by Gary North
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 (Reality 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 editing.
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") by Moyers.
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 to you.
An Immortal Sticker
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 why.
It asked a perfectly logical question:
If 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.
The 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 30.
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.
March 5, 2001
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.