Term Paper: American History Since 1877

Pages: 7 (2181 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Film  ·  Buy This Paper

American History since 1877

Until the advent of commercial television in the United States in the early 1950s, political campaigns in this country depended on newspapers, magazines and radio shows to reach the American people, and town hall meetings were still used as well, arguably for more than the 'photo ops' they provide to TV news crews these days. Anyone who was treated to the 'dueling banjos' of the last presidential campaign, in which the 'fight songs' of Bush and Kerry were played in endless counterpoint on every TV station in the nation, must wonder how much TV had changed politics, making the entire event into a media circus rather than what it once is rumored to have been, an exchange of ideas about how best to continue the great experiment that is American democracy.

TV critic Hilton Kramer noted in an article in the New Criterion that "the invention of television must be considered second only to the creation of the atom bomb in a list of the greatest disasters that have befallen the twentieth century."

The rest of his article concerned the misrepresentation of 1950s television by a 1990s History Channel documentary purporting to chronicle such seminal political/television events as the McCarthy hearings and their search for 'communists' under every byline or film credit, and other neo-liberal attitudes.

Truth in broadcasting

While the History Channel in the late 1990s painted one picture of American political and international life in the 1950s, Kramer notes that TV at the time painted a far different picture. At the time, TV was a means for America to celebrate its positive qualities, and there were many in the aftermath of World War II. In the 1950s, Kramer noted, TV reiterated and even celebrated for the American people the story of their bravery in a war that might never have involved the U.S. At all, at least in Europe, except for our volunteering to help. In addition, it recounted every night the:

Extraordinary political magnanimity toward our vanquished adversaries in the Second World War, going to immense expense to lay the foundations for the creation of democratic societies in German and Japan, nations which had so recently attempted to destroy us.

Kramer notes that it was in the 1950s that the sobriquet "evil empire" was bestowed on the Soviet Union.

This had the effect of casting that nation in an unfavorable light, and doing so in what would later become known as a 'sound bite,' a quick, catchy reference that meant virtually the same thing to everyone who was familiar with it. In short, 'evil empire' was an advertising slogan, created by TV's political pundits. Suddenly, it became easy to gain political mileage not in 25 words or less, but in a mere two.

Coming to you 'live' from the universe

During the 1950s, the United States shouldered most of the burden and expense of the Cold War, opposing the Soviet Union and resisting the spread of its reign of totalitarian terror. All this was exposed on TV, a more 'interactive' medium than print so that the population could see at least a version of the 'live' truth of what was happening globally, not to mention within domestic borders. It is impossible to conclude that this was without effect on the American voter; certainly, it was an important to politicians who were learning what television could do for them. It is widely believed that, just after the close of the 1950s, when Richard M. Nixon opposed John Fitzgerald Kennedy in the first presidential race of the 1960s, that it was Nixon's wooden, unapproachable and tense 'live' presence on television that ruined his chances as much as anything; it got to the point that people have even attributed Nixon's loss to Kennedy, whose face TV 'loved', to the fact that Nixon had a serious problem with 'five o'clock shadow,' and thus appeared sinister, especially on the black and white television screens of the day.

Freud and the American political animal

The other major innovation that affected American life, and thus American politics, in the 1950s was the rise in acceptance of Freudian psychoanalysis. IN fact, according to Kramer:

Freudian concepts of sexuality and the family, often in popularized versions, exerted a far greater influence on both private life and cultural life in the late 1940s and 1950s than, say, the Cold War. They dominated the advertising industry as well as Hollywood and Broadway, and deeply affected the way many people lived -- even people who had never read a line that Freud himself had written or submitted to the ordeals of the psychoanalytic couch.

There is both good and bad in that, just as there is in the fact that politicians could not get their message to the people in a form they would remember and understand, and, arguably, use as a basis for voting. Kramer says, however, that television distorts all information it offers because the medium needs to simplify the material in the service of speed, visual clarity, and instant comprehension.

Unfortunately, because the comprehension of the American people must be assumed to be at a somewhat lower level than that of the politicians, the message will be reduced to its most simplistic form. What is amazing is that it took so many decades for anyone to really object to the 'dumbing down' of information offered on television.

Lifting up or dumbing down?

At this point, it would be easy to make the opposite case, that television has actually elevated political life for the simple reason that the dumbing down effect has allowed virtually all citizens with televisions (that is, virtually all citizens, period) to understand politics, thereby extending the democracy. If more intellectually gifted citizens wish to read a more in-depth account of any given political event, they are welcome to do so. But at least the great masses are all enfranchised and provided with the information they need to make an informed decision in the voting booth. The real problem is that, because they are in competition for advertising dollars with broadcast media, print media -- where all the thoughtful and influential analyses might lurk -- also tends to reduce information to the print equivalent of 'sound bites.' Of course, they had been doing that for years, since someone mentioned that to reach most of the population, newspapers would need to be written at a fifth grade reading comprehension level. Arguably, newspapers were never nuanced in their reporting; some magazines, arguably, were and some still may be.

Kramer points out that, all those arguments and counterarguments notwithstanding, television "distorts, cheapens, and otherwise renders unrecognizable any serious subject it lays claim to" and, "It can effectively, if superficially, project personalities and evoke dramatic events like natural disasters, but it cannot deal with ideas or explain complex issues that require a good deal of painstaking explication to be even minimally understood."

Women and broadcasting

Even British commentators noted that broadcast television was most prized because of its immediacy, the "what you see is happening now, as you see it"


One of the other things happening, in culture and in life and therefore in politics, was the differences in the way women expected life to be. It could be argued interminably whether television encouraged the women's movement, or the women's movement changed television coverage of women (since suffrage had been on the agenda since before radio was invented, it is unlikely one could substantiate a claim that television created the women's movement). However, it suffices to say that television quickly realized it had to address a female audience, and that alone would put a different 'spin' on how political information was provided in the medium. "The working woman at home, a woman who, it is also frequently acknowledged, may also be working outside the home, contributing to if not solely providing for the family's income, is thus present in the televisual discourses of 1955-6, though it is a momentary presence."

Thumim argues that the presence of women in the minds of television programmers in no way suggests an equality; rather, women were acknowledged but were still relegated to the position of second string, within the "boundary of the masculine."

Further, Thumim suggests that this set up a tension between the needs of women in programming and the desires of men, a tension that, she says, was resolved in early television by the demeaning of woman in the roles they portrayed in comedy and drama, and in their presence generally on the air waves.

In fact, anyone who recalls 1950s entertainment programming will recall the dizzy redhead in I Love Lucy, the obsequiously deferential 'mom' in Leave It To Beaver, and even into the 1960s, the fluffy, brainless mannequins such as those on Green Acres and I Dream of Jeannie.

This does not have a direct effect on politics, of course, except insofar as it has a direct effect on women's perceptions of themselves and of what they desire in a politician, the great… [END OF PREVIEW]

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