An Event that Altered the Dynamics between Politicians and the Press

(co-authored with Anne W. Lee)

Twenty years ago on June 3, 1992, during his first campaign for the presidency, Bill Clinton joined the house band on the “Arsenio Hall Show” and played a rousing version of “Heartbreak Hotel” on the saxophone.

Had Clinton’s appearance taken place today, it would not have made the impact it did two decades ago. In 2012, we have grown accustomed to seeing political candidates and elected officials conversing with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, joking with the cast of “Saturday Night Live” and slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon.

But in 1992, candidates who wanted to be taken seriously went on “Meet the Press,” “Face the Nation” and “Nightline.” They didn’t go on Arsenio Hall, and they certainly didn’t don sun glasses and rock out Elvis tunes with the band.

The Arsenio show was one of several “soft news” appearances Clinton made in 1992 as part of an unusual campaign strategy to go around mainstream media and place the then-Arkansas governor in settings that better showcased his personality and his vision for America.

In his book “Covering Clinton: The President and the Press in the 1990s,” Joseph Hayden observed: “What Clinton realized in 1992 was that soft-news exposure was just as helpful to his campaign as hard-news exposure: that being seen and heard were more important than being written about; and that televised contact with ordinary voters in low-key situations was more profitable than regular meetings with ‘professional’ journalists.”

Clinton’s approach drew criticism from the inside-the-beltway crowd whose members argued that campaigns should be conducted in a more serious manner. But when the strategy proved successful, even its staunchest critics had to acknowledge that “soft-news” exposure helped propel Clinton to the White House.

In all likelihood, the growth of cable television and the Internet eventually would have resulted in more soft news exposure for political candidates and elected officials. “It wasn’t like going to the moon; it was going to happen anyway,” recalled Bob Sommer, who was Clinton’s New Jersey spokesperson during the 1992 campaign.

Nevertheless, it was Clinton’s appearance on Arsenio that opened the door. But what has passed through that door in the past 20 years is not exactly what the Clinton campaign envisioned in 1992. At the time, Clinton’s exchanges with mainstream media were dominated by questions about marital infidelities, his draft record and whether he ever had smoked marijuana. The soft-news appearances provided opportunities to speak about the more critical issues confronting the nation. Indeed, after his performance with the band on Arsenio, he sat down with the host and engaged in a thoughtful discussion about education, race relations and democracy.

Since then, comedy and entertainment programs have become key elements of campaign strategies, yet we have seen far too little of the educational and informative dialogue that took place between Bill Clinton and Arsenio Hall. It is even more troubling that we as citizens have allowed this to happen by failing to demand more from politicians and the political process.

Studies conducted by several respected institutions have shown that comedy and entertainment programs are becoming an increasing source for news for Americans. During the 2008 presidential campaign, more people watched the “Saturday Night Live” parody of Katie Couric’s interview with Sarah Palin than watched the actual interview.

The soft-news strategy has not been limited to the campaign trail. “As president, Obama has made the rounds of all the top shows,” George Condon wrote in a National Journal article last year. “In addition to his two gigs with Leno, the president has sat down with Oprah, danced with Ellen, chatted with Dave, and schmoozed with the ladies on ‘The View.’” He also made two appearances on the Comedy Channel, ordering a military haircut for Stephen Colbert in 2009 and talking about his presidency with Jon Stewart in 2010.”

Yes, we should all laugh and enjoy watching our leaders on talk shows and comedy television. It gives us a glimpse at another dimension of their personalities. But we also should demand accountability and scrutiny — whether it is provided by the White House press corps or television shows on Comedy Central.

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This article is based on a presentation made in March at the 2012 Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. It was published in The Record on May 31 and the Buffalo News on June 19.

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