The invention of the television has done far more to hurt the presidential elections than it has helped. The television was first invented to be used as a tool for learning and education. Sadly through years of misuse and degradation in the passion for knowledge, the “TV” has evolved- perhaps devolved- into a small box that serves no other purposes but entertainment. The television has also had a direct impact on the nation’s view of politics and the government. These impacts have been felt for a long time now, especially in our presidential elections.
The marriage of television and politics has forever changed the way we view the president and politics. Our nation has always been one to take the ethics or beliefs of a president into consideration. This is common, it allows the people to compare their values to those of the Commander in Chief. However, due to overexposure from so called “news stations” and a generation that favors what’s “hip” over what is right or intelligent, those fixations on the person instead of his or her policies has been amplified. Take the presidential race of 1960 for example. In a televised debate between John F. Kennedy (JFK) and Richard Nixon, the nation tended to favor the “crisp” and handsome image of JFK over the “fuzzy” image and the “light-colored suit, wrong makeup, [and] bad posture” of Nixon (Source C). Viewers believed that JFK “had crushed Nixon” (Source C). However, many debate that those listening on radio agreed that the debate was mostly a draw. A similar situation took place a few years ago in 2008 when George W Bush gained more favor when a television poll showed that more citizens would rather have a beer with him than with his opponent John Kerry. Although some may claim that an open viewing of a president’s image is simply a democratic choice that all citizens in the nation may exercise, the citizens should not let the television networks make this decision for them. Citizens should choose which traits appeal to them without the flashing lights of television or the slanderous media that the nation is now subjected to on their daily news stations. It seems as though the television media has now tricked Americans into following the ineffectual background story instead of hard politics and platforms. These examples illustrate how America now relies on the image, looks, and personal life of these presidential hopefuls, given to them by television coverage. This may prevent the nation from making an informed decision on who should run our country.
The television and its idol like hosts seem to lead the nation more than its own president does. The nation and its president are now at a further distance than they once were. Gone are the days of Thomas Jefferson’s Pell-Mell and in its place are the many news hosts that act as a middle man between the nation and its leader. However, this has led Americans to trust these reporters and hosts over their president and presidential candidates. These third parties have developed so much power that they now dominate the opinions and minds of American voters. In the 70s with the war against Vietnam raging on, President Lyndon B Johnson claimed that the war was still in American hands. However, Walter Cronkite, the beloved anchor of CBS decided to inspect the situation himself. His report swayed Americans to believe that the war was not in America’s best interest. At seeing Cronkite’s report, Johnson proclaimed “It’s all over” (Source E). Johnson clearly realized that the American People had come to trust and believe Cronkite over any politician in the US. This reliance on TV anchors and reporters has hampered the power and bond between the president and his nation.
Over time, it has become very clear that the presidential debates, while very important, are barely followed or interpreted by the nation’s television viewers. These debates (already weak and lacking substance), have become underappreciated and replaced by the likes of “Jersey Shore” and the E! Network. A 1994 study showing the televised presidential debates and viewership (source D) shows a steady decline in the appreciation and care of politics. The newer generations are starting to care less and less about watching to elder politician babble back and forth. They are fleeing to the simple and “entertaining” shows that they believe effect their lives more. Television may have turned reality TV stars into the new “presidents” of America. It seems as though we hold the opinions and lives of these stars more dearly than that of our own presidential candidates.
While one would believe that this new exposure of political debates and facts about the candidates would help the nation make an educated decision of their president, all that television has done is create the presidential debate into a popularity contest. This contest is not decided by the will or devotion of the candidate, but instead by his looks, charm, or how the networks wish to have him perceived. This media influence orchestrated by television could lead the nation into a spiral of handsome but ineffectual leaders.
The television has given us great ability and power to convey information, news, and ideas of all kinds. However, we continuously choose to misuse and abuse this power. While television has allowed access to information to millions of Americans about their presidential candidates, it has ultimately transformed the election into a superficial popularity contest, shifting the candidates’ focuses from the good of the country to raising money to support their images.
Television gives candidates the ability to convey their ideas and positions on important issues. Many Americans, especially the younger generations, would know very little—if not nothing—about the views of the presidential candidates if not for televised debates and ads. However, watching debates—as opposed to reading about what has been discussed—often gives the viewer a subconscious bias based on the candidates’ physical appearances. This is evident most notably in the election of 1960; Louis Menand notes in an article in The New Yorker that it was clear to commentators that the televised aspect of the debate made it a “competition for images” rather than for opinions and policies. Another way candidates can express their views about issues is through political ads. However, most of these ads solely attack opponents about past events or personality traits. Many ads do not express views of either candidate involved. Perhaps ads would be more effective if candidates did not choose to abuse the ability they are given.
Another critical aspect of elections that is brought into play by television is the forming of bonds between the voter and candidates in the voter’s mind. This bond can be beneficial by inspiring voter turnout and a connection to important political issues. However, this bond does more bad than good. Candidates take this “sensitive link” described by president of the Columbia Broadcasting System Frank Stanton and abuse it. While the candidates’ reaching out to Americans can seem very beneficial in our decision, it actually hinders our ability to cast the vote that best reflects our opinions. The candidates become friends—or enemies—and voters lose their ability to view them objectively. This “direct contact” Stanton speaks of is abused to give the voters biases as opposed to informing them.
As we form these bonds, we are also—in a way—idolizing the candidates. Voters become interested in the completely irrelevant details just because television gives us access to them. It would be beneficial to know everything about the candidates’ policies, but we misuse the television’s power by ignoring this potential ability. Very little election coverage is actually of each candidate’s view. Coverage of presidential candidates is alarmingly similar to that of celebrities. Why else would Bill Clinton be asked to discuss his underwear while on campaign if he was not viewed as a celebrity? Roderick P. Hart and Mary Triece discuss these implications in their piece “U.S. Presidency and Television.” Americans misuse their power to learn about their candidates’ policies and convey this information, which causes the candidates to lose “their distinctiveness as social actors,” as Hart and Triece put it.
Although television has both offered the American people an invaluable opportunity to learn all about politics and presented the presidential candidates an incredible opportunity to convey their ideas, opinions, and policies, we continue to abuse and misuse these powers. Television, though it can be helpful, has had an overall negative impact on presidential elections.