He Who Captures the Media, Captures the Throne!

I heard a commentator on the radio go on and on about what a disaster Donald Trump’s tweet about China was. He wasn’t complaining about the content but about the idea of a president elect using twitter in such a delicate diplomatic situation and not using the conventional channels. Tweeting, he claimed, lowered the dignity of the office of the presidency.

Trump had orchestrated his presidential campaign partly through Twitter which helped him to ignore the traditional press conferences and a hostile media. The media got their information through his speeches and twitters. Many American politicians have sought different routes to speak to the electorate directly. Just how some of them used their ingenuity with the media has always fascinated me.

Looking back at the time of Abraham Lincoln, the newspaper media was a dirty business that, according to Garry Wills, “would make today’s Fox News blush”. And, according to Wills, there was no one who played the newspaper media better than Abraham Lincoln. He excelled not only as a self-publicist but by playing newspaper editors off against each other. Harold Holzer, author of ‘Lincoln and the Power of the Press’, wrote, “Lincoln revolutionized the art of presidential communication … [He] had come to realize that he could control ‘public sentiment’ best by passing the editors and going directly to their readers. Rather than resume making time-consuming public speeches, he transformed the so-called anonymous public letter into a weapon of mass-communication”. In this mass-communication battle Lincoln was no saint and was a hard man to trap. Holzer wondered how he ever came out of this sewer clean.

English: Photograph of Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House in Washington, D.C., delivering a national radio address
Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House in Washington, D.C., delivering a national radio address

Some seventy years later when Franklin D. Roosevelt came to the presidency he was confronted by mainly hostile media with his New Deal programme. Although Roosevelt was popular among democrats, many others disliked him and his New Deal programme intensely, especially many of the influential newspaper editors and owners.

The Roosevelt administration thought up a novel scheme of using the radio to address the American people directly. In all, he made some 30 Fireside Chats. Even though many of his promises were never realised, millions of people found comfort and hope during those years of depression. In these talks he appealed to God, played the “The Star Spangled Banner, and spoke in a patriotic tone. He addressed his audience as “My friends,” and referred to himself as “I” and the American people as “you”. People felt the president was speaking directly to them.  He successfully bypassed the powerful print media barons and spoke directly to the people.

At the end of the 1950s, the age of television and the election of John F. Kennedy as the 35th President of the United States arrived. The opposition to Kennedy was immense for many reasons and how to overcome it was a challenge. Kennedy successfully got to his audiences via his direct use of television live press conferences. The public began to love Kennedy’s conferences, although his detractors thought these encounters showed insufficient respect for the dignity of the office. The first press conference of this sort took place immediately after his inauguration and was viewed by an estimated 65 million people. In total Kennedy made over 64 press conferences during his short presidency with an average audience of 18 million people viewing each one.

Even if we go back in history to a time when we had no television, radio or print media, we can find leaders concerned as to how they could communicate directly to audiences present and future. Julius Caesar’s diaries on his famous military campaigns in Gaul (modern day France and Belgium), are with us today. Indeed, they remain a major part of our schools’ Latin syllabi. Cicero, like his contemporary and sometimes friend or foe, Julius Caesar, liked to publish his speeches after they were polished up after the speech itself was made. These speeches, although a bit long-winded for today’s audiences, were model political speeches (deliberate) and legal argument (logos). Both Caesar and Cicero captured the media to such an extent that their fame through the written word has lasted these two thousand years.

Donald Trump is not a great orator, but he knows how to communicate to his selected audiences. This is shown by how he succeeded in reaching his audiences via twitter. His outlandish messages, although they have infuriated those liberal barons of the modern day media, have reached his publics via those same media barons publishing the tweets. It was in this way that Trump has succeeded in speaking directly to those audiences that he needed to reach.