign from the approximately 1,000
listed in 1996 from the mainstream media of TV, radio, newspapers, and news
magazines on Lexis-Nexis. This paper explores the media's use of marginalizing
devices, the media's focus on individuals, and the media's routines and their
resulting intentionality in supporting the hegemonic structure of U.S. society.
A hegemonic view of the system within which the media operate seems appropriate.
The analysis concludes that the mainstream media operated within the hegemonic
power structure of elite blocs (Hall, 1986) that never really allowed Perot to
be considered a viable option during the election season; although his presence
in the campaign and in some news coverage demonstrated the hegemony's tolerance
for other points of view, it merely served as an inoculation (Barthes, 1973, as
cited in Fiske, 1987, p. 290-1) or escape valve for the system to reinforce its
As Rachlin noted in his book, News as Hegemonic Reality (1988):
A press free from legal constraints imposed by an oppressive government
can still undermine the possibility of pluralism and the requirements of
democracy, if it is constrained instead by a narrow vision of the world that
reproduces existing social relationships by inhibiting the possibility of
or even imagining alternative realities (p.4).
Sadly, judging from previous studies (Gitlin, 1980; Rachlin, 1988), most
journalists covering the elections did not even realize they were shutting out
alternatives to change while supporting the status quo. Perot as a news figure
was schizophrenic: At times the media would treat him as one of the regular
candidates; but most of the time the media would ignore him as if he had never
declared his candidacy. The greatest support for his inclusion in the election
and in the debates was found on the editorial pages, where guest columnists and
letters to the editor were allowed to speak on Perot's behalf. The media goal
that was never lost, however, was to uphold the current two-party system.
Marginalizing people in media stories serves to figuratively push them to the
edges of the news page often through the use of denigrating description and
phrasing. This is the standard media treatment of any persons who challenge the
mainstream, from alleged criminals to protesters to third-party candidates,
according to a number of authors (Gitlin, 1980; McLeod & Hertog, 1992).
Journalists do not include this practice among their typical "routines" of
coverage, therefore, it is necessary to highlight and study these practices in
compelling situations. In this case, Perot belongs to the mainstream in a
number of ways, such as economically because he is a successful entrepreneur and
corporate leader. Most interestingly, however, his political positions received
media treatment similar to that experienced by other candidates considered
deviant, such as Ralph Nader.
Marginalizing treatment of non-status quo individuals and/or movements is not
unusual. Gitlin (1980) made a strong case for how the New York Times and CBS-TV
news used discounting frames for much of their coverage of the anti-Vietnam War
movement. Many of the framing devices he outlines were used in coverage of
Perot: trivialization, disparagement by numbers, and polarization or comparison
with other third-party groups rather than the majority parties. Perot's
campaign received constant disparagement by numbers when the media reported on
the latest polls that showed him far behind the majority party candidates. Many
of these stories also compared Perot's performance in the polls to his much
larger draw in the 1992 election, although they did not make the same comparison
for Clinton with the same regularity. As Perot himself pointed out in one ad,
what if he had the support of the millions of Americans who do not vote? Their
numbers are not considered in those polls nor in election results percentages.
The constant repetition of Perot's percentage draw in the polls seems to reflect
a latent anxiety of the media's regarding: What if Perot did become more
popular? By listing his poll numbers, the media seem to be implying that only
that fringe 5 percent would waste their votes on him. Some media covered the
"alternative debate" for third party candidates, which Perot did not attend;
some media also covered a request for Perot and Ralph Nader to debate. But
these events were treated as sideshows to the "real" debates which took place
between Clinton and Dole. The implication in these stories was quite clear that
Perot should be happy to participate in these "other" debates, even though he
was not allowed to join the "big house" debates.
"Do I intend to campaign to the bitter end? Yes," Perot told a National Press
Club audience, clearly relishing a moment in the spotlight after months in
his third-party candidacy has been marginalized by Dole, President Clinton and
apparent public disinterest.
But not the media? This writer for the Chicago Tribune (Oct. 25, 1996) easily
removed himself or herself from any responsibility for how Perot was and is in
this article being treated. Typically, the reasons for any "apparent public
disinterest" or how this determination was made was not included in the article.
Later in the same article:
Just weeks before, the Dole campaign had angered Perot and his Reform Party
partisans by successfully demanding that Perot be excluded from the
Perot's exclusion from the two debates, combined with his decision to
accept federal matching funds--and thus not spend huge personal sums as he did
effectively in 1992--has left the Texan often out of sight and out of the
How would this writer know who is on the public's mind and who is not? (Nor
sources cited showing that Perot was absent from "the public's mind.")
writer noted: The debate snub did not go unmentioned by Perot during his
This phrasing certainly implies that perhaps the "debate snub" as opposed to
debate exclusion should remain unmentioned and that it is Perot who keeps
bringing it up rather than quietly letting it go and accepting his fate as an
outsider. Despite these assertions, these questions about his participation in
the debate, were not addressed in this article, which concludes:
He reiterated his now well-honed trademark themes, including the need for
campaign-finance reform, shrinking the national debt and federal deficit,
reversing wage stagnation, and criticism of the NAFTA and GATT trade
But in this venue Perot apparently reiterates "well-honed trademark themes," as
opposed to discussing real issues or concerns about government and society.
This approach to non-mainstream candidates is so ingrained that this
reporter/writer probably has no idea how these phrasings placed Perot in "the
public's mind." In fact, the reporter/writer probably thought he or she did a
good job of getting across Perot's main issues with that last paragraph. Of
course, this should not be surprising considering the hegemony within which the
mass media operates. "The journalist sees with the lens provided by his/her
culture and writes to an audience that is expected to be viewing the world in a
similar manner," Rachlin notes. (1988, p. 125). How members of the public (and
the media audience) viewed Perot is another matter, but one which cannot be
inferred by discerning the "preferred reading" of any of these media stories or
suggesting alternative readings. Each type of reading is an option.
A Dallas Morning News reporter, Lori Stahl, presented Perot and his concerns in
a similarly marginalizing manner in the Oct. 17, 1996 issue. The article began:
Shunted aside for the second time, Ross Perot tried to establish a media
presence Wednesday night by preceding the presidential debate with a 30-minute
ad on NBC-TV and following up with a post-debate appearance on CNN.
The taped infomercial, titled "Follow the Money," featured Perot and
mate Pat Choate discussing one of the Reform Party's pet issues: campaign
In this case, issues considered important by Perot's campaign are marginalized
by labeling them "pet," the way we have pet or silly concerns about salad
dressing or gift wrap or pets; each is something considered small or
insignificant. Rather than being singled out for raising and hammering home the
issue of campaign finance reform throughout the final stage of the campaign (as
some columnists noted), Perot's concern is denigrated as a "pet" one. The use
of the word "pet" also may point to the position and credit given third parties
overall: small, minor. Major, and therefore legitimate, political parties have
real concerns; third parties have "pet" issues.
"A discourse bears a specific ideology and through that relates to the dominant
ideology" (Fiske, p. 66). In the case of the news media, each article carries
the ideology that stems from the dominant ideology that supports the system,
which in this case is a two-party electoral process. To include Perot as a
regular candidate, would be to challenge that ideology in each and every story.
Because the dominant ideology does not recognize Perot as a true candidate,
individual reporters, news anchors, and copy editors (who write headlines) can
inject words, phrases, and frames that otherwise would be seen as marginalizing
to regular candidates.
These examples are mild compared to more blatant ones. For example, a
voice-over in a report for ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley" (October 6,
1996) referred to Perot as "that little guy in the middle" of the screen as a
video shot showed Perot standing on stage between George Bush and Clinton during
one of the 1992 debates. The "little" refers to Perot's height, especially in
comparison with Bush and Clinton. Apparently height has become an important
campaign (or debate) criterion.
Marginalization through the feminine
While most candidates are ridiculed nightly by television comedians, candidates
are not supposed to be made fun of during regular news programs. In Perot's
case, however, the rules were bent to allow for marginalization of his looks and
delegitimization of his candidacy. In an Oct. 31, 1996 article in the Hartford
Courant, several paragraphs are devoted to opinions about Perot's ears and
height. For example, the writer quotes a former Perot adviser who claimed Perot
has "small man's complex." The article continues: "Even some supporters concede
that with his big ears, a sort of wet-look crewcut and high-pitched Texas drawl,
Perot is easy to caricature, but they say
Perot's personal appearance and mannerisms are irrelevant." After discussing
Perot's appearance for several paragraphs, the phrase "but they say Perot's
personal appearance and mannerisms are irrelevant" does not discount the prior
assertions. Perot's appearance is discussed almost as if he were a woman, whose
appearance naturally would come under discussion, much as that of Hillary
Clinton's (and Chelsea Clinton's at times) is a constant source of comment and
criticism. This feminization of Perot serves to weaken him as a candidate who,
ideally, should appear strong, according to the dominant ideology. As Fiske
wrote (in a somewhat different context, but which seems applicable here), "The
masculine bears the dominant ideology. The feminine enacts the strategy of
resistance" (1987, p. 308). As a challenger to the dominant ideology, Perot
must be represented in the feminine.
In pure contrast is the media's attention to Bob Dole's war injuries, which
left him with no use of his right arm; he is represented as a hero rather than
an emasculated or feminized victim. (However, the tables were turned on him
after he fell off a platform stage one day and several newspapers ran an
unflattering photo of him after he had fallen.)
For the most part, coverage rarely focused on the greater issue Perot's
candidacy raises: Is there room for any alternative parties in U.S. politics
and government? Instead coverage followed the conventional format of focusing
on recency, events, novelty, and individuals. "Social and political issues are
only reported if they can be embodied in an individual, and thus social conflict
of interest is personalized into conflict between individuals" (Fiske, 1987, p.
294). In this case, Perot's candidacy was added to the conflict between the
major-party candidacies of Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican Bob Dole.
Well-immersed in the system of news and the greater system of the society, the
major party candidates followed this structuring as well. When asked why he
asked Perot to drop his campaign and send his supporters to Dole's camp, Dole
said: "I think I can beat one candidate, but it's hard to beat two" (Interview,
ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley, Nov. 3, 1996). Even Dole framed it as a
battle of individuals rather than ideas or parties.
Journalism especially likes to use this individualization of stories to show
when something should be considered a problem or erroneous. Gitlin (1980)
argues that when journalists focus on the negative, such as Watergate, they zero
in on individuals, such as Nixon, who are dismissed as bad apples, rather than
examining the system that let those individuals thrive. The news reports
analyzed in this study, clearly show Perot as the pushy, unworthy third-party
candidate who should be dismissed because of his height, accent, use of ads, and
use of graphs, among other reasons, rather than considering a change in a system
that promotes two candidates from two major parties at the expense of other
candidates and political parties.
Since other third-party candidates were rarely mentioned in news coverage,
Perot had to stand in for all of them. As Fiske (1987, p. 294) notes,
individuals whose voices are heard in the news are carefully selected. Perot
was lucky he got any news play, although the reason he advanced as far as he did
rests on his stature among the economic elite. He also was lucky he (or his
campaign manager) was allowed to speak for himself on many occasions, although
not as often as the other leading candidates. One CNN report (Oct. 1, 1996)
noted: "This year Ross Perot is only one of many presidential candidates being
excluded (from the debates)." So he should feel better that he is not alone?
In this case, Perot's status is marginalized as he is grouped with all the other
third-party candidates; this presents an appearance of fairness since all the
"many presidential candidates" -- except the two mainstream candidates -- were
excluded from the debates. It implies the unasked question: Why can't Perot
accept this as (most of) the other candidates have?
Perot's dual role -- that of business titan yet political extremist (since he
was bucking the two-party system) -- makes his story an interesting one for
analysis. He both received more press coverage because of his economic status
and was marginalized because of the threat he posed when he came too close by
startling the status quo with 19 percent of the vote in 1992. Ironically, it is
the system he supports economically that silenced him politically.
Perot is not alone
In a case study of how the media handled Democrat Larry Agran's campaign for
his party's presidential nomination in 1992, Meyrowitz (1994) writes: "...By
marginalising Agran, the US press transformed his campaign into a form of social
deviance and silenced him much more effectively than could have been
accomplished by the crude acts of censorship used by totalitarian states" (p.
Like Perot, Agran received little media coverage for his positions on issues --
or most anything else. The greatest coverage he received resulted from an
disruption to a public forum for which Agran was arrested (Meyrowitz, 1994).
Perot, too, gained the greatest media coverage not based on his candidacy but on
his fight to gain access to the debates which he participated in four years ago.
The most stories produced about Perot came during October when he was battling
to join the debates. In addition, in San Diego his campaign merited two stories
in the local press when one debate was held there; Perot's coverage concerned
the vandals who cut the letters P-E-R-O-T into shrubs that were visible from the
For Agran, finally at the Democratic convention in 1992, he was literally
"othered" by the media; he received "a few delegate votes," but they were listed
on TV screens as votes for 'Other' (Meyrowitz, 1994, p. 101).
Media's Structure Reinforces Hegemony
Several aspects of the media's overall structure and routines serve to
reinforce the hegemony of the system. News "makes sense of the real and
controls potential anarchic polysemy" through several methods (Fiske, 1987, p.
283). Categorization and segmentation of events act to remove events from any
potential interconnection with any other aspects of society. In Perot's case,
his exclusion from the debates became an isolated issue for his campaign, rather
than a question of how third parties would be treated in the United States or
its political system. As Gitlin (1980) points out, the media cover the event,
not the condition. The media also prefer to cover the fact that advances the
story (provides recency and novelty) rather than what explains a story (Gitlin,
1980, p. 122). As a result, the audience is left on its own to figure out what
it all means; while the active audience is capable of doing this, it is hampered
by a lack of context or explanation about what was covered in the news. The
concentration on recency of news (Fiske, 1987, p. 283) serves to decontextualize
or remove events from any historical context, development, or flow that would
potentially aid understanding of them and their effects in society.
The use of accepted news values, such as novelty or surprisingness, allows the
media to follow a formula (Fiske, 1987); Perot challenges the media because he
does not fit into the formula. He did not hold press conferences; he did not
grant media interviews; he communicated mostly through TV ads and on one TV talk
show (CNN's "Larry King Live"). Of course, trying to fit into the formula may
not work either; Meyrowitz uses great detail to point out how Agran did all the
things expected of a serious candidate but received almost no national media
Another organizational factor that leads to less coverage of third-party
candidates is budget ceilings; for major news organizations, each candidate
deemed legitimate requires another reporter and her or his salary, plus
expenses, to follow the campaign, according to Gitlin (1980, p. 264). Twenty
years later, Meyrowitz (1994, p. 102) found that not much had changed in this
Both national and local journalists were very concerned with their limited
resources and were eager to narrow the coverage down to a limited
number of candidates as soon as possible, even as polls showed the
public disenchanted with all the 'major' candidates and in search of
Another aspect to narrowing down the coverage is to seek the traditional binary
opposition which keeps journalism simpler, neater, and more efficient to
produce. The maxim "there are two sides to every story" serves to keep
journalists covering only two very similar points of view in most stories,
especially concerning politics. A closer step to "reality" would be considering
the many sides and greater diversity available on every story, especially those
about politics. To allow Perot into the debates and to risk his actual winning
would throw the journalistic community into a tailspin. Since Perot did not
campaign as a traditional candidate nor use traditional means of campaigning,
his presidency likely would break with the status quo as well. As part of the
ruling system (especially through corporate ownership of the media), the media
cannot risk losing its place, its mode of survival, nor its profits.
The media frames elections in sports metaphors as a way of marginalizing the
entire political process so it will not be taken as a serious means of change.
Use of game metaphors or sports metaphors makes the whole campaign and elections
a trifling; it is just a game, or sport, rather than something that could truly
affect or make a difference in American society (whether or not it would).
Grabbing onto metaphors (or their more overworked clich s) serves "to close
meanings down rather than open them up," (Fiske, 1987, p. 293). Particularly in
election campaigns, the "race" metaphor serves to highlight the contest between
individuals rather than the potential debate over real issues or problems in
society. In this case, Perot was the unwelcome challenger who belongs to the
wrong league. His rejection from the debates could be compared to not gaining
the wild-card berth for the playoffs; it comes down to a few decisions by a
handful of people.
Both the candidates and the press engage in this metaphor-speak. For example,
an article from the October 7, 1996, St. Petersburg Times begins this way:
After going one-on-one with President Clinton, Bob Dole will regret that he
excluded Ross Perot from participating in the presidential debates, Perot
"Sen. Dole will probably be missing me a lot. He would wish that there
third person there because it's just one-on-one tonight, and that will be a
tough game," Perot said on CBS' Face the Nation.
Perot, who lost a court battle to reverse the decision by the Commission
on Presidential Debates that shut him out of the face-offs, took his case to
the nation Sunday.
This story ranges from one-on-one basketball to a generic game to face-offs from
hockey, a mixture of sports metaphors. Of course, the overall structuring of
campaigns as a "race" relies on the sports metaphor. In another example, the
press put Perot in the midst of it (same article): "Perot also insisted that he
will stay in the race, regardless of his exclusion from the debates and his
difficulties in buying television air time." While many journalists, academics,
and politicians complain about media coverage of elections as a "horse race"
featuring daily accounts of where candidates place in the latest polls, the
overall positioning of the campaign and election as a game of sport denigrates
process, the people involved (including potential voters), and the issues at
stake. Campaigns are frequently referred to as "teams" (CNN, Oct. 7, 1996). Of
course, one must make the team; ABC News with Peter Jennings (Sept. 17, 1996)
began one report this way: "The cut today was made by the Presidential Debates
Commission which announced that Ross Perot did not make the cut for the
televised debates." (He was even redundant in his use of the word "cut.")
By allowing Perot into the debates, or onto the field of public discourse, so
speak, would have carried him out to the public audience via the polysemy of the
television message (Fiske, 1987, p. 65-6), which is risky for the status quo;
what if more people than expected liked his ideas? To use a sports metaphor,
what if the fans switched their allegiance to another team?
These many methods of journalistic routines, from the use of standard news
judgments to the use of metaphors, are taken for granted by American
journalists; indeed, as a journalism skills instructor, I teach them. Yet taken
together they produce an intentionality of support for the status quo, the
current overarching system in the U.S. Fiske (1987) explains these conventions
as "an important part of news's struggle to contain and defuse the disruptive
forces at work in society while fulfilling its obligation to represent them" (p.
285-6). Closely related to these routines or conventions are the "truths" that
masquerade as common sense in our society. Media justifications for not
covering Perot as a full-fledged candidate (and Agran for that matter) represent
some of the key "truths" in our system. The first is that only people who have
a chance of winning are covered by the media, and the second is that the
two-party system is the best way to proceed. These "truths" remain exnominated;
they make so much "common sense" (Hall, 1986, p. 431) that they do not have to
be explained, justified, nor taught. Their value is obvious to those who are
As Stuart Hall (1986, p. 424) writes of Gramsci's theory of hegemony, it has a
"multi-dimensional, multi-arena character" with a "basis of unity" that rests on
a "system of alliances" (p. 425). This theory can be applied as a well-fitting
explanation of the media's portrayal of Perot. The media in the U.S. constitute
one system of information dissemination whose ownership is divided among several
large corporations, many medium-size corporations, and some small corporations.
Thus, this system's alliance falls neatly in line with the goals of the economic
ruling class, also known as the business interests. Both the media and
business interests need to work on several levels with those in the political
sphere, thereby forming another alliance. An analysis of the interconnections
of these groups could fill many books, but it is important to recognize their
mutual needs and interests that lead to the formation of a power bloc of forces
that guide and maintain today's hegemonic structure in the United States.
Describing Gramsci's theory of hegemony as "a ruling class's (or alliance's)
domination of subordinate classes and groups through the elaboration and
penetration of ideology (ideas and assumptions) into their common sense and
everyday practice" (1980, p. 253), Gitlin specifically discussed the press's
role in maintaining the hegemony of U.S. society in his book, The Whole World is
Watching. "...The mass media are, to say the least, a significant social force
in the forming and delimiting of public assumptions, attitudes, and moods -- of
ideology, in short," Gitlin wrote (p. 9). However, the media, like other
institutions in society, may at times be at odds with the dominating forces.
Gitlin describes it as follows:
Even a news organization's methods for legitimizing the system
as a whole, its code of objectivity and balance, pull it in conflicting
directions: at one moment toward the institutions of political and
economic power, and at another toward alternative and even, at times,
oppositional movements, depending on political circumstance. Organized
as a distinct pyramid of power, the (TV) network develops the strategy of
ization, incorporating the competing forces in such a way as to maximize
its audiences and thus its profits, its legitimacy, and its stature . . . The
network's claim to legitimacy, embodied in the professional ideology of
objectivity, requires it, in other words, to take a certain risk of undermining
the legitimacy of the social system as a whole. The network's strategy for
managing this contradiction is to apply the whole apparatus of techniques . . .
precisely to tame, to contain, the opposition that it dares not ignore" (1980,
Through his interviews with TV news producers, reporters, and cameramen, Gitlin
demonstrates how they knew where the invisible parameters of appropriate news
coverage stood and, in some cases, when they broke them and broadcasts were not
shown (1980, p. 174). Later, Gitlin elaborates on these conditions of
employment which also serve to maintain a system greater than just that of
Normally the dominant frames are taken for granted by media
practitioners, and reproduced and defended by them for reasons,
and via practices, which the practitioners do not conceive to be
hegemonic. Hegemony operates effectively -- it does deliver the
news -- yet outside consciousness; it is exercised by self-conceived
professionals working with a great deal of autonomy within institutions
that proclaim the neutral goal of informing the public" (1980, pp. 257-8).
Meyrowitz also interviewed local and national journalists about the lack of
coverage of Agran's candidacy. "Agran and his staff believed that at some point
local press attention would build into national exposure. But several reporters
and editors at national newspapers and magazines whom I spoke with admitted that
the longer one has not covered a candidate, the harder it becomes to do so"
(1994, p. 98).
Even when given an opportunity to consider the media's role in how third-party
candidates are portrayed in elections, no mention of this was made in a recent
Editor & Publisher article (Dec. 7, 1996) about a panel discussion on the 1996
elections at the 93rd annual Southern Newspaper Publishers Association
convention. The issue of third-party coverage could have been mentioned during
the panel discussion, but the trade journal made no mention of it. Not a
surprising result, but one that is worth noting.
Unlike the case of Vietnam war coverage which Gitlin examined, Perot's campaign
or third-party coverage in general has not yet reached a crisis point or a
watershed moment when society -- with the media following -- will choose a new
direction or angle on how third parties are perceived. As Hall explains
Gramsci's notion of the evolution of hegemony, "ideologies are not transformed
or changed by replacing one, whole, already formed, conception of the world with
another, so much as by 'renovating and making critical an already existing
activity'" (1986, p. 434). In Gitlin's words, society has not yet reached the
point where "hegemonic frames" will shift. Another way of considering this,
however, is that the power bloc attempted to close down the frames before they
did shift too far in 1996. Weighing Perot's strong showing in the 1992
election, the power elites may have wanted to keep a mass movement from growing
to support him again in 1996 -- and perhaps support him even more (than with 19
percent of the vote). Having four years to prepare for this, they were ready to
strike before public sentiment became too strong in favor of Perot, a
third-party candidate, getting equal access with the status quo candidates.
Public sentiment could not be stopped during the Vietnam era, according to
Gitlin, and the frames shifted slightly.
In a strong example of the power bloc among business, government, and the
media, the Nov. 10, 1996 broadcast of "This Week with David Brinkley" featured
two advertising segments in which the CEO of the Archer Daniels Midland company
congratulated Brinkley on his career as he reached retirement. The CEO
revealed, "I have known David not only as a journalist but as a friend."
Meyrowitz quoted journalists who spelled out the connection between what or who
is reported on and status quo sources used: "Most of the journalists I spoke
with . . . expressed little surprise over the press treatment that Agran
received, and they offered similar explanations for it . . . (P)olitical
reporters tend to cover those candidates that their sources - the party
professionals - tell them are the major candidates" (p. 100). In addition, he
found, journalists admitted looking to other journalists for how to cover
campaigns. Meyrowitz also quotes Alvin Sanoff, senior editor at U.S. News and
World Report, who said: "We have similar kinds of input from similar sources . .
. We're influenced by the same influences" (p. 100).
Regarding outright support for the status quo in 1992, Meyrowitz (1994, p. 103)
So while the public was clearly demanding change, national journalists
seem closely aligned, perhaps more fiercely than ever, with the status
quo. Within national journalistic logic, the public's anti-mainstream mood
was even more of a reason not to give 'undue' coverage to 'fringe' candidates.
But can the "unruly experience" of "fringe" candidates be totally contained?
No, especially when it is always there for the reader to find (Fiske, 1987, p.
302). "The power of the news conventions to impose their preferred meanings and
ideologies upon the diverse audiences that news reaches" is limited (Fiske,
1987, p. 303). Some will still see Perot as being unfairly excluded from the
debates; obviously, 5 percent of the voting public did not buy into the
"preferred reading" that the media tried to produce regarding Perot's candidacy;
they voted for him anyway. Others voted for other third-party candidates; many
more withheld their votes altogether. These news depictions can be seen as
either Barthes' "limited plurality" or Morley's "structural polysemy" (as cited
in Fiske, 1987, p. 144); in either case, they allowed for alternate readings to
the preferred reading. And people also learn about candidates through other
communication channels, such as personal discussion. Despite repeated closures
in each news story (Fiske, 1987, p. 307) and the election itself, it is clear
that Perot and/or the Reform Party (in the form of former Gov. Lamm or someone
else) will be back. And with them, the issue of a third party will return to
create havoc for the system again. Of course, they have another four years to
figure out how to squelch any divergent candidates and viewpoints from elections
in the year 2000. But if third-party candidates continue to pick up slight
interest and momentum with each new election season, eventually the hegemonic
frames may have to shift . . .
Fiske, John. 1987. Television culture. New York: Routledge.
Gitlin, Todd. 1980. The whole world is watching. Berkeley, CA: University of
Hall, Stuart. 1986. "Gramsci's relevance for the study of race and ethnicity."
Journal of Communication Inquiry, 10(2), 5-27.
McLeod, Douglas, & James K. Hertog. 1992. "The manufacture of 'public opinion'
by reporters: Informal cues for public perceptions of protest groups. Discourse
& Society, 3(3), 259-275.
Meyrowitz, Joshua. 1994. "The (almost) invisible candidate: a case study in news
judgement as political censorship." In Fulbright Papers 13, eds. Meryl Aldridge
and Nicholas Hewitt. London: Manchester University Press.
Meyrowitz, Joshua. 1994. "Visible and invisible candidates: A case study in
'competing logics' of campaign coverage. Political Communication, 11, 145- 164.
Rachlin, Allan. 1988. News as hegemonic reality. New York: Praeger Publishers.