John F. Kennedy on Television's Political Impact

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In the last campaign cycle, political spending reached something like $4 billion, a lot of it on television advertising campaigns. Broadcast television ads, televised debates, 24-hour cable channels: the box with moving images plays an outsized role in politics.

51 years ago today, John F. Kennedy peered into this future in an essay about television and elections for Reader's Digest (!), as linked by Vice Magazine's Motherboard. Kennedy's pen first glosses the other technological changes in politics:

The wonders of science and technology have revolutionized the modern American political campaign. Giant electronic brains project results on the basis of carefully conducted polls. Automatic typewriters prepare thousands of personally addressed letters, individually signed by automatic pens. Jet planes make possible a coast-to-coast speaking schedule no observation-car back platform could ever meet.

With that set up, Kennedy launches into an examination of the possible impacts of the medium. He, on the whole, "side[d] with those who feel its net effect can definitely be for the better."

The slick or bombastic orator, pounding the table and ringing the rafters, is not as welcome in the family living room as he was in the town square or party hail. In the old days, many a seasoned politician counted among his most highly developed and useful talents his ability to dodge a reporter's question, evade a "hot" Issue and avoid a definite stand. But today a vast viewing public is able to detect such deception and, in my opinion, willing to respect political honesty.

Honesty, vigor, compassion, intelligence - the presence or lack of these and other qualities make up what is called the candidate's "image." While some intellectuals and politicians may scoff at these "images" - and while they may in fact be based only on a candidate's TV impression, ignoring his record, views and other appearances - my own conviction is that these images or impressions are likely to be uncannily correct. I think, no matter what their defenders or detractors may say, that the television public has a fairly good idea of what Dwight D. Eisenhower is really like - or Jimmy Hoffa - or John McClellan - or Vice President Nixon -or countless others.

But Kennedy worried that television's nasty ability to *seem* more real than it really was might become a problem. He also wondered whether costs might spin out of control, giving too much power to the lobbies who could afford to bankroll candidates broadcast on-onslaughts.

But political success on television is not, unfortunately, limited only to those who deserve it. It is a medium which lends itself to manipulation, exploitation and gimmicks. It can be abused by demagogs, by appeals to emotion and prejudice and ignorance.

Political campaigns can be actually taken over by the "public relations" experts, who tell the candidate not only how to use TV but what to say, what to stand for and what "kind of person" to be. Political shows, like quiz shows, can be fixed-and sometimes are.

The other great problem TV presents for politics is the item of financial cost. It is no small item. In the 1956 campaign, the Republican National Committee, according to the Gore report, spent over $3,000,000 for television-and the Democratic National Committee, just under $2,800,000 on television broadcasting.

If all candidates and parties are to have equal access to this essential and decisive campaign medium, without becoming deeply obligated to the big financial contributors from the worlds of business, labor or other major lobbies, then the time has come when a solution must be found to this problem of TV costs.

Yes, indeed. 51 years later, we're still looking for "a solution must be found to this problem of TV costs." During his own time, Kennedy chose to believe in the power of the people "to shut off gimmickry" and "to reward honesty" -- or at least that's what he said, regardless of the medium. Then again, that might be because by 1959, they'd already elected him to Congress, which seems to confirm every politicians' belief in the wisdom of the crowd.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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