Cover image for The control room : how television calls the shots in presidential elections
The control room : how television calls the shots in presidential elections
Plissner, Martin.
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Publication Information:
New York : Free Press, [1999]

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vii, 244 pages ; 25 cm
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HE8700.76.U6 P55 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
HE8700.76.U6 P55 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The former political director of CBS News offers a gritty look at how the networks--in their endless pursuit of ratings--have come to dominate every aspect of presidential selection from the primaries to the inauguration. Index.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Where media studies have appeal, these rather different studies are worth considering for acquisition. The Media & Morality is the latest entry in Prometheus' Contemporary Issues series; coeditors Baird and Stuart Rosenbaum, philosophy professors who have edited previous volumes on such subjects as bias, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage, are joined here by William E. Loges, a communications studies professor. The collection surveys two major topics: journalism and ethics (including competing assessments of the Richard Jewell, Princess Diana, and Lewinsky "feeding frenzies" and of a number of proposed solutions), and entertainment media and ethics (which examines content issues as well as actions readers, or viewers, can take to "fight back." A final section addresses new challenges, including the Internet. A solid overview. Pilger is one of those rare birds, aptly described as a "crusading journalist." In this U.S. edition of a British best-seller, he examines "slow news": stories that challenge the mainstream media consensus or may appear on TV or in the press on a slow news day. In "The New Cold War," he discusses the terrorism Western nations have visited upon the rest of the world, from Diego Garcia and East Timor to Iraq; "Flying the Flag" traces the arms trade. Burma is the subject of one section; Vietnam, another; "The Media Age" takes on media mogul Rupert Murdoch as well as the small, day-to-day failings of executives and journalists who've bought into dominant discourse of globalization and "technological determinism." Censorship is hardly needed, Pilger notes, when journalists who should be comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable are more concerned about the return on their own 401(k)s. Provocative muckraking. A narrower subject occupies Plissner, who spent 30 years at CBS News, much of it coordinating the network's coverage of political campaigns. He traces the remarkable extent to which modern campaigns have been restructured to serve the needs of television. From the New Hampshire primary through conventions, debates, and nonstop polling to election night results, Plissner has dozens of anecdotes to demonstrate the willingness of pols and parties to accommodate TV broadcasters. There are familiar names here (on both the political and network teams), so some readers will enjoy the tales as high-end gossip. Plissner sees no real problem in the tailoring of elections to TV's schedule; broadcasters' agenda is not at all political, he insists; it's financial ("the largest possible viewership at the lowest possible cost") and competitive (with other networks). --Mary Carroll

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Plissner, the recently retired political director of CBS News, examines the role of television networks in transforming presidential elections. He argues that, given the pursuit of ratings (and the financial rewards that follow), campaigns have become almost exclusively creations of and responses to the demands of the networks. Lacing his narrative with inside stories and personal anecdotes, Plissner disputes theories of political bias in the news, arguing instead that while the "men and women who call the shots at the network news divisions do have an agenda," it is not to propagandize in favor of one party but to attract "the largest possible viewership at the lowest possible cost." On the proper relationship of the press to politics, Plissner says, "Prove all things, hold fast to that which is good." Admirable words but difficult to achieveÄespecially given the high stakes of the television ratings game. An elegant, persuasive book.ÄMichael A. Genovese, Loyola Marymount Univ., Los Angeles (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Introduction The day before the Republican National Convention of 1992 opened in Houston, Texas, officials of the Bush-Quayle re-election campaign met with a small group of CBS News producers and executives. Earlier in the year the campaign's press secretary, Torie Clarke, had declared that Patrick Buchanan, the President's bare-knuckled primary opponent, would have to "get down on his hands and knees and grovel over broken glass with his mouth open and his tongue hanging out" before he would be allowed to speak at the convention. But now, deeply worried about the party's restless right wing, Buchanan's base in the primaries, these officials had been dickering with the Buchanan camp over an endorsement. Far from groveling over broken glass on his hands and knees, Buchanan insisted on making his endorsement from the convention podium during prime time on network television. Before the President's men would consider that, they had warily insisted on seeing a Buchanan script. They had got it the night before. They had all read it -- and loved it. "It's everything we could have asked for," said Jim Lake, the communications director. "The primaries are over," the speech began, "the heart is strong again, and the Buchanan brigades are enlisted all the way to a great comeback Republican victory in November." George Bush and Ronald Reagan, declared Buchanan, had jointly authored "the policies that won the Cold War....Under President George Bush, more human beings escaped from the prison house of tyranny than in any other four-year period in history." The man who once fought Bush so bitterly had composed a far more eloquent tribute to his accomplishments than anything the President's own speechwriters could fashion. But where to put it? The networks had scheduled an hour each for their convention broadcasts from Monday through Thursday, with an extra thirty minutes on the final night reserved for the President and Vice President. Wednesday was an obligatory "Ladies' Night" -- with Barbara Bush and Marilyn Quayle. Tuesday night was reserved for Jack Kemp and Phil Gramm, both ardent Bush supporters in the primaries. Both were sharply opposed to sharing their long-scheduled hour in the sun with the man who had spent most of the year trashing the convention's nominee -- and whose speech would surely overshadow their own appearances. After a brief huddle, CBS agreed to help out. Buchanan embracing Bush seemed more like news than anything else that year at either party's convention. The original highlight of the Monday schedule had been Ronald Reagan. Buchanan, the current poster child of the party right, back to back with the patriarch of conservative Republicanism, sounded like a swell hour -- maybe even more -- of television. If Buchanan were slotted at 9:30 P.M. on Monday, ahead of Reagan, CBS agreed to take air a half hour earlier than planned. For the Bush handlers, CBS's accommodation was the answer to their prayers -- especially when ABC agreed to do the same. It could not, however, have turned out in the end more deadly for Bush. As delivered in the convention hall, Buchanan's speech -- after its opening applause lines for the nominee -- went on to summon not only Buchanan's own following but the entire Republican Party to a "religious war" against gays, inner-city toughs and the likes of Hillary Clinton. NBC made things even worse -- by insisting on its original starting time of 10:00 P.M. In order to keep a commitment that Buchanan would be seen on all three networks, the Bush managers then pushed Buchanan's appearance all the way back to the time originally assigned to Reagan. As a result, the Great Communicator's good-natured, inspirational speech did not get under way till after 11:00 -- when the damage done by Buchanan was already history. NBC's executive producer, Bill Wheatley, recalls with relish, "On two separate instances we saw them hold the convention waiting for us to come on the air." The second came Thursday night, when Vice President Quayle was scheduled before the network's 9:30 P.M. start. "They literally stopped the convention at 9:20. The orchestra played for ten minutes. We were still in our opening when they introduced [Quayle]. There was this tremendous roar, and Tom [Brokaw] just picked it up." It took a number of elections for the country's politicians to learn to wait for television, but learn they did. In 1952, when the TV networks proposed the first coast-to-coast convention broadcasts, the Republican party chairman initially suggested they pay for the privilege. In 1964 Nelson Rockefeller, in the second of his three tries for the Republican presidential nomination, shooed network cameras out of a New Hampshire "meet and greet" because he feared they would be a distraction as he made his pitch to perhaps thirty voters. By 1976, however, Morris Udall, the most durable of Jimmy Carter's rivals for the Democratic nomination, could leave a breakfast in New York, haul a busload of reporters and technicians, mostly from television, to the airport, fly them five and a half propeller-driven hours to Milwaukee, and bus them to a nice middle-income home in the suburbs where Udall would display a middle-income housing plan. By the time space was found for all the reporters and television gear hardly any of the on-site middle-income voters could see or hear, let alone greet, the candidate. No matter; his soundbites aired on local (and network) television that day. Udall's whole entourage then went directly back to the airport and then to New York, where there was another primary in progress and more television news to generate. The lesson had been learned. In 1963, a poll by Elmo Roper found for the first time that television had overtaken newspapers as the principal source of public information about "what's going on in the world today." It was the same year in which the CBS and NBC evening broadcasts expanded from fifteen minutes to a half hour, in which television coverage of the Kennedy assassination became the chief experience of most Americans for nearly a week. There would be more such profound national experiences in which television enveloped the people -- the 1969 moonwalk, the 1976 Independence Day Centennial -- and each of these, along with more routine instances, enhanced the notion of the television broadcast as the essence of the event itself. For the highly competitive network news divisions, covering landmark special events was the ultimate test of worth. Moonwalks and presidential assassinations, however, do not happen often enough to provide an adequate proving ground. Every four years, on the other hand, presidential campaigns did. Primary, convention and election-night coverage were seen as especially useful in establishing the hands-on reporting credentials of their anchormen. The broadcasts were "live," apparently spontaneous, and living proof that these standard-bearers of the networks' news efforts were no mere script readers but aggressive diggers after facts and captains of their respective teams. Just as presidential-campaign coverage was found to serve the strategic purposes of television news, the same enhanced exposure came to dominate the strategic thinking of the campaigns themselves. Campaign managers, whose most important connections had once been with contributors and state and local party leaders, now prized the home phone numbers of television correspondents and certain producers and executives. More and more of the campaign managers' day was devoted to reading the minds (and sometimes the communications traffic) of the line-up producers in New York, to promoting "good stories" about their candidates and deflecting "bad" ones -- or, to state the goal more exactly: to contain bad stories in the print media, where they often started, and to get the good ones promoted to where they can make a difference -- on television. It was in 1963, the year when television overtook the daily papers as a force affecting voters, that I signed on as an associate producer with the CBS News Election Unit; I became immersed for the next thirty-three years in the network's coverage of national politics. As the network's political director during most of this period, I cultivated party chairmen and regional officials, negotiated debates and interviews, tracked convention delegates, briefed correspondents and producers, kept a close watch on our pre-election polling and election-night calls and -- very important -- kept in touch with what NBC and ABC were doing. From that experience I have tried to trace in this book the evolution of American presidential campaigns from a party-driven process rooted in a leadership elite to one in which the choices are presented to the voters primarily by television. As this book appears, more than a year and a half before the first president of the twenty-first century is sworn in, the race for that office is already far along. Like the party leaders who used to make all the choices but the final one in November, television news will have the most far-reaching voice on who is plausible and who is not as contenders in this race. It will decide which of the fifty-seven primary and caucus contests are meaningful and which are not and what constitutes victory or defeat in each. With their polling partners in the print media, the networks will together subject the sitting President to a more or less weekly vote of public confidence -- something the framers neglected to provide for. Random samples of likely voters will grade the wannabes of both parties on such traditional yardsticks as leadership, knowledge of the job and ability to handle a major world crisis. There will also be a horde of freshly crafted queries about moral fitness. But most of all they will poll about the "horse race." Once the primaries and caucuses begin, the much deplored reporting of "who's up, who's down, who's ahead" will get undiminished play. This is not because the perennial resolutions of news anchors and network presidents to rein in horse-race reporting are insincerely taken, but because the networks are in the business of reporting news. As they do this, they provide a large measure of the information on which Americans make their choices in primaries and on Election Day -- and, it is often argued, on whether they vote at all. The quality of that information has long been a matter of controversy, especially in academic circles. So too, in other circles, is the impact on national decision-making which has accrued to what one critic famously described as a "small and unelected elite." In the pages ahead I will show that those on the political right (of whom there are many) and those on the left (of whom there are some) who worry about this worry too much. The men and women who call the shots at the network news divisions do have an agenda, but it is not a political agenda. Their goals are for the most part (1) the largest possible viewership at the lowest possible cost and (2) the gratification that comes from scoring any kind of competitive edge over their television rivals -- including, among other things, the quality of their reporting. CBS and ABC, in granting the best time slot at that Republican convention to George Bush's nemesis in the primaries, were not shrewd enough to foresee that this was a bad idea for Bush -- especially since the men supposed to be pursuing Bush's interest were thrilled by it. (Far more thrilling for CBS News, during a very dark period in the ratings wars, was the prospect of launching its convention coverage off a lead-in from the series Murphy Brown, then the country's reigning sitcom.) Nor did NBC, in refusing to budge Thursday night for Dan Quayle, have anything against the Vice President. It was just protecting its top-rated broadcast, Cheers. What did occur at that convention flowed from the strategic bargaining between the campaigns and television news, each with their own conflicting purposes, which defines what is seen and heard by Americans as they think about electing a President. For a third of a century, as the rules of this game evolved, I had a privileged position from which to observe how it is played. The account that follows starts with the uniquely American endurance test by which the Democratic and Republican parties, under television's gaze, pick their nominees for President. Copyright © 1999 Martin Plissner. All rights reserved.