The Battle for Public Opinion: The President, the Press, and the Polls during Watergate

The Battle for Public Opinion: The President, the Press, and the Polls during Watergate

The Battle for Public Opinion: The President, the Press, and the Polls during Watergate

The Battle for Public Opinion: The President, the Press, and the Polls during Watergate

Excerpt

Hardly anyone is likely to forget Watergate. Like others, we were fascinated, often puzzled, and perturbed by what we watched on the TV screen, heard on radio, and read in the press. Unlike most others, we had a professional interest in following the story as it unfolded. Watergate was to us a dramatic demonstration of how the news media might intrude into a political controversy and expand it into a crisis of confidence.

What was the effect of the media on the creation, the course, and the resolution of Watergate? The answer is not as obvious as it may appear. Despite the heroic efforts of some journalists, Watergate had no visible effect on the 1972 Presidential election. Yet six months later, even before the televised Senate Watergate hearings, the nation's attention had become riveted on the issue, and for more than a year thereafter, until Richard Nixon's dramatic exit, Watergate dominated the headlines and the network news. Then followed a succession of televised political events, enacted with "the whole world watching," that students of mass communication and public opinion could hardly resist. By studying what happened, how it was reported, what audiences perceived, and how they reacted, they could infer effects. They could also conduct mental experiments to tell them what the outcome might have been if the event had not been televised or had been reported some other way.

We began studying media effects in 1951, when General Douglas MacArthur, recalled from his Korean War command by Harry Truman after years spent in the Philippines, Japan, and Korea, was welcomed home to America with parades and ceremonies. Our study of MacArthur Day in Chicago is usually cited as demonstrating how the "reality" experienced through television differs from the "reality" of being there. The study did stress this difference, but explanation pointed beyond the unique characteristics of television that structured the event to the political context that shaped the expectations of both journalists and their audience. In some ways the political climate surrounding MacArthur Day resembled that during the . . .

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