Photo Ops in Politics

, Irene Warren, Leave a comment

Big-name news celebrities shared center stage at the Brookings Institution recently to host an exclusive presentation with Kiku Adatto, author of Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op, as they explored photo expressions and addressed the problems with photo ops in politics, William A. Galston, with the Brookings Institution, explained.

“The event is part of the Governing Ideas series,” Galston noted, “it is intended to broaden the discussion of governance issues through forums on timely and relevant books on history, culture, legal norms and practices, and also values and religion.”

Kiku Adatto, an acclaimed author and commentator on American society and culture and now scholar in residence at Harvard’s Humanities Center and Lecturer on Social
Studies, talked to the locals and press about her newly released book and also shared some of the controversy behind it.

Adatto explained that photos from the Nixon era to the present-day have robustly changed due to photo op imaging in political news reporting. Adatto’s views about polarization, its influence on politics and how photo ops have revolutionized the way politics are conveyed in news, has beckoned her to explain her stance in 21st century news reporting. Adatto implies that the way photo ops in politics are conveyed in news today is just a hair shy of becoming another pop-culture.

“Adatto’s writings on the media helped spark a national debate on presidential campaign coverage,” Galston noted in a handout given to spectators. Further, he said, “Her work has been featured in the New York Times, the New Republic Radio, and in many major American newspapers.”

With the evolution of technology, pioneer news leaders and veteran reporters believe that political reporting has become more indigenous and image-savvy since its humble beginnings. Senior Analyst Gloria Borger, with CNN News, and Diana Walker, a photo journalist with Time Magazine, along with their other counterparts debating the subject, questioned whether political reporting today “blur[s] the line between politician and the pose, real and pseudo-events, news and entertainment?” Borger and Walker believe that “with the new technologies—from the rise of the Internet and the advent of a 24-hour news cycle-make it easier than ever to capture, manipulate and spread images around the globe,” according to one Brookings Institution transcript.

In a transcript released by the Brookings Institution on Sept. 18, 2008, William Galston, Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in Governance Studies and a Senior Fellow at the Institution, stated, “I don’t need to tell anybody in this media-saturated culture just how important the media is or should I say are in helping to shape our public discourse and our politics. Increasingly over the past two centuries this discourse has been discourse not only of words but also of pictures and images. This has raised some very, very fundamental questions.”

“Negative attacks are as American as apple pie,” Darrell West, Vice-President and director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution noted in a September 2008 news letter for the Brookings Institution. “Since the early days of the republic, candidates attacked with a vigor that contemporary strategists would admire.”

With this study, West claims that news coverage of presidential elections as far back as the 1800s was also sensationalized with negative overtones stating, “Thomas Jefferson and John Adams criticized one another with a stunning ferocity on everything from foreign and domestic policy to private character and personal behavior.”

Further, he claimed that “later campaigns weren’t much better.” In fact, he noted in his article that “critics of Andrew Jackson in 1836 accused him of murdering Indians. And in 1884, Grover Cleveland was ridiculed for fathering an illegitimate child and William Jennings Bryan was characterized as a dangerous radical in 1896 who would ruin the economy.”

Despite these historical accounts, West claimed that “the 2008 campaign has reached all-time lows in the use of misleading and inaccurate political appeals.” West points out that “even Karl Rove, the architect of negative ads in previous campaigns has complained about the tenor of this year’s campaign.”

Previously, West had released a study in June 2008 that concluded that “Policy specific ads—Twenty-eight percent of the 2008 GOP and Democratic nomination ads were policy specific.” Also he noted, “both numbers are above the historic ad specificity of 13 percent for Democrats and 18 percent for Republicans for nominating battles from 1972-2008.”

In terms of content of ads, West reported that “Republicans were more likely to focus on personal qualities (57 percent of all appeals), while Democrats emphasized domestic issues (44 percent) and personal qualities (39 percent).” Surprisingly, West claimed, “given the importance of the Iraq War and the War on Terror, neither Democrats nor Republicans devoted much attention to internal issues in their advertising campaigns.

Concluding, West indicated that “television news stories about nomination ads were less issue-oriented than the spots themselves.” West claimed, “only five percent of the stories about the Democratic campaign focused on domestic issues and zero percent emphasized international issues.” Instead, he contends that “more than three-quarters (78 percent) of the new stories dwelled on campaign strategy or electoral prospects.” In addition, West indicated that “similar patterns were found on the Republican side—only 19 percent of news stories focused on domestic issues—more than half of news stories emphasized campaign strategy or prospects.”

Irene Warren is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.