The rise of national and instantaneous news media deprived political candidates of a chance to communicate substantively.
The transformation of politics into its contemporary form of symbol marketing was heavily dependent on other contemporary developments in communications.
The most significant of these was a removal of opportunities for candidates to communicate to us in more depth. This decrease in candidates' options was brought about largely by the rise of television news and the evolution of truly national news media.
It isn't just that television demands more visuals and shorter "sound bites," although these are certainly important transformative factors. Far more significant in the long run has been the removal of a hard news "peg" for reporting a candidate's utterances in enough length for people to reasonably evaluate them.
In the days when major metropolitan newspapers were our main news sources, such reference points were provided in the form of a physical visit by a candidate to the city in which a newspaper was based. The papers in that city had a news event that they could give advance notice of and build up to, and readers had a pretty good sense of when they'd be able to find more extensive reporting of what the candidate had to say.
All this vanished in the age of national electronic media.
Today, what the candidates say reaches us as easily from Dayton as it does from Dallas, with a pack of reporters attached to each candidate at all times. This makes political communication independent not only of place, but also of time.
With a candidate's visit to any particular city reduced to trivial importance, there's no real opportunity to prepare any local audience for more substantive coverage of what the candidate might have to say. This severely limits the ability to generate demand for statements of substance.
At the same time, these new arrangements limit the likelihood that any journalist will even think to report deeper or more philosophical candidate statements. From the standpoint of the reporters, because each candidate is saying pretty much the same thing day after day, there's nothing new to report on any particular day, other than the minor verbal spats and slip-ups of which the media now seem so pettily fond.
The arrangement thus all but guarantees that the candidates won't get enough airtime or ink to communicate anything of substance.
There are still times, of course, when a candidate's "message" can come through. But these opportunities are increasingly taking the form of compelling images and symbolism.
(c) COPYRIGHT 1998 ROBERT WINTER. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.