How Television News Influenced American Politics


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

In February 1948, the NBC aired the first nightly news program. It also covered the 1948 presidential campaign. The Federal Communication Commission’s Fairness Doctrine, introduced in 1949, required that news coverage be balanced and fair. Television news became a trusted source of information for the American public, replacing radio as the primary source of news.

Image of Joseph McCarthy
The end of McCarthyism was partly due to television news. (Image: United Press/Public domain)

Murrow Against McCarthyism

CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow became an early standout among TV reporters. Already well-known for his wartime radio news coverage from London during World War II, he introduced the CBS television news magazine and documentary program See it Now in 1951. And in March 1954, Murrow decided to tackle an issue known as McCarthyism. 

Image of Edward R. Murrow
Edward R. Murrow’s use of the power of television helped him expose Joseph McCarthy’s fecklessness. (Image: US Information Agency/Public domain)

In recent years, the Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin had generated a pervasive climate of fear and paranoia through his unbridled—and often unsubstantiated—crusade to expose communists and communist sympathizers in the US State Department and the entertainment industry.

Challenging McCarthy was a risky venture, and many in the media—including Murrow—had shied away from the topic. But on March 9, 1954, Murrow’s See It Now broadcast exposed McCarthy’s fecklessness, largely in McCarthy’s own words. Murrow told his audience: “We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason.” 

By the end of the year, the Senate had censured McCarthy, and the era of McCarthyism was at an end. By no means was Murrow solely responsible. But his stature and fame—and the medium of television—facilitated the opposition to McCarthy.

How Kennedy Used Television News to His Advantage

Television had proven itself to be a force in political and global affairs. This became apparent again during the 1960 presidential election. A series of debates between the Republican and Democratic candidates for president were aired live on TV for the first time. 

Image of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon
John F. Kennedy’s good looks and charm helped him use the full potential of the medium of television to become president. (Image: Associated Press/Public domain)

The debates were highly rated, and the young Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy—with his good looks and charming manner—seemed to be made for the medium, whereas the Republican candidate, Vice President Richard Nixon, came off as awkward and uncomfortable. Television very likely gave Kennedy the edge over Nixon in an incredibly tight national race.

And television remained an ally after Kennedy entered the White House. In February 1962, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy used television to unveil recent renovations to the White House. With a CBS camera crew in tow, she led a tour of the most famous home in the United States and its newly restored rooms for 56 million Americans. Six months later, the president himself used television to speak to the American people.

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Television and the Cuban Missile Crisis

On October 22, 1962, Kennedy disclosed that US spy planes had discovered nuclear missile sites being erected in Cuba. And he declared his intent to stand firm against Soviet ambitions in the Western Hemisphere. Television, with its unmatched reach, afforded the president the opportunity to unite the nation in a common cause.

Indeed, Kennedy also used this televised address to communicate US requirements for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. He called upon Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to end this “provocative threat to world peace.” Kennedy said the US goal was “not the victory of might, but the vindication of right.” The greatest danger the United States faced, Kennedy said, came if the country did nothing in response to the Soviet provocation.

For 13 days, the Cuban missile crisis was a shared national crisis of all Americans. And the nation stood firm in its resolve behind the president. Amid a flurry of diplomatic cables between the White House and the Kremlin, the Soviets, at last, backed down.

Coverage of Kennedy’s Funeral

On Labor Day in 1963, CBS expanded its nightly news coverage from 15 minutes to 30 minutes and never looked back. Walter Cronkite occupied the CBS anchor chair and became the “Most trusted man in America,” covering some of the biggest news of the era. It was Cronkite who informed Americans on November 22, 1963, that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. 

CBS and the other networks pooled their coverage of Kennedy’s funeral to help a nation come to terms with this shocking moment. As a result, the image of a young John Kennedy, Jr. saluting his father’s coffin has become indelibly etched in the national consciousness. Televised coverage of the funeral allowed Americans to share collective grief. The immediacy of the coverage was all the more poignant.

The “Living Room War”

As one NBC News producer said, “Television— unlike newspapers and magazines—could transmit experience.” And certain kinds of experience demanded action. This was a factor in changing American attitudes toward the Vietnam War. Deemed the first “living room war” by Michael Arlen of The New Yorker, the Vietnam conflict—much of which could be conveyed in TV news reports—came across as more chaotic and potentially ruinous than US leaders would have liked. 

Indeed, television’s visual nature convinced many that what they were seeing on the nightly news was the “real” story. But, of course, that narrative was carefully crafted and dependent upon what reporters and producers chose to film and highlight. Scenes of violence were powerful, but they could elicit sympathy or opprobrium, depending on one’s perspective.

Common Questions about How Television News Influenced American Politics

Q: How did television news help John F. Kennedy in his political career?

Television news covered the running candidates during the 1960 presidential elections. Kennedy’s good looks and charismatic character gave him an edge in this new medium over Richard Nixon. Television also came to Kennedy’s aid when he wanted to unite the nation in the face of the Cuban missile crisis.

Q: What was McCarthyism?

Joseph McCarthy was the Republican senator of Wisconsin. He created fear and paranoia about the existence of communists and communist sympathizers in the US government and the entertainment industry. Eventually, television news helped put an end to McCarthyism.

Q: Why was the Vietnam conflict deemed “the first living war room”?

Much of the Vietnam conflict was covered on television news because of US involvement. The coverage usually made people believe that what they saw was the truth of the matter. The conflict seemed much more violent to Americans than government officials would have liked.

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