“Nobody heard you,” said Richard Darman to Lesley Stahl.
CBS News had just run a report critical of President Ronald Reagan. Stahl had produced it. Its thesis was that the White House diverted attention from the president’s policies by emphasizing his personality. “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 the 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.”
The video portion was of broad, sunlit uplands, Reagan looking winsome in the foreground. Stahl assumed that the contradiction between the audio and the video was damning, a demonstration of hypocrisy and cynicism in high places.
Shortly after the segment had aired, Darman, the White House staff secretary, called her to express his delight. Stahl recounts their conversation in her memoir Reporting Live.
“Way to go, kiddo,” he told her. “What a great piece. We loved it.”
“Excuse me?” she said. “Didn’t you hear what I said?”
“Nobody heard what you said,” Darman explained:
You guys in Televisionland haven’t figured it out yet, 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.
That was 1984, exactly 20 years since Marshall McLuhan had published Understanding Media, an extended argument that “the medium is the message.” In 1960, in the first televised presidential debate, policy differences between the two sparring candidates were subtle compared with the contrast between the physical appearance of John F. Kennedy, tanned, relaxed, and handsome, and that of Richard M. Nixon, pale and tense, showing in his face and in his frame the exhaustion from his recent two-week hospitalization. You know who won the debate and, six weeks later, the election.
A picture speaks louder than words. Activists on both sides of the abortion issue understand the power of the sonogram. Images of unborn children give a certain weight to the case against abortion, pulling the pro-life argument from the clouds down to earth, where legal and philosophical disputations about personhood give way to the hard, plain fact of the bodily existence of the human being in utero. If you read enough pro-life literature, you will have encountered more than once this comment that Harris Hickman, a pollster, made in 1989 at a convention of the abortion-rights group NARAL:
Nothing has been as damaging to our cause as the advances in technology which have allowed pictures of the developing fetus, because people now talk about that fetus in much different terms than they did 15 years ago. They talk about it as a human being, which is not something that I have an easy answer how to cure.
By the mid-1990s, Republicans in Congress had begun to introduce and advance bills against late-term abortion, culminating in the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003. Polls indicated that public opinion on abortion shifted toward the pro-life side as the debate shifted to the latest possible stage of pregnancy and gestation, where it overlapped with birth. Mere mention of infants is capable of generating clearer, more emotionally compelling mental images than does even prolonged discussion of them as the embryos that they were months earlier.
Earlier today, for the first time since 2003, the U.S. federal government executed a citizen, Daniel Lewis Lee, a white supremacist convicted of killing an Arkansas family in 1996. Last year the Department of Justice announced that it would resume capital punishment, and last month Attorney General William Barr directed the Bureau of Prisons to schedule lethal injections for four federal prisoners on death row. Lee is the first.
The heinousness of his crimes blunts if not outright cancels any moral indignation that, under different circumstances, the taking of his life would rouse in the hearts of those who are drawn to the pro-life cause. Moreover, those who are drawn to the cause feel the tug of a logical argument: The value of life is high, and the penalty for taking the lives of others, except in specified circumstances relating to war and self-defense, should be commensurate. To paraphrase Moses: An eye for an eye, a life for a life. So we add capital punishment to that set of circumstances under which the taking of human life is, we maintain, either demanded by justice or at least justifiable.
We start from the presumption that no one should take another person’s life. Then we chisel away at the presumption, citing exceptions. “These are morally justifiable,” we say. “Those are not.” We find broad agreement about some of them but not others. The greater the number of exceptions we do recognize, the harder it becomes for us to persuade others that this one exception, abortion, doesn’t belong in the list.
“Do as we say, not as we do, or not as we do in this instance.” So we imply when we invoke the sanctity of human life to rationalize the execution even of a murderer, but we know better. We know that what we do drowns out what we say. “Lesley, I mean it, nobody heard you.”