Many journalists have been shaking their heads about the 2016 election. Critics blame the news media’s thirst for ratings and profit for enabling Donald Trump to succeed. The reality-show star has taken advantage of the way television shapes our elections, they say; he makes statements meant to provoke, winning ratings and more airtime than other candidates. As the former CNN anchor Campbell Brown lamented, “I really would like to blame Trump. But everything he is doing is with TV news’ full acquiescence.” At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, President Obama joined the barbs. “Following your lead,” he said, “I want to show some restraint because I think we can all agree from the start [Trump has] gotten the appropriate amount of coverage befitting the seriousness of his candidacy.”
This criticism vastly exaggerates the role of TV outlets in making this candidate. Television has been doing bad things to presidential campaigns for many decades. While many elements of the media have changed, televised presidential elections have long been part of American politics. Sometimes this has produced good candidates, sometimes not. Given this history, though, it is dubious to blame the press for the rise of Trump.
Presidential campaigns started evolving into the form that is familiar today more than half a century ago. By 1952, approximately 40 million Americans owned television. That year, the World War II military hero Dwight Eisenhower worked with the advertising giant Rosser Reeves to film some of the first “ television spots” for a presidential candidate. From a studio on the West Side of New York City, he appeared on camera wearing make-up and reading lines from cue cards on issues from the price of food to the Korean War. The crew later filmed tourists in Radio City Music Hall asking “questions” of Eisenhower to give the appearance that he had been responding to actual people. Today, this wouldn’t seem like a big deal. But in the 1950s, when television was new, the methods seemed quite shocking. When he walked out of the studio, someone heard Eisenhower mutter: “To think that an old soldier should come to this!” His opponent Adlai Stevenson agreed: “This isn’t a soap opera. This isn’t Ivory Soap versus Palmolive.”
These short, stylized advertisements stuck around despite Stevenson’s complaint. These spots would become even more ruthless over the years. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson’s team unleashed the famous “Daisy” ad that depicted a little girl counting as she picked off the pedals from a flower, the voice of a government official counting down in the background, as a nuclear mushroom could be seen in the reflection of her eyes. The ad sent a strong and powerful message to voters about what a Barry Goldwater presidency could mean to the world—one Republicans bitterly complained was unfair.
In 1988, Lee Atwater and Vice President George H.W. Bush’s campaign team made an ad from video of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis riding in a military tank, helmet on, during a campaign visit. The image made Dukakis look small and meek, like the cartoon character Snoopy, a visual complement to the Bush campaign’s argument that “Democrats are weak on defense.” It was a cheap shot, more fitting of the schoolyard than the presidential campaign trail. But it worked.
And in 2004, Republicans broadcast an ad showing Democrat John Kerry windsurfing off of Nantucket. As his boat twisted back and forth in the wind, the narrator warned Kerry could not be trusted to take clear positions as leader. “John Kerry,” the ad concluded: “Whichever way the wind blows.” An independent organization called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” also put together deceptive ads, which looked like mini-documentaries, alleging that Kerry had lied about his military service in Vietnam and had not earned his distinctions. The spots were so effective that they gave rise to the term “swift-boating.”
Televised debates have also long shaped campaigns and they have rarely lent themselves to substantive discussions. These events started carrying special significance in 1960 when John F. Kennedy took on Richard Nixon; the younger man’s appearance and demeanor became a central part of his campaign. In 1976, Gerald Ford seemed to be thoroughly confused when he was asked a question about the Soviet Union. Ford insisted—twice—that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and the gaffe was devastating. But in 1984, Ronald Reagan—who struggled with questions about his age after his first debate—showed how one short line can be a powerful punch: “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Well before Trump mastered the click-bait statement as a method of attracting media attention, politicians were doing all sorts of things to get reporters to turn their way, often with success. In 1976, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter proved to be the best in the business. He focused on directly courting reporters, regaling them with endless stories about his modest background as a peanut farmer. He wore open-collar denim shirts, boots, and blue jeans to remind them that he was not part of the Washington that produced Watergate. Years later, George W. Bush spent lots of time schmoozing with press on the campaign trail in 2000, personally serving them drinks and spending hours with them in the plane. He gradually won many of them over to his personality; the idea that his opponent, Vice President Al Gore, was cold and stiff made its way into coverage.
Political conventions have famously turned into big television shows. By 1952 both parties allowed the networks to cover their conventions. As party bosses lost their power and primaries and caucuses became the main mechanisms for selecting nominees, the conventions turned into primarily scripted events made for television. The parties cut down the time allowed for each speech, decorated convention halls with an eye toward the camera, and highlighted speakers who “pop” on the tube. As audiences dwindled and networks had to compete with cable stations showing non-political shows, electoral leaders squeezed out most of the substance for these events. “The convention is more of an infomercial than a news event,” complained ABC’s Ted Koppel in 1996. Four years later, CBS’s Dan Rather dismissed one such gathering as a “well-orchestrated, pre-scripted, week-long infomercial designed to sell the Republican ticket and get corporate donors to pony up more for the fall campaign.”
Candidates have angled for appearances on popular television, too. The lines between “soft” and “hard” news slowly vanished. Perhaps the most iconic example is Bill Clinton’s June 1992 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show. Clinton had just defeated Jerry Brown in the California primary and wanted to expand his demographic reach. Sporting a flashy yellow tie and Ray-Ban Wayfarers, Clinton dazzled the crowd with his renditions of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “God Bless the Child” on tenor sax. The critics came after him. Barbara Walters said it was “undignified.” Bush’s press secretary, Terry Clarke, quipped that Clinton “looked like a sad John Belushi wannabe.” Others labeled him the “Elvis Candidate.” But Clinton knew was reaching out to younger voters and Independents who otherwise might not have tuned into the campaign. As Clinton’s media advisor, Mandy Grunwald, put it, the question “is how you reach people who don’t care about the evening news and don’t read The New York Times.”
During the same campaign, the eccentric Texas billionaire Ross Perot announced that he would run if enough people registered him as a candidate on CNN’s Larry King Live. Perot understood this popular news talk show offered a great opportunity to make his case directly to voters. King was well known for letting his guests speak without heavy handed questioning to challenge their statements. Perot continued to use television as a major platform in his campaign, appearing on 60 Minutes, The David Frost Show, The Joan Rivers Show, Donahue, and more. He constantly made speeches covered by C-SPAN, which expanded its presidential election coverage, so that he could convey his message without journalists interrupting or interrogating him. By the time his campaign was over, Perot had appeared on 33 talk shows.
The most dramatic consequence of televised presidential campaigns has been to greatly shorten the amount of time that candidates get to speak. The “sound-bite” has kept shrinking over the decades: It averaged about 43 seconds during the 1968 campaign, but fell to nine seconds by 1988 and 7.3 seconds by 1992. If candidates wanted to get on the air, they needed to think in terms of quips and simplistic statements rather than substance. If Adlai Stevenson thought the Eisenhower spots were bad, he would have been rolling over in his grave upon seeing these.
Television has favored treating elections as a simplistic horse race. Coverage revolves around who is up and who is down on a given day. As a result reporters have been obsessed with gaffes, miscues, and scandals that have the potential to create dramatic turning points in the cycle.
But arguably the worst effect of televised presidential campaigns has been to push up costs at astronomical rates. These add to the costs that create unbearable pressure on candidates to spend much of their time fundraising and give wealthy donors ever-greater access to their campaigns.
Americans have lived with televised campaigns for many decades. In some ways, this status quo has damaged the electoral process and undercut the seriousness of political debate. Yet some very good candidates have emerged victorious through this system. Republicans can point to Ronald Reagan or the Bushes, and Democrats to Bill Clinton or Obama.
Rather than focusing on the way television and media have created Donald Trump, it would be better to look at the underlying reasons why such large portions of the electorate are voting for this candidate. To take just one example: Middle-class families have suffered in the modern economy, causing some Americans to feel desperate and find appeal in demagogic arguments. Political leaders and government institutions are as much to blame for the rise of Trump as anything reporters have done. So too are “average” American voters, some of whom have proven to be open to the xenophobic, violent, and sexist statements that have come out of the mouth of a presidential front-runner. There’s one thing you can count on in an age of ratings: If Americans didn’t want to watch Trump, the networks would not be giving him time.