Television and Presidential Politics

The relationship between the United States presidency and the American television industry has been complex, turbulent and above all symbiotic, the president and the media each depending upon the other for support. The power of television was first revealed after Californian Senator Richard Nixon, then the Republican vice-presidential candidate, gave what has become known as the Checkers Speech in September 1952. Accused of improprieties relating to an expenses fund, Nixon used TV to appeal to the public for his political future. His half-hour address was seen by 60 million people.

Nixon remained on the presidential ticket for that November's election, and was duly returned as General Dwight D. Eisenhower was made President. Eisenhower allowed television cameras into the White House for the first time, chaging the presidency forever. U.S. Presidents soon found themselves fixing their own work schedules around network schedules and making TV the central premise in all political campaigns.

The first televised presidential debate was held on September 26, 1960, in Chicago between Democratic candidate Senator John F. Kennedy, of Massachusetts, and Republican candidate Nixon. The debate was focused on domestic issues and was followed by 70 million viewers. This was the first out of four televised debates between Kennedy and Nixon, known as the Great Debates.

The Great Debates marked television becoming a fixture of presidential politics. They offered voters the first real opportunity to see the candidates in competition, and the visual contrast between Kennedy and Nixon was dramatic. In August 1960, Nixon had suffered serious injury to his knee and had to spend two weeks in hospital. He had lost weight and was still looking pale by the time of the first debate. Nixon arrived at the debate in an ill-fitting suit and refused make-up to improve his color. Kennedy, by contrast, had spent early September campaigning in California. He was tanned and confident, and looked healthy and fit.

Those of the people who listened to the first debate on the radio pronounced Nixon the winner. However, the 70 million television viewers saw a still sickly candidate who obviously felt discomfort at Kennedy's smooth speech and charisma. Perspiring heavily under the TV spotlights, Nixon was said to look shifty and untrustworthy. Audience polls showed television viewers were influenced by what they saw, not what they heard. While some historians state that the Great Debates simply helped strengthen prior allegiance to one of the candidates and that Kennedy would have become president of the U.S. with or without them, others maintain that the debates represented the turning point in the election.

The Great Debates created a political precedent in the U.S. and around the globe. Germany, Finland, Sweden, Italy, and Japan all started to hold debates between contenders for national office. In America, federal laws stating that all candidates should be given equal air-time weighed on debates for the next three elections, as did Nixon's refusal to participate in debates in 1968 and 1972. By 1976, however, the candidates and the law had both changed, and since then, presidential debates, in one form or another, have been an integral part of U.S. presidential politics. TV has afforded politicians greater potential for shaping public opinion. Taking advantage of the communication extras provided by the possibility to be seen as well as heard, government leaders and contenders for senior government positions have entered the homes of millions of viewers in order to persuade.

On 27 February, 1968, in a TV broadcast on the situation in Vietnam, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite declared the war had reached a stalemate. Although the editorial report was certainly respectful of the presidency, it brought evidence that President Lyndon B. Johnson's determination to stay in the war was unjustifiable. Cronkite's evening commentary represented a crucial step in changing the power balance between the U.S. presidency and the TV networks. Other TV anchors such as CBS's Dan Rather, ABC News's Sam Donaldson and Ted Koppel, and CNN's Peter Arnett have continued that trend, frustrating leaders and deflating political egos.

Television and Presidential Politics: Selected full-text books and articles

Talking Politics: Choosing the President in the Television Age By Liz Cunningham Praeger, 1995
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
The Functional Approach to Presidential Television Spots: Acclaiming, Attacking, Defending 1952-2000 By Benoit, William L Communication Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2, Summer 2001
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Edited for Television: CNN, ABC, and American Presidential Elections By Matthew Robert Kerbel Westview Press, 1998 (2nd edition)
Presidential Television By Newton N. Minow; John Bartlow Martin; Lee M. Mitchell Basic Books, 1973
Television News and Contentiousness: An Exploratory Study of Visual and Verbal Content in News about the President By Mullen, Lawrence J Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Vol. 43, No. 2, Spring 1999
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Presidential Elections in the Age of Television By Rothwell, Jennifer Truran Social Education, Vol. 64, No. 5, September 2000
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