The Politics of Television
On July 21, 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong took mankind's first step on the surface of the moon. As technologically brilliant as was this feat, similarly astounding was the fact that millions of Americans—indeed, much of humankind back home on Earth—watched the event as it happened: it was on network TV. If a goal of the developers of video was to produce a medium through which to improve citizen awareness, coverage of the lunar adventure suggested that the goal was achievable. While a picture live from the moon was only a technical achievement, it symbolized the new sophistication and importance of television for Americans.
As coverage of the lunar landing suggested, national TV was by this time integral to life in the United States. It consumed a sizable percentage of the average citizen's leisure time, even to the point, many alleged, of undermining the national educational system. In the process of entertaining and informing, TV imposed a shorthand guidebook for living. Its dramas offered lessons on morality; its commercials spoke to economic affairs; and its news programming played a vital role in raising and shaping popular awareness and in setting the national agenda. Yet nowhere was it more influential than as a medium of politics, for by the time Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon's surface, television was already the principal vehicle through which most Americans understood the political direction of their nation.
Government had anticipated and feared the overt manipulation possible in mass communication. Buried in the Communications Act of 1934, Section 315 stipulated that candidates for election must be given "equal time" should an opponent use the air without charge. Section 315 also mandated that if a candidate purchased airtime for politicking, opponents must be allowed to buy a similar amount of airtime at the same cost. To these "equal time" provisions, the FCC in 1949 added the "fairness doctrine." Here, at the dawn of the television era, the commission ruled that all sides on controversial issues should be treated equitably in news and commentary; indeed, broadcasters were obliged to seek out and present all sides when covering controversy.
Although later amendments shifted slightly the wording of Section 315 and the fairness doctrine, they continue to restrain the overt manipulation of American politics by broadcasters. Industry leaders such as Frank Stanton, however, saw them as restraints on broadcast journalism. He called Section 315 a "straitjacket" that "strips broadcast journalism of both the right and the responsibility of news judgment." In his disgust for such control, Stanton even blamed the equal-time requirement for the failure of television as an instrument of mass education. In his words, by 1960 the "use of television as education for democratic living and, indeed, for democratic survival is plagued and choked."'
Of course, the implementation of equal time and the fairness doctrine often led to adjudication when the opposing viewpoints came from radical fringes of the American political spectrum; but Section 315 worked well in its primary purpose, preventing Democrats or Republicans from dominating the airwaves. Although no party could dominate the medium, American politicians readily integrated television into their strategies. Spending for TV in presidential campaigns, for example, increased from $6.6 million in 1956 to $10 million in 1960 and to $27 million in 1968.
By the 1970s, television was the principal medium of political communication. The overt propaganda of the "paid political announcement" in election campaigns was supplemented by televised speeches, press conferences, and events staged expressly for the cameras. Advisers, pollsters, and advertising consultants—what one scholar has called the "media managers"—became a force in TV from election campaigns to the exercise of power.
Most affected by television were presidential campaigns. What was revolutionary in 1960, the "great debates" between the two major candidates, was revived in the campaign of 1976 and made almost mandatory thereafter. Preconvention state primaries, minimal until the advent of television, proliferated now, principally because candidates and parties desired the TV exposure afforded by these electoral tests. In many ways the success in 1980 of Ronald Reagan, a former actor with motion-picture and video skills, suggested that the talents crucial to entertainment could be politically profitable in the age of audiovisual communication.
But television was a double-edged instrument of revelation. While it could be manipulated to show a political leader in a flattering guise, the medium also could be unforgiving toward those it exposed as flawed; and such exposure did not happen necessarily during political campaigns. The Watergate scandal of 1972-1974 demonstrated this aspect of its social influence. Perhaps David Sarnoff was too enthusiastic in 1953 when he predicted that viewers eventually would be able to use two-way video to vote on important political matters. But the investigation, near-impeachment, and resignation of President Richard M. Nixon were an approximation of Sarnoff s forecast.
The discrediting of Nixon and his eventual surrender of the presidency constituted a protracted national calamity in which television played a vital role. It began in June 1972 with a break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate hotel and apartment complex in Washington, D.C. Although the investigative energy in the unfolding scandal came primarily from newspapers—most notably, the Washington Post and the New York Times—it was through network TV that most citizens learned how President Nixon participated in, even orchestrated, a conspiracy to obstruct the FBI investigation of that break-in committed by White House aides and members of Nixon's reelection committee.
Newspapers carried detailed accounts of the break-in -throughout the last half of 1972, a point not lost oil TV critics at the time.' And media scholar Marilyn A. Lashner may be correct to point out in her study of television and Watergate,
The Chilling Effect in TV News, that "there are no laurels due for television in its Watergate commentary, which was at best pale and thin." Nevertheless, not until early 1973, when network TV began reporting in earnest, did Watergate become a pressing national issue.
Then, in evening newscasts, special reports, weekend interview forums like
Face the Nation and Issues and Answers, and live coverage of relevant events, video operated as a national press to deliver the latest details in this sordid story. Especially influential was the role of the networks in bringing the public directly into two strategic investigations conducted by congressional committees. On live TV in the summer of 1973 hearings conducted by the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, chaired by Senator Sam Ervin, revealed the seriousness of the accusations against the president and his cohorts. The following summer live telecasts of impeachment hearings conducted by the House Judiciary Committee, headed by Congressman Peter Rodino, carefully uncovered the president's involvement not only in the Watergate affair but in an extensive campaign of illegal domestic surveillance conducted against people considered "enemies" of the White House.
The information communicated via the national medium of news was devastating to the president. Nixon himself had attempted to use TV to win his case, holding press conferences, staging photo opportunities, making speeches, and otherwise seeking to persuade the public of his innocence. But a stream of revelations, instantly related to the public via television, made the president's departure inescapable.
The unprotested acceptance of Nixon's resignation on August 9, 1974, represented an
enormous shift in public opinion. Before Watergate, the public esteem for Richard Nixon was high. This was the leader who in his first term boldly visited China and the Soviet Union, and then ended U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. In 1972 he was reelected by the largest plurality and the second-highest electoral vote in U.S. history. Although impeachment had been anticipated by the framers of the Constitution, the removal of a president from office was unprecedented and its ramifications were unknown. Further, the resignation meant that for the first time the United States would have a chief executive who was not elected to the presidency or vice-presidency, because a year earlier Nixon had appointed, and Congress confirmed, Congressman Gerald Ford as vice-president of the United States. Ford replaced a discredited Spiro T. Agnew, who resigned the vice-presidency because of his involvement in accepting bribes while he was governor of Maryland.
In covering the Watergate scandal, however, network television reached the limits to which it could go as a conduit of news. Its function was to inform a citizenry which had opted through its laws to receive information unfettered by government controls. But Watergate shook the foundations of the republic. That it occurred was one matter, but its prolonged and detailed public exposure, especially on television, challenged the validity of the System. Coming so quickly after Nixon's reelection, the resignation compromised the national electoral process. Callous abuse of power by the White House may have undermined the credibility of the presidency, but the replacement of Nixon by Gerald Ford was nothing less than a coup d’état made possible, acceptable, and necessary through the popularizing effect of TV news.
Certainly, Watergate legitimated the role of the free press, and especially broadcast journalism as a social watchdog. But freedom of the press was a notion conceived in an age of newspapers with small distribution patterns. In the age of broadcasting, with the ability to inform millions instantly and sometimes superficially, the power of the press was consider ably enhanced. Watergate raised questions about how much society needed to know, about the responsibility of journalists to act discreetly, about whether or not the United States could afford informational openness.
While some, like ABC president Elton Rule, could proclaim at the time that "all of us are living through journalism's finest hours," and that to ignore Watergate "would have been an abdication of the truth," questions remain: How many Watergates could the System withstand? Would TV journalism have pressed for a full investigation had President Ford been involved in such a scandal? Was there a limit to the number of Watergates the networks would report? Was Watergate a trend? Or was it a glorious moment for American journalism, but one that must never happen again?
At the crux of the issue, too, was the ambiguous relationship between the free press and the structural realities of U.S. society. While TV does not consider itself a medium for government propaganda, it often broadcasts such propaganda. Although networks do not report the news as a branch of American big business, they are tied to multibillion-dollar corporations which themselves are integrally woven into what President Dwight D. Eisenhower once termed "the military-industrial complex."
As Bill Greeley clearly demonstrated in Variety, there is a rich and chronic relationship between government and corporations owning TV networks, as well as between TV and businesses sponsoring national programs. In fiscal 1971, for example, one of the largest TV sponsors, American
Telephone & Telegraph, had Defense Department contracts worth $1.2 billion; and
three corporations with TV holdings, General Electric, Westinghouse, and RCA,
had Pentagon contracts totaling $1 billion, $437 million, and $250 million,
respectively. General Tire & Rubber, the parent company of RKO—General,
manufactured rocket warheads, cluster bombs, and mine and bomb dispensers. And
CBS Laboratories contracted to develop improved laser detectors—so-called people sniffers—used by the U.S. military to detect the whereabouts of humans and other animal life in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Importantly, Watergate unfolded before a national audience accustomed to moral and political themes as normal fare. For a decade the medium reported on such matters as civil rights, the Vietnam War, women's rights, and the environmental crisis in terms of right and wrong. The heroes of TV entertainment also were flawless types who resolved moral dilemmas with style, teaching viewers in the process the value of honesty and integrity.
Programmers could go too far in their preachments. Americans would not accept smarmy moralists. Whereas Vice-President Marvin Antonowsky of ABC could suggest in September 1970 that "we should meet our obligations to the American public to give them entertainment of substance and broad appeal that is relevant, timely, entertaining, and exciting, and that can hopefully help to ameliorate the deepening divisions in our country," he was speaking on the eve of the most disastrous fall season in TV history.
Within three months overt social relevancy was rejected by the audience, and the networks scrambled for replacement programs. Gone quickly were sentimentally liberal shows such as
The Storefront Lawyers (liberal white lawyers working in a ghetto) and
Barefoot in the Park (upscale, kissy black couple in a romantic comedy set in Manhattan). Gone, too, were offerings with prominent black characters liberally melded into familiar genres: the medical drama
The Interns, the police series The Silent Force, the medical drama Matt Lincoln.
Indicative of the unctuous liberalism rejected by the public was the following exchange in
The Young Rebels telecast of December 27, 1970. Ostensibly the story of two white men and one black man fighting together for freedom during the Revolutionary War, this conversation ended an episode in which a slave named Pompey assisted the young rebels in destroying a British munitions depot. Together with their mentor, the Marquis de Lafayette, the rebels decided that Pompey had earned his freedom—and the right to a last name.
Led by black rebel Isak Poole, the conversation turned quickly from Pompey's surname to poetry and human freedom.
Pompey: Thank you, General. but if it's all the same to you, I think I'll keep my own name—just to remind me that no men are free unless all men are free.
Poole: Pompey, can you read?
Pompey: Can I read? What do you want me to read, boy?
Poole: A poem. Henry gave it to me when I was feeling kinda like you do right now.
Oh, come the time
And haste the day,
When man shall man no longer crush; When reason shall enforce her sway, Nor these fair....
Poole (completing the poem): Nor these fair regions raise our blush. Where still the African complains,
and mourns his yet unbroken chains.
Pompey: Yeah. You write this, Henry?
Henry: No. A poet of the Revolution, Philip Freneau.
Lafayette: I thought it sounded French.
Pompey: Sounded black to me. (laughs)
Third Rebel: Sounds like maybe someday it won't matter. (music swells)
Announcer: In 1777 a slave named Pompey was instrumental in capturing the key British fort at Stoney
Point, New York, giving the Americans control of the Hudson River. He was only one of ten
thousand black men who served gallantly in the Revolutionary War.
Rejected in do-gooder dramas, liberal political views did find a home in situation comedy, where they emerged judiciously from the satire, sarcasm, and cynicism of topical humor.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show may have delivered consistently nice, happy endings, but Mary Richards—single, tenacious, careerist—became a role model for the growing ranks of women struggling to survive economically and emotionally in the American patriarchy. Whereas it remained controversial to criticize the Vietnam War in a drama or documentary,
M *A * S * H was a lightly camouflaged critique of the war; but because it was set in the Korean conflict, the series avoided direct confrontation with the controversies emanating from the war in Southeast Asia. As "the silent majority" turned national politics away from the civil rights concerns of the 1960s, Chico and the Man offered its own perspective on the condition of racial minorities in the United States. And in
Barney Miller lessons in urban sociology were woven cleverly through the jailhouse humor that made the series popular.
The pacesetting programs in this political-comedy trend were those produced by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin—All in the Family, Good Times, The Jefferson, Sanford and Son, and
Maude. They deftly mixed humor with bold satirical attacks on contemporary social issues such as bigotry, the Vietnam War, and the Nixon administration. Maude Findlay was a consummate liberal whose sensitivities toward the downtrodden emerged through a comedic persona that was pompous and brash. Amid the discordant interplay between old Fred Sanford and his strongly willed adult son Lamont there were flashes of racial pride and rebelliousness, jabs at white insincerity and racism that were often cheered by the sympathetic studio audience. George Jefferson gave the nation its first lovable African-American bigot, but
The Jeffersons also offered a perspective on the black middle class that was alien to network television. And on
Good Times it was the Evans family, black and cohesive, trapped in Chicago's stark Cabrini-Green housing project while struggling to find the good life in a world of disadvantage and racial bias.
Still, no Lear-Yorkin program delivered its political messages with more punch than
All in the Family. Anticipating viewer antipathy to the controversial humor of the series, CBS began the first several episodes with an announcement, written and spoken, cautioning that Archie Bunker and his family and friends were offered as humorous entertainment intended to vent some of the prejudices and misconceptions in contemporary society: "The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show—in a mature fashion—just how absurd they are."
The show soon hit its mark. Although there were critics who panned it as "wretched" and "a minstrel show," those on target included Cleveland Amory in
TV Guide, who called it "The best show on commercial television"" and
Variety, which hailed it as "the best TV comedy since the original The Honeymooners. It's the best casting since Sgt. Bilko's squad. It should be the biggest hit since
Laugh-In, or the Nielsen sample is in need of severe revision." Within a year
All in the Family was the top-rated program on television.
Through seven and a half TV seasons and 206 episodes, All in the Family confronted every pressing social and political matter of the decade. From anti-Semitism, homosexuality, patriotism, and Vietnam to racism, rape, gun control, and presidential politics, it used laughter to explore the implications of contemporary problems. This was not roundtable discussion, but given the unwillingness of the networks to offer public-affairs programs in prime time, it was perhaps the best that commercial television could have produced—and that the American audience would have accepted.
Those responsible for the program have claimed that the series was an innocent attempt to deflate the rancor and intensity existing in public debate by the 1970s. But it cannot be denied that the series was a liberal vehicle that associated narrow-minded Archie Bunker with the reactionary/conservative side of public issues. If anything,
All in the Family contributed to national debate. Minority groups protested its racial satire as too subtle for mass entertainment. Those with a solemn commitment to particular issues invariably found the show irreverent or insensitive. In 1972 and 1976 unsanctioned "Archie Bunker for President" campaigns reflected many who found in Archie an articulation of their political opinions.
All in the Family, like most Lear-Yorkin comedies, was paradoxical. At a time when social relevancy was dead in drama, the series led the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive seasons, the only series with such distinction in TV history. It was also a program with great meaning for the 1970s, but it was crafted each week by writers, directors, and producers who had developed their skills in the 1950s working for the live comedy programs of Sid Caesar, George Gobel, Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Garry Moore, Danny Thomas, and others. Some even had credits dating to the 1940s and radio gagsters such as Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen, Ed Gardner, and Jimmy Durante.
To Norman Lear, the answer was simple: his programs were adult television offered within an industry too long used to innocuous entertainment. Maude's decision to have an abortion; venereal disease discussed on
Good Times; the sexual impotency of Archie Bunker’s son-in-law: in Lear's view these were adult themes "for which the American people have always been ready. We in television simply weren't trusting the people...to accept or reject as they saw fit."
The paradox of All in the Family and similarly structured comedies was the acceptability of a liberal moral tone in an era of burgeoning social and political conservatism. From Nixon to Gerald Ford to Ronald Reagan and even Jimmy Carter, Americans voters preferred conservative leadership to the reformist agenda of the previous decade. Whatever its motivation—racial reaction to the civil rights movement, the failed U.S. effort in Vietnam, economic dislocation, a perception of national moral disintegration—this was a decade of defeat for progressives.
Instead, the decade was marked by the rise to national influence of fundamentalist Protestantism; rejection of the feminist movement; demands for tougher law enforcement; the sanctification of "family values" as guideposts for social and moral living; intensified anticommunism; and after a short-lived era of detente early in the decade, a rekindling of Cold War rivalry.
In this atmosphere, the staggering success of the Lear and Yorkin shows suggests that liberal social messages remained acceptable, but only if they were in well-written programs that allowed viewers to judge for themselves on matters of social and political import.
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