Every Four Years: Presidential Campaigns and the Press

Every four years, Americans elect a president. And every four years, battle lines are drawn as presidential candidates and reporters face off in the conflict zone known as the campaign trail.The path to the presidency provides stories of privacy and personality, of image and character, of polls and spin.This Newseum exhibit examines the tactics used by politicians — and illuminated by the press — to put democracy to the test and a candidate in the White House.

1920s RCA Radio (1927)Newseum

Power of Radio

In the 1930s and 1940s, candidates and reporters both recognized the impact radio could have on campaigns. For candidates, radio offered a new way to bypass the editorial control of newspapers and address citizens directly. For radio reporters, the medium’s “you are there” qualities brought new storytelling rules to the campaign trail. Radio sets like this RCA model became increasingly commonplace in American homes in the 1920s.

1930s Sparton Bluebird Radio (1935)Newseum

It wasn’t until 1930 that radio’s potential as a news medium fully bloomed and regularly scheduled newscasts began. Radio became a primary source of political news by the end of the decade.

FDR's Microphone, 1930/1945, From the collection of: Newseum
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President Franklin D. Roosevelt used this radio microphone to make his famous “fireside chats” in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1940 election, Roosevelt reached out directly to voters through radio broadcasts, bypassing hostile newspapers that refused to cover his run for an unprecedented third term.

State of the Union Radio Address (1944-01-11)Newseum

President Roosevelt delivered his 1944 State of the Union address over the radio as a fireside chat after his doctor ordered him not to go out due to illness.

Convention Press Passes (1944/2008)Newseum

Covering Conventions

Disagreement and dissent dominated political conventions for more than a century as party leaders met to broker and bicker over candidates. Radio and television broadcast the chaos into American living rooms. The development of the primary system, which made nominations at the convention a mere formality, has made today’s conventions more of a commercial for candidates than a news event. Reporters used these press passes to cover political conventions from 1944 to 2008.

Chaos in Chicago (1968-08-29)Newseum

Police clashes with protesters were the focus of news coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Many Americans believed that media reports distorted the violence, but an independent commission later declared that the police had used unnecessary force.

Scripting the Convention, 1972-08-28, From the collection of: Newseum
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Time magazine covered the 1972 Republican National Convention, where the event's script was mistakenly released to reporters. It said President Richard M. Nixon would be renominated at 10:33 p.m. with 1,348 votes and a seemingly spontaneous “Nixon now!” chant. The program contrasted sharply with the Democratic convention, which was so unruly that nominee George McGovern didn’t speak until nearly 3 a.m. Eastern time — well after prime-time viewing.

Time on TV (1952-07-14)Newseum

Rise of Television

In the 1950s, television became a major force in campaign coverage, and the presidential primary emerged as a path to the nomination. The emergence of televised news marked the beginning of the end of the political convention as the decisive nominating mechanism. Journalists assumed the central role of screening and, in effect, often winnowing potential candidates. Although the true impact of television would not be felt until the end of the decade, when nearly 90 percent of American families owned TV sets, the power of the new medium was evident.In July 1952, Time magazine focused on television’s role in covering the conventions. The 1952 conventions were the first to be nationally televised.

Campaign AdsNewseum

Televised campaign ads have been shaping presidential elections since the 1952 race between Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson. Some ads were positive, but many took aim at opponents. Negative ads would later dominate campaigns.

Image Matters, 1960-10-10, From the collection of: Newseum
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During the 1960 campaign, Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard M. Nixon agreed to four televised debates. While Kennedy appeared tanned and relaxed in the first debate, Nixon looked pale and sweaty. To many of those listening to the debate on the radio, Nixon came out ahead. To television audiences, however, Kennedy was the clear winner. Newsweek covered the impact of televised debates on the election in this 1960 issue.

Debating Price Controls (1960)Newseum

Democrat candidate John F. Kennedy and Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon spar over government controls on the U.S. farming industry in this clip from their first televised debate on Sept. 26, 1960.

Don Hewitt Discusses Kennedy/Nixon Debates (1960)Newseum

Don Hewitt, former executive producer of the "CBS Evening News," reflects on the appearances of Kennedy and Nixon at their first debate.

CBS Cameras (1965/1981)Newseum

These color studio cameras were used for Walter Cronkite’s “CBS Evening News” broadcasts beginning in 1965. Cronkite lead CBS's convention and election coverage.

Convention "Anchor" (1966-10-14)Newseum

TV news programs were still in their infancy when Walter Cronkite made his debut as “anchor” for a team of CBS reporters at the conventions. His job? Moderating reports and explaining the political process to viewers. The network promoted Cronkite’s role as “anchorman” for the conventions, and the term took off.

"The Great Communicator" (1980-11-05)Newseum

Republican challenger Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. Reagan's hometown newspaper, the Dixon (Ill.) Evening Telegraph, reported his triumph. Reagan understood television and the power of images and used both to maximum effect during his campaign. He was called “The Great Communicator” for his unique ability to translate his vision of a smaller government and an expanded military into simple, uplifting messages about the future of America.

"Cliffhanger!" (2000-11-04)Newseum

24/7 Campaign

In the final decades of the 20th century, traditional news faced increasing competition from the “new news” — cable TV, call-in talk radio shows, websites and blogs. Reporters recorded the candidates’ gestures, analyzed every move they made, and uploaded stories and tape all day, feeding the voracious appetite of a 24/7 industry that only knew “now.” In the 2000 election, faulty polling and the rush to be first in a 24-hour news cycle led to the media’s inaccurate prediction that Democrat Al Gore had won the key state of Florida — and the presidency. Broadcasters backtracked and said Republican George W. Bush had won. Gore won the national popular vote but lost the election in the Electoral College. The close race wasn’t decided until a month later.

"It's Bush!" (2000-11-08)Newseum

The razor-close 2000 election led to confusion and conflicting news about the results. Editors at the Orlando Sentinel in Florida went through several headlines, including this one, before finally settling on “Contested.”

Florida Voting Machine, 2000, From the collection of: Newseum
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Voting machines and ballots in Florida were almost as big a story as the election in 2000. The close results and the use of poorly designed ballots spawned charges that votes had mistakenly gone to the wrong candidate. Several news organizations launched investigations of those complaints. This voting machine and ballot are from Palm Beach County, Fla.

Vice President Gephardt? (2004-07-06)Newseum

This headline embarrassed the New York Post in 2004 when Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry did not choose Rep. Dick Gephardt as his running mate.

Press Pack Quilt (2000)Newseum

Reporting from the Campaign Trail

Reporters traveled with candidates on trains and then planes, reporting the news in newspapers, then radio, television, and now on the internet. On the campaign trail, candidates want to get their message out and reporters want to challenge the candidates about their message, campaign promises and policies. Reporters who traveled on Sen. John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” bus during his unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in 2000 signed this quilt to mark the end of the campaign.

Pundit's PerchNewseum

Bloomberg View columnist Albert Hunt discussed the history and importance of the New Hampshire primary to a packed crowd in the Newseum's Annenberg Theater in 2015. The bar stool was presented to legendary political columnist and TV pundit Jack Germond, who for many years held court at the Wayfarer Inn in Bedford, N.H. The inn has served as a meeting place and watering hole for reporters and candidates. As the first in the nation, the New Hampshire presidential primary wields an influence well beyond the state’s small size.

Cooper's Debate Notes (2008)Newseum

CNN’s Anderson Cooper used this notecard while moderating a 2008 presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in California

Katie Couric's Suit, 2008, From the collection of: Newseum
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CBS News anchor Katie Couric wore this suit for her newsmaking interview with 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, which sparked criticism that the Alaska governor was ill-qualified for the White House.

Franklin D Roosevelt (1935-01-01) by Hulton ArchiveGetty Images

Political Scandal

Throughout Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, the rules for press coverage remained simple: Private behavior of public figures remained private unless it had a direct bearing on public responsibilities. Reporters knew that Roosevelt had a close relationship with Princess Martha of Norway but made only oblique mentions. And they rarely photographed the president in a wheelchair. During John F. Kennedy’s campaign, reporters and editors did not cover Kennedy’s private life, including rumors of extramarital affairs. It was a far cry from today’s “anything goes” journalism.

Hart’s Monkey Business (1987-06-02)Newseum

Politicians’ private lives were never the same after 1988 Democratic candidate Gary Hart told reporters asking about womanizing: “If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.” In 1987, The Miami Herald reported that Hart spent the night with a young woman. Hart quit the race, saying the system “reduces the press of this nation to hunters and presidential candidates to being hunted.” A month later, the National Enquirer ran a photo of Hart with Donna Rice on a boat called “Monkey Business.”

Clinton Admits ‘Wrongdoing’, 1992-02-04, From the collection of: Newseum
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In 1992, the Star tabloid paid for and published Gennifer Flowers’s account of her 12-year affair with Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. The candidate and his wife, Hillary, went on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” where he acknowledged “wrongdoing” but refused to admit to the specific allegations. Clinton was elected but was dogged by rumors of infidelity. An affair with an intern sparked legal proceedings that led to Clinton’s impeachment, but he was acquitted.

Homepage of barackobama.com (2008-03-06) by Obama for AmericaNewseum

Digital Campaign

The internet revolutionized presidential politics and news coverage. In 2008, candidates announced their intention to run via online videos, used the internet to raise money and rally support, and got their messages to the public without the filter of traditional media. The internet reaches more voters but makes it harder for candidates to escape scrutiny. Campaign news, good or bad, goes viral in minutes, but sometimes speed trumps accuracy. Eight years later, new technologies, apps and online news outlets are shaping the 2016 election.

Digital Recorder, 2008, From the collection of: Newseum
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Huffington Post blogger Mayhill Fowler used this digital recorder to capture controversial comments that sent reporters scrambling during the 2008 campaign. Fowler recorded Democratic candidate Barack Obama saying that some “bitter” working-class voters “cling to guns or religion.” She also captured former President Bill Clinton insulting a reporter, sparking a backlash against Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign. The lesson: On the internet, anyone can break news.

Obama Wins Nomination (2008-08-29)Newseum

Barack Obama's hometown newspaper covered the senator's acceptance of the Democratic nomination in 2008. Though Obama wasn’t the first candidate to use the internet, his mastery of social networking set a new standard for how campaigns are waged.

Newspapers Cover Obama's Victory (2008-11-05)Newseum

Crowds gathered in front of the Newseum's Today's Front Pages display after Barack Obama's historic victory in 2008. The Newseum displays newspaper front pages from across the country and around the world every day. On Nov. 5, 2008, Obama's win dominated front pages.

Romney Press Pass (2012)Newseum

Reporter Michael Roselli wore this press pass while covering Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on election night 2012. In September 2012, a viral video of a private remark made by Romney undercut his chances for victory.

The Obama Conquest (2012-11-19)Newseum

In November 2012, Newsweek depicted President Barack Obama as a conquering general on this post-election cover. Reaching out to voters through new platforms including Twitter and Tumblr, the Obama campaign built on its robust social media strategy established in 2008.

Inauguration Day Motorcade (2013-01-21)Newseum

President Barack Obama's limousine passed the Newseum as it led the 2013 inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue from the U.S. Capitol.

Inauguration at the Newseum (2013-01-21)Newseum

Visitors watched live coverage of the 2013 inauguration in the Newseum atrium.

How Millenials Get Election News (2015)Newseum

Today, presidential candidates use Snapchat and live streaming platforms like Periscope to connect with young voters on their own terms. In 2015 The Young Turks online news program and the Newseum Institute assembled a panel to discuss how millennials consume election news. The discussion was led by The Young Turks co-host Ana Kasparian and included “Think Tank” host John Iadarola, the Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel, Instagram’s John Tass-Parker and Elizabeth Plank, senior correspondent and host of Flip the Script at Mic.com.

“CNN Politics Campaign 2016: Like, Share, Elect” (2016)Newseum

In partnership with CNN, the Newseum in April 2016 opened “CNN Politics Campaign 2016: Like, Share, Elect,” a new interactive exhibit that tells the story of the 2016 presidential campaign in real time. On display through Jan. 22, 2017, the exhibit offered an immersive experience for visitors to explore the ways big data and social media have transformed how candidates campaign, how journalists cover elections and how the public participates in the political process.

CNN's "Magic Wall" (2016)Newseum

On public display for the first time in the Newseum's “CNN Politics Campaign 2016: Like, Share, Elect” exhibit, CNN's famous "Magic Wall" gives visitors the chance to explore voter demographics in some of the key states and races at the heart of the campaign. Since 2008, CNN has used its Magic Wall to break down election results in real-time.

Zignal Labs Command Center (2016)Newseum

Campaigns change instantly based on news events, and the Zignal Labs Command Center at the Newseum displays up-to-the-second trending issues and events that influence campaigns and the journalists who cover them. Newseum visitors can select a candidate and see graphic visualizations of how social, print and digital news media are responding to his or her role in current events.

CNN's Political Team Discusses the 2016 Election (2016)Newseum

Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, moderated a discussion about the 2016 “social election” with CNN’s top political team. The panel featured chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper, senior political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson, senior digital correspondent Chris Moody and director of social publishing Ashley Codianni.

Puck on Grant (1877-06-01)Newseum

Political Satire

Making fun of presidential candidates has long been a campaign ritual. From the 19th-century humor magazine Puck to TV’s “Saturday Night Live,” satirists have found big audiences for political humor. Today’s campaign trail includes mandatory stops on late-night comedy and talk shows, as more young people get their political news from TV comedy shows. With their visual power and vast audiences, television and the internet amplify the jokes, helping to shape, and sometimes distort, a politician’s image. In 1877, Puck, America’s first successful humor magazine, made fun of former President Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation for drinking.

Mad About Politics, 1956-12-01, From the collection of: Newseum
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Alfred E. Neuman, Mad magazine’s fictional mascot, first became a candidate for president in 1956.

Comedians Get Political (1960-08-01)Newseum

Humorists Mark Twain, Will Rogers and Bob Hope made gentle fun of politicians, but comedian Mort Sahl made the cover of Time magazine in 1960 for the edgy campaign humor that earned him the title “the godfather of political comedy.” Sahl paved the way for political humor to gain a foothold on late-night television, where “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson’s monologue became a barometer of American political attitudes for more than 30 years.

Lampoon on Nixon, 1972, From the collection of: Newseum
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The humor magazine National Lampoon had fun at the expense of President Richard M. Nixon during his 1972 re-election campaign.

"Weekend Update" Sign, 1975/1977, From the collection of: Newseum
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“Saturday Night Live” has skewered presidential candidates for more than three decades in its "Weekend Update" news parody segment. This sign is from the original "SNL" set and was seen on “Weekend Update” from 1975 to 1977.

"Mock the Vote!" (2004-10-17)Newseum

"Daily Show" anchor Jon Stewart appeared on the cover of this 2004 TV Guide.Through four presidential elections, Stewart's irreverent yet insightful take on politics blurred the boundaries between comedy and news.

"Daily Show" Microphone Cube, 2004, From the collection of: Newseum
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This microphone cube was used by "Daily Show" correspondents during the parody news program's "Indecision 2004" election coverage.

Political Parody Reaches New Heights in 2008Newseum

Newseum curator Maeve Scott on the impact of parody in presidential politics.

"SNL" Moose Suit, 2008, From the collection of: Newseum
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"SNL" cast member Amy Poehler performed a rap song spoofing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a moose-hunting “mama grizzly,” with Jason Sudeikis as Palin’s snowmobiling husband, Todd, in a “Weekend Update” sketch viewed by millions during the 2008 campaign. An actor wearing this moose costume was shot down by Poehler during her rap.

Moose Suit InstallationNewseum

A behind-the-scenes look at the "SNL" moose suit with Newseum curator Maeve Scott.

New Yorker Controversy (2008-07-21)Newseum

This 2008 New Yorker cover satirized right-wing portrayals of Michelle and Barack Obama as radicals. The illustration was called “tasteless and offensive” by both the Obama and McCain campaigns.

Onion Covers Obama, 2008-03-20, From the collection of: Newseum
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The satirical newspaper The Onion poked fun at the 2008 candidates in print and on the internet.

Every Four Years:Presidential Campaigns and the PressNewseum

A Free Press in a Free Society

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said it best: "There is no democracy without elections. And there can be no elections without the press." "Every Four Years" explores the storms weathered, the lines crossed and the battles waged through the rocky marriage of reporters and candidates on the presidential campaign trail. The relationship between presidential hopefuls and the press goes to the core of the Newseum’s mission — to help educate visitors about free expression, the five freedoms of the First Amendment and the role of the press in a free society.

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