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How Media Politics Was Born
To keep Upton Sinclair from becoming governor of California in 1934, his opponents invented a whole new kind of campaign
September/October 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 6
The 1934 campaign’s contribution to the evolution of electoral activities in America overshadows all of this, however. After 1934, as Schlesinger has observed, “humdingery and dynamite” orchestrated by political consultants, public relations specialists, and advertising geniuses began flourishing in campaigns. The first overtly partisan newsreel, The March of Time, appeared in 1935, and it often used staged scenes to suit its political aims. The fake newsreels were the forerunners of paid political commercials on behalf of candidates. In the 1950s candidates started taking their cases to television. Many—perhaps most—political commercials do little more than stress candidates’ positive attributes or show them walking in parks with their families. But negative ads attacking opponents also appeared; the most famous was the 1964 commercial associating Barry Goldwater with a mushroom cloud and the end of the world. Television ads attacking incumbent Democrats, sponsored by political action committees, received a good deal of credit for helping the Republicans recapture control of the U.S. Senate in 1980.
The use of images on a screen to undermine an opponent can be seen today not only in electoral campaigns—almost all of this year’s presidential candidates ran negative ads at one time or another—but also in regard to legislative issues and judicial appointments. Negative TV ads, for example, unquestionably helped defeat Robert Bork’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The electronic media, not political parties, are now the principal mediators between politician and voter. Success in politics is increasingly dependent on access to the media. That access—whether free or paid—ultimately hinges on the work of hired forces from outside the political parties: fund raisers, political consultants, and public relations specialists.
All this now seems inevitable. But the 1934 campaign in California was a catalyst that showed politicians the route from the political clubhouse to Madison Avenue.