Where's the Commander in Chief?


Every president from Herbert Hoover through George H. W. Bush spoke to a convention or other large gathering of the National Association of Broadcasters, or its predecessor National Association of Radio Broadcasters. Senators, congressmen and state government officials flocked to NAB confabs (as they did to similar gatherings of newspaper publishers) to curry relationships with influential media moguls—even before that term was conceived.

But neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush has appeared before an NAB audience, and the overall paucity of politicians has become profound. It is certainly “just a coincidence” that the political absence evolved during the same decades that broadcast TV's share of viewership plummeted to just below half of U.S. homes. But it's an interesting correlation of timing for politically astute elected officials.

To be fair, a sitting president has never appeared at a cable TV convention or Internet mind-meld (yet). And as for other legislators' recent decisions to stay away from NAB gatherings, the current congressional junket barrier has put the kibosh on travel to industry affairs in Las Vegas or other far-flung venues.

Nonetheless, the absence of legislative and regulatory officials—from the federal and state levels—dramatically changes the policy-making landscape, much to the dismay of lobbyists trying to win their ears. As part of their staged visits, government officials usually get the “wow tour” of the exhibit halls plus meetings with industry bigwigs. It's a chance to see “how important this industry is to the American economy,” or words to that effect that generally show up in the official remarks.

So much of what is happening in media these days is a “show,” not just a “tell.” Lobbyists and local broadcasters can describe their policy substance when they go to Capitol Hill, but they cannot effectively demonstrate the industry sizzle: what the business “looks like” and what's bubbling up in media technology.

At the NAB convention last year, only one member of Congress, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), was on hand, offering a keynote and a message of thanks on behalf of flood-ravaged New Orleans. Two FCC Commissioners showed up (Michael Copps and Deborah Tate), with Chairman Kevin Martin begging off at the last moment to be on call for a congressional hearing that week. Dozens of FCC staff and a dollop of NTIA staff were on hand, mostly because they had lots of explaining to do about their DTV transition plan.

This year promises more of the same—or less. FCC and other federal agency personnel will be around, but the eighth-floor delegation is limited. (“Invitations were out,” an NAB executive explained, but few acceptances had come in as of two weeks before the show.) Capitol Hill staffers, who are on the front lines of communications and media policy-making, will continue to stay away in droves.

At the first NAB convention I attended (in 1974 in Houston), President Nixon had his notorious on-stage news conference confrontation with Dan Rather (“Are you running for something?”). In subsequent years, Presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush No. 41 showed up at the NAB convention or other event at least once during their terms—with much less explosive dialogues. And with much glory to NAB.

The presence of political totems ensures some level of media coverage—historically a somewhat awkward issue as the media industry puts the spotlight on itself. (The repercussions of the Nixon news conference reverberated for years, usually as a steppingstone toward the Watergate dénouement.) Nonetheless, as anyone who has been present during a presidential event—or even a high-level government official fly-by—knows, the physical proximity itself is often critical. The image lingers longer than the words spoken; in today's environment, the custom-crafted verbiage is rarely a call to action for the industry. That may be another reason why political presence is not considered vital anymore.

Presidential participation inevitably adds a halo and credibility, as well as gravitas, to the industry. Political absence may suggest less attention to the industry—which, of course, is not true in the current battles about spectrum control, ownership, indecency and dozens of other issues.

For the broadcast industry, always concerned about who is listening and watching, the apparent paucity of policy-maker attention is a serious loss.