How The Media Seduced And Captured American Politics

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TELEVISION HAS BEEN accused of many things: vulgarizing tastes; trivializing public affairs; sensationalizing news; corrupting the young; pandering to profits; undermining traditional values. The indictments are no doubt too harsh, and they ignore the medium’s considerable achievements over two decades. Yet even the severest critics have not noticed the way in which television first seduced and then captured the whole American political process.

The fact is that each year fewer people register to vote, and among those who do, an ever-shrinking number actually go to the polls. Since casting a free ballot constitutes the highest expression of freedom in a democracy, its declining use is a grave matter. How did we get ourselves into this perilous state?

Television’s victory was not the result of a carefully planned and calculated assault on our political procedures; less still was it the conspiracy of a greedy and power-hungry industry. Rather it was a process in which each year witnessed a modest expansion of the electronic influence on American politics. A look at the presidential election of 1948, the first in the age of television, suggests both the magnitude and swiftness of the change. President Harry Truman ran a shoestring campaign sustained largely by his incumbency and the overconfidence of his opponent. Together the two candidates spent only about $15 million—the cost of a gubernatorial contest in New York three decades later. Both presidential candidates leaned heavily on their state and local parties for crowds and election-day support. Truman’s whistle-stop tour of the country harked back to a century-old technique. Television covered the conventions but intruded no further. Radio handled the late returns, and the commentator H. V. Kaltenborn, who assumed historical patterns would hold true, waited for the rural vote to sustain his early prediction of a victory for New York governor Thomas E. Dewey.

SOME OF THE possibilities of television emerged, however, in the next election. Sen. Robert Taft used time-honored, if somewhat questionable, tactics to line up a solid phalanx of Southern delegates at the 1952 Republican convention. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s managers presented a more properly selected alternative set of delegates. Historically, disputes of this kind had been resolved behind closed doors and brought to the convention only for ratification. But Eisenhower strategists wanted to transform what had long been seen as a technical question into a moral one. They chose as their weapon televised committee hearings. For the first time, the public became privy to the vagaries of party rules. Viewers were let into the smoke-filled room. The result was a resounding defeat for Taft, and Eisenhower went into the convention with plenty of delegates and wearing the fresh, smiling face of reform.

A few months later Elsenhower’s running mate, Richard Nixon, found himself entangled in a burgeoning scandal involving a private fund raised by large contributors to advance his political career. Though no law had been broken, the impropriety was clear, especially in a campaign based on cleaning up “the mess” in Washington. Eisenhower declared that anyone in public life should be as “clean as a hound’s tooth,” and many of his advisers told him to drop the young congressman.

A desperate Nixon decided to take his case directly to the public.

A desperate Nixon decided to take his case directly to the public—through a half-hour paid telecast. He declared he had meant no wrongdoing, detailed the high costs facing a California congressman, noted his own modest means, and said he had always voted his own conscience on issues before the House. Most memorable, however, was his use of his dog, Checkers, as a kind of surrogate “hound’s tooth.” To sophisticates it seemed like a clip out of a daytime soap opera, but the public found it plausible enough. More important, it satisfied Dwight Eisenhower.

These two episodes revealed the ambiguity of the new medium. Until 1952, conventions had been closed party affairs run by the national committees. In fact, that is still their only legal function. But television put the voters on the convention floor. Both parties had to dispense with a lot of the traditional hoopla—endless floor demonstrations, marathon seconding speeches, visibly indulgent behavior by delegates—and keynote speakers had to project telegenic appeal as well as party service. To be sure, television introduced its own brand of hoopla. Cameras zoomed in on outrageous costumes, floormen interviewed colorful if not always important figures, and networks did the counting of the delegates before the issues or nominations actually got to the decisive stage.

The Nixon heritage was less complicated The “Checkers” speech became shorthand for slick, calculated manipulation if not deception. Critics argued it demonstrated that a shrewd master of the medium could sell anything—not only commercial products but political candidates as well.