The arrival of television heralded a new political era. Enthusiasts for the medium predicted that “live” visuals would allow citizens to participate more directly in public decisions. The reality turned out to be more complicated. Though television helped undercut the power of political bosses in selecting political candidates, it also overemphasized telegenic appeal and, as electoral campaigns were increasingly waged via video, the costs of campaigning skyrocketed. The American presidency has been at the epicenter of the political changes brought about by television, and the medium has both enhanced the profile of the office and shaped its directions. At times, the television coverage itself has become the subject of political controversy.
Early Political Impact
Estes Kefauver, an undistinguished U.S. senator from Tennessee, was among the first American politicians to explore television’s political potential. The 1950 Kefauver hearings were intended to impress the prevalence of organized crime on the nation’s conscience. In 1950, such televised coverage was still a novelty, as viewers watched a parade of crime bosses deliver carefully rehearsed Fifth Amendment pleas against self-incrimination. The indignation stirred by these appearances did not stir even modest political action, such as writing to congressional representatives, but it helped catapult Kefauver onto the Democratic national stage.
The next major American television event was a series of ticker-tape receptions given by celebrated World War II (1939–1945) General Douglas MacArthur, after his dismissal from the Korean War in 1951 for insubordination. His widely televised triumphal return was interpreted as prologue to a presidential campaign, but trained participant-observers documented that what appeared as an enthusiastic welcome on television did not reflect the dominant mood of the crowds. Managers of video technology had selectively imposed their own structure on the event, a pattern that would be followed in later years. Thus the reality conveyed to television viewers differed from that experienced by in-person participants.
Television And The American Presidency
Television played a major role in 1952 electoral campaigns. With coast-to-coast video available, candidates planned their every move with an eye on the cameras, and the campaign also became the first in which television became the most important source of information for the majority of voters. The first televised debates between presidential candidates were held in 1960 and have become a staple even for lesser offices. They usually attract larger audiences than other campaign events, with a record 81 million following Jimmy Carter versus Ronald Reagan in 1980. A so-called winner has rarely been clearly decided, but performance can be important especially in a close election. In 1960, neophyte presidential candidate John F. Kennedy stood up to renowned debater Richard Nixon, helping to establish his presidential timber and win a slim electoral victory.
The next election in 1964, when incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson ran against Barry Goldwater, raised unfounded fears that computer-based projections by networks in eastern states would dissuade citizens from voting in western states, where polls remained open. Despite preelection polls projecting a Johnson landslide, people still voted to express their partisan commitment, fulfill their citizen obligations, or to decide local contests. However, the impact of network projections did not fade away. Most notably, in 2000, networks prematurely named Al Gore the winner in Florida, and thereby the nation. Separated by only a few hundred votes, both parties turned to courts to judge the validity of ballots, but also reached out for public support as television reported all their moves, for five weeks, until the Supreme Court finally settled the dispute in favor of George W. Bush.
Television And Political Scandal
The age-old phenomenon of political scandal came forcefully to television during Watergate, named for the break-in at the Democratic headquarters during the 1972 electoral campaign. Originally, few believed the president was personally involved, but televised hearings by congressional committees helped to convert the issue into a legal one, regarding what did the president knew and when. After Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Cox brought his case to television viewers and swayed public opinion. The national protest triggered by Nixon’s defiance of public demands ultimately led to a televised impeachment debate and his televised resignation in August 1974. With the “whole world watching,” Nixon resigned. Since Watergate, Americans have followed a parade of scandals playing out on camera, many with the suffix gate attached to the end. The advent of twenty-four hours of news in the last decades of the twentieth century accelerated the development of scandals and of all political news stories.
War On Television
Television coverage has profoundly changed the politics of war. The brutal images filmed during the American Tet offensive in 1968 during the Vietnam War (1959–1975) undermined public support for the Vietnam War. Critics of the networks charged that a de facto American military victory had been depicted as a defeat, but others responded that, prior to Tet, few camera crews had ventured into danger zones to show casualties. In the Gulf War (1990–1991), commanders assured favorable coverage by organizing reporters into pools and chaperoning them to sites they wished to publicize, showing prisoners of war and burning tanks. Public trust in the military reached an all-time high. The Iran-Iraq War (1980–1991) was even more of a media event. Nightly briefings, carried live, depicted a surgical operation aimed at Saddam Hussein. Over time, television carried more realistic images of this deadly struggle.
Television’s capability to focus attention on world events is not confined to war. Pictures of suffering alongside famine, natural disaster, or deadly conflict have evoked humanitarian intervention even when no national interest is at stake. These images may even affect foreign policy. The extent to which international coverage has sometimes driven diplomacy, the significance of a “CNN effect” in particular situations, remains an open question. The airing of images of 1994 genocide in
Rwanda, for instance, did little to encourage foreign intervention; in the United States, the images of American soldiers dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 remained a powerful deterrent from another dangerous “peacekeeping mission.”
From the Tet offensive onward, debates have swirled over the decision of major networks to show or not show disturbing images that may inflame ongoing conflicts; for instance, in 2004, CBS chose to show photographs of humiliating torture perpetrated at the U.S. prison camp in Abu Ghraib, Iraq. These same images were broadcast by Arab television stations across the world, who took them as emblematic of Western attitudes. While television makes it possible for the “whole world to watch,” the whole world watches the same images through very different lenses, often provided by networks themselves; the same event on BBC news in English may be given a profoundly different significance according to Arab-language broadcasts from al-Jereeza.
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