The Media and American Politics: An Overview

The relationship between the media and American politics is traced back to the earliest days of American political history. The press played a significant role during the Revolutionary War by spreading the principal ideas of the revolution and acting as a binding agent for unity among the American colonies. The two dominant media outlets during the period were newspapers and pamphlets. The use of pamphlets channeled revolutionary thought by framing dissent through appeals to history and past political experience interwoven with political theories advocating a republican government and individual liberties. The other form of media during the American Revolution was newsprint. By the 1760s, American newspapers began to concentrate more on domestic political developments and published articles on the growing tensions between the British government and the American colonists. Additionally, increased political engagement resulted in a shift among newspaper printers to abandon the idea of political neutrality and either support or reject the idea of colonial resistance to British rule.

With the creation of the office of the Presidency during the late 1780s, the relationship between the media and the American political system took an entirely different turn. As opposed to spreading the ideas of revolution, the role of the media shifted to one of reporting on the President. The relationship between the press and early American Presidents varied. For example, the press generally supported the political agenda of George Washington, but eventually began to criticize his administration. The distrust in executive power by many in the media influenced the press coverage of later Presidents such as Andrew Jackson. During his Presidency, the media portrayed Jackson and the Democratic party as opponents of American democracy. In order to better understand the media, Jackson employed three newspaper editors as some of his advisors. Despite the relationship between the media and the Presidency, the early Presidents did view the media as a way to promote their agenda and directly appeal to their constituents.

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President Theodore Roosevelt giving a speech, 1907

By the early 20th Century, the relationship between the President and the media changed as the role of the federal government increased. The expanding functions of the federal government required the President to rely on direct appeals to the American people to inform them on the issues and to galvanize support from a reluctant populace to support major reforms. Theodore Roosevelt was the first President to connect with the American people through the press and use it as a tool to promote political activism and change. To pursue his agenda of uprooting the power of the economic elites and returning a degree of power to the common man, Roosevelt needed to mobilize public opinion aggressively. The best way to do so was clearly by utilizing the media. Roosevelt expanded the relationship between the press and the Presidency by establishing the first permanent White House quarters for the press and the first Presidential press secretary. Through the media, Roosevelt created an image of himself as that of a dynamic, active President. The new role of the President and the media created a mixed reaction within the American public sphere. For example, Senator Benjamin Tillman, a strong opponent of Roosevelt, felt that the relationship between the Presidency and the press threatened to subvert American democracy by creating a false interpretation of the President in front of the public.

Another aspect in the relationship between the media and the Presidency is the use of press conferences by the President. Even though Theodore Roosevelt established the first press outlets within the White House, Woodrow Wilson was the first President to meet regularly with the press and the first President to hold regular press conferences. By holding press conferences, Wilson sought to better explain his policies and gain a favorable relationship with the media. Having a strong relationship with the media, according to Wilson, would increase support for his political agenda and endear him to the American public. An example of Wilson utilizing press support to push forward his political agenda occurred in 1913 with the passage of the Underwood Tariff Act. Initially, the passage of the Act was considered to be bleak due to a lack of support in Congress. Despite opposition in Congress, a majority of the published media expressed support for the Act, which turned Congressional support in favor of such legislation.

With the rise in the popularity of radio as a medium during the 1920s and 1930s, the President, and other political leaders gained an additional outlet to define their agenda and influence public opinion. Additionally, radio served as a way to directly connect the American people with their political leaders in a way that was unheard of in previous years. Franklin Roosevelt was the first President to realize the importance of radio in shaping public opinion. Even though he had physical limitations, Roosevelt had a reputation as a charismatic politician and viewed radio as an effective tool to shape his public image and gain support for his agenda. Though his “Fireside Chats,” Roosevelt was able to shape his public image and gain support from the American populace for his controversial and innovative social programs. Roosevelt’s use of radio also represented a way to present news directly from the President in an unfiltered an unbiased way and allowed the President to serve as the guiding beacon for the press. Radio also provided Roosevelt with a direct link to his voting public and helped to win over public support. Even those who were politically opposed to Roosevelt recognized that his use of radio was an effective way to influence public opinion and create a certain public perception of the Presidency. As a result of such factors, Roosevelt’s usage of radio helped to further develop the relationship between the Presidency and the media.

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John F. Kennedy during Presidential candidate debate with Richard Nixon, 1960

The launch of regularly scheduled television broadcasting in 1939 added another dimension to the relationship between the press and the President. Much like radio, the use of television by the President represented another way in which an image is portrayed before the American people and an alternative way for the President to frame his agenda. The first television coverage of American political events can be traced back to 1940, when NBC’s nascent television network covered the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and the election returns. Despite the steadily growing importance of television as a medium during the 1940s and 1950s, it can be argued that the dynamic between the President and television did not emerge until the 1960 Presidential election.

The first Presidential candidate to make use of television in his campaign was John F. Kennedy in 1960 For example, Kennedy used television coverage of his campaign as a way to frame his campaign positions before the American electorate and gain support for his candidacy. Additionally, Kennedy used the 1960 Presidential debates as a way to better distinguish himself from his opponent Richard Nixon and was widely considered to have won the debates due to the image that he portrayed for the debate viewers. Though Nixon was stronger on substantive issues, the reaction to Kennedy’s visual presentation gave him the victory. In radio and print, Nixon was perceived as the debate victor, whereas television viewers clearly favored Kennedy. Kennedy’s use of television coverage is deemed to be one of the decisive factors in the 1960 Presidential election.

In recent years, the introduction of the internet has shifted the dynamic between the President and the media. The first President to understand the importance of the internet as a media tool and a potential venue for agenda promotion was Bill Clinton. During the 1992 campaign, then-candidate Clinton set up a text-only internet site to describe his positions on the issues, his biography, and his campaign speeches. Upon office, Clinton made the internet a focal point of his administration and supported the creation of the first Presidential website in 1993. Clinton supported increased development of the internet and its use in informing public opinion as a way to better transition American society as a whole into the digital age.

President George W. Bush continued Clinton’s efforts to increase the influence of the President in the online realm by creating a rapid response unit to send out email messages conveying the policy positions of the administration to members of the press. Further, the Bush administration staff members monitored political blogs to measure public opinion. Additionally, the advent of the internet resulted in an increased level of public exposure for the President and has allowed for a variety of nontraditional media sources such as political blogs and discussion forums to emerge. The increased prominence of such sources has altered the relationship between the President and the press by removing the media middle man then has allowed the President to better explain his message to the American people in a more direct and unbiased way.

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Social media sources grew in popularity in the late 2000s and Barack Obama was the first President to rely on them to communicate his message.

The most recent development in the relationship between the President and the media is the rise in new media including social media technology. The use of social media signifies a new opportunity for the President to gain an even more direct connection with voters and represents a shift from the traditional relationship that the President and the media have had in previous years. Additionally, the use of social media by the President can potentially serve as a way to appeal to the younger generation of voters and increase political awareness. Barack Obama was the first Presidential candidate to recognize the importance of social media in politics and sought to incorporate it into his successful Presidential campaigns and through various events over the course of his Presidency. Furthermore, Obama’s success at utilizing social media is considered to be a key aspect in his election.

To sum it up, the relationship between American politics and the media can be traced back to the earliest days of American history. Over time, different Presidents and political leaders relied on the dominant sources of media to frame their messages in order to appeal to voters and galvanize public support for their initiatives. Only time will tell how future political leaders will use newer media sources such as social media technology to communicate their viewpoints on numerous policy issues.

Sources:

Parkinson, Robert G. “Print, the Press, and the American Revolution.” American History: Oxford Research Encyclopedias.

Watts, Sarah Miles., and John William Tebbel. The Press and the Presidency: From George Washington to Ronald Reagan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Greenberg, David. 2011. “Theodore Roosevelt and the Image of Presidential Activism”. Social Research 78 (4). The New School: 1057–88.

Ferrell, Robert H.. 1986. “Wilson and the Press”. Review of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson: The Complete Press Conferences, 1913-1919. Reviews in American History 14 (3). Johns Hopkins University Press: 392–97. doi:10.2307/2702614.

Howard, Vincent W.. 1980. “WOODROW WILSON, THE PRESS, AND PRESIDENTIAL LEADERSHIP: ANOTHER LOOK AT THE PASSAGE OF THE UNDERWOOD TARIFF, 1913”. The Centennial Review 24 (2). Michigan State University Press: 167–84.

Yu, Lumeng (Jenny). 2005. “The Great Communicator: How FDR’s Radio Speeches Shaped American History”. The History Teacher 39 (1). Society for History Education: 89–106. doi:10.2307/30036746.

Self, John W.. 2005. “The First Debate over the Debates: How Kennedy and Nixon Negotiated the 1960 Presidential Debates”. Presidential Studies Quarterly 35 (2). [Wiley, Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress]: 361–75.

Owen, Diana, and Richard Davis. 2008. “Presidential Communication in the Internet Era”. Presidential Studies Quarterly 38 (4). [Wiley, Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress]: 658–73.

Hendricks, John Allen., and Robert E. Denton. Communicator-in-chief: How Barack Obama Used New Media Technology to Win the White House. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010.

the author

Matt is a graduate of Monmouth University. Matt has been studying and analyzing politics at all levels since the 2004 Presidential Election. He writes about political trends and demographics, the role of the media in politics, comparative politics, political theory, and the domestic and international political economy. Matt is also interested in history, philosophy, comparative religion, and record collecting.

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