Ari Shapiro’s segment on NPR this morning really made me think. Is the concept of the “bully pulpit” a myth? And if so, is the left’s criticism of President Obama’s failure to use it unfair and, dare I say, irrational?
First let’s look at what “bully pulpit” means. The term was coined, I think, by Pres. Theodore Roosevelt back when the word “bully” was much more common. Bully used as an adjective means “superb” or “great”. You may have heard it used in the phrase, “well bully for you” often meant with a sarcastic and bitter tone as in “that’s great for you but what about the rest of us?” And a pulpit is the podium from which someone preaches. Officially “bully pulpit” is defined as,
A public office or position of authority that provides its occupant with an outstanding opportunity to speak out on any issue.
The implication being that if a politician uses his unique position to speak about an issue he or she will be able to then affect outcomes. The Office of the President has certainly enjoyed a “unique” position that no other politician does. If one were to look at the various stages of American History and the amount of exclusive coverage the President has received, you can see a pattern emerging.
From the founding of our nation up until the invention of the TV, the most important aspect of Presidential coverage (and indeed all news) was the speed by which the news made it from the actual speech to news outlets to American news consumers. In early times, the speed was limited by word of mouth and the ability of a person and or printed material to travel by foot or horse. Then it improved with the invention and widespread use of the telegraph, which combined with the technology of mass broadcasting through radio stations accelerated things considerably. So things were pretty slow until the 1840’s essentially and even then the President’s message could only go out as fast as the fastest newspaper publishers could distribute it until the 1920’s.
Things remained pretty stable until the advent of the television in the U.S. in the 1950’s. Television really revolutionized communication in a number of ways. First, the President’s words were no longer the only thing being conveyed. Now we could see what he was feeling, how he gestured, etc. Non-verbal communication and the President’s ability to speak in public became so much more important (1, 2). Second, there were very few channels at that time, most programs were live, and they did not have 24/7 programming like we do now. Therefore when the President did speak, ALL of the stations covered it as it occurred without clipping, editorializing during it, and without response from the opposing party. As a result the President enjoyed, for a brief time, an exclusive access to and literal transmission through the most powerful communication device created to date.
Once live Television shows were replaced by pre-recorded shows, it was only a matter of time before the “literal” transmission of Presidential speeches became of a thing of the past. Now they could clip speeches, take the time to respond to and comment on what the President said and even allow the opposition party to weigh in with their comments. Although Presidential Speeches tend to remain live events, the break down and analysis that is done today is a far cry from the original broadcasts during the early decades of television.
Another factor in the ability to reach the masses was the free nature of Television. Originally to view Television all one had to do was purchase the hardware–a television, turn it on and then position the antenna to pick up the “analog” broadcast signals either beamed from large station towers without cost(3). This type of passive and free broadcasting continued until 2009 when the Federal Government required that TV stations stop using analog signals and limit themselves to digital signals(4). Many stations, the main ones from the three big networks and public stations remain free even though their signals are bundled with many “for pay” channels. Although cable TV (i.e., private, for profit television channels) was invented as early as 1948, it didn’t really become common in most American households until the 1980’s.
With the advent of cable television, our viewing options expanded from 3 or 4 basic channels who would ALWAYS cover a Presidential speech to hundreds if not thousands of channels of which only 6 to 8 channels MIGHT cover the Presidential speech live and complete. Now add to the complexity of the situation the Internet and the variety of ways that the Presidential speech can be streamed live and one would think that the opportunity for reaching more people has expanded. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case.
Let’s say hypothetically that the number of stations/sites (including television, radio, and Internet) that will broadcast a Presidential speech live is typically around 20. That live speech must now compete for the attention of the average American with other live and pre-recorded events on literally millions of television, radio and the Internet stations/sites. And that doesn’t include the written word on millions of Internet sites that serve to distract. Furthermore, the average American doesn’t have to sit through the entire speech to figure out what the President is trying to say. He/she can now wait until it is over and has been dissected to the nth degree and get it all filtered from a million different radio, TV and Internet sites/stations.
Ultimately technology has decreased the effectiveness of the Presidential speech and the potential effect of the “bully pulpit”. On the whole, while the President can now potentially reach more people over a greater geographical area than ever before, it is only a potential since in reality viewers are distracted by and have so many other options. Moreover, this is a review of the technologies’ affect on the effectiveness of transmission of the “bully pulpit”. It doesn’t address the journalistic filter except in the earliest days of technology when the President’s speeches were sent in their entirety with little comment or interruption.
The truth is that journalists have always printed opinions anticipating before what might be said and what they think should be said, and then they added commentary after the fact on what was actually said. Technology has only increased by several orders of magnitude their ability to do that and do so in a variety of mediums simultaneously.
Additionally, there remains the whole idea of media bias. Conservatives have been saying for decades (since Saint Ronnie Raygun perhaps?) that the media has a liberal bias. In truth, it appears to liberals that the media has become so paranoid of this “liberal stigma” and they desire to maintain access to popular political figures that they go far out of their way to avoid it, and in doing so end up entertaining the most bizarre and outlandish ideas in order to appear balanced. As Ken Silverstein put it so brilliantly in 2008 (5),
…balanced coverage that plagues American journalism and which leads to utterly spineless reporting with no edge. The idea seems to be that journalists are allowed to go out to report, but when it comes time to write, we are expected to turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should attempt fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. “Balanced” is not fair, it’s just an easy way of avoiding real reporting…and shirking our responsibility to inform readers.
If reporters have to show balance and the President’s speech is about decreasing health care costs and the opposite argument is that everything is fine the way it is, then the reporters will cave to the desire to “balance” the conversation without ultimately informing or educating the viewer. Here’s how they typically cave. The journalist will invite someone to come on to say that “everything is fine” regardless of whether that pundit/person 1) has any real qualifications to speak on the matter (6), 2) can complete a coherent sentence intelligibly without flinging poo at the camera, and 3) does not look like a troglodyte, and 4) typically associates with the opposite party from the Presidents or typically presents views that are different from or in opposition to the President. What does this do? Well it gives equal footing to any talking head they can schedule to the President of the United States. Can you imagine this happening back in the 1970’s or earlier? It would have been laughable, if not downright considered offensive to have some nobody counter the President’s speech. While I wholeheartedly believe democratization is in general a good thing, I believe the “desire for balance”, “fear of the liberal stigma”, and the rise of punditry has hurt television journalism and the American polity in ways that we are just now beginning to understand.
One of those ways is the purpose of the “bully pulpit” to not only communicate but to also influence real outcomes by that communication is now impossible (and probably has been for several decades).
Unfortunately many liberals and progressives don’t understand this yet. And if they do, they don’t care. They’d rather just yell at the President for things that are so far outside of his control that is become ridiculous.
Clearly the “bully pulpit” if it ever really existed, no longer applies in the modern communications paradigm. The only thing that can make reality better isn’t communication, it is the outcome of policy and actions taken by the President. And if you look at actions the President has taken across the board(7) he’s not doing as bad a job as his critics, on both sides of the aisle, would have you think(8).
1. If you don’t believe me, take a look at studies on the first televised Presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon. Those who only listened on the radio and only had their words and cadence to go on thought Nixon won. Those who watched it on TV thought Kennedy won. Why? Nixon was very uncomfortable on TV and he sweated. Being able to see the speakers made all the difference in the world to the effectiveness of the message.
2. Consider this….would someone like Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt have been successfully elected in modern America considering that he could not stand on his own without support? Sadly, probably not.
3. Television stations broadcast from their own towers, beaming them as radio signals up into the atmosphere and bouncing them off the ionized atmospheric gases and refracting them back down to your homes. Later the beams could be transmitted from satellites orbiting the earth.
4. Digital signals are simply the transmission of data broken down into 0’s and 1’s. Digital signals can be transmitted from stations to satellites and then back down to dishes that have cables to our TV sets or from stations to cables that run to our homes and our TV sets. Although a lot of people complained about the switch, it was necessary because the radio/analog broadcast spectrum was getting too crowded. The government wanted to open up this spectrum to a) for things that supported the public good such as police, fire, rescue, etc, b) to wireless technologies that have been booming, c) to increase the quality of broadcasts (which we can all appreciate), and d) it allows for data interaction–two way communication (that radio/analog transmission cannot).
5. From Wikipedia site quote in article on Media Bias, taken from article by Silverstein, Ken called “Turkmeniscam: How Washington Lobbyists Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship”, 2008–I couldn’t find the actual article online.
6. FYI, if you look at the qualifications of most pundits on TV now, you will find that their qualifications are that they’ve worked directly for a politician in the past or they have advocated for an issue in the past or they have run for or held political office in the past. None of which would make a person an “expert” in any court within the U.S. or within academic circles anywhere in the entire World. So you’ll have someone like Erick Erickson of RedState.com, a conversative blog, commenting on issues ranging from the intricacies of raising children to complicated ways of reducing health care costs on CNN even though he has COMPLETELY unqualified to comment on any of it. He is simply a semi-presentable and semi-articulate individual who is well-known in conservative circles. He’s a face who can spout information without shitting on himself. Seriously, what the fuck does he know? Same goes on the liberal side by the way….Jane Hamsher? Who the fuck is she to be on TV and present herself as an expert on the myriad of topics she speaks?! Hamsher’s background is in film production and Internet blogging. Same goes for Erick Erickson. He has a degree from a third tier law school and if anything he should be commenting on the law or blogging (although I’d rather hear from someone educated at Harvard or any school that doesn’t have a religious affiliation because religion has no business in the teaching of the law as far as I’m concerned). And before you start on about, “who the hell are you to have an opinion if these people can’t”, you’re not reading closely enough. I’m not saying they can’t have an opinion. They just shouldn’t be on an international news channel presenting themselves as experts on anything other than the topics for which they are trained, educated and experienced (in all three ways and to a level that is preferably peer reviewed and acknowledged within their own profession as being an expert in that topic). That is what an expert is. My spouting off on this blog about the media and politics doesn’t mean I am claiming to be an expert. I am a concerned citizen. That’s what I present myself as. These people have delusions of grandeur that is enabled by the corporate media desire for punditry and the frenzy to produce a “balanced” view.
7. Don’t just focus on the economy, but look at everything from gay rights to killing Osama Bin Laden, he’s affected “reality” through policy in many, many good ways.
8. I don’t think that President Obama shits rainbow unicorns and $100 bills, but I do think that a realistic assessment is one that will stand the test of time. I promise to reassess my views of him in 1 year, 5 years and 10 years time….let’s see how it stacks up then, shall we? I’m betting that history will consider my assessment to be more accurate than the bullshit currently being spouted by those on the far left and anything from the right side of the political spectrum.