The Presidency Will Be Televised: JFK’s Media Legacy
|Download PDF version|
The history of television watching in the United States is highly connected to former President John F. Kennedy. In particular, US Presidents’ use of mass media to craft their public image was forever changed during JFK’s presidential terms. President Kennedy starred in the historical first televised presidential debate in 1960 against Richard Nixon. The debate has already been analyzed from all possible angles: discourse analysis, the candidates’ posture and body language, what was said between the lines, cadence, and relationship to the camera among other things. The occasion was treated and organized like any other campaign event would be, but this was the one that radically changed the way campaigns were planned. Moreover, it was instrumental in Kennedy becoming the 35th president of the United States.
Kennedy was also the first US president to offer a live television broadcast of his press conference on January 25th sixty years ago. To provide a little bit of context, Thomas Woodrow Wilson (the 28th president) held the first presidential press conference in March 1913; and Dwight Eisenhower (the 34th president) had recorded news conferences before Kennedy. However, these were programmed to air at a later time. Such practice gave politicians and their teams wiggle room to, whenever needed, negotiate with the press and alter any parts that seemed unwise to share with the public for various reasons such as unintended factual mistakes or an aggressive answer (Kumar).
Sadly, President Kennedy’s key role in the history of mass media in the United States continued until his death. He was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, during a political trip on November 22, 1963. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the murder, and shot dead by Jack Ruby two days later while being escorted to the Dallas Police Headquarters. Oswald’s death, to fit the trend of the ever-present mediated imagery in Kennedy’s history, was also caught on camera as a network television was broadcasting live, with millions watching at the moment on NBC (Bergreen 1980). And, finally, JFK’s televised funeral would become one of the most important media events in American history (Dayan and Katz 1992). Nowadays, even those of us who were born long after Kennedy’s assassination partake in the media-saturated collective memory of the 35th president of the United States.
President Kennedy begins the live broadcast in 1961 with a statement mentioning the scheduling of the Geneva negotiations, famine relief for Congo, and the release of two Air Force crewmembers by the Soviet Union. After this brief opening statement, which lasts for less than five minutes, the President answers a total of 32 questions, ranging from Cuba and the Soviet Union to the United States’ policy on nuclear disarmament. He answers all the questions with self-assurance, cementing his public image as a capable and informed politician. But rather than focusing on what Kennedy speaks about, or how he reacts and responds to the (overwhelmingly male) journalists’ questions, I want to briefly consider the most important element in such televisual experience: the audience.
The role that audiences have as either active or passive is key to our discussion and understanding of contemporary politics, democracy, and public discourse (see McQuail 2005). Hence, it is imperative not only for politicians and public figures to learn how to use mass media to their advantage, but it is also crucial for audiences to understand how much power they actually hold (or lack) when consuming media messages. Fake news has by now become a buzzword that we hear every day. But we need to explore what is underneath, namely, the power and influence that mass media can have over passive and uncritical audiences. This is not to say that we all consume information uncritically, but that those in power can learn—and have done so throughout history—to play to their advantages and find new ways to influence public opinion without being too obvious about it.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. In this book, the Canadian philosopher proposed a distinction between “hot” and “cool” mediums (1964, 24-35). A “hot” medium would be one that engages one single sense and demands little work from consumers. Consequently, messages from hot mediums are received more passively and they allow less active participation from audiences. “Cool” mediums, on the contrary, engage many senses and their messages have to be filled in by the audience, which presumably facilitates a more critical relationship with the media message. Examples of the latter include phone conversations—which by their very nature imply an exchange of information, high levels of attention, and active participation—but maybe more surprisingly for us, McLuhan also includes television (not to be confused with movies) as an example of a “cool” medium. McLuhan’s reading of television in this context has a lot to do with the quality of the image at the time, since pixilation called for greater involvement and attention than movies would. Nonetheless, his argument can still serve as an illustration that our perception of active participation and positive engagement with mass media communication processes changes with time. As compared to Kennedy’s, Bill Clinton’s, and even George W. Bush’s eras, we experience news in a very different way. It sounds almost ludicrous to think about television as a participatory medium nowadays in the context of social media and the two-way communication that can take place online.
During the past decade, President Barack Obama has been seen as the politician who best understood how to take advantage of new media technologies. Throughout his campaigns and presidencies, he managed to change the dominant trend in the way that political leaders transmit a confident and open public image. According to the White House Historical Association, while he only held 21 solo press conferences—8 less than President Clinton, and 35 less than George H. W. Bush—, President Obama favored interviews that allow for in-depth answers, of which he held a total of 269 (Kumar). As David Axelrod, political consultant and senior adviser to the president between 2009 and 2011, puts it: “We saw press conferences as more of an obligation than as the best opportunity to communicate a message” (Greenfield 2017). Just as Kennedy invested in his relationship to the camera and the press, and Clinton favored late-night shows, Obama knew how to rely on his confident demeanor and charisma by appearing critical, informed, and involved thanks to long-answer formats.
Today, as a way of participating in public discourse, we can live-tweet press conferences and debates, follow them through our own little mediated echo chambers and via the algorithmic impositions of our social media. In this context, televised presidential debates continue to be one of the most-watched programs in the United States. However, the real and direct influence that debates have on election outcome is up for discussion. As we saw during the last Biden-Trump debate, opinions about the candidates were not expected to change much based on how either of them did during the session. Indeed, a mere fly stole the show in the 2020 Vice Presidential Debate, underscoring Americans’ largely entrenched political positions. Hence, it has become harder to determine how much press conferences still matter. Undoubtedly, they have semiotic significance in our construction and understanding of a healthy democracy; also, there’s an undeniable desire from part of the public to be informed as well as social capital derived from participating in subsequent public discussions. Even when it is not done in hopes of having a lasting social impact, we keep watching, we keep doomscrolling, because something might happen.
And, sometimes, something does happen. The now twice-impeached and no longer President Donald Trump did make media history thanks to his use of social media. While Kennedy primarily trusted live broadcasts, and Obama favored interview sessions, Trump crafted his image via Twitter relying on his previous TV fame. This allowed his unfiltered opinions, at any time of day and without previous scheduling, to be out in the open for everyone to read and share. Again, we are reminded of McLuhan’s theories: the medium is the message. Twitter did not require extended periods of time to listen to elaborate answers to complicated issues, nor did it require the audience to be glued to their television on a specific day and time. But this January, media history—at least, regarding US presidents—was made when Twitter, following the storming of the Capitol on January 6, suspended Trump’s account.
In the era of streaming, the importance of the first live presidential press conference, as well as Kennedy’s presidency as a tipping point in US media history, is evident. These days being an active member of the audience has a whole new meaning, and liking a tweet by the President can make us feel quite politically engaged. But now we know better than to trust any recorded image, any comment on the Internet, or any press conference. Or, do we? In the words of Howard Beale, the news anchor from the 1976 satirical dark comedy Network, “I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad”.
Bergreen, Laurence. 1980. Look Now, Pay Later: The Rise of Network Broadcasting. New York: Doubleday and Company.
Dayan, Daniel and Elihu Katz. 1992. Media Events. Cambridge: Harvard UP.
Greenfield, Jeff. 2017. “Do Press Conferences Still Matter?” Politico.
JFK Library. 2016. “President John F. Kennedy’s First Televised News Conference of January 25, 1961.” YouTube. Accessed January 18, 2021. https://www.yotube.com/watch?v=lFde6u-OPj8
Kumar, Martha Joynt. n.d. “Presidential Press Conferences: Windows on the Presidency and Its Occupants”. The White House Historical Association. Accessed January 18, 2021. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/presidential-press-conferences
Lumet, Sidney, dir. 1976. Network. Beverly Hills, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. Filmin.
McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.
McQuail, Denis. 2005. McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory. London: SAGE.
SUGGESTED CITATION: Álvarez Trigo, Laura. 2021. “The Presidency Will Be Televised: JFK’s Media Legacy.” PopMeC Research Blog. Published January 25.