Politicians have always used every available medium to get their message
out to the voters. A new exhibit at the Newseum in Washington DC,
explores the news media’s evolving role in broadcasting that message -
from newspapers to Twitter.
Americans are bombarded with political messages every four years, but
political campaigning was much different when William McKinley ran for
president in 1896.
“Hundreds of thousands of people, newspaper reporters among them, would
come to McKinley’s house in Clinton, Ohio," says Patty Rhule, manager of
the Newseum, an interative museum which focuses on the history of news.
"From his front porch, he would deliver his speeches, explaining what
his stances were and why he wanted to be a president."
McKinley’s Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan, took a different
“He hit the road," Rhule says, "traveled thousands of miles reaching
different people with his message.”
Bryan lost, but the news media has played an increasingly important role
in presidential campaigns.
“A lot of people will not ever get to see a presidential candidate, they
travel a lot, but the media provides a way for people to see them, to
bring those candidates into their living room.”
'Every Four Years'
The Newseum exhibit, “Every Four Years: Presidential Campaigns and the
Press,” examines the evolution of presidential campaign coverage through
historical pictures, old newspapers, videos and dozens of artifacts and
The exhibit drew the interest of Newseum visitor Camila Romero, 22, a
communications major visiting from Uruguay. “I’m interested in politics,
and media plays a very important role on the democratic process.”
Among the artifacts in the exhibit is a microphone President Franklin D.
Roosevelt used to deliver his “fireside chats,” which calmed the nation
during the Great Depression years.
"He had such a way with the radio," Rhule says. "People felt that he was
talking to you individually rather than talking to millions of people
across the country.”
Appealing directly to voters
The rise of television brought a major change to the campaigns. Then
Vice Presidential candidate Richard Nixon’s 1952 “Checkers Speech”,
about his dog, showed TV’s potential for appealing directly to voters.
“He was accused of getting money from a secret rich man’s fund," Rhule
says. "He decided to go directly to the people and gave his famous
Checkers speech, in which he said that the only gift he had ever
received was a dog his daughter liked and he was going to keep the dog
no matter what people said.”
Eight years later, when Nixon ran for president, the medium’s potential
for alienating voters was made clear during a televised debate between
Nixon and John F. Kennedy
“On TV, Nixon didn’t look as good. He had a dark beard. Kennedy was very
handsome and tanned," Rhule says. "So people who watched the debate on
TV felt that Kennedy had won the debate, while people who listened on
radio had a different story.”
History repeats itself
Alexander Macina, a political science major from Albany New York, was
interested to see evidence of how history tends to repeat itself.
“I like the historic parts of the exhibit," he says. "In fact, that
shows, in the past, campaign media dealt actually with somewhat similar
issues to the ones we deal with today.”
Today, campaigns have moved beyond television and reporters. With the
rise of the Internet, candidates can now take advantage of direct and
instant communication with voters.
“Candidates can tweet, they can have Facebook posting to their fans,
they can do video on You Tube," Rhule says. "As the speed we thought
that the news can’t get much faster than the CNN 24/7 campaign. Now it’s
more like the 60-second campaign, tweets coming up every minute, every
However, as with TV, Rhule cautions there's a downside to using social
“We all know how the wrong information can get out on the Internet much
more quickly and it’s much more harder to tamp it down," she says. "You
have mocking videos that go on the Internet that candidates wouldn’t
have control over.”
"Every Four Years” isn't just about the past. The Newseum is following
the 2012 presidential race and plans to continually update the exhibit
as the campaign unfolds.