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Public Affairs Television and the Growth of Political Malaise: The Case of “The Selling of the Pentagon”*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 August 2014

Michael J. Robinson
The Catholic University of America


Television journalism can produce significant changes in opinions about basic American institutions and may also foster political malaise. Laboratory investigation revealed that the CBS documentary, “The Selling of the Pentagon,” convinced viewers that the military participated more in national politics and misled the public more about Vietnam than these viewers had previously believed. The program also caused a significant decrease in political efficacy among all our groups. This finding led to correlational research to determine if exposure to television news is also associated with lower levels of efficacy.

SRC survey data suggest that reliance upon television news programs is associated with feelings of inefficacy and political self-doubt. These data also indicate that reliance upon television news fosters political cynicism and distrust, political instability, and frustration with civil rights. Holding constant the level of education or income of these respondents does not appreciably alter these relationships.

In short, the two sets of data imply that the networks helped to create Scammon's Social Issue and that video journalism fostered public support for George Wallace.

Copyright © American Political Science Association 1976

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1 Alexander, Herbert, Political Financing (Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing, 1972), p. 10Google Scholar.

2 The Roper Organization, What People Think of Television and Other Mass Media: 1959–1972 (New York: Television Information Office, 1973), pp. 710Google Scholar.

3 Ibid., p. 2.

4 Kennedy, John, “A Force That Has Changed the Political Scene,” TV Guide, 1959Google Scholar, cited in Chester's, EdwardRadio, Television and American Politics (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1969), p. 107Google Scholar. Nixon, Richard, Six Crises (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1962), chapter 2Google Scholar. Lyndon Johnson is not quite so explicit in his memoirs but he clearly links the public's “misunderstanding” of Tet to television journalism. He also suggests that television coverage at the Chicago convention in 1968 was a critical event in the political history of the ’sixties. See Vantage Point (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), p. 384, p. 543Google Scholar.

5 The literature here is legion. For a discussion of the impact of TV on turnout see Campbell, Angus, “Has Television Reshaped Politics?The Columbia Journalism Review, 1 (Fall, 1962), 1013Google Scholar. Simon, Herbert and Stern, Frederick, “The Effect of Television upon Voting Turnout in Iowa in the 1952 Presidential Election,” American Political Science Review, 49 (June, 1955), 470477CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Glaser, William, “Television and Voting Turnout,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 29 (Spring, 1965), 7186CrossRefGoogle Scholar. All these studies consistently show little or no effect on turnout when television campaigning is the independent variable. For a look into the question of TV and voter preference see Campbell, Angus, Gurin, Gerald, Miller, William, “Television and the Election,” Scientific American, 188 (May, 1953), 4648CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Department of Marketing, Miami University, The Influence of Television on the Elections of 1952, (Oxford, Ohio: Miami University, Oxford Research Associates, 1954)Google Scholar; Kurt, and Lang, Gladys, Politics and Television (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1968)Google Scholar; Kraus, Sidney, The Great Debates (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962)Google Scholar; Blumler, Jay and McQuail, David, Television in Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969)Google Scholar; Mendelsohn, Harold and Crespi, Irving, Polls, Television, and the New Politics (Scranton, Pa.: Chandler, 1970)Google Scholar; Dawson, Paul and Zinser, James, “Broadcast Expenditures and Electoral Outcomes in the 1970 Congressional Elections,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 35 (Fall, 1971), 398402CrossRefGoogle Scholar. All these books and articles, except the Dawson and Zinser piece, reach similar conclusions. Television campaigns do not appreciably alter voting preferences or the outcome of general elections.

6 For a description of the exchange between Burdick and the Langs see Politics and Television, pp. 17–19.

7 Kurt, and Lang, Gladys, Voting and Non-Voting (Waltham, Mass.: Blaisdell Publishing, 1968), p. 4Google Scholar.

8 Key, V. O., Public Opinion and American Democracy (New York: Knopf, 1967), p. 372Google Scholar.

9 Wamsley, Gary and Pride, Richard, “Television Network News: Rethinking the Iceberg Problem,” Western Political Quarterly, 25 (September, 1972), 434450CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Weaver, Paul, “Is Television News Biased?Public Interest, 26 (Winter, 1972), 5774Google Scholar.

11 Mendelsohn and Crespi, chapter 5.

12 Wamsley, and Pride, Television Network News,” pp. 437438Google Scholar.

13 Ibid., p. 449.

14 Weaver, , “Is Television News Biased?,” p. 74Google Scholar.

15 Shafer, Byron and Larson, Richard, “Did TV Create the Social Issue?Columbia Journalism Review, 11 (September/October, 1972), 1017, at p. 10Google Scholar. Also see Scammon, Richard and Wattenberg, Ben, The Real Majority (New York: Coward, McCann, Geoghegan, 1970), p. 162Google Scholar.

16 The only piece dealing directly with television to appear in the American Political Science Review during the years 1952–1972 was published in 1955. Its principal author, Herbert Simon, is a political scientist, but virtually none of the most prominent scholars in television research and, for that matter, media are political scientists.

17 Wilson, James Q., “The Urban Unease: Community vs. City,” Public Interest, 12 (Summer, 1968), 2539, at p. 26Google Scholar.

18 Philip Converse, “Change in the American Electorate,” University of Michigan, mimeo, 1970; Miller, Arthur, “Political Issues and Trust in Government,” paper presented to the American Political Science Association, 1972Google Scholar.

19 Roper, Burns, What People Think of Television and Other Mass Media, p. 2Google Scholar.

20 Data cited in TV Guide, July 7, 1973. Data compiled for ABC News by Nielsen.

21 It was Robert Dahl who first linked the words “television” and “malaise,” The City in the Future of Democracy,” American Political Science Review, 61 (December, 1967), p. 967Google Scholar.

22 Solomon, Richard, “An Extension of Control Group Design,” Psychological Bulletin, 2 (March, 1949), 137150CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 See Campbell, Donald and Stanley, Julian, “Experimental Designs and Quasi-Experimental Designs for Research in Teaching,” in Handbook of Research in Teaching, ed. Gage, Nathaniel (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1963) chapter 5Google Scholar. This chapter explains, lucidly, the differences between the Solomon and Thurstone designs, offering a good description of the advantages and disadvantages of both.

24 Having adopted the Solomon design, I was obliged to incorporate two groups of subjects who had received no pretesting whatever, (groups B and D in Table 1) The subjects were given only a “post-test” in December, 1971. For Group B, this meant filling out a questionnaire immediately upon seeing the documentary. For Group D, it meant filling out the December questionnaire without having filled out a questionnaire previously and without having seen the documentary. Although these arrangements had been made for Groups B and D, those who were not pretested were far less likely to arrive and participate than were those who had been questioned earlier. It appears that subjects who are recruited but are not questioned during the pretest period take the enterprise less seriously (the questionnaire lends credibility to the affair) and are less likely to attend. Whatever the explanation, the differences between those who were pretested and those who were not—differences in background, political beliefs, and likelihood of participation in the experiment—were so consistently large that the four-group analysis, as suggested by Solomon, had to be discarded. I rely here on the Thurstone design.

25 For a discussion of the concept of efficacy see Campbell, Angus, Converse, Philip, Miller, Warren, and Stokes, Donald, The American Voter (New York: John Wiley, 1960), pp. 515519Google Scholar. The scale was used first in Campbell, Angus, Gurin, Gerald, Miller, Warren, The Voter Decides (Evanston, Ill.: Row-Peterson, 1954), p. 18Google Scholar.

26 When this experiment was pretested with students in August, the students simply grew more negative toward the military and more positive toward CBS. None of the psychological tension that existed for the adults existed for the students. The student response was theoretically unrewarding.

27 Robinson, Michael J., “Public Affairs Television and the Growth of Political Malaise; The Case of The Selling of the Pentagon” (Ann Arbor: Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1972.)Google Scholar

28 Nielsen data obtained from CBS Research. The Nielsen figure represents the portion of the entire adult population, viewers and nonviewers, watching a designated program.

29 Those previously exposed were very different in demography and politics from those not previously exposed. In all cases they were more “liberal” and more antimilitary. I assume the differences were not caused by the exposure—that the differences indicate that those who take the time and devote the energy to watch such a documentary were negatively predisposed toward the institution being attacked. In short, those who dislike the military would tend to ferret out an unflattering presentation, especially when these people were given a second opportunity by CBS to watch the attack. The data support this interpretation.

30 Alper, S. William and Leidy, Thomas, “The Impact of Information Transmission Through Television,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 33 (Winter 19691970), 556562CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 Fitzsimmons, Stephen and Osburn, Hobart, “The Impact of Social Issues and Public Affairs Television Documentaries,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 32 (Fall, 1968), 379397CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 This same relationship existed for groups E and F. And, in this case, the post-test only group, Group B, also underwent the predicted changes. In this report, however, for the sake of simplicity, and because coda effects require an entirely separate discussion, I focus on groups A and C. Also see note 24.

33 Alper, William and Leidy, Thomas, “The Impact of Information,” p. 556Google Scholar; Fitzsimmons, Stephen and Osburn, Hobart, “The Impact of Social Issues,” p. 382Google Scholar.

34 The literature here is voluminous. For a good summary see Insko's, ChesterTheories of Attitude Change (New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1967)Google Scholar.

35 Eleanor, and Maccoby, Nathan, Romney, A. K., Adams, J. Stacy, “Social Reinforcement in Attitude Change,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63 (1961), 109115Google Scholar.

36 These intermodal differences can well be interpreted differently. Because these differences are not crucial here, the alternate explanations have been omitted. For a thorough discussion, see Robinson, Michael, “Instant Analysis and the Effectiveness of Television Programming: Spiro Agnew vs CBS,” forthcoming, Journal of Communition, 1976Google Scholar.

37 Converse, Philip, “Change in the American Electorate,” University of Michigan, mimeo., 1971, p. 96Google Scholar.

38 For a thorough discussion of problems involved in extrapolating from the laboratory to the population at large see Aronson, Elliot and Carlsmith, J. M., “Experimentation in Social Psychology,” in Lindzey, Gardner and Aronson, Elliot, Handbook of Social Psychology, 2nd edition, vol. II (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1968)Google Scholar.

39 Unfortunately, the SRC data were not collected with the needs of this study in mind. And perhaps, as an indication of the low level of importance assigned to mass media, the SRC election studies never contained a thorough or even credible series of media questions. I was forced to use the following item: “Of all these ways of following the campaign, which one would you say you got the most information from—newspapers, radio, television, magazines?” The item was not precisely what I would have preferred, given the reference to “campaign information.” Nevertheless, it was the only available option, poor syntax and all.

40 Robinson, Michael J., Public Affairs Television, p. 148Google Scholar.

41 Gerbner, George and Gross, Larry, “The Social Reality of Television Drama,” Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania, unpublished mimeo, 1973Google Scholar; idem, “Television As Enculturation,” Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania, unpublished mimeo, 1975.

42 Lang, and Lang, , Politics and Television, p. 19Google Scholar.

43 Robinson, Michael J. and Zukin, Clifford, “Television and the Wallace Vote in 1968: Are There Lessons For 1976?” abstract, Public Opinion Quarterly, 38 (Fall, 1974), 445Google Scholar. Also, Robinson, Michael J. and Zukin, Clifford, “TV and the Wallace Vote,” Journal of Communication, forthcoming, 1976CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 Converse, Philip, “Change in the American Electorate,” p. 97Google Scholar.

45 Roper, Burns, Trends in Public Attitudes Toward Television and Other Mass Media, 1959–1974, Television Information Office, New York, 1975, p. 3Google Scholar.

46 Burns, , Roper, , What People Think, p. 2Google Scholar.

47 Bower, Robert, Television and the Public (New York: Holt, 1973), pp. 129141Google Scholar.

48 Converse, Philip, “Information Flow and the Stability of ‘Partisan’ Attitudes” in Campbell, Angus, Converse, Philip, Miller, Warren, Stokes, Donald, Elections and the Political Order (New York: Wiley, 1966), pp. 136158Google Scholar.

49 During the ’sixties, survey research revealed that those exposed to the fewest media—those exposed only to television—were politically the least stable. Converse's theory was thereby overturned. See Dreyer, Edward, “Media Use and Electoral Choices: Some Political Consequences of Information Exposure,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 35 (Winter, 19711972), 544553CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

50 See Barret, Marvin, ed., The Politics of Broadcasting, 19711972 (New York: Thoms Crowell, 1973), p. 49Google Scholar.

51 Harris, Louis, Confidence and Concern: Citizens View American Government (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1973), p. 33Google Scholar.

52 Burns Roper, “Trends in Public Attitudes. …,” op. cit., p. 4.

53 Hovland, Carl and Weiss, Walter, “The Influence of Source Credibility on Communication Effectiveness,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 15 (Winter, 1951), 635650CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a good, if dated, summary of the influence of source literature, see Klapper's, JosephThe Effects of Mass Communication (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1960), especially pp. 99104Google Scholar.

54 See “CBS and Congress, ‘The Selling of the Pentagon’,” Educational Broadcasting Review (Winter, 19711972), pp. 43107Google Scholar.

55 Frank, Reuven, “An Anatomy of Television News,” Television Quarterly, 9 (Winter, 1970), 1528, at p. 18Google Scholar.

57 See Peterson, Theodore, Jensen, Jay, and Rivers, William L., The Mass Media and Modern Society (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston Press, 1965)Google Scholar.

58 Lowry, Dennis, “Agnew and the Network TV News: Before/After Content Analysis,” Journalism Quarterly, 48 (Summer, 1971), 205210CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

59 Weaver, Paul, “Is Television News Biased?” pp. 5774Google Scholar.

60 Ibid., pp. 67–69.

61 Lang, and Lang, . Politics and Television, p. 52Google Scholar.

62 Ibid., p. 148.

63 See Epstein, Edward J., News from Nowhere (New York: Random House, 1973), especially chap. 5Google Scholar.

64 Lowry, Dennis T., “Gresham's Law and Network TV News Selection,” Journal of Broadcasting, 15 (Fall, 1971), 397408CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

65 Efron, Edith, The News Twisters (Los Angeles: Nash, 1971), passimGoogle Scholar.

66 Hofstetter, Richard, “Television News Elections Project,” Ohio State University mimeo., 1974Google Scholar.

67 Panitt, Merrill, “American Out of Focus,” TV Guide, January 15, 1972, pp. 612Google Scholar. This article was first in a fivepart series.

68 Greenwald, Anthony G., “Do Crime and Violence in the Mass News Media Modify Behavior?” unpublished mimeo., Ohio State University, 1971, p. 22Google Scholar.

69 Singer, Benjamin, “Violence, Protest, and War in Television News: The U.S. and Canada Compared,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 34 (Winter, 19701971), 611616, at p. 613CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Unfortunately, Singer's analysis is confounded by the Cambodian incursion and the Kent State killings, both of which occurred during the weeks he chose to do his study.

70 Ibid., p. 615.

71 Efron, Edith, The News Twisters, p. 47Google Scholar.

72 The networks and academia have met TNT, as Efron's book has been glibly nicknamed, with skepticism. Charles Winick in “Critique of the Methodology of Edith Efron's ‘The News Twisters’ ” CBS Xerox, October, 1971, has criticzed the universe sampled, the unit of analysis, the lack of checks for coding and the lack of contextual interpretation. International Research Associates Incorporated has replicated Efron's work, using only the CBS programs employed in the original analysis. IRA found less “bias” than did Efron. And IRA also pointed out what it regarded as unjustified or unsupported techniques in the Efron study. See International Research Associates, “An Analysis of Thirty-Six Telecasts of ‘The CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite,’ Broadcasts from September 16 to November 4, 1968,” mimeo., New York, February, 1972. My own feeling is that Efron's work is shoddy but not inaccurate and that criticisms of her method are too broad. Indeed, were Winick's every demand met there would probably be no example of a good content analysis. Paul Weaver has investigated Efron's own data and estimated that if one would throw out all questionable coding decisions, the imbalance would remain. This does not, however, convince me about her interpretations of the imbalance.

73 Richard Hofstetter, “Television News Election Project,” chap. 6. Hofstetter found virtually no politically partisan bias in the 1972 campaign coverage.

74 Edgar Litt shows that “the people” (i.e., the working class), do not receive adequate civic education to cope with the facts about the basic process of politics in the United States. Only the middle-class schools teach politics as group conflict. The working-class child is taught about politics at a more idealistic level. Given that these children become the heaviest users of TV news, this inadequacy could insure political frustration among this stratum. Civic Education, Community Norms, and Political Indoctrination,” American Sociological Review, 28 (February, 1963), 6975CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

75 Booth, Alan, “The Recall of News Items,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 34 (Winter, 19701971), 605610CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

76 This phrase belongs to the Langs, , Politics and Television, p. 134Google Scholar.

77 According to a recent SRC Survey, 36 per cent of the public now identifies with the Democrats, 21 per cent with the Republicans, and a full 43 per cent with neither. See Miller, Warren and Miller, Arthur, “Political Realignment in 1972, Party Loyalties and Issue Preferences,” University of Michigan, mimeo., 1974, p. 1Google Scholar.

78 Lang, and Lang, , Politics and Television, p. 307Google Scholar.

80 Time, November 19, 1973, p. 25Google Scholar.

81 I had the opportunity to speak formally and informally with a high-ranking member from each of the four major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS) immediately following the Nixon resignation. They were vociferous and unanimous in their rejection of the theory about videomalaise. Generally, they regarded it as irrelevant, given the role of American journalism in the policy process. They also regarded the theory as inaccurate, and more so now than at any time within the last decade.

82 The word was used by NBC news executive, Robert Northshield.

83 Edward J. Epstein, News From Nowhere, chap. 7, “Values.”

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