Miller Center

The 24/7 Presidency

Richard M. Nixon Press Conference, Nixon White House Photographs, 1/20/69–8/9/74. White House Photo Office Collection, Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library, Yorba Linda, California.

The 24/7 news cycle ushered in new opportunities and challenges for winning the White House and governing. During the broadcast television era, three stations—National Broadcasting Company (NBC), Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and American Broadcasting Company (ABC)—controlled the airwaves, giving presidents a primetime audience for speeches and press conferences. At the same time, presidents had a close relationship with journalists during the World War II period, as both agreed on the parameters of “acceptable” material to report. But this trust splintered amidst the credibility gap during Vietnam.1 Following the Watergate scandal, “the press never again wanted to be flat footed,” argues historian Margaret O’Mara. “Relentless investigation into all dimensions of candidates’ lives—from the cereal they ate for breakfast to the women they dated at night—became an integral part of presidential campaigns.”2

Changes in journalism occurred with the inception of new technologies such as cable television and the Internet. The diversity of cable channels diminished the political, economic, and social power that network broadcast television had gained following WWII and introduced a new concept of the public interest—that which the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) chairman Mark Fowler defined by marketplace values as “what interested the public."3 Programming that sold advertising and generated subscriptions—rather than necessarily informing the public—dominated the cable dial. Moreover, because cable television is a subscription service that is not dependent on public airwaves, the FCC did not require cable programming to uphold its “Fairness Doctrine,” which required programming on controversial issues of public importance to present opposing sides of the issue. In 1987, the FCC abolished this rule for all television programming.

Local origination programming on cable television. Image courtesy of the Barco Library, Cable Center, Denver, Colorado.

As cable markets grew, by 1992 the 24/7 news cycle had become, in the words of one Clinton aide, “a giant monster that has…to be continually fed. Either you feed it or it feeds on you.”4 Although the “spin” structures of the American presidency had been developing since the days of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt (see Module 3: Inventing the Media Presidency), the place of the “spin doctor” became romanticized during the era of the 24/7 presidency, as these masters of the media became celebrities themselves.5 Historians have only recently begun to explore the roots of these changes in media culture, highlighting the ways in which attitudes toward the media shaped regulatory policy and communication strategy. This section allows students to examine these shifts, as well as the modern pressure of presidents to cater to the 24/7 news cycle by shaping and performing in it.

Regulatory Changes and the Shifting Media Landscape

The problem of television, penned Bruce Owen, an economist and White House staffer in the Office of Telecommunications Policy in 1972, rests in the regulatory policies that had allowed three television stations to dominate the media landscape. Along with the economic power the “Big Three” had, he noted, “the networks’ control of access to the television public gives them substantial social and political power” because they controlled the “flow of information” and as a result, “can significantly mold public opinion.”6 As part of his campaign to promote the free market and dismantle the institutional power of network television, Richard Nixon’s administration waged a campaign to “Break Up the Networks,” which resulted in the deregulation of the cable industry and the promotion of a commercial satellite to distribute programming across the country over the next decade.

Citation: Richard Nixon’s Cabinet Committee on Cable Television, 1974. www.claytwhitehead.com

The launch of Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN) in 1979 and Cable News Network (CNN) in 1980 created new opportunities for political messaging and commentary that challenged the dominance of traditional network news programming. This section allows students to examine the politics driving new technology and alternative attitudes toward the news that would reshape public engagement with our elected leaders in Washington D.C., as well as partisan strategies of governance.

Recommended Reading:

Secondary Sources:

  • Kathryn Cramer Brownell, “‘Ideological Plugola,’ ‘Elitist Gossip,’ and the Need for Cable Television” in Media Nation: The Political History of News in Modern America. Eds. Bruce Schulman and Julian Zelizer. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 160–175.

  • “Brian’s Song.” A history of C-SPAN. http://www.pophistorydig.com/topics/brian-lamb-c-span.

  • Nicole Hemmer, “From ‘Faith in Facts’ to ‘Fair and Balanced’: Conservative Media, Liberal Bias, and the Origins of Balance” in Media Nation: The Political History of News in Modern America. Eds. Bruce Schulman and Julian Zelizer. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 126-143.

Primary Sources:

Discussion Questions:

  • How does Nixon’s Office of Telecommunications influence technological developments with its regulatory policy? What does this illuminate about the role of public policy in shaping the media landscape?

  • How do Nixon and conservatives construct the idea of “liberal media bias”? How does this concept gain political power?

  • What promise did C-SPAN and cable television hold for making congressional activities more transparent? What is the impact on political discourse and partisanship?

The Spin Cycle and the Presidency

President Reagan, Beryl Sprinkel, and Larry Speakes during a press briefing on the economy in the Press Room. September 6, 1985. White House Photo Office Collection, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, California.

Larry Speakes, President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, kept a sign on his desk that read: “You don’t tell us how to stage the news, and we don’t tell you how to cover it.”7 This motto revealed the pride that Reagan’s team took in their ability to stage the news so that daily events would fit into the broader narrative of Reagan’s administration. Ronald Reagan is not remembered as the Great Communicator simply because he was an actor. Rather, he had an effective spin team actively battling with reporters to control the media narrative every day.

The 24/7 news channels of CNN and C-SPAN (followed in the 1990s by MSNBC and FOX) increased the number of outlets presidents had to shape their message and communicate to voters, and “spin doctors” gained national attention for their efforts to do so. Historian David Greenberg has demonstrated how the launch of the “permanent campaign” had already encroached on the presidency over the previous decades. But the proliferation of new media outlets on cable television and the inception of the Internet met with shifting journalistic norms and campaign strategies to usher in the contemporary media culture. Greenberg defines this as “the growing appetite for scandal; the faster speed of news; the deepening of political partisanship; and the steep spike in the kind of gossipy, insider commentary that goes by the name of punditry.”8

Recommended Reading:

Secondary Sources:

Primary Sources:

Discussion Questions:

  • How do figures like Lee Atwater and James Carville deploy the “spin” machine during campaigns?

  • How does the 24/7 news cycle influence electoral strategies? How does it change expectations for the presidency?

  • What changes in the media environment that leads to the “politics of anything goes” that Greenberg examines? What accounts for these changes?

C-SPAN Discussion Activity: The 1992 Election and the Launch of the “CNN Presidency”

In his coverage of the 1992 election, journalist Tom Rosenstiel, noted how “every presidential campaign features some new strategy that later politicians call decisive. In 1976 Jimmy Carter had manipulated media perceptions about which candidate had momentum. In 1980 and 1984, Ronald Reagan had controlled the pictures voters saw. In 1988, George Bush had campaigned on values, something soft and unassailable and easy to communicate on television. In 1992, many in the press thought bypass would be the winning theory: Candidates would use technology to avoid the national media and rely instead on the local.”9 Cable television programs, from CNN’S Larry King Live to MTV’s launch of political news to relate campaign events and messages to its younger demographic, allowed candidates to bypass the national news networks and target their policies and personalities to specific demographics with “cablecasting.”

For this classroom activity, divide students into three groups, with each group researching the media strategy of the candidates for the 1992 election: President George Bush, William Clinton, and Ross Perot. Using the C-SPAN Video Library, find examples of how candidates used cable television during the 1992 election, and compare and contrast their strategies in connecting their policies and personalities to the cable viewer.

As students prepare a presentation of this research, have them answer the following questions:

  • What different strategies did your candidate use to promote his personalities and his policies?
  • How did your candidate use “niche television” to connect to particular demographics?
  • How effective was your candidate at this strategy?
  • What new pressures did this strategy of “bypass” put on campaigns and presidential contenders?
Footnotes
  1. For more details on this close and collaborative relationship between journalists and the presidents, see David Greenberg, Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016), and Kathryn J. McGarr, “‘We’re All in This Thing Together’: Cold War Consensus in the Exclusive Social World of Washington Reporters” in Media Nation: The Political History of News in Modern America. Eds. Bruce Schulman and Julian Zelizer. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 77–95.

  2. Margaret O’Mara, Pivotal Tuesdays: Four Elections that Shaped the Twentieth Century. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 183.

  3. Charles Ponce de Leon, That’s the Way It Is: A History of Television News in America. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 208.

  4. Quoted in O’Mara, Pivotal Tuesdays, 184.

  5. Greenberg, Republic of Spin; Kathryn Cramer Brownell, “Beyond the Anecdote: The C-SPAN Archives and Uncovering the Ritual of Presidential Debates in the Age of Cable News” in Exploring the C-SPAN Archives: Advancing the Research Agenda. Ed. Robert Browning. (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 2015), 1–18.

  6. For an analysis of the Office of Telecommunications Policy in the Nixon administration, see: Kathryn Cramer Brownell, “‘Ideological Plugola,’ ‘Elitist Gossip,’ and the Need for Cable Television.” In Media Nation: The Political History of News in Modern America. Eds. Bruce Schulman and Julian Zelizer. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), 2017, 160–175.

  7. Howard Kurtz, Spin Cycle: How the White House and the Media Manipulate the News. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), xviii.

  8. Greenberg, Republic of Spin, 421.

  9. Tom Rosenstiel, Strange Bedfellows: How Television and the Presidential Candidates Changed American Politics, 1992. (New York: Hyperion, 1993), 83.

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