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Politicians have used television to help boost their campaigns since 1952. During this time, we have had fifteen televised presidential elections. Campaigns, from a communication perspective are exercises in the creation, and transmission of “significant symbols.”Political campaigns are an essential part of our national conversations about our national goals, social objectives, national identity, and future courses of action. However, after reading the book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” by Neil Postman, I pondered as to whether television certainly has devastated political discourse. After contemplating about television and how it influences our decision, I thought about the last presidential elections such as the 1996 presidential campaigns between Democrats Bill Clinton and Republicans Bob Dole. It seems that Postman opinion about television ruining politics is true. This paper tries to explain that politicians have used the media to create a profile which makes the people make a wrong decision concerning who is the best candidate for the presidency.
In the book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, Postman states, “Show business is not entirely without an idea of excellence, but its main business is to please the crowd, and its principle instrument is artifice. If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty, but to appear as if the politician is excellent and honest through the use of advertising. The point is television does not reveal who the best man is. In fact, television makes impossible the determination of who is more capable of being president. Our judgments are based on images of the candidates.”
The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates were famous in that they established the first set of televised general election presidential debates. Each candidate had their own reasons for agreeing to the challenge. Richard Nixon was better known in the public eye. However, he felt arranging the debates in a way to make Kennedy minimal if no advantage was the best strategy rather than turning down the challenge. Kennedy had more to earn. Kennedy was a young politician who although had placed himself at considerable risk, had more to gain.
According to viewers, Kennedy presented himself with confidence, grace, and seemed at ease. Nixon, however, appeared fidgety, had sweat on his brow, and appeared sick or disturbed. When the debate was televised, viewers thought Kennedy was the clear winner, while those who had tuned in the radio thought the opposite.
Leading up to the 1996 election, Bill Clinton’s ads consistently associated Bob Dole with the House speaker Newt Gingrich. Grainy black-and-white footage of Dole standing next to Gingrich exploited the public’s dissatisfaction with the Republican – led shutdown of the federal government. Followed with these ominous images, are colorful, upbeat images outlining Clinton’s achievements. In addition to taking credit for a robust economy (having been President since 1992), his ads played on fear that, with their assault on “big government,” the Republicans might threaten programs that the public supported, such as social security and education. Other issues were support for school uniforms and a TV rating system. Using the term “protecting our values” as a slogan, the Clinton campaign was in the political mainstream.
However, Bill Clinton’s opponent, Bob Dole, portrayed himself as a war hero, and a man of ordinary integrity, in contrast to Clinton’s controversial morals. Dole tried without much success, to use the “character issue” to his advantage. Yet the public showed little interest in scandals such as Whitewater, File gate, Travel gate, and allegations of campaign finance abuse. Dole also proposed a 15% tax cut in numerous ads, yet there was never any explanation as to how this would have been funded.
Knowing all of this, I pondered as to why Bill Clinton won the election. Was it because he was considerably younger and not to mention a bit more handsome than his opponent Bob Dole? Could it have been because the public supported the changes Bill Clinton proposed to make rather than Bob Dole? Was it simply because Clinton represented the Democrats which represented the public’s best interests and sociological perspective? One can assume, that the election was not a competition to decide who was more capable for Presidency, but instead a competition as to which candidate presented a better campaign. In using the word better, I mean more appealing to the public.
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By reading the book, ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ one come to the conclusion that the use of television has been focused on the entertainment derived from its use rather than the information a person is likely to get from its use. As a result, people do not listen to news aired in televisions anymore; rather they look for entertainment that they can derive from using these media facilities. Due to these beliefs from the public, politicians have also taken advantage of the beliefs of the public that television is meant for entertainment rather that information. They have made use of this belief by making sure they win public interest by creating images that are amusing to the public making them believe they are being well informed with the correct promises. The effects of use of media on the wrong impression on the right Presidential campaigns have contributed to election of Presidents who are able to present themselves well in the media such as television and newspapers. This has been possible even in situations where those Presidents give false information regarding their presidential policies. This paper tries to explain some of the ways in which presidential aspirants have manipulated the public trusts by using media such as televisions and other media facilities. The scope of the paper is on the U.S Presidential campaigns.