Media Coverage: A Decisive Factor in US Politics?


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

Radicals and revolutionaries have always understood the power media coverage could bring to a cause. A key element of any revolutionary movement is its media and propaganda arm because that’s what allows radicals to spread their message and enlist public support. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a story on the nightly news is priceless.

Person holding a phone with digital logos of messages showing up
Social media platforms have changed how people connect and organize mass movements. (Image: RoBird/Shutterstock)

News from around the World

In the age of television, revolutionaries and protesters played to the cameras around the world. They crafted their messages to attract interest and elicit support. They staged demonstrations in symbolically important and scenic locations. And they chose dynamic figures as spokespersons. 

The French student-radical Daniel Cohn-Bendit—who led the 1968 student protests in Paris—said that he and other French activists “presented [themselves] as one social body and performed for the cameras”. Implicitly, the media became a factor in their cause.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, technological innovations—including the first television satellites and the development of portable, lightweight video recorders—allowed news reporters to broadcast live from remote locations around the world. This both shrunk the globe and expanded the capacity of the living room to capture it on television.

The Camera Effect 

Protestors outside the US embassy
Iranian protestors who surrounded the US embassy changed their performance in front of cameras. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Such developments played out with serious ramifications. In 1979, Iranian students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. In response, ABC News launched a nightly television broadcast, The Crisis in Iran: America Held Hostage. Each evening, some 12 million US television viewers watched as Iranian crowds chanted anti-American slogans, burned the American flag, and derided the United States.

When cameras weren’t around, the scene outside the American embassy was “almost festive”, wrote Newsweek magazine’s Arlie Schardt. But amid television news crews, demonstrators would raise their fists, shout “death to America”, and become significantly more menacing.

In April 1980, President Jimmy Carter’s administration launched a hostage-rescue attempt that went awry and cost eight service members’ their lives. Vice President Walter Mondale later conceded that as news of the failed hostage rescue hit the airwaves, he knew that Democrats would lose the 1980 presidential election. And he was right.

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Media Coverage of Terrorism

Television news was no longer a neutral observer. It was a participant simply by virtue of its presence, and this increasingly played into the hands of terrorist organizations. Terrorism depends upon the ability to spread a message of terror. It needs an audience, which is precisely what television provides. 

When a Palestinian terror group took Israeli athletes hostage at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the world followed TV sports journalist Jim McKay’s coverage of the crisis for 17 hours before he sadly told the world that all of the hostages had been killed.

We saw this again in 1985 when a militant Lebanese terrorist group hijacked TWA flight 847 between Athens and Rome. One American passenger was beaten and shot to death. Afterward, the hijackers held 39 other American passengers as hostages for 17 days.

They were bargaining chips to compel Israel to release several hundred Shi’ite prisoners. The hijackers welcomed media coverage, even allowing a crew from ABC to interview the pilots from the tarmac.

Round-the-clock News Coverage

The potential of global television news became so great that in 1980 the American billionaire Ted Turner created a cable television news channel to offer round-the-clock coverage. And in early 1991, the Gulf War to Liberate Kuwait from Iraq transformed CNN from a marginal cable channel, and backwater news outlet, into a staple of broadcast TV and global news distribution. 

Image of Ted Turner
Ted Turner was the man behind 24/7 media coverage. (Image: Laurel Maryland/Public domain)

In the summer of 1991, CNN again became part of an evolving political story. The Soviet Union was crumbling from the inside when a group of hardline communists launched a coup d’état against communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev. As tank crews on the orders of the conspirators stood guard outside the state legislature known as the Duma, the newly elected president of the Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin, grabbed his moment in the spotlight. 

Yeltsin brazenly climbed atop of one of the tanks and told a crowd of citizen protestors that their defiance of the coup plotters would be relayed by CNN and other Western networks around the world—and back into Russia—even if Soviet TV didn’t cover their brave act of defiance.

It was a decisive moment. The American diplomat George Kennan credited Yeltsin’s resolve and that of the Russian people to their realization that the world was watching them on TV. Few developments in technology or culture have commanded such a thorough hold on so many people as that of television. Through its pervasiveness, it revolutionized popular culture. Its reach made the new medium essential for political mainstreamers and revolutionaries alike.

Social Media Today

With the rise of newer social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Tik-Tok, Twitter, and WhatsApp, we see how developments in communication continue to shape culture, politics, and society. 

These new forms of engagement have revolutionized the way that human beings connect to each other. They allow friends to gather remotely and strangers to assemble across the world. They’ve enabled mass movements and spread political agendas.

In the not-distant past, revolutionaries needed to appeal to credentialed journalists or command state propaganda vehicles to spread their messages widely. But today, any one of us might reach millions with a clever post. 

The jury is out on whether these developments are positive or negative for society and the world at large. But what’s clear is that the new communications strategies have the potential to turn the world upside down and remake the modern political landscape in revolutionary new ways.

Common Questions about Media Coverage and the US Politics

Q: How did the presence of cameras affect the 1968 student protests in France? 

According to the student Daniel Cohn-Bendit, he and the other students would perform for the cameras when they were aware of media coverage.

Q: What did Arlie Schardt report regarding the difference in behavior around the US embassy in Iran when news reporters were there?

Arlie Schardt reported that when there was no media coverage, there was an almost festive atmosphere, but when cameras came into the scene, the protestors started chanting and became more aggressive.

Q: How have new social platforms changed how people connect with each other?

New social media platforms such as Facebook or TikTok have changed the way we connect with each other. These platforms have allowed people to connect on large scales and create mass movements without the media coverage that was needed in the past.

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