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Television and the presidency: How the news affects our perceptions

Old black and white television showing the White House


24 March 1992


As the prime symbolic agent of government, the president has always been a focus of the press. His position is unique in politics in that he receives a disproportionate share of media attention. This attention has increased dramatically in the last 40 years. Only 15 reporters were present when Harry Truman announced the use of nuclear weapons against Japan. Today, approximately 1,800 reporters hold passes to the White House pressroom (Smoller 18). Some of this increase probably originates in the president's expanded influence in daily affairs that flowed from the New Deal, but much of it can be attributed to the growth of television and its special needs. The president provides a convenient focus for the cameras in a way that the legislature can not. One result is that Americans have come to rely on evening news programs as their main source of information about the president (Ranney). The focus of this paper will be to examine this special relation and how it affects us as members of a democratic society.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, the basic purpose of American broadcasting is "the development of an informed public opinion through the dissemination of news and ideas concerning the vital public issues of the day" (qtd. in Smoller 1). How well does television news live up to this mandate? How faithfully and wisely do the networks interpret the "vital public issues of the day"? In particular, how well do the networks serve the viewing public with their coverage of the president? It is my contention that production elements of evening news programs make them inherently incapable of satisfying this mandate. The medium of television itself shapes the content of presidential coverage in ways that are not always in the best interests of the viewer.

Elements of television news

There are three elements of television news production that I consider problematic:

  1. the selection of footage based on visual appeal
  2. the use of the narrative format
  3. the authoritative manner of presentation.

Visual news

Television is primarily a visual medium. This has meant that in order for networks to attract viewers they must cater to television's visual imperative. "There is," according to "CBS Evening News" producer Susan Zirinsky, "a real big mandate for pieces to not be boring — no standup, no bland-looking stuff. CBS News wants it to be more visually enticing.... People are not going to watch if [it's] just a standup" (Smoller 12). This need for visuals leads television news to distort the functioning of the presidency by emphasizing those aspects favorable to pictures and ignoring those that are not. It encourages the coverage of conflict and controversy while disregarding the comparatively routine functions of government. Actions — like signing a bill or a presidential golf game — receive more attention and have greater impact than processes — like negotiations or the development of policy.

Jimmy Carter's presidency suffered seriously during the Iran hostage crisis because of television's inability to portray processes. Descriptions of the president's actions had to compete with emotionally charged shots of angry Iranian students burning the American flag. As a result, he received little credit for efforts to free the hostages. The complexities of the negotiating process or the limits to presidential power do not lend themselves to sixty second news reports. Said Hodding Carter, the State Department's spokesman at the time, "It was terrible coverage.... There are bad mobs in the street, there is a slightly crazed, fanatical Khomeni, here's the government spokesman, and here's our story. That's not journalism, for God's sake, that's theater" (qtd. in Keebler 5).

Videotape is often edited to intensify the activity being reported, focusing on those sections with the most action. The 30-second instance of Gerald Ford walking, stumbling briefly, and then resuming his pace was edited to a much shorter piece that focused just on the stumble. In concentrating on the frames with the most action the viewer never learned why the president fell or that he got up immediately afterwards. In his memoirs, he recounts the incident:

I jumped to my feet, unhurt and thought nothing of the fall.... I was quite surprised when Ron Nessen told me later that reporters covering my trip were bombarding him with questions about my 'missteps' (289).

The needs of television news had created a lasting image of the president from two seconds or less of videotape.

There was no doubt in my mind that I was the most athletic president to occupy the White House in years... [but] from that moment on, every time I stumbled or bumped my head or fell in the snow, reporters zeroed in on that to the exclusion of almost everything else. The news coverage was harmful.... [This] helped create the public perception of me as a stumbler. And that wasn't funny (289).

Another problem with pictures is that they tend to simplify, and exaggerate political events. The result are symbolic, black and white, good and evil depictions of complex phenomena. For example, gas pumps, supermarket checkout lines, and housing construction, are shown to represent the issues of energy, inflation, and gross national product, respectively. These examples are often associated with what Carl Jensen, professor of communication at Sonoma State University, calls the "Yo-Yo news — the stock market is up or down, the unemployment rate is up or down, the inflation rate is up or down, the crime rate is up or down..." (Jensen 68). At other times, stories are personalized by using experts, spokesmen, or random representative groups — poor or unemployed persons, for example (Edwards 147). Such images serve as a kind of short hand for the producers. This use of thematic elements means that correspondents and producers do not have to explain the background of a particular story each time they report on it (Smoller 4).

Mike Deaver, deputy chief of staff during Reagan's first term, relied heavily on the symbolic nature of television news to get the president's message across.

When the economy started to pick up toward the end of 1980 we were searching for any development that we could showcase to reflect a good trend. I had the president fly to Fort Worth...and he made an announcement at a housing development there, surrounded by a bunch of construction workers in hard hats. You only get forty to eighty seconds on any given night on the network news, and unless you can find a visual that explains your message you can't make it stick (Deaver 141).

Easily recognizable symbols encourage people to project themselves into the story, but they may not help in illuminating them and may even serve to promote essentially false messages. The Reagan administration used to entice television with carefully orchestrated moments knowing that the power of the images would override the accompanying narration no matter how negative. Lesley Stahl did a piece for the "CBS Evening News" that tried to point out the contradiction between the messages implied in the photo opportunities and the actual policies of the president. Pictures of the president at the Handicapped Olympics and the opening of an old age home were matched with Stahl's voice over of budget cuts for the disabled and elderly. As she found out later the report was a failure.

We just didn't get the enormity of the visual impact over the verbal. [We] would run these pieces and say, 'While the president went fishing today back in the White House things were falling apart,' but no one would hear us.... I did a piece where I was quite negative... about Reagan and yet the pictures were terrific... I thought they'd be mad at me, but they weren't. They loved it.... [An official] said to me, 'They didn't hear you. They only saw [the] pictures' (Moyers).

Mike Deaver also agreed.

[She had] unwittingly accomplished the purpose of the White House in trying to be critical of [it]. In the competition between the ear and the eye, the eye always wins (Moyers).

Narrative news

Television news' second significant impairment lies in its need to compete on an entertainment level. While the networks battle each other for viewers there are scores of independent and cable stations after the same audience. There is a great deal of pressure put on an evening news broadcast to be entertaining and keep the viewer from flipping to the sitcom on the other channel. The real job of the evening news is not to inform, but to entertain.

This entertainment imperative has shaped the way in which television news stories are constructed. Television producers model individual reports in a narrative form rather than the inverted pyramid form of a newspaper article. With the inverted pyramid format, the most important information is presented first and the least important information last. Television, on the other hand, tells stories. According to former NBC News president Reuven Frank, "Every news story should, without any sacrifice of probity or responsibility, display [the] attributes of fiction [and] drama. It should have structure and conflict; problem and denouncement; rising action and falling action; a beginning, a middle, and an end" (qtd. in Epstein 41).

The narrative format reinforces television's simplistic portrayal of the president. Reports are cast as melodramas. Their primary objective being not to inform, but to entertain. Correspondents are forced to define complicated issues and vague personalities sharply. Thus presidents and presidential candidates are often portrayed in broad winner or loser terms or as stereotypes — The Klutz, The Incompetent, The Great Communicator, The Wimp, etc. Other political actors are portrayed as heroes or villains — and some have been both. The tendency is to dramatize and personalize events for the sake of a story.

These inclinations are particularly evident in the explanations the media routinely gives for economic and foreign policy dilemmas. Such problems typically have long and complex histories and no single, simple cause. However, since the story requires a villain and a straight plot, a scapegoat has to be found. For years television told us to blame everything on the Russians, but the fall of communism has seen Mikhail Gorbachev go from undisputed master of the "Evil Empire" to political obscurity. Who television will choose to replace the Soviets remains to be seen — "Cocaine Kingpins", "Mad Dog Arabs", and "Japan Inc." are all contenders. How the president handles — or rather how television portrays his handling of — these villains will likely determine his presidential approval rating and thus his chances for reelection.

Authoritative news

Television is not only distinctive in its focus, but also in its presentation. Television news is without ambiguity or uncertainty. It is the sole possessor of authoritative news. It is this authoritative likeness that gives TV news the ability to rise above the visual and entertainment imperatives.

There is hardly an aspect of the staging of a television news program that is not designed to convey an impression of authority and omniscience. The main studio is not unlike the cockpit of a 747 or the control room of a nuclear power plant. The banks of television screens and the ever present world map give it the feel of a high-tech command center. The anchor is usually male and usually white — women and minorities having been banished to weekends and "Newsbreaks". He typically sports a thousand dollar suit and a hundred dollar haircut. In appearance he is every bit the president's equal and in some ways more than that.

He is positively god-like: he summons forth men, events, and images at will; he speaks in tones of utter certainty; he is the person with whom all things begin and end (Weaver 84).

He presents his interpretations with great confidence, almost as if he was a part of the events themselves. His authoritative and detached style of the reporting and the finality of the sign-off leave the impression that the matters discussed are essentially closed.

In considering this, it should come as no surprise that while the public's confidence in many national institutions has steadily eroded, its faith in television news has increased (Bower). This perception is no doubt founded on the anchor's mask of authority.


What implications can we draw from the methods of television news production discussed above? The production limitations of the half hour evening news broadcast combined with the authoritative stance of its presentation will ensure that

  1. presidents will place ever greater emphasis on media manipulation to achieve policy goals and that
  2. this manipulation will permanently cripple democracy in the United States.

The president as media manipulator

A recent study by Smoller concluded that the tone of the coverage that a president receives on the evening news appears to correlate with his Gallup support rating (41-60) and an earlier study by Edwards found that the president's approval rating was a good predictor of his vote share at reelection time and of the members of his party during midterm elections (8-37). It is thus imperative for the successful execution of the office that the president receive positive network news coverage. A president knowledgeable in the workings of television can use it to shape public opinion, to gain support for his policies, and to boost his chances of political survival. White House aides are told to pay particular attention to how the president is portrayed on the news.

Every president since Eisenhower has had to contend with television, but none has been as successful as Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately for the American people, in protecting his television image Reagan forgot the substance of being president. In the words of Leslie Janka, a deputy White House press secretary,

This was a PR outfit that became president and took over the country. And to the degree... to which the Constitution forced them to do things like make a budget, run foreign policy and all that, they sort of did. But their first, last, and overarching activity was public relations (qtd. in Hertsgaard 3).

High-level aides and the president himself spent an inordinate amount of time on image-making and image-enhancing activities and less on substantive matters.

Every moment of every public appearance was scheduled, every word was scripted, every place where Reagan was expected to stand was chalked with toe marks. The president was always being prepared for a performance, and this had the inevitable effect of preserving him from confrontation and the genuine interplay of opinion, question, and argument that form the basis of decision (Regan 248).

Some media watchers believe television news actually became an extension of the Reagan White House. So powerful and pervasive is the impact of television that the White House has remade itself in television's image, along the lines of evening news needs. No modern president has held fewer press conferences, kept the press at a greater distance, or stage-managed presidential events more brilliantly (Smoller 2). Network needs influence the timing and nature of all the president's activities. Most press conferences were held during prime time. The aim here was to avoid reports and commentaries on the network evening news shows that spotlighted presidential mistakes and stumbles and ignored those parts of the conference in which the president performed well (Weisman 73). Those efforts resulted in favorable coverage of the president and his policies. Such coverage contributed to Reagan's tremendous popularity.

What made relations with the press especially vital to the success of the Reagan White House was that most of his policies were farther to the right of the majority of Americans than the common wisdom would have us believe. American public opinion at the time was not moving rapidly to the right. If anything it was shifting slightly leftward during that period — partly in response to Reagan's policies (Ferguson & Rogers qtd. in Hertsgaard 6-7). Many of the administration's educational goals were extremely unpopular with the public. Cuts in federal student loan programs, classifying ketchup as a vegetable in hot lunches, and strong sentiments toward eliminating the Department of Education altogether were rightly perceived as heartless. To counteract the public's negative impressions, Reagan's White House handlers had him travel the country, meeting with students and teachers in front of the television cameras and calling for improvements in educational quality. Not surprisingly, the eye won again. "The polls absolutely flip-flopped," said Deaver in a later interview. "[On the educational issue the president] went from a negative rating to a positive rating overnight" (qtd. in Weisman 71). By manipulating the press, the Reagan White House team had once again successfully subverted democracy for political gain.

I do not mean to imply that presidents can avoid pandering to the needs of TV news. On the contrary, when the White House is not imposing its agenda on television, the networks will impose their own agenda on the White House (Bagdikian). Jody Powell, President Carter's press secretary, is also convinced that future administrations will have to copy the methods of news management developed by the Reagan administration to remain politically viable. "There are a lot of people going to school on this administration," he said. "[One] of the lessons is that the press's bark is much worse than its bite.... [You] can cut severely into the flow of information and manage it with a much firmer hand than we were able or willing to do" (qtd. in Hertsgaard 7).

Reagan's isolation from the press was so effective that virtually the only access they had to him were the infamous cupped ear interviews (Buchanan 123). Before boarding the presidential helicopter, while standing at its door, a member of the White House press corps was allowed to shout out a question to the president. They were rarely substantial and the roar of the blades provided a convenient excuse for not answering those that were. The president shouted back a response more reminiscent of small talk than political discourse and promptly disappeared into the helicopter.

The weakening of democracy

The result of television's special news needs and subsequent presidential manipulations is the weakening of American democracy. We have already seen its destructive effects in the military campaigns of the last twelve years. Aware of television's impact on public support for the Vietnam War, the White House barred reporters from covering the invasions of Grenada and Panama and severely curtailed their reporting in the war against Iraq. The media's sheep-like submission to the press restrictions in the Gulf War is perhaps the most sad. Serious questions about our involvement in the Gulf took a back seat to endless Pentagon press briefings and videogamelike "smart bomb" footage. The policies and processes that lead us to the war were never discussed and the American people are the worse for it.

The ultimate insult to democracy is that we have come to expect a docile press. A national survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press reported that a full 87% of the American public had a great deal or fair amount of confidence that the military was giving an accurate picture of how the war was going and a majority 57% believed that the military was not exerting enough control over the media (qtd. in Jensen 74). Keep in mind that this was a war where the military exerted the tightest controls over press coverage yet seen in recent history. The American people have become apathetic to the value of a free press and unaware that, in the process of restricting coverage, they have undermined their own constitutional rights.

Finally, with its authoritative trappings, television news seems to be saying that ordinary people cannot manage politics and should not try. The insinuation is that politics belongs to a sphere that includes journalists and other political elites, but excludes the audience (Hallin and Mancini 847). In this respect television is profoundly antidemocratic.


The needs of the commercial networks have subverted the values of the Constitution. Television news has replaced the "vital public issues of the day" with the wallpaper of good visuals. Efforts by the White House to manipulate news coverage have subverted democratic values. The president is increasingly isolated from the people and as citizens we are being deprived of the information needed to evaluate his performance.

Works cited


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