Presidential Elections

in the Age of Television


Jennifer Truran Rothwell

Federal Hall, New York City, 1789. The president of the U.S. Senate counts the ballots returned from presidential electors in the thirteen states that constitute the new United States of America. Each elector has cast two ballots. The candidate who receives the most votes will become president, and the first runner-up, vice president. The count shows that all 69 electors have cast one of their ballots for George Washington of Virginia, making him the unanimous choice for president. John Adams of Massachusetts wins the vice presidency. All has been accomplished by the rules set down in the U.S. Constitution, and in the absence of political parties, campaigns, or fundraising. As a delegation is dispatched to Mt. Vernon to inform Washington of his election, truly it seems fair to say that “the office has sought the man.”


Canton, Ohio, 1896. Republican candidate William McKinley stands on his porch and delivers a speech to citizens and reporters who have made their way to his hometown in Ohio. Meanwhile, somewhere in America, Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan steps out of his railway carriage to address a crowd gathered at the depot. But Bryan’s famed oratory and 18,000 miles of travel in the first “whistle-stop campaign” in American history prove no match for the candidate who creates the impression of being sought in his own carefully planned “front-porch campaign.” Nor is Bryan’s campaign chest of $650,000 any match for the unprecedented $7 million or so raised and spent by Republican campaign chairman Mark Hanna. Hanna is the man known for the apocryphal remark, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second is.”1


Washington, D.C., 2000. The primaries have come and gone, with Republican John McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley—both strong proponents of campaign finance reform—having lost their races to George W. Bush and Albert Gore,
respectively. During the interregnum before the conventions, the Democratic National Committee announces plans to raise $30 million for TV “issue ads” to “pump up Gore’s candidacy.”2 The dress code for its fundraising party is strictly “plain folks”—blue jeans—though the take for the night consists mainly of $50,000-plus donations.3 The Republican National Committee responds with its own plan for issue ads that attack Gore rather than promoting Bush, “because GOP strategists believe that Bush has high favorable ratings and is doing well with ‘free media.’”4 Is all this legal? Not according to Darrell M. West, author of the recently published Checkbook Democracy, who calls this year “the Wild West of issue advocacy; anything goes.”5


Clearly, presidential elections have come a long way since the beginning of the republic, and happily so, as it was a small number of qualified voters who chose the lawmakers who elected the first president of the United States. The means for informing the public about candidates have similarly come a long way. Never before has there been so much information available to so many about the few who will lead them—information set in quaint print, broadcast nonstop on television and radio, and roaming about in cyberspace. But what is the quality of that information? How is it affected by the medium that delivers it? And, most importantly, what uses of media can best serve to educate the citizenry and maintain a healthy democracy?

Since the advent of television, the print media have steadily lost ground in their role as arbiters of political information. Meanwhile, some already look to the Internet as the dominant medium for future politics. According to former Clinton White House spokesman Michael McCurry, “The Era of the Imagemaker ... is giving way to the Era of the Webmaster.”6 But, at present, television continues to hold sway as the central medium of political exchange. Moreover, it is not traditional news coverage that may be having the greatest impact on the electoral process. “The most valuable commodity in American politics today [is] advertising time on TV,” says Washington Post reporter Dan Morgan, who calls it “the greatest single force increasing the price of political campaigns.”7

This article looks at the role of television in politics from several vantage points. First, it offers some historical examples of television use and its possible effects on past elections. Second, it considers television as the dominant medium for today’s politics. Third, it examines the connections between TV advertising and political money. Finally, it reviews some ideas for reforming the electoral process that involve the broadcast media and campaign finance reform.

Sketches of Politics in the TV Era

Television has exerted a profound influence on American politics since it began entering homes in the late 1940s. It first surfaced in the election of 1948, when the new television networks—NBC, ABC, and CBS—pooled their resources to offer gavel-to-gavel coverage of the major party conventions, both held in Philadelphia. That year also saw the first TV political ad, made by Truman forces to urge supporters not to accept a Dewey victory as inevitable, but to get out and vote. Dewey himself rejected the idea of using television commercials as being undignified. There were fewer than 400,000 TV sets in the U.S. at the time. The following sketches touch on ways that television has affected presidential elections over the past half-century.

Election 1952. With 19 million TV sets now owned by Americans, network coverage took citizens inside the convention halls to watch as Republicans nominated war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower on the first ballot, and Democrats chose Illinois governor Adlai E. Stevenson on the third ballot. A significant first in the election was Eisenhower’s hiring of a prominent advertising firm to make TV commercials. Stevenson denounced these “high-powered hucksters of Madison Avenue” for selling their candidate, “in precisely the way they sell soup, ammoniated toothpaste, hair tonic, or bubble gum.”8 Nevertheless, he, too, brought admen into his own less well-financed campaign.

Election 1960. This year featured the first television debates between presidential candidates—Vice President Richard M. Nixon for the Republicans and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy for the Democrats. Did the election really turn on the supposed
contrast the viewers drew between the handsome, youthful Kennedy and Nixon-of-the-five-o’clock-shadow? (He blamed his managers for a bad makeup job.) According to Marshall McLuhan, the real divide between the candidates involved the nature of television as a medium for projecting “images”: Nixon’s “sharp intense image” was less well-suited than the “blurry, shaggy texture of Kennedy” to the “coo#148; medium of television.9 The lesson for campaign managers, just beginning their morph from old-time political pros to paid political consultants, was that controlling a candidate’s television image was indispensable to political victory.

Election 1964. The concept of the “attack ad” bore early (and poisoned) fruit in the “Daisy” commercial used by Democratic incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson against Republican challenger Barry Goldwater. In the ad, a young girl plucks the petals from a daisy while a background voice counts down from ten to zero and a mushroom cloud replaces her.10 Criticism of the ad, designed to portray Goldwater as a dangerous reactionary unmoved by the threat of nuclear war, was so fast and furious that it was pulled from television after one airing. But Goldwater’s well-aired statement at the Republican convention that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” may have achieved what the ad did not.

Election 1968. This year pitted the most controlled use of television yet, by Republican standard-bearer Richard M. Nixon, against the image of disorder outside the convention hall in Chicago as Democrats nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Nixon’s “two-track” campaign made skillful use of both free media (issuing one “message” per day) and paid TV time. Its ad campaign, dissected by Joe McGinniss in The Selling of the President 1968, rested comfortably on the basic tenet that Adlai Stevenson had so deplored in 1952. “You sell your candidates and your programs the way a business sells its products,” declared Republican National Chairman Leonard Hall.11 According to some political analysts, it wasn’t that the Democrats were above doing it; they just hadn’t quite caught on yet.

Election 1984. “It’s Morning in America” was the upbeat theme of incumbent Ronald Reagan’s run against Democratic challenger Walter Mondale. Presidential debates also figured importantly in the election. When the 73-year-old Reagan appeared confused at points during the first of two debates, some commentators speculated openly about his mental fitness for a second term in office. Asked during the second debate whether he felt able to handle a foreign policy crisis, Reagan answered, “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”12 This effective one-liner enabled the popular president to survive the media “death watch.”

Election 1988. Republican Vice President George Bush made effective use of an attack ad scouring his Democratic opponent, Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, for leniency toward criminals. The so-called “Revolving Door” ad played on the case of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a Maryland woman while on furlough from prison in Massachusetts. Democrats and some analysts claimed the ad had a racial “subtext,” as Horton was black and his victim white. Dukakis was also not helped by an opening question from CNN anchorman Bernard Shaw during a presidential debate: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”13 Many pundits interpreted the candidate’s response, a flat reiteration of his opposition to the death penalty, as revealing a man of too little feeling; the idea that he might have been too honest to bite at a showboat question from a reporter was rarely heard.

Election 1996. “Triangulation” was the name political consultant Dick Morris gave to the Clinton campaign strategy for holding on to the White House in 1996. The idea was to locate Clinton in the center of a hypothetical triangle between Republicans and more liberal members of his own party. But a more important triangle described by political analyst Garry Wills was the one that connected polling, TV ads, and political money.14 More “soft money”—unlimited funds from corporations, unions, and individuals for “party-building” activities—entered the race on both sides than ever before. The upshot was to spur demands for campaign finance reform by two of its strongest proponents, McCain and Bradley, in the 2000 primaries.


Television as a Political Medium

As anthropologist Clyde Kluckholn once observed, it would hardly be fish that discovered the existence of water. Similarly, discerning the effects of television on our politics is not simple, since they are so pervasive that we take many of them for granted. Like all mediums of information, television has its own distinct characteristics. To personify some of these “traits,” television prefers images to words, icons to understandings, action to contemplation, and arguably, emotion to reason. Moreover, television has come to exaggerate these traits as political ads have become the form of information most relied on by candidates for election.

“The television commercial has been the chief instrument in creating the modern methods of presenting political ideas,” contends Neil Postman. “It has accomplished this in two ways. The first is by requiring its form to be used in political campaigns.”15 The second is by persuading the public “to accept as normal certain assumptions about the political domain that either derive from or are amplified by the television commercial.”16 These include the notions that “political figures [are] to be taken as part of the world of show business”17 and that “all political problems have fast solutions through simple measures—or ought to.”18

It would be hard to deny that entertainment values are influencing politics. We have had a former actor as president, and presidential aspirants showing up on “Saturday Night Live” and like programs. At the same time, the role of broadcast news as political watchdog is regularly compromised. The concept of the news reporter as a “fly on the wal#148;—observing but unobserved—has made way for “celebrity journalism” and cameo appearances by real TV reporters in Hollywood fictions.19 Of course, politics has always involved an element of showmanship, and media celebrities have been with us at least since the advent of radio. But television has undoubtedly blurred the lines that separate politics from journalism from entertainment.

To consider how television promotes the simplification of political issues, it is important to consider both its free and paid uses. “Free media,” as it pertains to the electoral process, includes news programs and magazines, talk shows, entertainment programs, political debates, convention coverage, and any other free time offered by stations to candidates. “Paid media” consists overwhelmingly of political ads, but also includes “town meetings” and other formats sometimes employed by candidates.

Network (and local) news programs remain the primary source of political news for TV viewers, despite competition from cable. Yet network coverage of political candidates is declining in both amount and substance, according to one prominent media watchdog group, the Center for Media and Public Affairs. Among the findings in its first “Report Card” on primary coverage during the 1996 election year:

A study of the 2000 primaries conducted by two public interest groups, the Alliance for Better Campaigns and the Annenberg Public Policy Center, found that “of 22 presidential debates held during the primaries, just two aired on a national broadcast network, and neither one in prime time.”21 This is not good news for those who agree with political analyst Jules Witcover that “presidential debates remain the best single opportunity for voters to hear the candidates express views directly and to size up their abilities.”22 Says the Alliance’s Paul Taylor, “The broadcast networks are relinquishing their role as the nation’s town square ... [they] seem to have concluded that the presidential campaign is a niche event, suitable only for cable.”23

Competitition from round-the-clock cable news is often cited by network spokespersons to excuse the decline in their election coverage. Political analysts point to other factors. Some say the intensive control of candidate appearances by media advisors is leaving reporters with little to cover beyond the planned sideshow of pseudo-events and “photo ops.” Candidate press conferences, once common, have all but disappeared from campaigns, as presidential aspirants seek to avoid any damaging gaffes, and rely on supporters to give the proper “spin” to events. According to PBS newsman Terence Smith, live network coverage is thus “reduced ... to what they call ‘a tell,’”24 which can be accomplished as well by cub reporters as by experienced pros. What takes its place is politics as horse race, or “inside baseball,” with nightly calls of who’s up front or just hit a homer.

How do political ads treat the issues in an election? The television commercial “insists on an unprecedented brevity of expression,” observes Postman, replacing substance with “vivid visual symbols through which we may easily learn the lessons being taught.”25 More significantly, he contends, the most important “image” created by TV ads is not of the product (or, in politics, the candidate), but of the viewers themselves.

This is the lesson of all great television commercials: They provide a slogan, a symbol or a focus that creates for viewers a comprehensive and compelling image of themselves.26

Presumably, viewers (voters) feel happier about themselves when it’s always “morning in America.” This is the desired response to positive ads about candidates. But “going negative” with ads that attack the opposing candidate, though often deplored, can also be very effective. One new facet of election coverage—on television and in other media—is the “ad watch,” or the parsing of ads for fairness and accuracy. Some analysts see voters as becoming more savvy about how ads manipulate both the facts and their emotions. And, unlike television’s old captive audiences, today’s viewers can vote by remote and “easily escape the political ads if they choose.”27

Money Talks—But Is it Speech?

Whether or not a particular ad works, political campaigns today are based on the premise that television ads are the most effective means for persuading voters. TV ads are driving up the cost of political campaigns. And this cost is impelling (or providing the excuse for) the unseemly quest by candidates and their supporters to raise money by going around federal election laws.

In the wake of the Watergate scandal, Congress enacted the most stringent rules yet for the control of campaign finance, in its 1974 and 1976 Amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. These rules governing the “hard money” used in campaigns:

Provisions of the act were immediately challenged in the case of Buckley v. Valeo, which came before the Supreme Court in 1976. Although the Court upheld the spending limits for candidates who accept a federal subsidy, it said that no limits could be placed on candidates who choose to spend their own money in an election campaign, as this would violate their freedom of speech as protected under the First Amendment.

The Court also ruled that “independent expenditures” by outside groups on behalf of candidates are permissible if not made in coordination with a candidate’s campaign. In doing so, the Court opened the door to “issue advocacy,” or the promotion of issues as distinct from candidates in an electoral campaign. Yet issue ads can name candidates who support or oppose an issue. In a footnote to its decision, the Court drew a line between “bona fide” issue ads (allowed) and “express advocacy” (not allowed). An issue ad becomes express advocacy only if it uses explicit words—such as “vote for,” “elect,” “support,” “cast your ballot for,” “Smith for Congress,” “vote against,” “defeat,” or “reject”—to persuade voters to choose or reject a candidate. These are the “magic words” that people in the political ad biz have learned to avoid.28

The Federal Election Campaign Act was further undercut by 1979 Amendments that allow political parties to accept unlimited funds from any source—including corporations, labor unions, and individual donors—for “party-building” activities. This so-called “soft money” loophole, along with the independent spending allowed for in Buckley v. Valeo, is what made possible the explosion of issue advocacy in the 1996 presidential election and its further exploitation in this year’s election.

Under the name of issue advocacy, both political parties and public interest groups [nonprofits operating under Section 501(c)4 of the Internal Revenue Code] can run TV ads that promote an issue and name candidates who are for or against it, as long as this is done either (1) independently of any candidate’s campaign, or (2) without asking voters explicitly to elect or defeat any particular candidate. The nonprofit groups do have some limits on the share of funds they can spend on political activity. An example from this year’s elections is a Sierra Club ad attacking New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani (then running for the U.S. Senate) for his environmental record, but suggesting only that viewers “Call Mayor Guiliani. Tell him to protect New York’s drinking water.”29

A new wrinkle on issue advocacy this year is the emergence of so-called “527 groups,” which claim that Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code allows them to do issue advocacy without following any rules of disclosure or even publicly reporting their existence—a claim that has quickly earned them the sobriquets of “stealth PACs” or “black holes.” An example: Republicans for Clean Air, which spent $2.5 million on TV ads attacking John McCain in several Republican primaries. “The ‘group’ turned out to be two Texas brothers, Charles and Sam Wyly, who have been major donors to Gov. George W. Bush.”30

It’s expected that more political ads, costing more money than ever before, will emanate from television during this election season. This will be to the advantage of both broadcasters (who sell ad time) and media consultants (the so-called “hired guns” who get cuts on every second of ad time they purchase for candidates). The Los Angeles Times reported in May that this year “political spots are expected to add $600 million to stations’ revenue—up 40 percent from 1996,” while issue advocacy is likely to account for even more than its estimated 44% of political ad dollars spent in 1996.31

One problem with an electoral process dominated by television advertising is that it can drive less well-financed candidates from the field. The problem may be heightened if a well-financed candidate buys up airtime—a limited commodity—simply to keep an opponent from getting it. Equally problematic is the growing difficulty posed for voters in figuring out just who is promoting a candidate for office and why. Ultimately at stake, said a recent New York Times editorial, is the “complete domination of the campaign environment by soft money ... this is the very same money that has purchased not only overnight stays in the Lincoln bedroom, but access to the Congressional offices where legislation affecting millions of people is written.”32

A Washington Post editorial titled “Democracy Distorted” pointed its finger at groups operating beyond even the lax controls governing soft money:

The money now, increasing amounts of it, is being given instead to ostensibly independent groups that claim to be outside the ambit of the law, so that they can collect what and from whom they please and not report it. They then spend it on so-called issue ads, fig leaves for campaign ads by another name. The funds come from corporations, unions, other interest groups, big individual donors. Almost all of them have business before the government whose membership they seek to shape. They are buying legislative and regulatory outcomes at one remove. No one should delude himself into thinking otherwise.33

Perhaps in the wake of such ringing denunciation, both the House and Senate voted in June to force 527 groups to disclose or disband; once signed by President Clinton, this will be the first new campaign finance legislation since 1979.


TV Politics and Public Responsibility

Like other forms of media, television is a business. But unlike other media, television bears a special responsibility with regard to the public welfare. This is because the free and exclusive use of public airwaves granted to the broadcast networks is supposed to be contingent on a pledge to serve the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” This “public interest standard” was laid out in the Communications Act of 1934. When the Clinton administration, in 1997, doubled the amount of spectrum space freely licensed to television broadcasters (an estimated value of up to $70 billion), the president appointed an advisory panel to report to the vice president on the responsibility of television broadcasters to the public.34

In a December 1998 report, the “Gore Commission” recommended that “the nation’s television stations voluntarily provide five minutes a night of ‘candidate-centered discourse’ in the 30 days prior to all elections.”35 Such “free air time” (or “5/30” air time) could include brief speeches or mini-debates between candidates; or the time could be distributed throughout all of a station’s daily news programs. This idea of free air time for political candidates, the brainchild of several public interest groups, was tried out by some public and cable stations—but not by the networks—in the 1996 elections.

Supporters of free air time are not holding their breath about how the networks will respond to the idea this year either. Reports Jeff Leeds in the Los Angeles Times, the movement “will likely founder again, sunk in large part by the television industry’s lobbying outfit, the National Association of Broadcasters, [as it] pushes Congress to tune out the idea of mandating free time.”36 The NAB, for its part, points out that it voluntarily provided candidates with $147 million worth of free exposure in the form of televised debates in 1996, and contends that any mandate to provide free air time would be unconstitutional.37

But consider this year’s network coverage (or lack thereof) of the political conventions. ABC, NBC, and CBS all cut their coverage to a bare minimum, treating the speeches of major party leaders at both conventions as equally lacking in news value. Is this important? “Critical,” says Washington Post reporter Lisa de Moraes,

...and you need only to look at the numbers to know why. Monday’s [Democratic] convention coverage, for instance, broke down like this: ABC, 5.98 million viewers; CBS, 5.26 million; NBC, 5.95 million, compared with cable’s CNN, 1.82 million; MSNBC and Fox News Channel, under 1 million each; PBS, 3 million.38

Gavel-to-gavel coverage of the conventions was provided by cable’s C-SPAN, and on high-definition stations by PBS and NBC—by way of Japan’s NHK. But cable and digital television are not available to everyone. Concludes media analyst Tom Shales in another Post column on convention coverage: “The bias the networks have isn’t political. It’s a bias against public service. A bias against lowered revenue.”39

Another avenue for reforming television as a political medium is through campaign finance reform. The connection between it and media reform was made plain in the Senate debate over campaign finance reform in 1997, when Majority Leader Trent Lott “refused to allow debate on Sen. John McCain’s campaign finance bill until the Arizona Republican dropped a provision calling for free candidate time.”40

Opponents of campaign finance reform rely on the Supreme Court’s definition of money as a form of speech. But Elizabeth Drew, a long-time analyst of the campaign finance system, contends that it is a myth that the Supreme Court ever declared that “money equals speech.” She points to two competing values in the Court’s decision in Buckley v. Valeo: protecting free speech and limiting ‘the actuality and appearance of corruption.’” Given the Court’s acceptance of some rules on campaign finance, she holds out hope that “additional reforms remain possible. The court’s holding that there is a relationship between money and speech was the beginning of the analysis, not the end of it.”41

Underlying the concept of campaign finance reform are two assumptions: that creating a level playing field in politics is good for democracy, and that money donated to political campaigns represents interests that don’t necessarily equate with the common good. Of course, in a democracy, interests are expected to clash, and what constitutes the common good is rightly subject to interpretation. But what happens if money so saturates the election process, and TV ads so saturate the “marketplace of ideas,” that—to paraphrase George Orwel#151;some views of the common good become more equal than others?

In a discussion of Orwel#146;s view of the threat to democracy posed by totalitarian control of information, Postman suggests that Orwel#146;s fear was misplaced because he was “in effect, addressing himself to a problem of the Age of Print—in fact, to the same problem addressed by the men who wrote the United States Constitution.”42 Postman thinks we should rather “look to [Aldous] Huxley ... to understand the threat that television and other forms of imagery pose to the foundation of liberal democracy—namely, to freedom of information.”43

What we are confronted with now is the problem posed by the economic and symbolic structure of television. Those who run television do not limit our access to information but in fact widen it ... [doing] everything possible to encourage us to watch continuously. But what we watch is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical, and noncontextual; that is to say, information packaged as entertainment.44

Or, as Lewis Lapham recently phrased it, “the electronic forms of communication eliminate the dimensions of space and time and erode the presumption of cause and effect,” leaving us in a “lotusland of the eternal now.”45

Our public school system is predicated on the idea that an informed citizenry constitutes the bulwark of democracy. The vital link between
citizens and government is provided by our media. How can the public best become informed? How well are television and other media performing this function? And what can the public legitimately demand from the media in a democracy? These are all good questions for the current and prospective voters in our social studies classrooms.



1. Jules Witcover, No Way to Pick a President (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), 74; also see “A Hundred Years Ago: Crusaders vs. Conservatives in a Furious Campaign,” Social Education 60, no. 6 (October 1996).

2. Ceci Connolly, “Gore Aides Seek Huge Party TV Ad Buy,” The Washington Post (May 23, 2000), A8

3. Majorie Williams, “Blue Jeans and Big Bucks,” The Washington Post (May 26, 2000).

4. Connolly.

5. Ibid.

6. Susan Glasser, “Politics Inc.: Consultants Pursue Promising Web of New Business,” The Washington Post (May 2, 2000), A1.

7. Dan Morgan, “Politics Inc., The TV Bazaar: A Made-for-TV Windfall,” The Washington Post (May 2, 2000), A1.

8. Witcover, 53.

9. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1965), 329.

10. See Daisy commercial, P.O.V. Dissect an Ad page, Public Broadcasting System (PBS) website at:

11. Joe McGinniss, The Selling of the President 1968 (New York: Trident Press, 1969), 27.

12. Witcover, 232.

13. Ibid., 91.

14. Cited in Witcover, 45.

15. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), Chapter 9. Reach Out and Elect Someone, 129.

16. Ibid., 131.

17. Ibid., 132.

18. Ibid., 131.

19. For example, “Dave” and “Wag the Dog.”

 20. See “First ‘Report Card’” (Feb. 29, 1996), Election Watch page, Center for Media and Policy Analysis website: Ewmarkle.htm

21. “Network Newscasts Offer Fleeting Glimpses of Presidential Candidates” (March 23, 2000), The Political Standard page, Alliance for Better Campaigns website:

22. Witcover, 245.

23. “Network Newscasts.”

24. Witcover, 226.

25. Postman, 130, 131.

26. Ibid., 135.

27. Witcover, 101.

28. Elizabeth Drew, “Let’s Destroy These Two Myths, Once and For All,” The Washington Post (May 16, 2000), Outlook, B1, 4.

29. Ruth Marcus, “Hidden Assets: Flood of Secret Money Erodes Election Limits,” The Washington Post (May 15, 2000), A6.

30. Ibid.

31. Jeff Leeds, “TV Stations Tune Out Free Air Time for Political Candidates” (Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2000), Alliance for Better Campaigns website at:

32. The New York Times, “The Soft Money Explosion” editorial (May 28, 2000).

33. The Washington Post, “Democracy Distorted” editorial (May 17, 2000), A26.

34. “Reinventing Campaigns on Television: Five Minutes of Fresh Air,” Alliance for Better Campaigns website at: fivemin.HTM

35. Ibid.

36. Leeds.

37. Morgan.

38. Lisa de Moraes, “The Networks Blink and Miss the Best Parts,” The Washington Post (Aug. 16, 2000): C7.

39. Tom Shales, “The Perfect Place to Put Those Cameras,” The Washington Post (Aug. 14, 2000): C1.

40. Leeds.

41. Drew.

42. Postman, 139.

43. Ibid., 138.

44. Ibid., 141.

45. Lewis H. Lapham, “Hazards of New Fortune,” Harper’s Magazine 300, no. 1801 (Summer 2000).



Boller, Paul F., Jr. Presidential Campaigns. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Roseboom, Eugene H., and Alfred E. Eckes, Jr. A History of Presidential Elections: From George Washington to Jimmy Carter, 4th edition. New York: Macmillan Company, 1979.

Taylor, Paul. See How They Run: Electing the President in an Age of Mediaocracy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.




Alliance for Better Campaigns
This organization promotes free air time for political candidates. It publishes an online newspaper, The Political Standard, and a primer on the Voluntary Standard for Candidate Air Time, Reinventing Politics on TV.

American Association of Political Consultants
This is the professional organization for people working in the field of politics in the United States.

Annenberg Public Policy Center
This site offers results and analyses of media research done at the University of Pennsylvania School of Communications.

Center for Media & Public Affairs
CMPA is a nonpartisan educational organization that conducts scientific studies of the news and entertainment media. See its ElectionWatch for regular updates on news coverage of election campaigns.

Center for Public Integrity
This nonpartisan organization examines public service and ethics-related issues. See its Issue Ad Watch 2000 and The Buying of the President 2000 Project.

Close Up Online
This foundation promotes civics education at all levels. See its Presidential Election 2000 and links to other useful sites.

Common Cause
This watchdog organization is a longtime promoter of campaign finance reform.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
This watchdog organization has a liberal bias. See Election 2000 for articles from Extra!, Media Beat columns, and CounterSpin broadcasts.

Federal Election Commission
This is the official government agency that oversees campaign finances and offers reports on candidate fundraising and spending in primaries and the general election.

National Association of Broadcasters
This lobbying group for the broadcast industry offers a booklet to guide broadcasters in sponsoring and producing polibical debates at all levels.

Pew Research Center for the People & the Press
This independent opinion research group studies public attitudes toward the press, politics, and public policy issues.




Jennifer Truran Rothwell is senior editor of
Social Education.

An Informal Glossary of Election Terms


ad watch- recent practice by news media and others of analyzing political ads for fairness and accuracy

attack ad a political ad that attempts to persuade voters of an opponent’s weakness, also termed a “negative ad”

black hole see stealth PAC

candidate-centered discourse free media coverage of the election process that focuses directly on candidates and their ideas, recommended by the Gore Commission

celebrity journalism magnifying the role of the reporter from observer to a star participant in events

death watch coverage of political events that entails watching for incidents that may expose a candidate’s weakness

express advocacy issue advocacy that asks voters explicitly to support or reject a candidate at the polls

fly on the wall the concept of a news reporter as a silent observer and recorder of events, rather than as a personality

free air time time allotted without cost by television stations to political candidates for expressing their views, recommended by the Gore Commission

free media media coverage of politics that is free as distinguished from paid for by candidates

going negative attacking one’s opponent through speeches and/or ads

hard money direct contributions to candidate campaigns that meet the requirements of the Federal Election Laws hired gun term used to denote paid consultants who have largely replaced old political pros in running political campaigns

horse race term used to describe news coverage of who’s winning or losing, rather than the substance of a political race

image the idealized impression a candidate hopes to make on voters

independent expenditures donations and spending for political purposes that are supposed to be independent of any candidate’s campaign

inside baseball another term for the “horse race”

issue advocacy the promotion of political issues, commonly in the form of TV ads, by groups supposed to be operating independently of any candidate’s campaign

magic words words that explicitly ask voters to support or reject a candidate, thus converting issue advocacy into express advocacy; examples of such words were specified by the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo

media consultant a campaign worker who advises a candidate with regard to his/her use of free and paid media

message the idea being communicated through any media, but especially, through electronic media

niche event an event considered to appeal to a limited audience and given coverage accordingly

PAC (political action committee) a committee formed by a corporation, union, or other entity, to act as its political arm and collect campaign donations party building political activities supposed to contribute to a party’s efficacy in getting out the vote, now interpreted to include issue advocacy

photo op a planned event that invites news media to photograph a candidate in favorable circumstances

public interest standard a standard laid down by the Federal Communications Act of 1934 requiring television stations that receive free use of public airwaves to provide programming in the public interest

showboat question a question that aims to draw attention to the reporter asking it, possibly through its “shock” value

soft money contributions to political parties supposed to be used for such “party-building” activities as getting out the vote

sound bite a brief statement, as from a candidate, used to encapsulate some event in the news

spin the biased view of an idea or event propagated by a candidate’s supporters and often substituting for independent analysis on news shows

stealth PAC group that performs issue advocacy using Section 527 of the Federal Revenue Code

subtext an unspoken message conveyed “between the lines”

tell a brief summary of a political event by a TV reporter

town meeting a use of free or paid media that refers to a form of direct democracy


Teaching Activities

What’s In an Ad?


There are many ways for students to approach the study of political advertising on television. In each case, it is useful to have the ad on hand for class viewing and discussion. Teachers might record a variety of political ads, or assign students to record ads appearing on different networks, local stations, and cable stations. Ads might be analyzed in terms of any of the following:


Who or what group made the ad?

Is it the product of a candidate’s campaign, a political party, or an interest group? If either of the latter two, does it promote or attack a particular candidate for office? What does it ask voters to do? What interest does the group involved have in this issue? Can you find any information about the group that made the ad?


How well does the ad explain an issue?

Does the ad use more of a rational or an emotional appeal? Is it a positive or a negative ad? What facts does the ad present? Does it help voters to understand any more about the issue involved? Does it tell voters where to go to obtain more information on this issue? Where could voters find such information?

What techniques of persuasion does the ad use?

Many ads, both commercial and political, make use of propaganda techniques. Pick one or more political ads to analyze in terms of use of the following techniques of persuasion (for “product,” read “candidate”):


What structural features does the ad use?

Many ads depend on structural features to convey their meaning. Some of these features overlap with propaganda techniques, while others involve technical aspects of film-making. Pick one or more ads to analyze in terms of use of the following structural features:

(Adapted from Ad-Watcher’s Toolkit: 10 Structural Features to Look for in Campaign Ads by Esther Thorson, Graduate Dean of Journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Available on the PBS website at: