Walter Cronkite on Television and Political Campaigns

By Walter Cronkite
Friday, July 17, 2009; 8:30 PM

Editor's Note: In this essay, first published in The Post on Nov. 12, 1956, guest columnist Walter Cronkite declared as "tommyrot" the public's discomfort with the perceived effects of television on political campaigns. We republish the piece today on the occasion of Walter Cronkite's death.

When [Radio & Television Columnist John] Crosby nonchalantly turned over this column to performers in the business of which he is a critic, he went further up the Amazon, and without a firm grip on the paddle, than he had intended.

However, John is far more lovable than might be suspected by some of those who have been pricked by his barbs, and I would join his legion of friends in denying the ugly rumor that the real purpose of his South American safari is to replenish his supply of poisoned darts.

This charity on my part is atypical and, in some respects, is not deserved by the recipient. For instance, in his diabolical way, he so timed this guest column from me that it must be written before the election for publication after the election.

The timing could not be more than disastrous for a political analyst. However, no matter who wins or by what margin, there will be a spate of articles to prove that television either was the doing or the undoing of, respectively, the victor or the vanquished.

Again there will be lengthy discussion by critics, political scientists and editorial writers on the effects of television on campaigns and their outcome. Since controversy always is more interesting than complacency, most will view with alarm.

If the public can just get through this year's postmortem without being panicked into hysteria, there is hope ahead. This, I would think, is the last year that we are going to have to endure this soul-searching as to television's role in the selection of our Nation's leaders.

We, indeed, have a powerful communications medium here and, justifiably, in these years of its infancy, we have been entranced with its mere operation, with the miracle of science and ingenuity that it comprises.

This has been a sort of happy period of discovery of the capabilities of the new medium and, as such, it has been fun, and not unhealthy. But the period is now at a close and time has come for an adult view of television for what it is, and for what it is not.

It is another means of communication.

It is not an electronic monster with gifts of magic that would turn the gods of Olympus green with envy. It has no power of its own for either good or evil.

We have heard that television has an uncanny ability to pierce the thickest masquerade and reveal for all to see the true character of a political aspirant.

This is tommyrot. Television does permit the public a better, closer look at the man who is asking for its votes -- and I can see that in some cases such a close look might be disastrous. But television certainly doesn't give the public any more insight into the candidate's thoughts and habits than could be gained by those who might see him in person.

Another even more often expressed fear is that by tricks of lighting, makeup and photography, the candidate is going to be made to appear as something other than he is. Again, tommyrot. When a candidate makes a speech, he is expected to get the advice of the best available researchers and writers. When he makes a television appearance, he is derelict to himself and his cause if he does not get the best available advisers to permit him to make the best possible appearance.

Long before video came, politicians posed for campaign photographs in a professional photographer's studio. In the days before television, such posed still pictures were the only impressions the electorate got of the candidate's appearance, and I don't recall hearing that photography ever was raised as a bugaboo that was going to debase the serious business of electing a President.

The third area of alarm over television's effect on politics concerns the staged rally -- the carefully prepared and rehearsed demonstration, say in Madison Square Garden. There is the suggestion that there is something "phony" about them, that somehow the television public is deluded by them. But these massive displays are just the modern version of the old torchlight parades and clambakes. Certainly yesterday's parades had and today's rallies have their phony quality, but television bears no more responsibility for the latter than it could have for the former.

Television has raised one problem that has not been touched on here, and won't be. And that is the problem of financing the use of the medium in political campaigns. Certainly its fantastic cost puts the poorer party at a considerable disadvantage.

It is imperative that before another presidential election rolls around, the Federal regulations governing the apportionment of equal time in political campaigns be revamped.

But that could be the subject of a book. And Mr. Crosby's Amazon trip isn't going to last that long.

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