JFK & TV: ‘A Force That Has Changed The Political Scene’

In an article for the Smithsonian, Kat Eschner writes about President Kennedy’s views on the medium of TV for politics:

“…when Kennedy was a senator for Massachusetts planning a presidential run, TV Guide published an article he wrote titled ‘A Force That Has Changed The Political Scene.’ In that article, Kennedy wrote that television’s ‘revolutionary impact’ would have far-reaching and lasting consequences for politics. As his own iconic presidency proved, he wasn’t wrong. For the most part, Kennedy ‘side[d] with those who feel its net effect can definitely be for the better,’ writes Alexis C. Madrigal for The Atlantic. But he also worried in a prescient manner about its potential negative effects. He wrote: ‘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.’ He maintained, however, that ‘the images seen on TV are likely to be uncannily correct,’ writes Ron Simon for Time, and that television politics could give voters a truer read on a candidate than could, say, their position papers.”

Prescient words indeed…This is certainly right in many ways, but it also needs emendation.

Kennedy is right to point to the dangers of the medium, viz., the potential abuses of the demagog, and it doesn’t take great imagination to make current, relevant connections. The man currently occupying the Oval Office uses media to great effect–whether or not one agrees with his approach (or politics). He has harnessed the power of media (TV & Twitter in particular) for the very reasons Kennedy warned–appeals to base emotion, prejudice, and ignorance. This has been documented elsewhere, so we will not dwell on it here (e.g., you can find some articles dealing with different aspects of this here and here–or one could simply look at the references page of the Wiki “Donald Trump on social media” to gather more sources).

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However, one place where Kennedy makes a miscalculation is in his belief in the power of TV simply to reveal:

“The searching eye of the television camera scrutinizes the candidates–and the way they are picked. Party leaders are less willing to run roughshod over the voters’ wishes and hand-pick an unknown, unappealing or unpopular in the traditional ‘smoke-filled room’ when millions of voters are watching, comparing and remembering. 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 hall. 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.”

We now know better than ever that media can conceal as well as reveal, that politicians have new tactics to evade questions, and that the bombastic can be appealing to those willing to listen–or to those wanting to be ‘entertained,’ or to those wanting to ‘tear down,’ or to those who are uninformed. And even if it does reveal, what it reveals can be harnessed for one’s own agenda. The scrutinizing of blatant, empirically verifiable lies are now not enough to convince. These are flipped around into ‘media lies’ by the opposition. This is not to mention the potential problems on the horizon with directly manipulated media, where one could potentially make a realistic but false filmed scene, put words into people’s mouths, replace faces (e.g., as seen with Deep Fakes–or even as seen with a recreation of one of Kennedy’s never delivered speeches). Trump has used this murky landscape to try to deny what he has said and done. And the lies and deceptions can now come so quickly that normal modes of combating them fail–so that, for example, while we wait for fact-checking a lie can travel far and wide without contradiction, or a lie can be forgotten as new deceptions flood our feeds.

Another point where Kennedy may have misstepped is in his belief in the power of the viewer to counter-act the dangers of the medium:

“Whether TV improves or worsens our political system, whether it serves the purpose of political education or deception, whether it gives us better or poorer candidates, more intelligent or more prejudiced campaigns–the answers to all this are up to you, the viewing public. It is in your power to perceive deception, to shut off gimmickry, to reward honesty, to demand legislation where needed. Without your approval, no TV show is worthwhile and no politician can exist. That is the way it always has been and will continue to be–and that is the way it should be.”

Admittedly, Kennedy is saying that it is possible, not inevitable, that we might perceive deception. It may be possible to educate ourselves to be critical thinkers, or attempt to educate the general public on these matters, but more recent events should give us pause. The ability to manipulate is so readily apparent: Facebook, false narratives shared across media platforms, sites with agendas trafficking in falsehoods, etc. One may also want to look at Lilliana Mason’s work on why we actually disagree on politics and entrench in our separate camps (hint: it’s not because we are looking at things rationally).[1] And then there are the problems of willfully ignorant agents and political cynics: How does one get others to listen when they are insulated by their media consumption and do not (or will not) venture outside of it to discover other voices? Or how does one combat the lie/misrepresentation when those listening do not care? What if they only care about what they (real or otherwise) get out of the deception–for those who think that the lie can or should be used for their perceived ‘good purposes’?

 

 

[1]Lilliana Mason, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity(The University of Chicago Press, 2018). From the book description on The University of Chicago Press Books website: “Political polarization in America is at an all-time high, and the conflict has moved beyond disagreements about matters of policy. For the first time in more than twenty years, research has shown that members of both parties hold strongly unfavorable views of their opponents. This is polarization rooted in social identity, and it is growing. The campaign and election of Donald Trump laid bare this fact of the American electorate, its successful rhetoric of ‘us versus them’ tapping into a powerful current of anger and resentment. With Uncivil Agreement, Lilliana Mason looks at the growing social gulf across racial, religious, and cultural lines, which have recently come to divide neatly between the two major political parties. She argues that group identifications have changed the way we think and feel about ourselves and our opponents. Even when Democrats and Republicans can agree on policy outcomes, they tend to view one other with distrust and to work for party victory over all else. Although the polarizing effects of social divisions have simplified our electoral choices and increased political engagement, they have not been a force that is, on balance, helpful for American democracy. Bringing together theory from political science and social psychology, Uncivil Agreement clearly describes this increasingly ‘social’ type of polarization in American politics and will add much to our understanding of contemporary politics.”

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