Friday, May 22, 2009

The Seductive Power Of Pictures

Continuing a tendency to report on a news item not when hot but after it has passed from the news, I found intriguing the recent finding by Gallup that for the first time in the fifteen years it has been polling on the question, more Americans identify themselves as "pro-life" than "pro-choice."

The operative term, of course, is identify. Like the startling findings of the Rassmussen poll a few months ago that found nearly half of all Americans unconvinced that capitalism is preferable to socialism, the abortion poll does not measure support for or against specific policies. It measures identification with a position or, more specifically, a term. Just as "socialism" and "capitalism" mean varying things to different people, so, too, do "pro-life" and "pro-choice" mean something different to you than to your neighbor.

Still, it is interesting, and as Nancy Gibbs recently wrote in Time, the primary reason for the shift in allegiance is probably the tendency of moderates (or, I think, those with largely unformed or shifting perspective) to form an opinion in reaction to the prevailing political winds, or perceived status of abortion policy in the nation. Currently, as she notes, there is a pro-choice (there with that term again) President and a Democratic Congress. Those individuals uncommitted to a pro-choice or pro-life position now will lean toward the latter position, concerned that the pendulum will swing too far left.

Though less of a factor, ultrasound probably plays a factor or, as Gibbs puts it "people under 30 are more opposed to abortion than those who are older, perhaps because their first baby pictures were often taken in utero." The exaggerated impact of something visual, the distorted picture it presents in this case is reminiscent of a great story told over the years by CBS News correspondent Lesley Stahl and repeated by others, and here in the blog common (For more context on the incident, see "Morining in America" by Gil Troy.) In her piece, Stahl

juxtaposed images of staged photo opportunities in which Reagan picnicked with ordinary folks or surrounded himself with black children, farmers and happy flag-waving supporters. These images, she pointed out, often conflicted with the nature of Reagan's actual policies. "Mr. Reagan tries to counter the memory of an unpopular issue with a carefully chosen backdrop that actually contradicts the president's policy," she said in her Evening News piece. "Look at the handicapped Olympics, or the opening ceremony of an old-age home. No hint that he tried to cut the budgets for the disabled or for federally subsidized housing for the elderly."

Stahl's piece was so hard-hitting in its criticism of Reagan, she recalled, that she "worried that my sources at the White House would be angry enough to freeze me out." Much to her shock, however, she received a phone call immediately after the broadcast from White House aide Richard Darman. He was calling from the office of Treasury Secretary Jim Baker, who had just watched the piece along with White House press secretary Mike Deaver and Baker's assistant, Margaret Tutwiler. Rather than complaining, they were calling to thank her. "Way to go, kiddo," Darman said. "What a great story! We loved it." "Excuse me?" Stahl replied, thinking he must be joking. "No, no, we really loved it," Darman insisted. "Five minutes of free media. We owe you big time." "Why are you so happy?" Stahl said. "Didn't you hear what I said?" "Nobody heard what you said," Darman replied. "Come again?" "You guys in Televisionland haven't figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. Lesley, I mean it, nobody heard you."

Stahl was so taken aback that she played a videotape of her segment before a live audience of a hundred people and asked them what they had just seen. Sure enough, Darman was right. "Most of the audience thought it was either an ad for the Reagan campaign or a very positive news story," Stahl recalls. "Only a handful heard what I said. The pictures were so evocative-we're talking about pictures with Reagan in the shining center-that all the viewers were absorbed.

Or check out one of those commercials for prescription drugs. Beautiful suburban or rural scenes. Happy, smiling, likeable, and empathetic people. Little attention is paid to whatever side effects the voice over glides through in accordance with federal law. The pictures, the visuals, dominate. It's a reality that marketing consultants, political strategists, and special interest groups depend on and, though a minor factor in the shift of sentiment on abortion policy, still something of significance.

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