THE CONTROL ROOM by Martin Plissner


How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections
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A CBS veteran’s look at television coverage of presidential elections is more entertaining than reflective. As executive political director of CBS News, Plissner (now retired) was in a very good position to observe the impact of television on politics. While he concedes that impact has been major—no surprise there—he argues that those on the political left and right “who worry about this worry too much.” Employing his insider’s perspective to unveil the factors that determined what went on the air, Plissner offers a pastiche of media history, first-person accounts, and second-hand reporting very much in the television tradition of “just the highlights, please.” Nevertheless, these snippets are revealing as well as amusing, effectively portraying television’s coverage over the years of party conventions, the election-night race to call the winner, election-year polling, presidential debates, and the nightly news. The competition among networks is always at the forefront, with only the financial bean-counters reining in efforts to score journalistic coups and come out on top in the ratings. We also see a progression in the relationship between the media and politicians. Party conventions, for example, initially involved gavel-to-gavel coverage, which produced conventions increasingly managed for television consumption, which resulted in boring conventions that receive decreased coverage because there is no news. This example suggests a problem with Plissner’s belief that we need not worry about the medium’s impact on politics. Even granting his contention that television’s election-coverage agenda is commercial rather than political, the reader may still wonder why the author believes media bias is therefore benign. Indeed, the idea that television’s power is wielded without regard to its considerable political impact is most discomfiting; more introspection on this thorny subject would have been comforting. Not a book to pick up for insightful analysis, but the stories will amuse most readers.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-684-82731-X
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Free Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1999


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