It’s amazing how some things weather so well.
I’ve just finished reading The Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse’s landmark book about the press coverage of the 1972 US Presidential election. Written in 1973, the book reads as freshly as if it had been produced last week.
Richard Nixon effectively stonewalled the media and escaped any critical assessment. His much more open opponent, George McGovern, suffered for his accessibility and the relative chaos of his communications strategy.
Other than the candidates, very little has changed since then in how elections have been covered or the tactics used by political campaigns to ‘spin’ and try to control or manipulate the news cycle.
Perhaps social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc – will draw the current era that started in the 60’s to a close. In some ways it already has, if we cast our minds back to Mitt Romney’s close encounter with almost everything being recordable, everywhere, all of the time when he gave his tuppence worth in a Florida hotel in 2012 on 47% of American voters being hooked on entitlements
How relevant will professional journalists be in future political campaigns, in the US and abroad? Or newspapers themselves?
Ironically, Crouse’s book suggests a fairly positive prospect. His central point about 1972 is that journalists were almost completely boxed in by official and officious handlers – as well as by their editors and publishers, and their own unwillingness to rock the boat and be frozen out.
Today such tight shepherding and shaping of what’s seen and heard is no longer assured: every phone can record and broadcast. A balance of sorts has returned between responsibility and authenticity, and a critical examination of candidates to an extent that Crouse bemoans was not possible in the 1972 may again be on the cards.
A useful analogy might be found in the world of TV. By the 70’s it was a tightly managed world, with little of it’s free-wheeling 1950’s origins. Formula and the health of the bottom line dictated as little experiment or deviation from the norm as possible.
But even as things became more regimented, Crouse’s book highlights that the undoing of the inventiveness-deficit was already an idea. He mentions how 28 young cable TV reporters headed by Michael Shamberg had an idea that they believed would revolutionise the small screen:
“The networks, with their economic dependence on mass audiences and mass advertising, would eventually go the way of the mass magazines like Life, he thought. And cable TV – local, decentralised, appealing to small audiences and specialised tastes – would gradually take over. This might not happen until Shamberg was old as Walter Cronkite, but he was in no hurry ” [Chapter VII: Television. Kindle version, location 2761].
Crouse and Shamberg were spectacularly right, and far-sighted, on both scores. Right that cable TV was something worth mentioning and right that it would only come into its own far into the future.
But it did. And cable, HBO and the Sopranos and a host of other programming has reinvigorated TV.
A prediction and half from 1973.
Who knows what social media will do in the same time frame to come?
To TV, politics – and life?