Friday, July 27, 2012

Television in politics

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Television has played a decisive role in politics in the past 50 years. Since the 150s television and American presidential politics have gone hand in hand. The power of television and its persuasive influence on the American political arena can be seen early in the 150s, yet its most historically profound era can be said to have started in the 160s. In 160 John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Richard Milhouse Nixon met in the television arena for 4 political debates. Those events are considered a milestone in television political history due to the vast audiences who tuned in. According to, “More than 70 million Americans saw the first debate, and audiences greater than 50 million people witnessed the other three. Probably the greatest consequence of the debates was to assure voters that the relatively young and inexperienced Senator Kennedy was capable of being president” (Grolier, 000). The persuasive power of television was from that time on seen as an indispensable tool in running a campaign and in keeping office. The effect of television on the voter populace is so great that candidates running for president rely heavily on media specialists to run campaigns in the form of image marketing and mass saturation of political advertisements. The reliance on the television has increased the costs of running a presidential campaign. In 15 the cost of running a presidential campaign was approximately 1 million US dollars. In the 000 federal election an estimated 00 million was spent by one party. The expense of television campaigning requires political parties to raise more money to have a fair chance at equal representation in the electoral arena. The down side is that democracy is not being served. Instead, private capital is being served by political promises for political contributions to pay for such increased costs as television air time. Parties or candidates without private interest monetary support do not get equal representation in a national form. But this was not always so. In the early years of television ex-president Dwight D. Eisenhower used television for the first time to campaign.

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The first American presidential campaign to take advantage of the television was that of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 15. The use of short animations and sound bites was an amazing success and allowed Ike, as he was called, to walk away with the election. A curious presidential character whose career was definitely affected by the media is Richard Nixon. First, during the 15 Eisenhower election, Nixon ran as a candidate for Vice President, and was under media scrutiny for a financial scandal involving an alleged secret political fund. In a public televised address he bared his entire life and financial record to the nation and he even mentioned receiving a black and white dog named Checkers from a little girl in a small town in the Midwest. Nixon sarcastically suggested to the nation that he would give up the dog if the federal auditors wished it. Then he identified with the public by using his children and stating, “And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, were gonna keep it. It isnt easy to come before a nation-wide audience and air your life as Ive done” (Watergateinfo, 00). He made the federal investigators and the political opposition seem like they were picking on the underdog and that he was just a simple and honest family man just trying to do what was right. He concluded his address with, “But just let me say this last word. Regardless of what happens Im going to continue this fight. Im going to campaign up and down America until we drive the crooks and the Communists and those that defend them out of Washington. And remember, folks, Eisenhower is a great man. Believe me. Hes a great man. And a vote for Eisenhower is a vote for whats good for America” (Watergateinfo, 00). The Checkers the dog speech is considered to set the standard for audience persuasion in politics. Eight years later Nixon ran for President of the United States against John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The Kennedy Nixon debates of the 160s were some of the very first televised national political debates. The charismatic, youthful Kennedy was successful in beating Nixon not so much in his argument but with his appearance and charm. An unidentified author of a website article states, “The Kennedy-Nixon debates of 160 were the first such contests to be aired on television. The well-tanned and well-rested Kennedy won the viewing audience compared to the unshaven, sweaty Nixon. The Kennedy margin of victory was one of the slimmest in history, leading many historians to blame the TV debates for Nixons defeat.” In the years that followed, television would air Kennedy’s brains being splattered on his very photogenic wife’s pink dress. Lyndon Johnson would take the office of President. Then, because of the Vietnam War being fought each night on prime time television, Johnson refused to run again. Kellner states, “Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for reelection in 168 after he discerned that the antiwar forces were growing in popularity and militancy” (Kellner, p.5).

Nixon was eventually elected as President in 168. Part of his appeal at this time was appearing on televison as a personality and not just as a politician. Having learned years earlier during the now famous Kennedy-Nixon debates and even earlier with his Checkers the dog address, Nixon came to the people as a new president for a new generation. He appeared on such shows as the Jack Parr’s Variety Show and Rowan and Martian’s Laugh-In, where he recited the now famous line “sock it to me” and made his hand a peace sign. Nixon won a second term in office in 17 due to the corporate capitalist displeasure and television network’s lack of support of the candid George McGovern. Douglas Kellner, in his article Television and the Crisis of Democracy, states, “The corporate establishment was obviously uncomfortable with the liberal candidacy of George McGovern during the 17 election, and network television did little to promote his campaign thus helping Richard Nixon win his second term as president” (Kellner, p.55). 17 was a year Nixon would not soon forget.

Years later television would hound Nixon right out of the White House and into a waiting helicopter in 174. The scandal that brought Nixon down was called Watergate. Watergate is a plush Washington D.C. hotel that in 17 housed the Democratic Party National Committee offices. The offices were broken into and later it was proven that the Nixon office was responsible for political espionage. Tricky Dick, as Nixon was called, had no more dog speeches or clever one liners in his bag of Machiavellian tricks to save his political career. Vice President Gerald Ford tumbled in after Nixon’s resignation to take the role as President of the United States. Gerald Ford was often depicted as clumsy and incompetent on television. Television footage of him stumbling down stairs or running into people made him a great target for ridicule. “This stereotype was greatly popularized by a series of skits on Saturday Night Live featuring Chevy Chase who portrayed Ford as a man who was literally incapable of taking a single step without falling over or destroying something” (Wikipedia, 00). After Ford came Jimmy Carter and he was later defeated by Ronald Reagan. Reagan is where the rubber hits the road as far as television and politics are concerned.

Ronald Reagan, the actor turned politician, understood the power of the television medium and its influence on the general public, and subsequently expanded his administration’s office of communications. His masterful manipulation of the television medium earned for him the title the Great Communicator. According to The Museum of Broadcast Televison, the Reagan administration redefined politics and the use of the television as a political tool. The Museum of Broadcast Televison writes that, “His administration also greatly expanded the Office of Communication to coordinate White House public relations, stage important announcements, control press conferences, and create visual productions such as Thats America, shown at the 184 Republican convention. Image management and manipulation increased in importance because of television. Reagans aides perfected a new political art form--the visual press release--whereby Reagan could take credit for new housing starts while visiting a construction site in Fort Worth or announce a new welfare initiative during a visit to a nursing home” (Museum of Broadcast Televison, 00). Reagan’s Vice President, George Bush Sr.. was next on the presidential throne, followed by Bill Clinton. After years of social program cut backs and pro capital economic politics the general public elected Bill Clinton to make things right.

Bill Clinton, unlike Bush ,was youthful in appearance and was charismatic in demeanour and was often compared in the media to the late John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Clinton was a product of the hippy generation which appealed to the new liberal ethos being celebrated by a conservative beaten public. Clinton and his young family represented the new status quo, and the camera loved every bit of the Clintons. Clinton was like a celebrity right up until his impeachment. Battling foreign enemies wanted to kill him, sex and financial scandals pursued him in the media, yet still he smiled and waved. Finally, he could not wave anymore and he was asked to step aside. Next on the thrown was George W. Bush Jr., as the conservatives returned. The election was a very expensive one. The days of running about the country shaking hands and kissing babies door to door are all but pageantry in today’s mass communications arena. As the Reagan era has shown, the power of political persuasion is in image marketing, mass saturation and plain old movie magic. No institution has had a greater impact on the American government and its politics shaping as the media does. Yet its members are not elected by the people, and its motives are often driven by profit.

How does democracy get served if only the wealthy parties get the prime time television slots to get their message out to the greater viewing public? As it now stands, campaigning parties have to raise more and more money to pay for television time. Air time equals votes and votes are bought and so are presidents. The more money raised to run a campaign, the more promises made to big business interests such as those involved in the military industrial complex. Defence contracts are potentially worth billions of dollars to corporations. An organization who monitors corporations, Corp Watch, states that during the 000 election race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, “George W. Bush raised a $1,088,650 war chest, more money than any presidential candidate in US history, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Al Gore came in second in the record donations, raising $1,00,5, more than any Democratic presidential candidate in history. And that doesnt include soft money contributions to the candidates” (Corp Watch, 001). If an election is won or lost on campaign contributions raised, then Bush was indeed the winner. Gore lost the election to Bush by a margin and the military industrial complex won on all accounts. Having won, the military industrial complex now had a war to fuel and budgetary promises of more cash coming down the American taxpayer pipeline.

According to the BBC News, in the United States, “Defence spending will grow 1% on the year to $7bn, while domestic security is to nearly double from $1.5bn to $7.7bn” (BBC, 00).This is the budget of 00 with a yearly increase of 40 billion a year. So with those kind of dollars at stake why would one of America’s largest defence contractors, General Electric, want to give up free time on its Network NBC to presidential candidates who do not have its best interests in mind? An example can be drawn from the Kellner article when he describes the displeasure of the corporate establishment and lack of network coverage of the McGovern campaign and McGovern’s liberal politics. George McGovern wanted to stop the war in Vietnam, and Nixon was committed to the war until 17. With a lack of financial backing and lack of television network campaign support, a candidate such as McGovern has little chance of voicing his or her political agenda. Without cash you can’t get on television to make your political appeal to the public, and without television you don’t win a United States presidential race. That was true in the 160s, 70s, 80s, and 0s, and it is true today.

The cost of running a political advertisement on television, according to some sources, increased 5% prior to the 000 United States presidential election. Cash and not democracy is the bottom line in American politics it would seem. A group calling themselves The Alliance For Better Campaigns hopes to rectify this injustice in the electoral process. In 1 ex-presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter with legendary television news anchor Walter Cronkite also stressed the lack of representation in the American electoral process. The Alliance states, “Calling it a way to break the choke hold that money and ads have on our political system”, former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford and former television anchorman Walter Cronkite today urged the television industry to open the airwaves to brief nightly issue forums for candidates in 000 (T.A.F.B.C.). The Cronkite, Ford and Carter team sent the letter to over 100 television executives, yet to little avail. Only an estimated 4% of those contacted agreed to free up time. The P.B.S. Democracy Project estimated that the average cost of an American political campaign televised spot runs between $7,000 and $0,000 US dollars. In the spirit of the Cronkite, Ford and Carter media appeal to fair democracy, American senators John McCain, Russell Feingold and Richard Durbin have introduced a legislative act in American congress named the Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act. This Act “would require broadcasters to air at least a minimum level of candidate issue discussion in the weeks before an election, and to enable candidates to earn limited ad time by raising funds from small donors. The legislation takes a fresh approach to the enduring problems of money and politics. Rather than seeking to limit the supply of political money, it seeks to reduce the demand” (Alliance for a better Campaign, 00). With the reduced demand of political cash the influence of big business interests may also be reduced. Yet the fact that the majority of television stations around the United States do not want to free up time for political debate and coverage might signal redundancy of the political process entirely. Perhaps big businesses are only interested in getting their candidates in office, and do not want to lose money devoting prime time to candidates who don’t serve their interests. The fact that televison stations do not wish to free up time may just equate to plain old monetary greed. The following table is a cost breakdown of political advertisements in year 000, complied by The Alliance for a better Campaign. Television political campaigning is big business for televison stations and has been since the 150s. The reluctance of television stations to free up time for equal electoral democracy in the United States is tragic as it encourages big business interests and overshadows democracy. The Cronkite, Ford and Carter team, as well the American senator team of politicians, John McCain, Russell Feingold and Richard Durbin, are trying to reverse the effects of big business capital on national politics. Ideologically, television is thought to serve the people as a tool to entertain, educate and inform. The televised debates of the 160s informed the American people that John Fitzgerald Kennedy was not a young and inexperienced senator, but was an articulate statesman worthy of their confidence and vote. Nixon showed us in 15 in the Patches the dog speech that televison could be used as a means of persuasion by a political candidate. Television in late 160s created a situation where the exposure of anti war protests forced Lyndon Johnson not to seek another term in office. Television and politics in the 170s remained virtually unchanged in regards to how political candidates represented themselves. This all changed in the 180s with the emergence of an actor turned politician, Ronald Reagan. Reagan turned the televison into a political rhetorical instrument. The massive expansion of his communication department while he was in office plays homage to the fact. Reagan would set the pace for other presidents to come by being dubbed the Great Communicator. The increased reliance of televison in politics can be seen with the pursuant cost of running for and maintaining a presidential office in 000. With increased political costs come increased big business influence. This has reached a point where the average well meaning citizen wanting to make a difference cannot run for office without the backing of, not the American people, but that of the American corporation. The power that network television and big business have in determining presidential election outcomes is well illustrated by the Nixon and McGovern race. Considering the antiwar movement in full swing at the time, McGovern may have won the election, if only he had been given greater network television support. Ted Turner of now Time-Warner/Turner broadcasting once said, “The media is too concentrated, too few people own to much. There’s really five companies that control 0 percent of what we read, see and hear. Its not healthy.” Television needs to get into the democracy and not just into democracy’s pockets.


Alliance for a better Campaign. Summary Findings, (July 1, 00). Retrieved 11/05/00


BBC News Online. Bush Unveils War Budget, (0/04/00). Retrieved 11/04/00


Corp Watch. Money and Politics, (10//001). Retrieved 11/04/00

http// The American President, (000). Retrieved 11/04/00


Kellner, Douglas. Television and the Crisis of Democracy, (10). Westview Press Boulder. San Francisco. Oxford.

Modern tv. Naturally Nixon; the final feed, (1/07/18). Retrieved 11/0/00 http//

T.A.F.B.C. The Alliance For Better Campaigns. Retrieved 11/0/00 http//

Watergate Info, Senator Nixons Checkers Speech, (September , 15). Retrieved 11/0/00 http//

Wikipedia The Free Encyclopaedia. Gerald Ford. Retrieved. 11/0/00. http//

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