Propaganda, Outrage, and Entertainment
By Kathryn Cramer BrownellAugust 23, 2023
While the future of cable news seems precarious as more and more people cut the cable cord and opt for online news, the GOP debates reflect how deeply ingrained cable television has become in American political life over the past three decades. Indeed, political media across the cable dial—from C-SPAN to CNN to MTV—have transformed presidential campaign operations and communications strategies, ultimately creating the divided and segmented social media world that, ironically, threatens the future of cable news today.
Cable television first developed as a technology used to expand the reach of broadcast television signals into rural and mountainous regions during the post–World War II era. By the 1970s, however, it had emerged as a potential solution to a power imbalance in American political institutions. Television offered presidents an unparalleled bully pulpit, one that seemed to grow out of control with Richard Nixon’s willingness to do anything—including break-ins and dirty tricks—to control his image and undermine his opponents’ credibility.
The Watergate hearings, televised on broadcast channels during the day and public television in the evening, revealed that an appetite existed for public affairs all day long. Senate leaders also saw televised coverage of the hearings as a civic service, offering credibility to the process by bringing much-needed transparency.
In the aftermath of Watergate, Congress studied how to expand its television presence, and in 1979, thanks to Brian Lamb, the cable television industry stepped up to deliver a solution: C-SPAN, a public affairs channel funded by the major cable corporations.
It didn’t take long for television to change congressional operations and the political calculations of elected representatives. The allure of television access, even to a small audience, intrigued those who were more desperate for attention and willing to do anything to generate headlines. A cadre of younger right-wing representatives soon became C-SPAN “stars” with colorful and bombastic rants at the end of the day during “Special Order” speeches. Viewers likely assumed they were addressing a packed chamber because the camera focused only on the speaker. In reality, no one was around to respond to such attacks; the House session had ended for the day.
And so, on May 10, 1984, Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill directed camera operators to pan the empty chamber during one of Pennsylvania Republican representative Bob Walker’s rants. This ignited a partisan war that ended with the conservatives’ leader, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) facing off against O’Neill and the latter losing his temper and getting his words taken down (a major penalty in the House).
The conflict generated attention not only from cable subscribers but also from the Washington press corps, thus highlighting the burgeoning importance of C-SPAN—and cable TV more broadly—in contemporary politics. The Washington Post called C-SPAN must-see TV that was “[m]ore turbulent than a ‘Dynasty’ cliffhanger, more riveting than the evening news, and at times funnier than anything on ‘Foul Ups, Bleeps and Blunders.’”
Gingrich delightedly racked up national media interviews. After all, he was a junior representative from what at the time seemed to be a permanent minority in the House, and from the ideological fringe to boot. Yet the incident made him more of a household name, elevating his slash-and-burn political style, and accelerating his rise in the GOP. Cable, it seemed, could be a political tool to take on the establishment by stoking outrage.
It took another decade, and another politician desperate for media attention, to show how entertainment programming on cable TV could also become a path to power. It was June 1992, and Arkansas governor Bill Clinton’s campaign was floundering. While he had captured the Democratic nomination, his campaign was broke and trying to marshal resources until the upcoming Democratic National Convention.
To keep Clinton in the spotlight without costly television ads, his campaign accepted any media invitation that came his way. This included an invitation to a town hall on what his opponent, President George H. W. Bush, later dismissed as simply a “teenybopper” network: MTV. The move proved brilliant. The appearance generated buzz that helped Clinton’s campaign regain its stride. One observer noted that he was “[q]uick, not slick; sympathetic, not condescending; imaginative, not wordy.”
The platform was a perfect fit for the charming Clinton. The long, conversational format allowed him to address controversies from the campaign while controlling the parameters of the conversation. He struck back at a critical Washington press corps, which had focused relentlessly on the scandals surrounding him—from draft dodging to Whitewater to smoking (but not inhaling) marijuana—and questioned reporters’ very credibility. By comparison, his campaign press secretary drew attention to the “real voters” who interacted with Clinton during such cable news town halls.
Unlike Gingrich, Clinton didn’t want to use MTV to enrage viewers. Instead, he grasped how the entertainment channel—known at the time mostly for airing music videos—could be a tool for engaging a younger demographic and shaping their understanding of not just his candidacy but also the broader news coverage of the campaign.
Through different approaches, both Gingrich and Clinton ushered in fundamental changes to how politicians communicated. Cable presented an opportunity for slicing and dicing the electorate and relaying different messages to different audiences. Clinton could reach young voters; meanwhile, Gingrich attracted political junkies and Republican partisans eager to fight back against the Democratic establishment.
This targeted approach represented a seismic transformation away from the strategy employed by great communicators in both parties’ pasts, like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, who had used the broadcast media of their day to craft a “mass appeal”—one that reached and courted as many Americans as possible.
Cable turned that model on its head, enabling politicians to eschew consensus-building efforts in favor of appealing to the “right” demographics. This narrowcasting approach was about creating an intimacy between the viewer and the candidate that would build loyalties by stressing divisions. Appealingly for politicians, it was also available to a far greater range of figures, not just presidents, as was generally the case with broadcast television.
Cable industry insiders welcomed politicians’ use of cable, recognizing that it was both good business and good politics. Indeed, the launch of both MTV’s “Choose or Lose” campaign and C-SPAN reflected efforts to demonstrate the civic contributions of the industry during heated legislative battles over regulation. Cable lobbyists could point to such programming as proof of why a deregulated media environment could deliver concrete benefits for elected officials.
For-profit entertainment channels like MTV—and then, later, Comedy Central and even Nickelodeon—also discovered that such programming helped sell advertisements and keep viewers from changing the channel. “The more full-service we are, the less our viewers ever have to leave our channel,” noted one MTV executive. “We don’t want our viewers going to ABC or NBC for news.”
In the end, cable programming delivered information that both empowered and entertained. Cable news coverage provided elected officials with incentives and opportunities to manipulate information for potential voters through whatever means necessary and gave viewers the pretense that they could watch music videos while staying informed about the world around them. This formula then helped to create a landscape with ideologically leaning cable networks that frequently blurred the line between opinion performances and news programming—something that has spilled over into other media in the 21st century.
In the age of social media, the push for neutral public-affairs coverage by networks like C-SPAN has slowed while the division and diversion impulses have flourished. Indeed, Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 hinged on his ability to blend the Gingrich and Clinton experiments: partisan propaganda, outrage, and entertainment. The goal was not to make him broadly likable, like Reagan, but to promote his brand and craft a personal loyalty to him among a significant slice of the electorate.
The Dominion lawsuit, the exit of Tucker Carlson, and Trump’s decision to boycott the first GOP debate have generated questions about the political future of Fox News, while cord-cutting has raised debates about the economic future of cable television more broadly. But one thing is for sure: the fragmented world cable helped to create is flourishing, and that may be the real democratic crisis we face in 2024.
Kathryn Cramer Brownell is an associate professor of history at Purdue University and the author of 24/7 Politics: Cable Television & the Fragmenting of America from Watergate to Fox News (2023).
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