The Influence of Television in Politics Kendra Harris Brigham Young University- Idaho Author Note 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. ) 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 concerns. ” (Kaid, 1981, p. 4) Americans are so used to seeing the bare bones of political campaigns that they no longer search for the meat in issues. Instead, they just skim over politics, taking in a few stories here and there (mostly the more controversial stories that get more media coverage) and make their decision as to who will be president.
Despite the accomplishments of television and the media “[…] their news departments tend to operate as [a] show-business. ” (Goodman, 1994, n. p. ) Just like in show business, anything slow and detailed is boring in television, and so Americans greedily gobble up light dishes of insignificant facts, leaving the heavier business of issue concerns to others. This “[…] condition is chronic and has become painfully evident in the late political season […] A medium that has shown it can bring information and even ideas effectively to millions is reduced every two years to a tool for stirring up emotions and shutting down minds. (Goodman, 1994, n. p. ) But enough of this depressing business for a moment; let us discuss why we are allowing ourselves to become so politically lazy. The social stigma of a lazy American is common but is not necessarily true. So why do so many Americans allow themselves to be swept up in political frenzy, eventually making bad decisions that lead to bad government? The answer is in the way we think. As Americans become exposed to more and more information the ability to think deeply and comprehensively is lost.
In modern times, “the advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. ” (Carr, 2008, p. 2) Carr continues to say though, that having access to this amount of information comes at a price. Americans are getting their information from the media, but our information does not come from an inert source. New programs control what political information we have access to, and politicians live in a world where “they can’t control the message. ” (Negaunee, 2006, n. p. Instead of being given in depth messages from candidates, news programs give us small scraps of information. As we learn snippets of information over many years, we begin to think in snippets of information, and we slowly lose our ability and “capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. ” (Carr, 2008, p. 2) The television is no different from the Net in this regard, and so Americans now expect a ‘steady stream’ of politics, without any effort needed in order to know everything about political candidates.
The true grit of politics – the issues, the questions, the problems, the things that matter – are not included in this steady stream. And so Americans, by our own actions, avoid the deep facts. We make decisions based on half-truths and unsearched details- decisions that shape our government. Without the ability to think and study issues for ourselves, we rely heavily on a candidate’s looks, charisma, and coverage in order to make our decision. Today, we are merely vessels for voting, “deprive[d] of independent thought. ” (Huxley, 1958, p. ) As Aldous Huxley states, “Today the art of mind-control is in process of becoming a science. The practitioners of this science know what they are doing and why. ” (Huxley, 1958, p. 2) While mind control may seem a little far-fetched right now, we as Americans are allowing ourselves to be controlled by our televisions, controlled by newscasters and programs that know exactly what they are doing when they give us inaccurate and biased information. Perhaps one of the best examples for showing the affect of television on politics is the presidential election of 1960.
The race was between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. The first televised debate of this candidacy brought very different reactions between those who watched it on the television, and those who heard it on the radio. “A survey of those who listened to the debate on radio indicated that Nixon had won; however, those who watched on television, and were able to contrast Nixon’s poor posture and poorly shaven face with Kennedy’s poise and grace, were more likely to think Kennedy had won the debate. ” (Stephens, n. d. , n. . ) There is no saying who would have been a better president, or who was more qualified for the role, but this evidence shows that television heavily influenced the audience’s opinion of the candidates. Those who watched the debate on the television preferred the more attractive portrait of JFK versus that of the less attractive Nixon. Those on the radio – the ones who actually listened to the debate versus watching the people – felt that Nixon had won because his policies and debating skills overpowered those of JFK.
This poses the question: would Nixon have won if there had been no television? Should JFK have won based on his good looks? And perhaps, we must ask the most ominous question of all: Do we want people elected as president based merely on good looks and a warm personality, or do we want them elected based on excellent policies and management skills? All of this seems a little extravagant and paranoid and yet the evidence rings true. We as Americans let looks and personality get in the way of actual politics and brains when it comes to a political election.
Undoubtedly, the television has detrimentally affected politics. It has changed the way we think, and have made us intellectually lazy. It has changed the way we vote, making us vote based on superfluous details versus cold hard facts. Television is not completely to blame though, for Americans have played their part in allowing themselves to become lazy. The only solution to the political epidemic sweeping the nation is to change the way we think. In order to do this, we must first change the source of our information. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. ” (Pinker, 2010, p. 2) As we force ourselves to seek complete and unbiased information by watching complete debates, reading platforms, and studying issues (or, if we cannot find unbiased information, at least studying the biased information on both sides of an issue to get the full story), we will be able to make well-informed decisions. As we seek the truth, news programs will begin to catch on that the audience demands more complete information, and we will begin to get what we crave.
Only when we have the true report about politics will we be able to make better decisions regarding government and better our lives. References: Carr, N. (2008) Is google making us stupid? In W. Brugger, D. Hammond, M. K. Hartvigsen, A. Papworth & R. Seamons (Eds. ), The way of wisdom (p. 1-8). Rexburg, ID, BYU-Idaho. Retrieved January 16, 2012, from http://ilearn. byui. edu Huxley, A. (1958) Propaganda under a dictatorship. In W. Brugger, D. Hammond, M. K. Hartvigsen, A. Papworth & R. Seamons (Eds. ), The way of wisdom (p. 1-5). Rexburg, ID, BYU-Idaho.
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Retrieved January 16, 2012, from http://ilearn. byui. edu Postman, N. (1984) Amusing ourselves to death. In W. Brugger, D. Hammond, M. K. Hartvigsen, A. Papworth & R. Seamons (Eds. ), The way of wisdom (p. 1-4). Rexburg, ID, BYU-Idaho. Retrieved January 16, 2012, from http://ilearn. byui. edu Ranney, A. (1985) Channels of power: the impact of television on American politics. (pp. 1-7). New York: Basic Books. Stephen, M. (n. d. ) History of television. New York University. Retrieved January 23, 2012 from http://www. nyu. edu/classes/stephens/History%20of%20Television%20page. htm