Media & Debates


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Before mass media, politicians and publishers were often one and the same: examples include Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. The development of the high-speed rotary press and widespread urbanization allowed for the rise of self-supporting newspapers. The invention of the telegraph in 1840—roughly when national nominating conventions were first established—allowed news to be sent across the country. This provided even remote local papers with the latest Washington news. News sources became competitive, and soon sensationalism became the marketing tool of choice. Strong-willed publishers could use their power to further a political agenda.  American publishers were also beginning to develop and circulate magazines, including such well-known names as Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Nation. The creation of the radio lessened the power of print media. Radio created an opportunity for political candidates to market themselves rather than just their party or platform.

The arrival of television and televised debates revolutionized the election process. All conditions were right for the first debate in 1960 to be successful: the majority of American households owned televisions, which allowed Americans to vet candidates from their living rooms. Over 77 million people watched this first contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Many members of the establishment questioned debates and television’s role from the beginning. As early as 1960, a major newspaper worried that the debate would focus more on style than substance. Candidates’ press aides worried that the panelists only consisted of network representatives. The broadcast industry wasn’t completely satisfied because these debates lost advertising revenue. There also was potential conflict over sponsorship of debates. To deal with this problem, Congress eventually decided that each network would provide a minimum of 8 hours of public-service time without charge in 1960.

Television as a media outlet has since diversified to new formats, such as cable television or early-morning news programs.  Social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, have also added new choices for getting up-to-the-minute information from the national nominating conventions.  Diversification of voices is important in an informed democratic republic, and technology has directly led to this diversification.

The arrival of the Internet into mainstream America has marked a complete transformation of American political coverage. During the days of party press, only an elite population had access to newspapers.  Now, new media sources like the Internet benefit nominees who lack support by the traditional media. A good example of the power of the Internet is in the case of Howard Dean in 2004. The former Vermont governor went outside of party control to attack his party’s leadership regarding the Iraq War.  Despite straying from party lines, Dean went on to lead in national polls and fundraising up until the primaries.  Through the Internet, he had raised nearly $50 million in contributions and generated considerable name recognition for a candidate that would have otherwise been overlooked by mainstream media. Dean’s performance on the Internet illustrates the balanced nature of the diversification of media and the increased public perception of political processes. In 2008, President Obama bypassed the media in his announcement of Joe Biden as his vice-presidential selection.  He texted and emailed his supporters before telling media outlets.  In the 2016 cycle, Donald Trump’s mastery of Twitter helped him secure the Republican nomination.