Albion Monitor /News

TV Manipulation Common, Says '60 Minutes' Host

by Anna Luca

The cause of Clinton's great ratings? Chelsea
(AR) TORONTO -- Everyone seems to have their own theory as to why President Clinton's approval rating is soaring. For "60 Minutes" co-host Lesley Stahl, the answer has nothing to do with the Clinton-Jones-Lewinsky drama. Instead, it has to do with Chelsea Clinton.

Speaking at the "Unique Lives and Experiences" lecture series here, Lesley Stahl draws on vast experience of Washington politics and media to support her theory.

"I believe the reason the ratings went up is Chelsea -- all of a sudden we're seeing pictures of her everywhere, when we hardly ever saw pictures of her before. And then there are the troika pictures -- Bill, Hillary and Chelsea -- and this picture, where we see Bill Clinton as a strong family man, surrounded by his loving and loyal family, becomes implanted in the back of our brains."

American presidents do well in times of war, assassination and sex scandals
Stahl said she had researched the latest statistics from CBS polls just before coming to the Toronto event, and was astounded by the numbers, saying that "we're getting poll numbers we don't usually see." As a comparison, she offered the highest approval ratings for Reagan, long considered one of America's most popular presidents. "Reagan got an approval rating of 67 percent, and that was just after he was shot."

While the audience laughed at the implication of the shooting as raising Reagan's approval, Stahl explained that there was a valid reason for the higher approval rating.

"Right after he was shot, the media was all over him, and he handled himself with such aplomb and courage, and the camera was right there to record it all. It was the beginning of his hero image."

By contrast, according to last week's CBS poll results, "Clinton received an approval rating of 73 percent, and in some polls, it was as high as 79 percent." The highest approval ratings went to George Bush, at 88 percent, during the Gulf War, and Lyndon Johnson, at 87 percent, right after the Kennedy assassination.

"If you look at the polls," said Stahl, "you'd have to assume that American presidents do well in times of war, assassination and sex scandals."

In order to understand the phenomenon, Stahl said the appropriate response is "It's television, stupid." Stahl pointed out that when the story first broke about a month ago, Clinton went ahead with a pre-scheduled television interview, and when asked about Lewinsky, and he denied it.

"But his eyes were downcast, and he was clearly shaken. The camera magnified every feature, his facial expression and body language, and we could understand that in the way we use the understanding every day to deal with each other. And he looked guilty.

Just two days later, he repeated his denial, but this time he was definitive, his head held high, his voice firm And Hillary was the same, strong and clear in her support."

"It was performance, pure television performance," according to Stahl. "And through their performance, they clutched the issue from the jaws of defeat." To Stahl, events like this turn the old adage upside down. "The idea that the camera doesn't lie is crazy -- the camera lies all the time."

Reagan proved what is said is drowned out by the power of the image
As a further example, and perhaps to provide equal time for criticism, Stahl reminded the audience of the now famous scenes of Ronald Reagan and Nancy leaving for Camp David almost every weekend.

"There was the homey picture of Ronald and Nancy, complete with dog, crossing the White House lawn heading for the chopper every Friday. That image was sent out again and again to embed the idea of the President as a family man. And that image worked, even though we knew, we knew in the media that he didn't spend time with his children, and didn't even know his grandchildren. Still that image is imprinted on the back of our minds."

Describing Reagan as a passive president, Stahl joked that in the Reagan days, "if someone said they were sleeping with the President, it meant that they were at a cabinet meeting." Stahl discovered the power of images while covering Reagan's election stops during a presidential election for a "60 Minutes" exclusive.

While the camera panned over staged scenes of the President cutting the ribbon on a new hospital wing, Stahl would voiceover "Little would you know from looking at this picture that he tried to cut the budget for hospitals."

She then repeated this scene with several other stops, and each time, began her voiceover commentary with "Little would you know from looking at this picture that he tried to cut the budge of -- whatever was being shown," she said.

After the story ran on TV, Reagan's camp called to thank her. Stahl was shocked and thought that it was a political ploy. Instead, the press aide laughed and bluntly told her that "no one heard what was said, all people noticed was the pictures, and they were great pictures."

Reagan's camp told her that they had "just received a gift of about four minutes of free advertising." Stunned, Stahl arranged to have a focus group watch the piece again. Only a quarter of the audience heard what she had said.

Stahl said she learned an important lesson: "When the pictures are strong and emotional and you are saying something that conflicts, what is said is drowned out by the power of the image."

Stahl also shared her concerns about the political process with a receptive audience.

"They know how to manipulate us and we're blind to it -- we used to just call it wallpaper. But they knew." Television is an emotional medium, Stahl said.

"In the last presidential election I became convinced that issues had nothing to do with the election," she added. "It is less what a politician says, it's how they look and how they say it, and it's the little vignettes [like the family man images] that count." The quality of voice and presentation is key, she said.

Quayle seemed calm and controlled but the camera, however, caught his extreme nervousness
Stahl also gave the camera its due as truth-teller. The careful preparation of image on television does have some advantages and also provides audiences with an indication of true character. As an example, she spoke of a personal interview, conducted "knee to knee, face to face" with Dan Quayle.

During the interview, Stahl said, Quayle seemed calm and controlled. The camera, however, had caught his extreme nervousness -- what she called a "doe- caught- in- the- headlights expression," and that image provided a completely different context to the answers that seemed so innocuous to Stahl in person.

Last year's televised presidential debates? "Bob Dole shouted too much. But Clinton spoke calmly with a wonderfully mellifluous voice," she said. She also told listeners of the "blink rate factor."

"Some scholar decided to sit there and actually count the number of times Clinton and Dole blinked in their televised debate. The normal eyelash batting rate is between 31 and 50 times a minute. Bill Clinton blinked 99 times a minute, while Bob Dole blinked 147 times a minute. Apparently rapid eyelash blinking conveys shiftiness and untrustworthiness, although we don't consciously recognize it. When all you're seeing is their faces, it makes an imprint," she said,

"Television made us think that character was important"
And what about the persistent "character" issue so many of Clinton's critics raise?

"Television made us think that character was important," answers Stahl, and there's strong support among audiences for of this idea. But, Stahl said she isn't sure that it really is as important as it seems.

"I don't know what we're finding out about him affects his ability to govern. He is not a reckless president, he is a very cautious president, she said referring to the Jones-Lewinsky scandals. "And many people also think he's a good president." The coverage of those scandals has led to some undue criticism of the media, though, she said.

"I love it when people say we're annoyed by the media coverage. The very people who are saying that they are sick and tired of watching [the Clinton story] are watching more than ever," she said. While it used to be that the news media "determined which stories are newsworthy, now stations do polling to see what the public wants."

And the polls are obviously saying that people love the Clinton sex scandal story, Stahl says. "Our literature and our movies are full of attractive scoundrels that we love," she points out, "and tattletales that we love to hate."

In other words, stay tuned.

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Albion Monitor February 24, 1998 (

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