Evolution of Political Media

Since America’s founding, the rights to free speech and freedom of the press, protected by the First amendment, have been integral to American democracy. The idea that you could criticize the government and government officials without recourse was seen as pivotal to the Founding generation. Throughout American history, the press has been one of the most valuable tools by which Americans can express their political opinions, exercise their rights to free speech, and publically check the power of government.

Early political reporting differed from today, in both how the content was delivered and how quickly political actions were reported upon. American politicians have used the media to communicate their ideas since the founding. In 1788-1789, for example,  Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers to encourage ratification of the Constitution. The American people read them as a series of columns published in New York newspapers. Later in the 1800s, men like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, used the press to pressure political decision makers and society as a whole.

Television and the Internet have dramatically changed the political media landscape. Information that used to take days and weeks to be disseminated across the country can now be transmitted as it happens. Websites like Twitter deliver news and election results in real time. Facebook and Twitter allow users to live stream events so people across the U.S. can watch and communicate with each other as political events unfold. Free blog platforms like Tumblr and WordPress allow millions of people to create blogs about topics from politics to fashion to finance. This change in the media landscape not only affects how citizens digest media, it effects elections themselves by altering how candidates react to and use media. A regrettable or ill-timed tweet can spell doom on a campaign, while an effective social media presence may help a candidate gain supporters.

What the media reports has changed over time too. In the middle of the 20th century, reporters avoided discussing candidate’s personal lives, believing that such topics as adultery were inappropriate. John F. Kennedy’s numerous affairs were well known to Washington reporters, but no stories about them appeared in major newspapers. The Watergate scandal, in which President Nixon’s officials illegally wiretapped the DNC headquarters, contributed to the erosion of the trust in public officials. Following this, more detailed reporting of politicians lives became common. President Bill Clinton’s affair in the 1990s, for example, was very extensively covered.

In what ways do you think this increase in speed and change of medium effects public opinion and discussion?

Political cartoons, once common in print newspapers, now are featured widely online. Political cartoons enhance political writing by making them easily digestible and vivid illustrations of the point the author and cartoonist are trying to make.

For example, below is a cartoon depicting President William McKinley and his longtime ally Mark Hanna. Hanna here is depicted as a puppet master, directing the actions of McKinley. These and other cartoons of Mark Hanna were memorable and helped shape the public’s view of him.

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Think about the role cartoons played then in shaping political discourse. Do you think they play the same role today? Can you think of a particularly memorable political cartoon you saw recently?