Two deaths last week illuminate some essential truths about the media. First, to paraphrase William Goldman's classic line about Hollywood, "nobody knows anything -- except for the few people who do." (I added that last part).
And second, really, nobody knows anything.
Tony Schwartz died June 17th at the home he rarely left in New York. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times ran fascinating, well-written obituaries. Famously agoraphobic since the age of 13, Schwartz is best known for making the famous "daisy spot" used in Lyndon Johnson's campaign against Barry Goldwater.
The commercial, which generated so much controversy it was aired only once, showed a little girl counting aloud as she plucked petals from a daisy. Then, her voice dissolves into a military countdown leading to footage of a mushroom cloud, with Johnson's voice (invoking a poem by W. H. Auden!) saying, "These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die."
Generally considered the first "negative spot" used in politics, Schwartz thought it was anything but.
"For many years, it's been referred to as the beginning of negative commercials," he once told an interviewer. "There was nothing negative about it. Frankly, I think it was the most positive commercial ever made."
You can see his point--what's negative about LBJ's narration? Or, to paraphrase yet another famous line, "What's so negative about peace, love and understanding?"
Tony Schwartz wrote a famous book called "The Responsive Chord" which in its title alone tells you everything you need to know about advertising. Finding that responsive chord, the way into a viewer or listener's consciousness and previously held beliefs, is the best way to deliver a targeted message. The secret to advertising is to make audiences do all the work -- setting the stage for them to sell themselves an idea or product. Schwartz loved radio because he could paint pictures in the mind's eye. "People were born without earlids," he used to say about radio. "You can't close your ears to it."
"The best political commercials are Rorschach patterns," he wrote. "They do not tell the viewer anything. They surface his feelings and provide a context for him to express these feelings."
My mentor in politics put it another way. "The reaction you want from a political spot is for the viewer to nudge the person sitting next to them and say, 'See? Isn't that what I was telling you this morning?'"
Someone else who touched audiences with familiarity and feeling was Tim Russert, whose death brought Washington, D.C. to a standstill and filled the airwaves with the kind of wall-to-wall coverage usually seen only for the passing of presidents, princesses or popes. Russert was hailed as a repudiator of "gotcha" journalism, but with respect to the man's memory, I disagree. I didn't care for his transformation of Meet the Press from an interview show to a series of news clips and quotes designed to elicit a response of "I really didn't mean that" from his guests. If trying to shame politicians isn't playing "gotcha," what is?
Shame is indeed a powerful motivator, which Tony Schwartz knew very well. When he was hired to produce radio ads promoting New York City's new "pooper-scooper" law, he was careful not to make audiences feel bad about themselves, but rather, ashamed of poor behavior by others. Instead of commercials that told people they really ought to clean up after their dogs, his ads said, "don't you feel bad when other people don't clean up after their dogs?" Like the "daisy spot," this puts a positive spin where others might go negative and appeals to what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."
I'll miss Tim Russert's election night analyses (his white board message of "Florida, Florida, Florida" richly deserves its' place in history) and his loss deprives the airwaves of one of the few exceptions to the "nobody knows anything" rule. Russert did know a lot about what works in politics, but for the most part, in Washington as in Hollywood, the race for profits trumps principles every day. News divisions know more about what makes "good TV" than what strengthens democracy.
I teared up along with everyone else at the eulogies and tributes to Tim Russert, and I don't think there's anything wrong with network news divisions sending off a beloved star in style. But let us also pause to remember Tony Schwartz, who like Russert knew more than most of his colleagues what he was talking about.