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In Presidential Campaigns, History Repeats Itself

Exhibit chronicles media's role in political races

Faiza Elmasry

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 approach.

“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 campaign memorabilia.

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

Visitor 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 second.”

However, as with TV, Rhule cautions there's a downside to using social media.

“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.

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