The facinating relationship between politicians and TV
The relationship between television and politicians continues to fascinate me. Many politicians claim that TV is biased against them. Usually, those who complain are conservatives who feel that journalists are liberals and are therefore biased against them.
In the US, Richard Nixon used to rail against the East Coast liberal establishment which, according to him, dominated journalism and set out to destroy his reputation. Most conservative politicians have echoed Nixon’s criticism and complaints in one form or another.
It’s the same story in India. Whenever I check the questions on my website or catch up with what is happening on Twitter, I run into complaints about NDTV and CNN-IBN from BJP supporters. According to this view, Indian news channels are run by secularists who seek to do down the BJP. Were it not for Prannoy Roy and Rajdeep Sardesai, they suggest, the BJP would rule forever.
George W Bush offered a more insightful assessment of why he came across so badly in the media. According to Bush, there are some politicians whom TV simply does not like. It is not, he explained, that there is any conspiracy to damage such politicians; it is just that the media is allergic to them.
Bush was talking about his own experiences. He believes that his personality is not TV friendly and that, therefore, TV captures none of the warmth he exudes in real life and misses his intelligence to the extent that he comes off as a moron or a buffoon.
I thought about Bush’s assessment. Clearly, there is something to his view. Bill Clinton was a made-for-TV politician. He exuded star quality and when he was on screen it was impossible to look away. So it was with the young Tony Blair. In the early days, his smile lit up the TV screen and his charisma was undeniable.
To some extent, that’s true of Barack Obama as well. When he debated John McCain on TV during the election campaign, Obama came off as erudite, energetic and more presidential that McCain who came off as a tired old man.
Of course, Obama is a liberal and McCain is not. But the way they came off on TV had nothing to do with their political views or the biases of journalists. It had to do with the nature of the media. Whenever I think back to Richard Nixon’s complaints, I am always reminded of that famous Presidential debate with John F Kennedy in 1960.
Those who heard the debate on radio and those who were present in the hall thought Nixon had won. But TV viewers believed that Kennedy had bested Nixon. So, obviously it was not about content. It was about the demands of the media. I suspect that the real reason why Nixon got such bad play in the media was because TV did not like him not because journos are liberals.
In India, the situation is more complicated. First of all, TV doesn’t count for very much. Manmohan Singh did not give a single substantial TV interview during his first term. But it made no difference to his electoral prospects or his ratings. All of us know that the PM can be a bore on TV because the medium does not take kindly to people who speak in a monotone even when they talk sense. But how does it matter how he comes off on TV when the majority of the electorate does not watch television?
Take the case of AB Vajpayee who was a brilliant orator but who never mastered TV. Each of his pauses was longer than the average sound-bite. On the other hand, LK Advani is brilliant on television. He is reasonable, articulate, and willing to engage with interviewers. But it was Vajpayee who was the successful Prime Minister while Advani never made it to the top.
So, two lessons to remember. The first is that TV makes a difference to the careers of C-list politicians in India. Repeated exposure on the box can turn them into B-list figures. But they can never reach the A-list on the basis of TV.
And second, remember also that being good on TV can be a curse. Both Clinton and Blair were so charismatic that once the initial sheen had worn off, people were suspicious of their apparent fluency. Viewers began to regard them as insincere charlatans and nearly everything they said was greeted with disbelief.
As you can see, there are no easy answers here. The relationship between politicians and TV is a complex one.