A History of the Presidency - Rise of the modern media

Changing technology also played a part in creating a new political culture. Whereas in 1801 it was considered extraordinary that Jefferson's inaugural address had appeared in a Washington newspaper almost immediately (he had given a copy of it beforehand to the editor), William Henry Harrison's forty years later was distributed by railroad, and people in Philadelphia could read it the evening of the day it had been delivered in the capital. When James K. Polk was nominated in Baltimore in 1844, the news was received in Washington on the first telegraph line in the country. Before Polk's term ended, the wire service the Associated Press had been created, linking major newspapers in their coverage of events. Already the penny press, begun modestly in 1833, was placing newspapers in the hands of "the common man" and opening the way to making the populace politically informed. By the time that the telephone was in widespread use in the 1890's, news could be disseminated everywhere, and practically instantaneously, and presidential politics became one of its alluring staples. The new Linotype machine made it possible to set the stories quickly, supplying constantly updated editions of newspapers, heightening the interest in news, notably accounts of presidential activities.

In the 1890s the general use of the halftone method of reproducing pictures enabled magazine and newspaper editors to illustrate cheaply the articles they ran. This development allowed people at last to know what their president looked like. Up to then, for the most part, only woodcuts had been used, and they only occasionally. As a result, the majority of Americans only knew the faces of Washington and Lincoln. At the beginning of the twentieth century the rotogravure process improved the tonal quality of reproduced photographs, and the facial features of public figures became familiar to millions, especially in the big cities, through the Sunday supplements printed in sepia. For the first time the general public became accustomed to the looks and public doings not only of the president, but also of his family.

The first radio broadcast of election results was heard in 1920 on the Pittsburgh station KDKA. Four years later, moviegoers saw the presidential candidates for the first time in newsreels. In 1925 millions heard on the radio Calvin Coolidge's inaugural address, another first. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to be televised—at the New York World's Fair of 1939. William Jefferson Clinton's inauguration was the first that was broadcast live on the Internet. After World War II, television became the chief vehicle of presidential news, and the amount of money spent on presidential campaigns, mostly to pay for time on television, became a major factor and issue in national politics. Critics of the way this money was being raised argued that the sums contributed damaged the democratic process by constituting veritable bribes from interested donors.

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