The Influence of Television in Politics
Brigham Young University- Idaho
This paper was prepared for Professor Kiersten Lee’s FDENG 201 class.
The Influence of Television in Politics
“Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least-informed people in the Western world.” (Postman, 1984, p. 2) While this statement is painfully ominous, its message is one that has been debated tirelessly since the dawn of technology. The influence of television in politics is one with strong advocates and opponents. There have been many studies and investigations into the effects of technology on the political world, and yet no conclusive evidence has come forth. (Rannay, 1985, p. 3) Despite this, it is no mystery that television has irrevocably changed politics in the past and now. The responsibility for this change does not lie solely with television or with the audience. What remains to be seen is whether this effect has been detrimental or beneficial to the political process. “Between 1947 and 1955, the percentage of American homes owning television sets rose from less than 1 to 65 percent; today, almost everybody has a TV set.” (Rannay, 1985, p. 6) The television set became commercially available in the 1920s, but did not begin to have a political effect until the 1952 presidential campaign between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. While Stevenson did not approve of electronic campaigning, Eisenhower to took the screens, creating “short spot commercials to enhance his television image.” (Kaid, 1981, p. 47) These commercials helped Eisenhower to create an image that was friendly and charming, which eventually led to him winning the campaign. Since this pioneering campaign, “Every presidential campaign […] has relied heavily on political television spots.” Television campaigning dominates the political world, and 50-75% of all campaign budgets in the 1992 presidential campaign were devoted to TV spots, commercials, and shows. (Devlin, 1992, p. 12) Given this evidence, it is easy to conclude that the television is vital in modern politics, but one must take into account what political message the television is giving to the American audience. “Over the past five decades of political spot use, about one-third of all spots for presidential campaigns have been negative spots.” (Devlin, 1992, p. 12) The television, while useful, is used today primarily for entertainment. If something is not quick, easy, and fun, then it has no place on the television. Everything from court trials to private lives are put on the screen for personal enjoyment, and it is no different with politics. No longer do politicians need to provide in-depth answers to political questions, or prove to the American audience that their policies and platform are sound – they merely need to be liked. “In the age of television, people do not so much agree or disagree with politicians as they like or dislike them, for the image is not susceptible to verification or refutation, only to acceptance or rejection.” (Postman, 1984, p. 3) There is no need for politicians to prove that they should be in the White House with their words, because Americans will judge them on their looks and character before ever listening to what they have to say. Of course, Americans would be lucky to even hear what politicians have to say. Most political speeches and debates are cut down to “soundbites, snippets of candidate messages or commentary excerpts,” (Kaid, 1981, p. 4) by news programs, newspapers, and online journals. By the 1980s, most presidential campaign coverage on news programs were cut down to soundbites of only about nine seconds. These soundbites catch the ‘best part’ of the presidential campaign, resulting 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...
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