On Airplanes, Footballs and Tanks

By Jonathan Rose on Sep 17, 2008

Yesterday the Liberal party campaign plane made an unscheduled stop in Montreal. We are told that there was a problem in the Liberal's aging Boeing 737. Thankfully the malfunction was minor and no one was hurt.This should have been the end of it but for the media it was a great stand-in for the entire campaign. The Globe and Mail story said alluded to the 1974 election campaign when Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield was photographed fumbling a football. Never mind that Stanfield successfully caught the ball several times before, the photo that ran on the front pages was that of a leader who literally fumbled the ball. In the 1988 American election, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis was perceived as being soft on defense. His response was to create a photo-op of him riding in tank. The photo that ran of him taking a tank for a spin just reinforced his weakness.

All these episodes demonstrate the power of symbols to shape modern election campaigns. This should not surprise us. Elections with their onslaught competing economic forecasts and promises that often rely on shaky economics can strain even the most devoted election junkie. The media with their 24 hours news cycle need simple frames to encapsulate the complexities and subtleties of an election dynamic. The most common,of course, is the horse race metaphor where media rely on polls to tell us who is ahead. Sometimes this portrayal can actually look like a horse race complete with win-place-show graphics.

Does this mean, as some argue, that the media are not fulfilling their responsibility to inform? After all, how can voters make decisions if the media are more interested in covering fumbled footballs or malfunctioning airplanes? Because so much of politics is about our affective orientation to leaders and parties, it makes sense for the media to focus on these things. Some scholars argue that these short hand cues are essential for voters to make rational choices in an environment where information is overwhelming. These brief moments - while seemingly unrelated to the issues of a campaign -- are important condensations of the narrative we create about parties and leaders. What remains to be seen is how compelling they are in the long run.

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