Campaigning before social media: 1948 and 1972 as case studies

Truman’s whistle-stop campaign and Chicago Tribune’s front page running the “most incorrect headline” (Karabell, 2000, p.5) “Dewey Defeats Truman” the day after the general election in November 1948 are historic highlights from the last campaign before TV radically altered political campaigns. Roughly speaking, campaigning moved from substance to style. However, as Crouse describes it in The Boys on the Bus, politics was still a messy game in 1972, and pack journalism was part of the game in 1948 as well as in 1972.


Objectivity and Neutrality

Ideally, the journalism ethos consists of objectivity and neutrality, but as both books for this week’s class reveal this ideal is hard to obtain in reality. According to Karabel (2000), in 1948 the reporters regarded themselves as “the Fourth Estate,” and they expected to play a role in the presidential campaign. “Reporters believed they served a vital purpose. They believed…..they had the power and responsibility to ‘mediate’ the election” (p.93). This mediation was not always objective and neutral, but the reporters saw their role as necessary for the democracy and the American voters that reporters expressed their opinions. The pundit Walter Lippmann put it this way in an interview in 1959: “We make it our business to find out what is going on under the surface and beyond the horizon, to infer, to deduce, to imagine, and to guess what is going on inside, what this meant yesterday and what it could mean tomorrow. In this we do what every sovereign citizen is supposed to do but has not the time or the interest to do for himself” (p.92).


I see also see this trend of pundits in Crouse’s description of The Heavies (chapter IV and VI); the handful of reporters who dominated the pack. The description of Johnny Apple from the New York Times gave me the impression that he was closer to the ideal of objectivity than David Broder, Washington Post or Evans and Novak from the Washington Post. It might be too ambitious to analyze reporting through a rigid ideal type (Max Weber) of objectivism and neutrality. They are reporting in real time, and as Karabel and Crouse both described, the reporters missed important factors in 1948 as well in 1972. In 1972, the press corps did not hold Nixon accountable and took his “stage-managed” campaign at “face value” (Crouse, 2000,p.186).



Pack Journalism

One explanation could be herd mentality. Crouse realized early in the 1972-campaign, covering the campaign for Rolling Stone, that political reporters are like herds or a part of pack journalism: “They all feed from the same pool report, the same daily handout, the same speech by the candidate; the whole pack was isolated in the same mobile village. After a while, they began to believe the same rumors, subscribe to the same theories, and write the same stories” (Crouse, 2003, p.8). And as a reporter, there was no way to escape the group pressure – you had to join the herd.


But this holds also true in the Truman-Dewey-Wallace-Thurmond Campaign. In 1948, the press had climbed into the power elite and became a respected profession. The pundits ran in the same circles and lived in the nice Georgetown neighborhood in Washington DC, next door to senators, congressmen and other notable figures in the administration. (Karabel, 200, p.91). During the primaries in the spring 1948, the press did not favor Truman as a person or as president which the press coverage reflected. But the coverage changed during the fall, when reporters covered Truman from the train. The polls captured the first trend but not the second. (But that is another story of polling. Pollsters thought that voters decided much earlier and did not take undecided voters into account). The pack mentality was evident in 1972 as Crouse described it, for instance the “screening committees” or clubs of Washington reporters, who did not believe in McGovern as the Democratic presidential candidate.


The Difference in Press Coverage in 1948 and 1972

TV changed our lives and of course it changed the presidential campaigns. TV was a business – I guess print and radio media in the 1940s considered itself to be more about public service than business. As a business, TV relies on ratings and ads, and the news has to condense long speeches and complex issues to simple sound bites and visuals. Crouse described the making of a news story from the Democratic Convention in Miami (chapter VII), and it illustrated very well that there is not much time or room for complex or lofty discussions. TV was good for drama, style, and media events with photo opportunities. Besides the differences of style and substance, TV reached out to the masses and a national audience in 1972 that it had no chance of doing in 1948. ABC, NBC, and CBS were national media. You can argue that the wire-services had reached out to a national audience as long as the services had existed but not to a degree as TV reached the Americans.


In the End, Dewey Defeated Truman

Truman was certainly the comeback-kid in 1948 making history with his straight-talk and hard work on the whistle-stop campaign throughout the country (except to the South). The campaign stood in stark contrast to Dewey’s – packaged messages, presidential appearance, and ‘positive’ campaigning. Truman stages himself as a simple honest man from Independence (MI) and Dewey as a calculating New Yorker. This was the impression the voters got from the press coverage, but in reality Truman was just as calculating as Dewey. But he was better at selling his image to the press. The reporters did not feel they knew Dewey, not even after covering him for months on the campaign trail. Playing poker and hanging out with reporters on the train, “Truman let the reporters in” and attacked his opponent in a way that has never been seen since.


Karable argues Dewey was ahead of his time, and his way of campaigning has been the rule ever since. TV and the packaged message and the positive campaign go hand in hand.


The description of Dewey in Karabel’s word matches to a certain extend Crouses’s description of the Nixon PR campaign in 1972: “The cool, detached Dewey, the packaged candidate who ran so not to lose, who steered clear of controversy (not Nixon in 1972 because of Watergate), and who made a good show of appearing presidential” (Karabel, 2000, p.266).



One response to “Campaigning before social media: 1948 and 1972 as case studies

  1. Interesting you all are reading “The Last Campaign” now after reading “The First Campaign” last term! Garrett would be proud 🙂

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