Martin Plissner. The Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections. New York, N.Y.: The Free Press, 1999.
The author, former CBS News Director Martin Plissner, writes a history of how the TV news determined the coverage of Presidential candidates.
In 1916, the first broadcast of a political event was by Lee DeForest using a ham radio. DeForest announced to a few local listeners that Charles Evan Hughes had been elected President. Thus began a long history of broadcasts getting the news wrong. This would include 1948 when H.V. Kaltenburn of NBC mistakenly announced that Tom Dewey had defeated Harry Truman.
When the TV networks broadcast their first political convention, the 1952 Republican National Convention, the Republican National Committee Chairman at first thought the network should pay his party for the broadcast, as the networks do for sports broadcasts.
Not every candidate appreciated national TV coverage. In 1964, Nelson Rockefeller did not want TV cameras covering his speeches. By 1976, candidates were mostly planning their speeches according to obtaining network coverage.
In 1964, both CBS and NBC changed their evening news from 15 minutes to 30 minute programs. In 1963, had surpassed newspapers as the public’s primary source of political news. Presidential campaigns have increasingly strategized on how to obtain network news coverage.
The author states, from experience, that networks seek news coverage to reach the greatest number of viewers at the lowest costs. TV networks seek to find material that shows they have a broadcasting advantage to viewers over the other networks. Ratings are important, and ratings help determine the showing of national political conventions in accordance with lead in shows that may benefit or highly rated shows that may be shown instead of convention coverage.
TV news coverage has changed the political process. TV coverage of Presidential primaries caused more states to adopt primaries.
Networks began creating benchmarks for candidates to achieve in primaries. This made the races more interesting for viewers as all candidates were given benchmarks that news reporters expected them to achieve. The “expectations game” became a feature of TV coverage.
Networks created tiers of candidates. The first tier is a front runner and a primary challenger. The second tier is candidates with a potential to shine. The third tier is candidates consider to have no chance at winning. These designations are fluid, as John Connally in 1980 and John Glenn in 1984 were first tier candidates who quickly collapsed during their first primaries.
In 1975, network news began conducting and reporting “straw votes” at political gatherings to raise viewer interest in the upcoming elections.
Candidates can use network interviews to turn their campaigns around. In 1988, when Dan Rather of CBS challenged that George Bush has to have known about a controversial arms sales, Bush improved his image by attacking back at Rather.
Coverage of the 1992 Presidential campaign faced network financial cutbacks due to increase expenses networks faced covering the 1991 Iraq War as well as declining general network revenues.
The networks viewed campaign coverage during the 1960s as something that gained viewers. During the 1990s, campaign coverage was seen as something that lost them viewers. It became viewed as more of an obligation that as a ratings booster.
Gennifer Flowers’ accusation but inability to prove an affair with Bill Clinton soaked up much of the early 1992 campaign coverage. Voters stated they had no problem with a candidate who may have cheated on his marriage. Ironically, the Clinton scandal provided more coverage and acceptance of Clinton. The Clinton campaign gained while other candidates found they received relatively less coverage.
Convention broadcasting can affect news programming. When CBS failed to get its radio broadcasting star Edward R. Murrow to cover the 1952 Republican National Convention, a young reporter Walter Cronkite rose to fame when he provided the coverage. CBS received $3 million from Westinghouse for sponsoring the 1952 conventions from “gavel to gavel”.
TV coverage impacted the 1952 Presidential race. The 1952 Republican Convention began with Robert Taft having the most delegates. A Credentials Committee meeting was held where Taft supporters held a majority in determining controversies over seating delegates. The committee meeting was closed to cameras yet Taft supporters quickly realized the negative effect this closed door meeting had on viewers as Eisenhower supporters were shown demanding letting cameras to be brought in. A CBS technician was able to listen in to the committee’s closed proceeding and Cronkite reported what was happening. The committee hearings were then opened to cameras and the Taft supporters backed down on their planned maneuverings that would have seated more Taft delegates. Eisenhower wound up winning the nomination.
NBC devoted 152 hours while CBS provided 139 hours of coverage of the two 1953 national conventions.
CBS wanted to make speakers appear better on TV. CBS held candidates’ TV training classes led by Walter Cronkite. The classes included tips of diction, clothing, and makeup. Sen. John Kennedy was one of the attendees. Kennedy would narrate a 30 minute film at the 1956 Democratic Convention that ABC and NBC showed but CBS did not.
The 1956 convention featured fewer contests compared to the 1952 conventions as both opened with their Presidential nominees as certain. Two little known broadcasters, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, won praise for their NBC convention coverage that included humor and insightful stories. NBC then made Huntley and Brinkley the anchors of their network news. In 1960, NBC overtook Douglas Fairbanks of CBS in the network news ratings. CBS News had led the ratings since World War II.
Huntley and Brinkley’s NBC coverage of the 1960 conventions had more viewers than CBS, which used Cronkite and Murrow. A CBS news executive was fired. When NBC outdrew CBS at the first 1964 convention, CBS removed Cronkite from covering the second convention. NBC increased its spending on convention coverage by four times.
CBS had an advantage in that they polled delegates. They declared that Barry Goldwater had wrapped up the 1964 Republican nomination after the California Primary. In 1968, CBS announced that Richard Nixon had 689 delegates when he needed 667 delegates for the Republican nomination. This helped Nixon win the nomination as Ronald Reagan’s campaign claimed there were delegates desiring to switch from Nixon to Reagan but they wouldn’t switch as they had already made their commitments known to CBS.
In 1976, CBS was on the verge of declaring a week before the start of the Republican convention that their survey of delegates showed Gerald Ford was going to win the nomination. Ronald Reagan then announced his selection of Richard Schweiker as his running mate. It took CBS that final week to repoll delegate to ascertain that Ford retained his lead despite the Reagan selection of a running mate. Thus, though, had the impact of keeping Reagan in the race until the convention.
Network presentations of disorderly and divisive political conventions led to what has been labeled Donilon’s Law, from a quote from Democrat Tom Donilon who stated “a party’s chance of winning the Presidency varies inversely with the length of the time it takes it’s nominee to clinch the nomination”. Republicans transformed this law into what they called their 11th commandment, which is “thou should not makes news” or attack other Republicans in public. Ford’s campaign in 1976 gave up a convention fight over platform points to Reagan’s camp rather than have a policy split shown on TV. In 1984, Democratic nominee Walter Mondale did the same thing by conceding platform policies to challengers Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart rather than having the policy fights televised. By 1988, the Democratic Party had cut its platform to where there was little to be disputed.
ABC in 1968 did not broadcast the convenient. It kept its regular programs on. Instead, beginning at 10 pm, it presented a show summarizing that evening’s convention events.
At the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley limited mobile TV units to a few sites where his advisors thought protestor would be least visible. Instead, protestors sought out and deliberately protested where the TV cameras were concentrated. 16,000 police and National Guard and barbed wire protected the convention. A “police riot” was shown on TV. Members of the media, including Dan Rather of CBS, were physically hit, manhandled, or maced by police or the Guard. Walter Cronkite declared famously to Dan Rather as he was being dragged away by security “I think we’ve got a bunch of thugs there, Dan.” Mayor Daley was upset, believing the coverage was slanted and that protestor taunts were not broadcast.
The 1972 Democratic Convention showed convention and platform fight. This hurt the Democrats.
The 1980 Democratic Convention featured platform fights between Jimmy Carter and Edward Kennedy forces. The failure of the two sides to visibly unite afterwards hurt the Democrats.
Republicans in 1972 deliberately preset every aspect of their convention. CBS found this out and reported on the orchestration.
In 1992, NBC aired its regular programming for much of the conventions and allowed NBC reporters to broadcast for PBS. CBS didn’t show the entire evening of a convention and presented the All Star baseball game instead. While there was less coverage of these conventions, the author believes the public was not denied any information as the nominations were settled prior to the conventions.
Both political parties moved to prevent airing any political dissent at their 1996 conventions. Ted Koppel of ABC declared the conventions were “more infomercial than news event”. The Democrats polled who would draw ratings as speakers at their convention and picked paraplegic actor Christopher Reeves as a convention speaker. Overall, the networks decided that the $10 million and 300 staff they used to broadcast the 1996 convention would not be necessary for the 2000 conventions.
In 1952, CBS and NBC used computers to correctly predict that Dwight Eisenhower would win. ABC added a computer in 1956. The networks upped the ante when CBS predicted its computer would predict the 1960 winner by 7 pm election night. ABC claimed its computer would predict a winner by 6 pm. ABC missed its deadline but predicted at 6:54 predicted that Richard Nixon had defeated John Kennedy. CBS also missed its deadline but its computer predicted that Nixon would win at 7:16 pm. Kennedy defeated Nixon. The networks started using more sophistical polling techniques.
The 1970s saw the introduction of exit polling. CBS found them useful for explaining how categories of voters were voting. Soon after, they were used for election predictions.
In 1980, the networks made early projections that Reagan had won. Polling places were still open on the West Coast when the projections were announced. It was claimed that voter turnout declined in the later hours on the West Coast after these predictions were announced. Others could find little evidence this actually caused many people not to vote. The author states not one voter who didn’t vote because of the forecasts has even been found. Others argued this may have affected the outcome of several close local elections. Network executives promised not to project Presidential winners until after all the mainland polls had closed.
CBS, ABC, NBC, and CNN combined exit polling and computer operations. All used the Voter Research and Surveys (VRS). This saved each network approximately $10 million. In 1994, ABC made its own independent polls without telling the competition that remained reliant on VRS. ABC correctly made major election projections before the others. CBS and CNN responded by jointly investing $1 million to improve their own forecasting abilities that would cover more precincts.
The increased use of polling made both the public and politicians more aware of polling results. Some pundits such as columnist E. J. Dionne feared there was more concentration on polling results than debating or analyzing issues.
The first Presidential debate on radio was in 1948 on NBC, ABC, and Mutual radio networks between two candidates for the Republican nomination, Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen. The debate covered one topic, “should the Communist Party be outlawed” with each candidates speaking for 20 minutes with each having 8 minutes of rebuttal. There was no moderator. More people considered Dewey the debate winner and Dewey narrowly won the following primary and eventually received the Republican nomination.
CBS and NBC considered holding debates between the Presidential nominees Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson until they realized that Federal Communications Commission rulings required equal time would have to be given to all minor party nominees. In addition, neither Eisenhower nor Stevenson appeared interested in debating in either 1952 or when they met again in 1956. Stevenson, noting that the candidates spent $7 million (or $40 million in 1999 dollars) on TV commercials in 1956, proposed TV provide free broadcast time to candidates. A bill was proposed that two hours per week over eight weeks be provided for major party Presidential candidates. Stevenson then suggested changing the FCC rules so the two major party candidates could debate. This idea was agreeable to the two 1960 candidates, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. President Eisenhower, who perceived Nixon was wrong to agree to debate, still approved removing the FCC rules so the debate could occur. The 1960 Presidential debate was the largest viewed TV show to that date. The debate helped elect Kennedy.
Later televised Presidential debates were considered influential in helping Jimmy Carter defeat Gerald Ford in 1976 and Ronald Reagan defeat Jimmy Carter in 1980. In 1984, according to polls, Walter Mondale won the first debate yet lost the second to Ronald Reagan who delivered his famous line “I will not, for political purposes, exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Mike Dukaks lost support during the 1988 debate with his debate performance when he failed to show emotion on a hypothetical question concerning his opposition to the death penalty should his wife be murdered. The 1992 Vice Presidential debate hurt Ross Perot when his running mate James Stockdate declared “who am I? Why am I here?”
Candidate website are becoming more common. In 1998, 89% of Governor and U.S. Senate candidates had a web site.
The author concludes that the press should follow the words of John Milton and St. Paul of “prove all things, hold fast to what is good” and then adds “and leave the choice to each viewer’s discretion.”