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.