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.”
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
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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
Therein lies one of the dangers of politics in an
age of media: the media can give importance to things that in reality
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
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
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
Ultimately, television offers many things to the
voter during the election year. It televises the presidential debates,
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
“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.”
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,
It’s a challenge Hart believes the
nation is up to, even though he predicts a difficult campaign for
“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.”
Photo on banner graphic: Marsha