Processes & Television
Lynda Lee Kaid
the MBC's Encyclopedia of Television
its beginnings, television in the United States has been
intertwined with political processes of every type, ranging
from coverage of major political events and institutions
to effects on campaigns and elections. From its early
position as a new medium for political coverage in the
1950s, television quickly supplanted radio and eventually
newspapers to become by the early 1960s the major source
of public information about politics.
Coverage of Major Political Events
influence grew quickly by providing audiences with the
chance to experience major political events live or with
little delay. For instance, observers have long discussed
the fact that television coverage of the famous 1954 McArthur
Day Parade in Chicago communicated more excitement and
a greater sense of immediacy to television viewers than
to those participating in the live event. The televised
hearings in conjunction with Joseph McCarthy's search
for communist sympathizers in the early 1950s also captured
the attention of the public.
Probably no political event in the history of television
coverage so mesmerized television audiences as the coverage
of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Film of the actual tragedy in Dallas was played and replayed,
and Jack Ruby's subsequent assassination of suspect Lee
Harvey Oswald occurred on live television.
By the 1970s the live coverage of major political events
had become almost commonplace, but television's ability
to lend drama and intimacy to political events continues.
Through television Americans have been eyewitness to state
funerals and foreign wars; a presidential resignation;
hearings on scandals such as Watergate, Iran-Contra, and
Whitewater; triumphs of presidential diplomacy and negotiation;
and innumerable other political events.
and Political Campaigns/Elections
aspect of the political process has been affected more
by television than political campaigns and elections.
The first presidential election to see extensive use of
television was the 1952 race between Dwight D. Eisenhower
and Adlai Stevenson. In that campaign, Richard M. Nixon,
as Eisenhower's vice-presidential candidate, "took his
case to the people" to defend himself on television against
corruption charges in the famous "Checkers" speech. However,
the most significant innovation related to the role of
television in the 1952 campaign was undoubtedly Eisenhower's
use of short spot commercials to enhance his television
image. The Eisenhower campaign utilized the talent of
successful product advertising executive Rosser Reeves
to devise a series of short spots that appeared, just
like product ads, during commercial breaks in standard
television programming slots. Not only did this strategy
break new ground for political campaigning, but many observers
have credited the spots with helping Eisenhower to craft
a friendly, charming persona that contributed to his eventual
electoral success. Stevenson made it easier for the Eisenhower
campaign by refusing to participate in this type of electronic
campaigning. Although Stevenson did produce television
commercials for the 1956 campaign, he was never able to
overcome Eisenhower's popularity.
early use of television for political advertising was
the beginning of a trend that has grown so dramatically
that televised political advertising is now the major
form of communication between candidates and voters in
the American electoral system. Every presidential campaign
since 1952 has relied heavily on political television
spots. In the 1992 election, Bill Clinton, George Bush,
Ross Perot, and the national parties spent over $120 million
dollars for production and airing of television spots.
Even below the presidential level, spots now dominate
most major statewide (particularly gubernatorial and U.
S. Senate) and Congressional races in the United States,
accounting for 50-75% of campaign budgets.
reasons account for the preeminence of television advertising
in politics. First, television spots and their content
are under the direct control of the candidate and his/her
campaign. Second, the spots can reach a much wider audience
than other standard forms of electoral communication.
Third, the spots, because they occur in the middle of
other programming fare, have been shown to overcome partisan
selectivity (e.g., the spots are generally seen by all
voters, not just those whose political party is the same
as that of the candidate). Finally, research has shown
that voters actually learn more (particularly about issues)
from political spots than they do from television news
or television debates.
use of television advertising in political campaigns has
often been criticized for "lowering the level" of political
discourse. Observers bemoan that television fosters drama
and visual imagery, leading to a concentration on candidate
images instead of policy issues. However, scholarly research
has shown that television spots for campaigns at all levels
are much more likely to concentrate on issues than on
images. The extensive reliance on television for campaign
communication has also been blamed by many observers for
the rise of negative campaigning. Scholars and journalists
alike have noted that more and more political campaigns
rely on negative television spots to attack opponents.
Although even Eisenhower's original spot campaign in 1952
contained a large number of critical or negative messages
and Lyndon Johnson's 1964 campaign spots attacking Barry
Goldwater are considered classics (particularly the "Daisy
Girl" spot), the news media labeled the 1980s as the heyday
of negative spots. Over the past five decades of political
spot use, about one-third of all spots for presidential
campaigns have been negative spots.
of the causes of increased negative spot use has been
the growth in "independent expenditures" by political
action committees (PACs) and other special interest groups.
Campaign finance regulations and related Supreme Court
decisions in the 1970s (see the Federal Election Campaign
Act of 1971, 1974 and amendments and Buckley v. Valeo,
424 U.S. 1, 96 S.Ct. 612, 1976) declared that, while limits
on individual contributions to campaigns were legal, Constitutional
free speech provisions prevented limiting what individuals
or groups could spend independently to advocate for or
against a given candidate. Spending by independent individuals
or groups on television spots has mushroomed in the 1980s
and 1990s, and often such television spending has been
concentrated on negative attacks on candidates (usually
than the federal election laws noted above, which created
the Federal Election Commission to oversee campaign finance
and expenditure reporting, there are very few regulations
in the United States that affect television's role in
the political process. The Federal Communications Act
of 1934 contained the Equal Time Provision which obligates
television and radio stations that give or sell time to
one candidate to do the same for all legally qualified
candidates for federal office. The Fairness Doctrine,
which has been retained only in regard to political campaigns
and related attacks, provides for a prescribed right of
response to attacks contained in broadcast programming.
However, because of free speech concerns, neither the
Federal Election Commission nor the Federal Communications
Commission imposes any restrictions on the content of
political message broadcasts, except to require sponsor
News Coverage of Political Campaigns
provide a great deal of natural content for television
news programming. During political campaign periods, the
national networks, as well as many local stations, devote
substantial amounts of time to covering the candidates
and their campaigns. So important has television news
coverage of politics become that some observers suggest
its growth has been accompanied by and perhaps caused
the demise of political parties in American politics.
Media producer Tony Schwartz has commented that in the
past "political parties were the means of communication
from the candidate to public. The political parties today
are ABC, NBC, and CBS."
more people get their campaign news from television than
from any other news source, there has been great concern
about how television actually covers a political campaign.
Studies have shown that television's predispositions to
drama and visual imagery have resulted in television news
coverage that concentrates more on candidate images, "horserace"
journalism (who's winning, who's losing, opinion poll
results), and campaign strategy than on issue concerns.
news coverage of campaigns has also come to rely extensively
on "soundbites," snippets of candidate messages or commentary
excerpts. By the late 1980s the average soundbite on national
television news covering political campaigns was only
about nine seconds. In addition to reliance on short soundbites,
television news coverage of campaigns has been characterized
by reliance on "spin doctors," individual experts who
interpret events for viewers by framing, directing, and
focusing remarks to favor one side or the other.
television coverage is so important to campaigns and politicians,
the question of potential bias in coverage has been raised
repeatedly. Former Vice-President Spiro Agnew is often
credited with raising the salience of potential bias in
his 1969 speeches accusing television of political, liberal-leaning
bias. Early studies of political bias in television, focused
initially on the 1972 presidential campaign, concluded
that there was little evidence of such bias. Scholars,
instead, suggested that differences among media in their
attention to particular candidates and issues might be
attributable to structural characteristics of the media
(i.e., television needed visuals more than newspapers
did, television had a predisposition to drama, etc.).
However, more recent investigations in the 1980s have
led to less complacency, suggesting that there may be
unexplained differences in coverage of Republican and
Democratic, Liberal and Conservative, political candidates.
In addition to outright political bias, television news
has also been criticized for placing too much emphasis
on coverage of candidate personalities, particularly the
personal lives of candidates. Examples often cited as
evidence of extremes in this regard are the scrutiny of
the prior treatment for mental illness of McGovern's original
vice-presidential choice Thomas Eagleton and 1988 primary
presidential candidate Gary Hart's extramarital affairs.
Both were forced from the political arena by the surrounding
news also plays a major role in the coverage of the presidential
candidate selection process before the national party
conventions. By covering and scrutinizing candidates in
state primaries and caucuses, television coverage can
help determine which candidates are perceived by the electorate
as viable and which might be dismissed as unlikely to
succeed. This ability to give and withhold attention has
been seen by many as making television's role in the political
process a very decisive one, since a candidate who does
not do well in early primaries faces not only an uphill
battle in subsequent contests but may have difficulty
raising funds to continue at all. Coverage of primaries
has also provided opportunities for coverage of events
that have continued to be influential on through the general
election. For instance, George Bush's unprecendentedly
hostile encounter with Dan Rather on the CBS evening news
in January of 1988 is often credited with erasing Bush's
"wimp" image and giving him the momentum for the contests
ahead. Conversely, Edmund Muskie was forever diminished
when television cameras caught tears in his eyes at a
New Hampshire primary rally early in the 1972 campaign.
media coverage of politics is not limited to simple coverage
of candidates and campaign activities, however. Television
news has also played a large role in the coverage of other
aspects of the political process. In 1952 television covered
its first series of national party conventions. While
it was originally believed that such attention would bring
the party process into the open and help voters better
understand the political selection process, parties quickly
learned to "script" their conventions for television.
National television networks no longer provide gavel-to-gavel
coverage of national party conventions, furnishing only
convention highlights to viewers.
Televised campaign debates provide other fodder for the
television news operation. The first televised debates
in the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon campaign were viewed as important,
perhaps decisive, in Kennedy's victory. Kennedy's success
has often been attributed to his impressive appearance
on television in these debates. The next set of presidential
debates did not occur until the 1976 contest between Gerald
Ford and Jimmy Carter, but there has been some type of
single or multiple debate encounter in every subsequent
presidential election. All of these cases have been noteworthy
for the attention television news has focused on the events.
In some instances, such as the second 1976 Ford-Carter
debate, researchers have shown that television's emphasis
on Ford's famous misstatement about Soviet domination
of Poland and the Eastern bloc changed the interpretation
and significance of the event to many viewers.
innovations in television coverage of political campaigns
were apparent in the late 1980s and early 1990s. One such
innovation was the attention given by the television news
media to coverage of political television spots. News
media personnel, in conjunction with their print journalist
counterparts, decided that candidate-controlled spots
should be scrutinized and critiqued by the news media.
Beginning with the 1988 presidential contest, the television
networks, as well as local stations, began to devote increased
amounts of time to analyzing candidate spots in what came
to be known as "adwatches." Television stations, particularly
local ones, also began to take advantage of satellite
technology and other remote feed capabilities to provide
more on-the-spot coverage of campaigns and candidates.
Traditional television news formats, however, have found
themselves challenged by another innovation, the frequent
appearance of political candidates on television talk
shows and personality interview programs. These shows
have provided candidates with new ways to pitch their
messages, often with the benefit of direct voter call-in
questions. The potential influence of such shows has been
enhanced by the proliferation of cable channels offering
multiple distribution systems.
and the Rise of Political Professionals
The increased importance of television to political campaigning
is also largely responsible for the growth of political
or media "handlers." The need to perform well on television
(in controlled paid advertising, in debates, on talk-shows,
in news interviews, and on pseudo-events planned for television
news coverage) has created a great demand for professional
campaign consultants. Joe McGinniss' 1969 book The
Selling of the President 1968, brought new public
visibility to the process by which media consultants mold
and manage candidates for television by chronicling the
media strategies and packaging of Richard Nixon in his
1968 presidential bid. Dan Nimmo's The Political Persuaders
(1970) helped a whole generation of political students
and scholars understand this new partnership between candidates
and media specialists. By the 1980s, it was possible to
point to particular philosophies and schools of consulting
thought and to identify the specific strategies used by
consultants to manipulate candidate images for television.
and the Governing Process
While television's role in political campaigns and elections
is difficult to overestimate, television's significance
in the political process carries over to the effects on
governing the nation. Television "keeps an eye" on government
institutions and the governing process. Every branch of
government is affected by this watchdog.
The president of the United States probably bears the
greatest weight of this scrutiny. It is indeed rare to
see any national television newscast that does not contain
one or more stories centered on the executive branch of
government. In addition, presidents in general have the
ability to receive free network television time for national
addresses and for frequent press conferences. Their inaugural
addresses and state-of-the-union addresses are covered
live and in full. In Presidential Television (1973),
Minow, Martin, and Mitchell first called attention to
the tremendous advantage this coverage might yield for
the President, suggesting that it gave the President the
ability to command public attention and overpower the
more divided and less visible Congress and Supreme Court
branches. Certainly, the White House has been a plum assignment
for television journalists who have often been accused
of being co-opted by the aura of power that surrounds
the presidency. This unique situation has been characterized
as leading, not to a traditional adversarial relationship
between press and president, but to a symbiotic relationship
in which journalist and politician need "to use" each
other in order to prosper.
since the introduction of cameras into the Congress in
1969 and the creation of the C-SPAN network to cover political
affairs, there has been some leveling of the presidential
advantage in television coverage. Although sometimes accused
of "playing to the cameras" in their legislative work,
legislative leaders believe this opening-up of the governing
process to the television audience has provided new understanding
of and visibility for the legislative branch of government.
The Supreme Court nonetheless continues to function outside
the realm of day-to-day television coverage.
and International Political Processes
television's role in the American political system has
developed over the past five decades, increasing attention
has been focused on the interrelationship between television
and politics in many international political environments.
Although often characterized by parliamentary and multi-party
systems and government-owned media, many other democracies
have been influenced by American styles of television
campaigning and coverage. This "Americanization" of the
media and political process can be seen in the growth
of American-style political advertising and horserace
journalistic coverage. Countries such as Britain, France,
Germany, Italy, Israel, many Latin American countries,
and others have seen this trend, and newly developing
democracies in East and Central Europe are also being
affected. These countries have not only seen the growth
of television advertising and American patterns of media
coverage of politics, but a corollary lessening of emphasis
on political parties in favor of candidate-centered politics.
and Perspectives on Television and Politics
research into the effects of messages delivered through
the mass media, particularly television, posited the so-called
"direct effects" theory--that television messages had
direct effects on the behavior of recipients. However,
the early research did not fully support this thesis,
and scholars for a time tended to discount the notion
that such messages directly affected the behavior of recipients
such as voters. More recent studies of a more sophisticated
design have tended to show that the media do affect behavior,
although not necessarily in the most obvious ways initially
has certainly been proven to have sufficiently identifiable
effects to justify a belief in some direct effect of the
medium in the political process. While the foregoing discussion
clearly implies some direct effects of television's participation
in the political process, it is important to note that
there are many different theories and interpretations
about the role television and other media really play
in affecting voter knowledge, opinions, and behavior.
Nimmo and Sanders' classic treatment of political communication
in The Handbook of Political Communication, (1981)
provides a good overview of the theories that have guided
research in this area. Early theorists did assume a kind
of direct effect from media exposure but were later cautioned
to view the media as having a more limited role. Agenda-setting
researchers were the first to break with the limited effects
model and to suggest that media coverage of particular
issues in political campaigns affected the agenda of issues
judged to be important by voters. Agenda-setting theory--the
idea that the media do not tell us what to think but what
to think about--remains an important theory of
media effects, and researchers have demonstrated that
the agenda of issues and candidate characteristics stressed
by television and other media may become the voters' agenda
Researchers interested in the political effects of the
television have also espoused a "uses and gratifications"
theory suggesting that voters attend to various political
media messages in order to use the information in various
ways. Blumler and his colleagues first proposed this theory
as an explanation for why voters in Britain watched or
avoided political party broadcasts.
other theories and perspectives on television's possible
effects on political processes have been advocated. Researchers
have demonstrated, for instance, that television may play
an important role in political socialization, helping
both children and adults to acquire knowledge about the
political system and how it operates or that exposure
to television may increase voter cynicism and feelings
of inefficacy. Others have suggested that we can best
understand television's role in politics by viewing it
as a medium through which fantasies "chain out" among
the public shaping views of events and political actors
in a dramatistic fashion. Critical and interpretive views
also provide perspective on the interrelationship between
governing philosophies, societal values, and television
culture. All these approaches and orientations will be
essential in the future, as television continues to play
a central role in the political processes that touch the
lives of citizens throughout the world.
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Television; U.S. Congress and Television; U.S. Presidency