The Evolution of Politics and Media

During the recent Republication debates in Colorado, I found myself thinking about the relationship between the dominant media of the time and politicians. There is a symbiotic relationship here we cannot ignore—they really need each other to succeed. The considerable research in this area has concentrated on the impact of television starting with the Kennedy/Nixon debates. In comparison, I have not yet seen the same amount of research about the impact of cable television or the new technologies brought about by high-speed broadband. The relationship between politics and the media has evolved over time, but has it changed for the better?

The modern newspaper business began in the late 1800s. Newspapers in the largest markets, such as New York or Chicago, could often display a political bias and still sell enough papers or advertisements to maintain their economic vitality. The vast majority of newspapers in smaller markets, however, could not risk upsetting their constituency because the economics were tougher. In addition, many small newspapers depended on government printing contracts that were freely dispensed by the political party in power. As a consequence, newspapers developed editorial sections where politicians could express their views.

As the radio networks of NBC and CBS developed in the 1920s, politicians had a powerful new medium that could reach larger audiences than they ever had before. Franklin D. Roosevelt certainly mastered the medium early. He used radio to assure Americans they could rise above their economic condition. Other leaders in Europe used radio to foment dictatorships that would propel the world into war. In 1938, as a Halloween stunt, Orson Wells showed us the power of radio when he broadcast his “War of the Worlds” to an audience that believed a Martian invasion was actually happening in New Jersey. Strange, but true; radio could manipulate an audience in ways the newspapers never could and politicians took notice.

In the broadcast television era, the Kennedy/Nixon debates unequivocally showed us that the way a person looked was highly important. Presidents from that point forward understood the power of television and courted the three major broadcast networks. We also saw the tragedy of war abroad and the protests at home in our living rooms every evening in graphic detail. The awakening of the public along with the ability of networks to determine what was newsworthy affected politics at all levels.

The emergence of cable television programming in the 1980s redefined the relationship between politicians and the media once again. C-SPAN gave us an unprecedented look into our political system and new networks defined their existence around partisan politics. More than ever before, news came with a party affiliation and the tag of liberal or conservative. CNN, true to its original mission sits in the middle with a strong following, but the existence of spin rooms and dissecting the candidates into “what he/she meant to say” became stronger than ever.

In recent years, we have seen the emergence of high-speed broadband technologies that have changed our views once again. President Obama mastered social media with his last election and we understood the importance of this new medium. Television audiences see comments from social media on the screen in real time. Donald Trump finds that he gets so much exposure in the media he has not had to spend funds he set aside for advertising. We can watch the debates on our phone or iPad or watch them later on DVR. Polling is instantaneous from traditional and social media sources while the “talking heads” tell us what we were supposed to hear in case we missed it. Oh, brave new world…

At the end of the day, it always boils down to ratings for the media. For the candidates, it is a matter of getting their message out to the greatest number of people as efficiently as possible. The relationship between the politicians and media is as complicated as ever. It is also true that we get to evaluate the candidates better than ever before because of the innovative nature of our technology. This has been true in the past and is likely to continue well into the future.

(Larry Satkowiak is president and CEO of The Cable Center, the nonprofit educational arm of the cable industry. The Center preserves cable’s enduring contributions to society, strengthens relationships between cable and academia and unites the industry around the advancement of exceptional customer service. His recently published book, The Cable Industry – A short history through three generations tells the story of this dynamic industry from the early CATV systems to the current multi-platform services and programming we know as the modern cable industry.)

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