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The Influence of Media in Presidential Politics: University researchers examine media's historical and contemporary role


“The Influence of Media in Presidential Politics” is the first story in Think Democracy, a seven-part series focused on the upcoming presidential election. As the nation approaches the November election, experts from The University of Texas at Austin will offer their perspectives on a range of issues and topics. Future stories will look at Social Security and the baby boomer vote, first ladies, the youth vote and communications during the presidential debates. Watch for a new Think Democracy feature the first week of every month.

Democratic frontrunner John Kerry answered questions like, “Were you cool in college?” on MTV’s “Choose or Lose.” President George W. Bush defended his military record to Tim Russert on “Meet the Press.” Former Democratic hopeful Howard Dean and his wife sat on the couch across from Diane Sawyer and discussed Dean’s allegedly hot temper on “Primetime.”

The most common image on television is a close up of the human face. Dr. Rod HartThe 2004 presidential campaign season is well under way, and the media have situated themselves smack in the middle of it.

The media will be vying for viewers, readers and advertising dollars over the next six months with the same vigor with which the candidates will vie for votes. As they land exclusive interviews and promote their pundits, the media may make it seem like they themselves are the big story.

The challenge for the contemporary citizen is to be more than an audience member. Voters have unprecedented opportunities to access information and, at the same time, myriad ways to see issues obscured. An informed polity is essential to a democracy, and it can be difficult to sort through whether our media-saturated world ultimately serves to make us more or less informed.

Politics and the media have long walked hand in hand, says Dr. Roderick Hart, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies and acting dean of the College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin. Hart is also director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation.

“The media have always played a powerful role in politics,” says Hart. “Even before radio, we had the penny press. There’d be great wars between various newspapers about politics. So even back then, the media were important.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt during one of his fireside chats
President Franklin D. Roosevelt during one of his fireside chats in Washington, D.C., April 28, 1935. His conversational voice brought a sense of personality to the presidency.

Some of the recognizable elements of modern campaigning can be traced to the widespread use of radio in the 1930s and ‘40s when Franklin Roosevelt instituted his fireside chats. Soon the president and presidential candidates alike were addressing citizens in a conversational manner.

“Before that, radio had brought us that kind of tinny voiced speech making, but with (Franklin D.) Roosevelt and later a bit with (Harry S.) Truman, a bit more with (Dwight D.) Eisenhower and certainly with (John F.) Kennedy, suddenly we had changed,” says Hart. “Radio is really undervalued as something that really changed American politics in the direction of asking, ‘What are these guys like as people?’”

That question has become primary in modern politics. From Ronald Reagan’s charisma to Al Gore’s stiffness, Kennedy’s golden boy image to George W. Bush’s swagger, the public’s perception of a politician’s personality has been driving voting choices for decades. And shaping and communicating personality are perfectly suited for the medium of television.

“The most common image on television is a close up of the human face,” says Hart. “Television is not only a mass distribution channel, but it’s also a distribution of intimacy. That’s changed the way people have to campaign. They have to be a lot warmer. They have to be someone you can imagine having as a neighbor.”

This summer and fall, as the candidates make their expected visits to late night television shows with Jay Leno and David Letterman and sit down for interviews on MTV and “Sunday Morning,” the American public will figuratively lie in bed with the candidates. They will enter people’s homes. And while people will assess them on their records and their stances on important issues, they will also decide whether they simply like them as people. It’s what Hart, in his book “Seducing America: How Television Charms the Modern Voter,” calls “personality politics.”The media covers conflict, and so they have to create conflict. Dr. Mary Dixson

For the voter, personality may be easier to grasp than voting records and positions. And it’s an easy quality for television—which revels in stereotypes and thrives on drama—to communicate. But there’s nothing to suggest a correlation between personality and leadership skills. There have been ineffective presidents who were considered great people, effective presidents with prickly personalities.

Therein lies one of the dangers of politics in an age of media: the media can give importance to things that in reality have little significance. And sometimes the stories that become big stories become so out of convenience rather than out of impact.

“In the era of 24-hour satellite news channels, they need something that fills up the time,” says Dr. Stephen Reese, a professor in the School of Journalism. “Rather than go out and do investigative reporting, they pick up the story of the day and load up on that. It creates a cycle of focus that tends to drive off important stories.”

Outside of the political arena, this tendency pushes stories like the charges against Michael Jackson and the murder of Lacy Peterson to the forefront. This election year, it drives the media focus on the respective military careers of Bush and Kerry. It may be the first in a number of stories that will grab the headlines and lead the newscasts while not having enduring significance for the nation.

Ronald Reagan meets with the press at Rancho del Cielo
President Ronald Reagan, famed for his ease with the media, meets with the press after signing the 1981 Tax Reconciliation Bill at Rancho del Cielo, Calif., August 13, 1981.

“The media covers conflict, and so they have to create conflict” says Dr. Mary Dixson, assistant director of the Strauss Institute. The Strauss Institute was started in 2000 to increase civic participation, including voting, volunteerism and community involvement.

A story without conflict won’t draw viewers and readers, so the media seek conflict where they can. Television news programming faces stiff competition and the tyranny of the bottom line. Drawing viewers takes precedence over informing them.

“My brother is a D.C. insider type,” Dixson says, “and he’s always complaining that you can get a Democrat and a Republican in a room together to work on a bill and it can come out flawlessly and get no coverage whatsoever. But the minute somebody gripes about somebody within earshot of a reporter, it gets covered because conflict is what makes news and what’s interesting to people.”

Ultimately, television offers many things to the voter during the election year. It televises the presidential debates, which are a critical means for educating the public about the candidates. It often does supply in-depth coverage of important issues. And it brings the political process into the day to day. Televisions air CNN in airports. News briefs update viewers between evening sitcoms. Viewers may tire of the election coverage, but they’re unlikely to avoid it.

Given that media coverage can be driven by commercial pressures, it may be heartening to know that voters are unlikely to make their decisions based exclusively on it. One of the paradoxes of the media in the political process is that the media matter tremendously and yet the media matter less than they think they do. The media have power, but not as much power as the individual.

Simply asking someone for a vote in a person-to-person, face-to-face way is still the most powerful means of voter solicitation known to mankind. Dr. Rod Hart“One of the interesting things is that despite all this talk of the media, there’s a series of studies being done at Yale University that finds that person-to-person contact is still terribly important,” says Hart. “It’s far more important than almost any single medium.”

Shaking hands with a candidate, or speaking to a campaigner who comes to the door or talking to a neighbor or family member or someone at church may still matter more than all the exclusive interviews the media offer.

“Simply asking someone for a vote in a person-to-person, face-to-face way is still the most powerful means of voter solicitation known to mankind,” says Hart.

In this one way, politics may be little changed. In February one of the stories that got a lot of attention was how Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean lost his footing and made poor showings in Iowa and other early primaries. According to the media, the media’s own focus on Dean’s reputation as a hothead and man who does not suffer fools gladly was responsible for his fall.

That may be true, Hart says, but he attributes the fall of Dean and the ascendance of Kerry to something less contrived.

“The Kerry campaign used a very intense street-level, door-to-door, old-fashioned kind of politics,” says Hart. “It’s much less photogenic, and it costs a lot of money. But the organization of the Kerry campaign was simply fantastic.

Lyndon B. Johnson watches news coverage of the Six Day War on three television sets
Even presidents turn to the networks. President Lyndon B. Johnson watches news coverage of the Six Day War on three television sets, June 5, 1967.

“So often in politics it is the well-oiled political machine that does best,” he says.

That well-oiled machine may capitalize on relationships with the press and run effective political ads, but it will also need to seek unmediated ways of reaching the individual voter. Media impact can be tempered after all.

The Internet is also tempering the influence of the traditional media. As a campaign tool, the Internet is still relatively new and untested, though the 2004 election may change that. Campaigns have come to treasure their e-mail lists and the Internet has become an important means of raising campaign funds. The Dean campaign used the Internet as a grassroots organizing tool. And groups like MoveOn.org create online networks of activists and politically minded citizens.

But one of the most important functions of the Internet this election season is in giving the individual voter the means to become informed.

“I think the Internet, with its easy access to candidates and their campaign staffs and the easy transfer of information between one person and another is going to make things better,” says Dixson. “People are going to have a harder time hiding information they don’t want you to know. They’re going to have to answer questions more directly. And there are going to be more people watching them.”

Internet blogs are opening up new avenues for political discourse. A two-minute Google search can uncover voting records and reveal the text of political speeches. And voters can ask questions of campaigns directly.People need to know they have the right to ask questions. They have the right to look at multiple sources. Dr. Mary Dixson

“People need to know that they have the right to ask questions,” says Dixson. “They have the right to look at multiple sources. They also have to decide what’s important to them and get to those issues.

“People have no problem e-mailing Barnes & Noble about their latest order, but e-mailing a campaign? Well, you can. And they’ll answer your questions to the best of their ability.”

The six months to come are sure to offer lots of drama, plenty of tedium and a deluge of information from various sources. The media’s challenge will be to keep their audience. The candidates’ challenge will be to convince the polity. The voters’ challenge will be to sort through everything they are offered and come to an informed, well-considered decision.

It’s a challenge Hart believes the nation is up to, even though he predicts a difficult campaign for both parties.

“A campaign’s a long thing and I think what the media tend to do is hype these individual events way out of proportion and overstress polls,” he says. “But it is sort of surprising how sober the American people are. They tend to take it all in and then take their time making a decision. This year the American people are going to have to make some tough choices.”

Vivé Griffith

Photo on banner graphic: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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