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
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 identification.
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,
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 media frenzy.
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
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
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 anticipated.
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 as well.
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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Congress and Television; U.S.
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