Politics in the Age of YouTube

31 Jan

A couple of minutes with a makeup artist could have changed the course of history.

But back in September 1960, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon – pale and underweight from an extended hospital stay – probably didn’t recognize the emergent power of the new medium of television.

Nixon resisted the advice of aides and refused to even powder his nose before participating in the first-ever televised presidential debate between himself and Democrat John F. Kennedy, who was – famously – well-rested and tanned after a campaign swing through California.

The result? Polls showed that those who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won the debate, but the 70 million Americans who watched on television overwhelmingly picked the man with the tan as the winner.

Did the debate (and there were three others before the campaign was through) contribute to Kennedy’s election win? Hard to say. But more than half of all voters in the subsequent election said the televised debates influenced their vote. And it would be another 16 years before presidential candidates would agree to meet again on TV.

The 1964 presidential election brought another milestone in the history of politics on television. The “Daisy Girl” ad, which aired only once, is widely considered to be both the first-ever example of a political attack ad on TV and also an example of one its most effective uses. With it, the Democrats successfully tarred Republican candidate Barry Goldwater as an extremist who would lead the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Four decades later, another generation of politicians, voters and media is coming to terms with the emergent power of another new medium: YouTube, and similar so-called Web 2.0 new-generation web services.

Some politicians are eschewing more traditional media and launching campaigns on the web. Some are trying to use it to bypass traditional media entirely. Others are unwittingly having their careers destroyed on it. And websurfers can use it to get access to places where traditional media cannot go.

At least one thing seems certain to survive the transition from one media to another: Attack ads. But use them at your peril: YouTube offers a cheap and quick way for your opponents to reply in turn.

Here’s a podcast of a discussion I produced about how websites like YouTube are changing the way that politics is practiced, covered and followed. Who gets to be the 21st century’s man with the tan?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: