Match Point to the Media
by William Lee Miller
Dr. Miller is chairman of the department of rhetoric and communication studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. This article appeared in the Christian Century November 21, 1979, p. 1153. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found www.christiancentury.org.This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
I want to tell a little story about the media and the president. Mostly about the media. Teddy Kennedy does not appear in this story.
It begins on December 7, 1978, when a young man named Jim Fallows delivered a public lecture at Indiana University. Mr. Fallows was not then known to most of his audience or to the broader public, despite some thoughtful magazine articles he had written. He was listed in the material advertising his lecture as “James M. Fallows, former chief speechwriter to President Carter.” Although he had held a post of apparent national significance with the president of the United States, his name had not yet been plastered on the nation’s mind by the more powerful instruments of mass publicity. Since then, however, it has been. He wrote some articles for the Atlantic, and there was a flurry of reaction. I want to go back and extract a little lesson from the episode (I include what I learned myself, as a poor man’s Sol Hurok for political speakers at a midwestern university).
The lesson (not a new one) is the difficulty the publicity machinery has in handling anything complex -- anything with nuances, shades, subtle changes or soft colors. That clumsy machinery alters the world to fit its own needs. With each new grinding, the matter caught up in it is chewed into simpler pieces. With enough grindings it is made into something it wasn’t.
Fallows had not been much publicized in his White House days. When I first met him he was wearing his tennis shorts -- a young man in a big office in the Executive Office Building. (I was reminded of Stewart Udall’s having said, when he was secretary of the interior, that he had played basketball in gyms that were smaller than his present office.) I learned quickly that Fallows, the tennis player, was a good deal more reflective and more philosophically formed than many whose names were better known, in the other big offices in the EOB, or in the White House next door. My opinion of Carter, always volatile, rose a little. Then when it was clear that Carter didn’t really use this man’s abilities, that opinion went down again.
Fallows, just barely out of the White House and gathering again his journalistic momentum, came to Bloomington not only to deliver his lecture but also to participate in a “conference” on “America and the Carter Presidency,” from which I extract the first part of the lesson mentioned above (like Fallows’s Atlantic article, it comes in two parts).
This conference was put together (by me: what follows is all my own fault) simply to provide tape for a segment of “Bill Moyers’ Journal” on PBS. It was a pure media event with no independent existence. Moyers’s people had swarmed over the Indiana University campus in successive waves of producers, executive producers, directors and associate directors; of lighting people, camera people, sound people and questions-from-the-audience people; had added a participant (Nicholas von Hoffman) to be sure the affair would be telegenic; had phoned the panelists before the event with their own list of topics and ideas; had thrown together a wooden platform just for their cameras, which cameras prevented many in the actual audience from seeing the panelists; had shifted the meeting rooms to meet the exacting requirements for the paraphernalia of television; had fed questions to members of the audience, and instructions “from the truck” to the moderator (“move on”); and then had fashioned from 12 hours of tape one hour that might have been made in a New York city hotel room. The best part of the discussion began with comments by E. Brooks Holifield, the church historian at Emory University, and dealt with the link between Jimmy Carter as Southern Baptist deacon and Jimmy Carter as politician. None of that appeared on the program. At one point, however, the program did show five different racial types in rapid succession asking questions -- without showing the answers -- in order, presumably, to display the ethnic variety of the American middle west.
The Case of the Tennis Courts
On the first evening of this curious event the panelists and Bill Moyers had supper together in the Indiana Memorial Union, and there began the Case of the Presidential Tennis Courts. The other participants had arrived before Fallows: Reynolds Price, the novelist; von Hoffman; Charles Hamilton, the political scientist from Columbia (does one now say, “the sometime collaborator with Stokely Carmichael”? -- that was a long time ago); Holifield, and me. We were having an amusing supper conversation about, among other things, a television interview Moyers had had with President Carter shortly before this gathering. (Another Moyers interview with Carter, before he was president -- one Southern Baptist talking to another -- had been very successful, and had influenced some votes. “What’s your favorite hymn?” “Amazing Grace,” But you can’t do that twice.) It had begun -- this second PBS interview -- with a Moyers question about the Carter presidency’s lack of a theme. The president had responded -- typically -- with a list of the problems facing him. Later, rather as a relief from the heavy questions about Iran, inflation and the like, Moyers had asked the president whether or not he had in fact himself made decisions -- as had been reported -- about the use of the White House tennis courts. President Carter, full face into the camera, had answered flatly, “No.” Moyers -- thinking back -- said that at that point the program had begun to go downhill;
Now we sat at supper in the Union, recalling these events, when Fallows arrived from his late plane. Immediately we asked the question: Was it or was it not true that President Carter himself had assigned courts for White House tennis? Fallows said it was absolutely true. He himself had many pieces of paper initialed by Carter granting him permission to play. The conversation around the table became animated. Charles Hamilton, who was rather favorably disposed toward Carter, looked troubled: Why would the president fudge on such a matter?
Later we performed before the “live” audience, as they say (such of them as could see us), under the hot lights of television. But the best event of the evening had been the supper with no audience and no cameras.
Predictably, one of the questions in the public camera-covered meeting had to do with the tennis courts. Fallows gave the answer he had given at the supper, now in a slightly gentler manner.
The television people gathered up their machinery, left with 12 hours of tape, and concocted out of this tape and other ingredients an hour-long program. It did include, of course, Fallows answering the question about the tennis courts. Shown on PBS on February 7, this program was nevertheless quite different from the conference it was drawn from, which in turn was quite different from what it would have been had it not been put together for television’s purposes. An IU political scientist said, after it was all over and we had seen the program: “You know, I don’t think television is worth it.” So much effort for so little meat.
Part Two. In April, the May issue of the Atlantic Monthly appeared, with the cover article titled “The Passionless Presidency,” by James Fallows. There was a cover picture of Carter and a little banner above the magazine’s title that read: “From Inside Carter’s White House.” When the second part of the article was published in the June issue of the Atlantic, the cover again promised insideness, and the subtitle read: “More from Inside Jimmy Carter’s White House.” I think the Atlantic’s own winking and tooting about the article coming from INSIDE contributed to the distortion that followed.
The article itself presented in convincing detail what seemed an evenhanded picture of President Carter as a quite intelligent and decent man who lacked a fundamental political formation and philosophical direction. But the article became the kind of journalistic event that itself provokes journalistic commentary: Fallows and his article became the subject of other people’s articles. Fallows’s article was long, careful and measured, but it was reduced to a sensational caricature in many reports. Time wrote about the “Fallows Fracas.” George Will, the premature Olympian, wrote about Fallows’s “precocious disillusionment.’’ Distinguished columnists denied that the Fallows article was a “kiss and tell” piece, or a “run-of-the-mill peephole job,” and in the denying reinforced the phrases that they rejected. The headlines on the columns syndicated across the country simplified Fallows’s appraisal yet again. “Ex-Aide Hits Carter’s ‘Arrogance,’ ‘Ignorance,’ ‘Insecurity,’” said one headline.
The discussion was not about Carter but about Fallows. It dealt not with his analysis of Carter but with his having written the articles so soon after leaving the White House. The content of the piece was reduced to terse excerpts of its negative points. If they were “balanced” by something he wrote that was more favorable to the president, the words dutifully quoted did not in fact have the effect of, providing real balance. (That was the first wave; media commentary goes in waves. On the second wave, some of the commentators paid attention to what Fallows had written, which was very far from being sensational.)
Meanwhile, at the press conference on April 30 the incident came to a kind of climax with a question to the president.
The question had, with the perfect symbolic symmetry, two parts: philosophy and tennis. “How,” the questioner asked. “do you [Mr. Carter] respond to the statement by Jim Fallows -- first, that you have no broad overall philosophy; second, that you signed off personally on the use of the tennis courts but told Bill Moyers that you didn’t?”
The president’s response had its own interesting shape. Fallows was put at a distance as a “fine young man” who “didn’t express these concerns to me” -- he left “with no insinuation there were things about which he was disappointed.” (Fallows has since said that he had made all his concrete points to the president.) Carter then used -- more in sorrow than in anger -- the perennial resort of the exclusive Club of Presidents: “This is the kind of question that has to be faced by any president when someone leaves the White House. It has happened many times in the past.” (We presidents know -- if you were president you would know -- how it is when these “fine young men” go out and say these things. It happened to Abe Lincoln; it happened to me.)
Though the president said that he and Fallows agree on most things,” he added that “his assessment of my character and performance is one of those things on which we don’t agree.” Fallows’s Atlantic articles dealt quite favorably with Carter’s “character,” and dealt with his “performance” by way of his lack of political understanding and direction. That Carter should not quite comprehend the point of the criticism itself tends to confirm it.
But, of course, the main thing was not philosophy but tennis. President Carter gave the following answer to that great question: “I have never personally monitored who used or who did not use the White House tennis courts.” That would seem to be clear enough. But then another sentence followed: “I have let my secretary, Susan Clough, receive requests from members of the White House staff who wanted to use the tennis courts at certain times so that more than one person would not want to use the same tennis court simultaneously unless they were either on opposite sides of the net or engaged in a doubles contest.”
Mr. Carter showed thus a touch of the humor that he possesses despite the old charge that he is humorless. But a close reader will notice a slight gap in his denial of Fallows’s point. Susan Clough seems to be cast in the role of the Rosemary Woods of the Tennis Court. Meanwhile, Fallows has carefully stowed away his pieces of paper, initialed by Jimmy Carter, permitting him to play on the tennis court.
A writer looks for something concrete to interest readers and to illustrate a point. Sometimes the illustration sweeps away the point, and the tennis-court issue obliterates the philosophic issue -- as it may have done, once again, in the present article.