Since 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.

Televised Coverage of Major Political Events

Television's 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.

Television and Political Campaigns/Elections

No 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.

This 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.

Several 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.

The 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.

One 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 incumbents).

Other 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.

Television News Coverage of Political Campaigns

Politics 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."

Because 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.

Television 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.

Because 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 media frenzy.

Television 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.

News 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.

Several 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.


Television 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.

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.

However, 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.

Television and International Political Processes

As 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.

Theories and Perspectives on Television and Politics

Early 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.

Television 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.

Many 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.

-Lynda Lee Kaid


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See also Parliament, Coverage by Television; Royalty and Royals and Television; U.S. Congress and Television; U.S. Presidency and Television