Most of us have never met and will never meet a president, but we have all had several of them in our living rooms. We’ve watched them give speeches and throw baseballs, heard them chuckle and choke back tears—witnessed moments of political triumph and personal tragedy. Since FDR became the first president to appear on the small screen at the 1939 World’s Fair, television has been key to presidential power—and a factor in some presidents’ demise.
Now we have a president with a history in reality TV but whose real love is Twitter – raising the question of whether the power of social media will finally trump that of the tube.
As part of BkLive’s “The People, The Press and the President” theme week ahead of the big BRIC Town Hall on Friday, Katherine Fry, chair of the department of TV & Radio at Brooklyn College, joined your correspondent on the show Tuesday to flip through the presidential TV highlight reel.
Fry notes in the video below that like radio before it—mastered most effectively by FDR’s fireside chats—TV allows presidents to collapse time and space to have what feels like an intimate relationship with viewers, often without the filter of a journalist mediating that interaction. That kind of exposure is powerful, but also perilous: words frozen on videotape can never be taken back, and—especially in the 24-hour news cycle that has existed for the past five or so presidents—there is always the potential for embarrassing episodes to be magnified.
So the history of presidential television is one of presidents gaining control of the medium, losing it, then changing tactics to again get the upper hand. A perfect example: Bill Clinton’s “The Man from Hope” biovid from the 1992 Democratic National Convention, where he succeeded in getting the TV networks to air what was more infomercial than news event.
But now, presidents have another tool: Social media, over which more total control can be exercised, which can communicate to the press and public alike, and which no one can filter—not even a president’s own advisers, though they might want to. Fry talks a little about that that means for the office and its constituents.
Below the video are links to some of the hits on the presidential highlight reel we discuss.