Presidents and Media Change


Here’s a fascinating point from Matt Compton that I’m going to steal. It’s about a speech FDR gave in 1929. During the speech, according to H.W. Brands’ new biography he argued that back in the day “Elections were won or lost, parties were driven out or swept into power entirely as the public speakers of one side or the other proved most able and convincing. It was the golden age of the silver tongue.” But then came the rise of the newspaper and the first great era of the sound bite. Compton’s paraphrase:

That tradition, however, had changed with the advent of mass media in the form of the newspapers. Then, as now, publishers seldom printed speeches in their entirety, and voters learned to take their cues from quotes that reporters and editors chose to excerpt.

FDR felt that in his time things were changing:

The pendulum is rapidly swinging back to the old condition of things. One can only guess at the figure, but I think it is a conservative estimate to say that whereas five years ago 99 out of 100 took their arguments from the editorials and the news columns of the daily press, today at least half the voters, sitting at their own fireside, listen to the actual words of the political leaders on both sides and make their decisions based on what they hear rather than what they read. I think it is almost safe to say that in reaching their decisions as to which party they will support, what is heard over the radio decides as many people as what is printed in the newspapers.

Famously, the radio proved to be a hugely effective communications medium for Obama. But then the pendulum swung back in the age of TV. And now in the internet age, it’s swinging back again in an interesting way. The internet is famous for the way it fragments attention, but one of the ways in which it does that is by making it possibly to narrowcast more content to interested parties than would ever be viable to push through the crowded pipes of cable television. Over here I just watched the incoming chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality talk for 85 seconds about high-speed rail and mass transit. 85 seconds isn’t a ton of seconds. But the fact remains that you could never get a television network to devote that much time to a public official just talking about a subject that, though important, isn’t all that interesting to most people.

It’s an interesting new kind of landscape.