Rethinking Television in Political History

Endorsed by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH)

Friday, April 16, 2021, 5:30 PM - 6:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Media and Communications; Politics


In modern American politics, image and media messages matter. Today, journalists and political analysts focus as much time and attention to politicians’ media strategy as they do to their political platforms and proposed legislative agendas. While scholars agree on the overriding importance of the mass media in twentieth century politics, historical narratives still overwhelmingly invoke myths of media’s power rather than historical analyses rooted in archival evidence of the media and its changing place in American politics. This panel presents scholarship on media mobilization and transformation in recent American history to demonstrate exactly how and why television came to dominate and transform political parties, the operation of the American presidency, and the shape of political movements. Challenging the popular narratives of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, Heather Hendershot shifts focus from the violence in the streets to the crises inside the convention hall and especially how television covered debates on race and Southern delegations. Arguing for the political importance of entertainment television, Oscar Winberg reconsiders the character of Archie Bunker by illustrating how Democrats used the success of All in the Family to promote candidates and causes. Rethinking the rise of conservative media punditry, Nicole Hemmer examines the role of right-wing activists outside talk radio and conservative media, highlighting how prominent pundits like Pat Buchanan reshaped the Republican Party and American politics. Moving from the network era of the late sixties to the cable news frenzy of the 1990s, from Archie Bunker to Pat Buchanan, this panel challenges popular narratives and reconsiders the role of television in politics.

Papers Presented

Archie Bunker for President: How Democrats Embraced Entertainment Television and Transformed American Politics

“Archie Bunker for President” read popular buttons during the 1972 election season, referencing the main character (played by Carroll O’Connor) of the most watched show on television: All in the Family (CBS, 19711979). The show and character are today often (mis)remembered as having made bigotry acceptable on television while the liberal politics of the show are dismissed or forgotten. Yet, with political and social commentary on a network situation comedy, the show transformed not only television entertainment but also the relationship between television entertainment and politics. Beyond gimmick buttons and t-shirts, the influence of the character of Archie Bunker and All in the Family was recognized by Democrats eager to adopt to the new media and celebrity politics of the 1970s. Democrats running for president pursued the endorsement of O’Connor (as Archie Bunker), equal rights activists found allies in Jean Stapleton (Edith Bunker) and the producers, while liberals in Congress used the show to promote their policy agenda. This paper explores the media strategies of Democrats recognizing the importance of All in the Family by excavating their forgotten efforts to take advantage of the character and their attempts to collaborate with the producers. Relying on previously unavailable archival sources, I explore the show as representative of a broader development of mediated politics illustrating the contentious nature and the perceived importance of television entertainment in the politics of the seventies.

Presented By
Oscar Winberg, Åbo Akademi University

What Was the Whole World Watching? Rethinking Media Coverage of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention

Over time, the Democratic National Convention of 1968 has been reduced from the complicated four-day event that it was to the horrific scenes of street violence that took place there, when the police beat protestors as they chanted, “the whole world is watching!” The fact that the brutal images on Michigan Avenue have dominated our cultural memory has prevented us from considering other aspects of media coverage of the DNC. That is, the street coverage (measured later as five percent of total reporting) has been endlessly recycledas a synecdoche of the American political upheavals of 1968while TV coverage of historically momentous political confrontations occurring inside the Chicago Amphitheater have not been revisited since then. The crisis, I argue, was not only the very real one of blood flowing in the streets but also that of the Democratic Party shattering inside the convention hall, as millions watched in their living rooms. LBJ’s greatest achievements had been in the area of civil rights, yet the convention opened with an impasse, as white southern delegates refused to seat black delegates. Focusing on how the networks reported the crisis of challenging delegations, my paper contends that there is much to learn from network coverage that has been lost to popular memory, particularly in regard to Chicago as a tipping point in the consolidation of the South for the GOP. I will in particular focus on how CBS and NBC correspondents covered three key figures: Fannie Lou Hamer, Julian Bond, and John Connolly.

Presented By
Heather Hendershot, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Beyond Talk Radio and Fox News: The Rise of Conservative Punditry outside Right-Wing Media

In the 1990s, national conservative media outlets were becoming key political actors. The Rush Limbaugh Show went national in 1988, Fox News went live in 1996. But an equally significant transformation was happening outside conservative media, as conservative personalities began to make their way onto non-conservative channels and shows. It was in these venuescable outlets like CNN and MSNBC, comedy shows like Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect, public-interest programs like The McLaughlin Group and C-SPAN's Washington Journalthat a new generation of right-wing activists made their names, and began to transform not only television, but the Republican Party. In my paper, I will chart the rise of conservative punditry outside right-wing media through the media career of Pat Buchanan and other conservative stars of the 1990s. Buchanan made his name first on The McLaughlin Group on PBS and Crossfire on CNN, then moved to MSNBC. Tucker Carlson wrote for mainstream outlets before heading to CNN and MSNBC. And a whole generation of young conservatives appeared on Politically Incorrect, where they developed a political style that blended politics and humor, and leveraged the "politically incorrect" label to help bring their fringe politics into the American mainstream.

Presented By
Nicole R. Hemmer, Columbia University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Kathryn Cramer Brownell, Purdue University
Kathryn Cramer Brownell is associate professor of history at Purdue University. Her research and teaching examine twentieth-century American political history with a particular emphasis on media and the American presidency. She is author of Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life (UNC Press, 2014), and is currrently writing a political history of cable television from the 1960s through the 1990s. She also serves as an editor of the history column at the Washington Post, Made By History.

Presenter: Nicole R. Hemmer, Columbia University
Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project at Columbia University. She is author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics (2016) and working on a new book, Pitchfork Politics, about conservatism in the 1990s. She is founder of Made by History at the Washington Post, host of the Past Present and A12 podcasts, and writes for a number of national and international news outlets.

Presenter: Heather Hendershot, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Heather Hendershot is professor of film and media at MIT. Her most recent books are What’s Fair on the Air? Cold War Right-Wing Broadcasting and the Public Interest and Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line. She is currently a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, where she is writing a book on media coverage of the Chicago Democratic National Convention of 1968.

Presenter: Oscar Winberg, Åbo Akademi University
Oscar Winberg is a PhD Candidate in the History Department of Åbo Akademi University in Finland working on a dissertation on the relationship between television entertainment and American politics in the seventies, focusing on the situation comedy All in the Family as the vehicle of change. In 2018, Winberg was a visiting researcher at the American Political History Institute at Boston University. His work has appeared in PS: Political Science & Politics, European Journal of American Studies, and Made by History at the Washington Post.