The term "sound bite" refers to a brief message that
gets across one key idea to the listener. Usually, the term applies
to politics or to issues with political aspects. Oddly enough,
the term came from visual media: television. Specifically, it
came from the 1952 Presidential election.
The Republican Party hired the master advertiser, Rosser Reeves
in Advertising), to create a series of 30-second filmed
interviews of Dwight Eisenhower, to be shown on television. Ike
answered briefly and vaguely, spot by spot, short questions that
were posed by a voice. While the filming was in progress, he asked
rhetorically after a take, "Is this what the old general
is reduced to?" It was, indeed. These paid commercials were
run in states where the race with Stevenson was considered close,
most notably Ohio. (David Halberstam devotes a fairly lengthy
section of his book, The
Fifties, to Reeves’ work.)
Reeves’ TV spots set the pattern for subsequent politics. He understood
that the public does not remember intricate details. Viewers remember
brief phrases or images. Reeves made millions of dollars for the
Mars candy company with his slogan, "melts in your mouth,
not in your hand." The TV image of a chocolate-smeared palm
is embedded in my mind almost 50 years later.
You can buy a video produced by Bill Moyers on Reeves, the presidency,
and TV spots, “The
30-Second President.” I mention this because I once defeated
Moyers by using the reverse of Reeves’ strategy. He was planning
to do what I firmly believed would be a hatchet job on me in the
third segment of his 1987 PBS series, “God and Politics: On Earth
As It Is in Heaven.” His staffers kept calling my two offices,
begging for an interview. They even called my pastor for an interview.
I told everyone to rebuff the requests.
Moyers’ staffers kept asking my staffers, "Doesn’t Dr. North
want to get his ideas across?" My silent answer was, "Yes,
but on my terms, not Bill Moyers’ terms." I knew all about
the power of videotape editing. Some unknown lackey is sent out
to interview a naive victim for two hours in order to get one
or two juicy sound bites, and then the retroactively spliced-in
Famous Interviewer zings the victim on-screen with loaded questions,
for which the editor splices in the victim’s answers. The victim
has no power of reply and no authority to review the show ahead
of time. In writing, scholars are supposed to use ellipses to
indicate dropped words: [. . .] There are no ellipses in video
The final version of Moyers’ show was not complimentary to me,
but the show produced no problems for me. That was because I was
nowhere to be seen. They interviewed some of my critics, but there
was no talking head of Gary North to be guillotined (or "Billotined")
The TV news shows have to have a talking head or an image. If
you’re not on-screen, TV’s assassins will have trouble getting
But what if you want to be on-screen? What if you want your 15-second
to 30-second appearance in front of the viewers? Then you must
make yourself irresistible to the news media. You must pander
to their insatiable lust for on-screen visuals. You can get your
sound bite if you can get your selected image on-screen.
The best example of this that I have ever personally encountered
was a Second Amendment promoter’s sticker. It appeared to be a
bumper sticker, but he had pasted it onto his briefcase. He walked
into a conference room, where a small group of media-savvy conservatives
had gathered, and all eyes went to that sticker. You’ll soon understand
It asked a perfectly logical question:
they take away our guns, how can we shoot liberals?
I had no answer at the time. I still don’t.
He told us that this sticker had gotten him a TV interview in
every town where he had appeared at a pro-gun rally. Local TV
interviewers had approached him. He did not have to ask to be
put on-camera. It was clear why they went to him. They wanted
a photo-op. They saw what they regarded as the ultimate visual — the
sticker’s message, which they had always suspected was at the
core of the pro-gun lobby. Here it was! They could prove their
point to their viewers!
The man was quite articulate. He had his sound bites well prepared.
He could get his position to the viewers free of charge. All he
had to do was appear initially as a wacko. The sticker did this
for him. The TV news crews simply could not resist. They would
give him what he wanted in trade for that single visual image.
Remnant and the Masses
In his classic essay,
“Isaiah’s Job,” Albert J. Nock warned against trying to establish
liberty through grand political schemes aimed at the masses. There
is too much competition. The masses loyally follow their god,
Buncombe, and the world is filled with the prophets of Buncombe.
Serve the Remnant instead, he said.
Nock understood clearly what Reeves would prove to everyone a
decade and a half later: the masses cannot remember a detailed
argument. Reeves created the sound bite in order to elect a man
very different from his chief Republican rival, Senator Robert
Taft of Ohio. Taft had a message suitable for the Remnant: limited
civil government, non-intervention in foreign policy, and personal
responsibility in economic matters. He could not get this message
across to the American masses or Eastern Establishment Republicans.
Taft was the son of a President, a graduate of Yale, and a member
of Skull & Bones, but his message was salable nationally only
to the Remnant.
National politics has been the elephant burial grounds for a stream
of enthusiastic promoters of Remnant-based messages. Even when
they win, we lose. As a conservative former newspaper editor (fired
by the publisher when he condemned Nixon in early 1974) and first-rate
historian M. Stanton Evans said decades ago, "When our friends
win, they aren’t our friends any more." (This is known as
Evans’ Law of Political Perfidy, and is included in the collection,
The Official Rules.)
For those eager souls who still dream of Making Things Better
by Informing the Public, I offer as a model that man with the
irresistible sticker. If you are willing to resort to this level
of communication, you may get your 15 seconds of fame. Maybe even
The liberal TV media are constrained by the limits of two-minute
features. If you cannot get your message across in 30 seconds,
stay out of big-time politics.
Gary North is the author of an eleven-volume series, An Economic
Commentary on the Bible. The latest volume is Cooperation
and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Romans. The series can
be downloaded free of charge at www.freebooks.com.