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

  • Michael J. Robinson (a1)


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.



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

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

3 Ibid., p. 2.

4 Kennedy, John, “A Force That Has Changed the Political Scene,” TV Guide, 1959, cited in Chester's, EdwardRadio, Television and American Politics (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1969), p. 107. Nixon, Richard, Six Crises (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1962), chapter 2. 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. 543.

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), 1013. 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), 470477, Glaser, William, “Television and Voting Turnout,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 29 (Spring, 1965), 7186. 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), 4648; Department of Marketing, Miami University, The Influence of Television on the Elections of 1952, (Oxford, Ohio: Miami University, Oxford Research Associates, 1954); Kurt, and Lang, Gladys, Politics and Television (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1968); Kraus, Sidney, The Great Debates (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962); Blumler, Jay and McQuail, David, Television in Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969); Mendelsohn, Harold and Crespi, Irving, Polls, Television, and the New Politics (Scranton, Pa.: Chandler, 1970); Dawson, Paul and Zinser, James, “Broadcast Expenditures and Electoral Outcomes in the 1970 Congressional Elections,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 35 (Fall, 1971), 398402. 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. 4.

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

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

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

11 Mendelsohn and Crespi, chapter 5.

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

13 Ibid., p. 449.

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

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

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. 26.

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, 1972.

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

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. 967.

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

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 5. 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. 515519. The scale was used first in Campbell, Angus, Gurin, Gerald, Miller, Warren, The Voter Decides (Evanston, Ill.: Row-Peterson, 1954), p. 18.

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.)

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), 556562.

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

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. 556; Fitzsimmons, Stephen and Osburn, Hobart, “The Impact of Social Issues,” p. 382.

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

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

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, 1976.

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

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).

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. 148.

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

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

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), 445. Also, Robinson, Michael J. and Zukin, Clifford, “TV and the Wallace Vote,” Journal of Communication, forthcoming, 1976.

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

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

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

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

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. 136158.

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), 544553.

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

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

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), 635650. 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. 99104.

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

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

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

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

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

60 Ibid., pp. 67–69.

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

62 Ibid., p. 148.

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

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

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

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

67 Panitt, Merrill, “American Out of Focus,” TV Guide, January 15, 1972, pp. 612. 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. 22.

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. 613. 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. 47.

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), 6975.

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

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

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. 1.

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

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

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.”

* I thank M. Kent Jennings at the University of Michigan for helping in this research when others were cool to the whole endeavor. Richard Hofstetter, at Ohio State, deserves credit for straightening me out from time to time. Philip Burgess, also at Ohio State, was my principal aid in every facet of this study and I owe him a lot.


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