Paul Ryan Says TV And Politics Don't Always Mix. Does He Have A Point?

Oct 3, 2012
Originally published on October 3, 2012 6:19 pm

Responding to calls that the Republican presidential ticket provide more detail about some of its policy proposals, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan says TV isn't always the right medium for such specifics.

"I don't have the time," Paul Ryan told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday this week, when asked about his proposed revenue neutral tax cut. "It would take me too long to go through all the math."

Ryan later explained that he didn't want to explain the math because "everyone would start changing the channel."

And Wednesday on CBS This Morning, top Romney adviser Kevin Madden said not to expect too many details in tonight's debate.

"It's hard to get into a whole lot of specifics, particularly when you're talking about something as complex as all the deductions you would go through as part of tax reform," said Madden.

Some critics called Ryan's comment a dodge, and President Obama has challenged Romney to get specific.

But is television the wrong medium for getting into all the wonky details?

Yes and no, say communications experts.

On the one hand, says University of Missouri associate professor Mitchell McKinney, there is evidence that the candidate who spouts the most facts and figures in a debate is most often seen as the loser.

"Still, at the same time, what debate viewers tell us is they want specifics," McKinney says. "There is something a bit incongruous in terms of what our research shows."

University of Ohio communications studies professor Bill Benoit says that all media are pressed for time and space.

"Television programs, of course, vary in what they're willing to present. But I don't know of any regular news program that would devote 20 minutes to one candidate talking about health care, for example," says Benoit.

But Emerson College associate professor Gregory Payne says that's no excuse for poorly communicating a policy point. Media, however limited, is what it is, and to be a modern leader means adapting to the current landscape.

"If a student said to me, 'I would have been able to give you the essence of what that book was about, but you limited me to two pages,' he would get an F. If you've got two pages, you've got to do your best to get it across," Payne says. "If Romney can't do that, he has no business being president. If Obama can't do that, he has no business being president."

Both Payne and Mitchell point to former President Bill Clinton's recent Democratic convention address as an example of clearly articulated wonkiness, beginning with one memorable, cut-and-dry explanation: "People ask me all the time how we delivered four surplus budgets. What new ideas did we bring? I always give a one-word answer: arithmetic."

Of course, Clinton — who Obama has since dubbed his "explainer-in-chief" — spoke for nearly 50 minutes.

Payne points to John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan as leaders in relatively modern times who could deliver succinct, effective messages while in office. And he points to Richard Nixon as a symbol of the perils of fuzzy pre-election explanations.

"Richard Nixon in 1968 said to the American people that he had a plan to get us out of Vietnam. When people asked him what the plan was, he said it was a secret plan, and he would tell us after the election. Guess what? He got us further into Vietnam," Payne says.

Of course, TV has changed since Nixon's time, and studies show the amount of time news shows devote to sound bites has decreased.

"My opinion is that it's unfortunate that we have to take complex issues and boil them down to 10 or 20 seconds, says Benoit. "But I think that's a fact of life in many media. Candidates have to try to do that."

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