"Thirty-five years ago, sad to say, CBS, NBC, and ABC created the modern New Hampshire primary." So says The Control Room, a gritty look at how network news has come to dominate every stage of presidential selection from the earliest announcements to the final swearing in. As we embark on another of the quadrennial circuses that determine how the world's most powerful country passes its crown, The Control Room shows us who really cracks the whip.
Martin Plissner, former political director of CBS News, has played a central role in the network coverage of every presidential campaign since 1964. Now, drawing on his intimate knowledge of life inside the control room, he provides a lively and authoritative account of the ways television has come to dominate presidential politics in the final third of the twentieth century. Blending personal anecdotes with fascinating mini-histories, Plissner shows how all the elements of the contest for national power in America -- the primaries, the conventions, and the final counting of the ballots -- are shaped by the struggle among the networks for supremacy in viewership and breaking news on ever-dwindling budgets.
How did Ross Perot trounce both George Bush and Bill Clinton in primaries he never entered? And how did Pat Buchanan's far-right call to arms become the main event at the 1992 Republican National Convention? Why did the country expect a Carter-Reagan photo finish in 1980 and a Clinton landslide in 1996 -- neither of which happened? The answers to all of these questions begin in the network control rooms.
As the race for the White House heads toward a new century, Plissner reveals how television news coverage will decide who gets attention and when, who is on the rise and who is down the chute, when the race begins and when it ends, and what you care about when you vote for president. "The men and women who call the shots at the network news divisions do have an agenda," writes Plissner. Find out what it is in this fascinating insider's report.
Plissner, the former executive political director of CBS News, offers a spirited, if not entirely persuasive defense of how network news organizations cover presidential elections. Beginning in 1952, the first year that TV reporters roamed the floor at the Republican and Democratic conventions, Plissner traces the growing influence of the men in the network control rooms. Though he quickly dismisses the notion that TV producers and reporters form "a small and unelected elite," he acknowledges some of the dismaying byproducts of TV news coverage: feeding frenzies in New Hampshire and Iowa, nominating conventions with second-by-second scripts, obsessive polling to track the presidential "horse race." But these trends don't really seem to bother him, and he offers a weak defense of the tenor of campaign coverage: networks cover the horse race because it is "the only thing a good many viewers want to know in the first place." Plissner does better when he sticks to anecdotal evidence, as when he recounts the backstage maneuvering that led to Dan Rather's explosive 1988 interview with George Bush, in which Bush finally snapped: "How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?" At such points, the book is gripping. Ultimately, however, Plissner never goes beyond engaging eyewitness accounts to offer meaningful analysis of how the networks cover campaigns. He should have taken off the gloves and cast a more critical eye on his own profession.