How television wrecked our politics

Sam Smith

With television, politics moved from Washington to Hollywood. The first beneficiary of this was Jack Kennedy, a handsome, unaccomplished senator whose ambitions were propelled by a  wealthy father of few restraints.

With television the voters’ relationship with politicians changed dramatically. It was no longer a matter of stories formed in  a community, favors done for friends, or reports in the morning paper. Now the politician became a theatrical icon to be judged the ability to create a comfortable fantasy for a black and white screen. Kennedy was exceptionally good at it.

The shift from politics as a craft crammed with complexity and growing out of a community’s experiences and myths towards a story externally controlled by those with little history or contact with the voter was a phenomenon of which Kennedy was the first beneficiary. His debate with Nixon, for example, was a clash of images and not ideas.

Talking with NPR, historian Robert Dallek said, “I think the most important moment was in that first television debate with Richard Nixon, when Kennedy came across as presidential,”

Given that Kennedy had few political achievements and few proposals that varied markedly from Nixon, how did he accomplish this?

Dallek said, “As someone who was poised, who was witty, charming, handsome and deserved to be president of the United States.”

This was not some fan boy speaking but a historian outlining what would be come to be the standard for someone “deserving” to be president of the United States.

Similarly, in a recent two hour program on Kennedy’s assassination on CNN, “handsome” was the most common adjective used to describe the president.

After her husband’s assassination, Jackie Kennedy directly infused more of the theatrical into the story with the Camelot metaphor. The media quickly bought into it and thereafter became more than glad to supplant facts in political coverage with whatever fantasy was handy.

At least three of our subsequent presidents – Reagan, Clinton and Obama – were beneficiaries of TV soap operas concocted by organizations and the media that in no way adequately revealed either their roots or their reality.

And now we’re headed for 2016 with Hillary Clinton’s corrupt and dishonest past carefully hidden by the media as we’re told to get ready for the first woman president.

Then we have rightwing stars like Ted Cruz, who comes out of nowhere (and significantly the son of an evangelical TV hustler).  These candidates are transformed into potential presidents for no other reason than the media tells us so.

None of this would have been possible without television.

And the money behind it.

From Joe Kennedy to the Koch brothers, vast sums going to TV advertising and the public relations manipulation of media stories, have caused massive damage to our political system. Even when the former system was corrupt, it at least included serious feudal obligations to voters. Today, constituents are owed nothing. They are no longer to be served or represented, but only manipulated.

A 2010 Los Angeles Times story by Meg James described it well:

For California TV stations, particularly those in Los Angeles, the midterm election has led to a gold-rush mentality. One campaign organizer said the cost of a 30-second TV spot has been soaring in the final days before Tuesday’s election. A spot that went for $2,000 two years ago is going for $5,000 today.

Analysts who track political spending predict that TV stations nationwide will rake in two-thirds of the campaign dollars this year — about $2 billion. Commercial radio, another old-media staple, is expected to collect $250 million. At least $650 million will be spent on direct mail campaigns, those glossy fliers now filling mailboxes.

Internet sites should fetch about $50 million, less than 2% of the total.

“Television delivers a mass audience in a short amount of time and you don’t have that same assurance with the Internet,” said Wayne Johnson, president of Wayne Johnson Agency in Sacramento, which advises Republican candidates.

Several factors have contributed to this year’s gusher, including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January that now allows unlimited campaign spending by corporations and unions. In August, a low-profile Federal Election Commission decision opened the door for donors to pool their money and give anonymously, which produced a bumper crop of ads from nonprofit political groups and committees trying to influence voters.

Because television campaigning has been with us more than fifty years, it is easy to shrug and say, well, that’s the way it goes. But do we really want to live in a country led by those whose politics are so distant from what they claim? Where television reporters have no small part of their salary derived during a campaign from the very people they are supposed be reporting objectively about? Or where this money not only picks the candidates but brain washes the public into thinking that it is those who are sufficiently handsome and charming who deserve to be president?

When historians attempt to figure out what caused America’s collapse as a democracy, an economy and a culture, high on the list of perps will be that it all went down the tube while we were watching the tube. 

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