Politics and Television—notes from a reading group

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

By Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Chris Anderson, Matt Powers, and Dave Karpf.

Reading Kurt Lang and Gladys Engels Lang’s Politics and Television (published in 1968) more than sixty years after the research was done is an interesting and rewarding experience. The book collects the Langs’ pioneering sociological studies of television news, its implications for political processes, and its relation with its audience.

It contains their landmark study of the 1952 MacArthur Day Parade in Chicago, where they develop their argument about the “unique perspective of television” and in simple, clear, and evidence-based fashion show how television news does not simply transmit information about the parade, but transforms it. More generally, they show how television does not simply convey news but constitutes events and changes how processes unfold.

On the basis of an impressive piece of field research combining observation of MacArthur’s tour through Chicago with observation of the television coverage and interviews with both people watching the general and his motorcade as it moved through the city and people watching him on television, the Langs distinguish between the “crowd perspective” of those who turned out on the streets of Chicago and caught only a glimpse of the general, and often expressed their disappointment with the absence of spectacle, with the experience of the television viewer, who by virtue of the then relatively new mobile television cameras, the hard work of television reporters on the ground, the reaction of people on the ground to the cameras, editing in the newsroom, and running commentary was presented with the spectacle they had expected (p. 75). They develop the notion of a landslide effect where “media coverage of events and public responses to that coverage reinforce each other.”

This is a terrific study, clearly written, great research design, persuasive, and a fresh read even so many years later—a deserved classic, and a powerful illustration of what a good case study can lead to.

Other, less famous chapters of enduring interest concern what the Langs call “The Intimate View of Politics” (chapter 5) and “The Question of Actuality” (chapter 8). Both chapters develop more general, theoretical ideas for understanding what it means for political communication that there is television rather than no television.

In their chapter on the intimate view of politics, they explore the performative dimensions of being a politician on TV. They argue that it involves simultaneously (1) performing “being on TV”, (2) playing a political role, and (3) conveying a personal image, and suggest that the viewer will experience and evaluate each of these aspects of the performance in relatively separate terms, and that one or the other (“being” a partisan debater, or “doing” television, or “seeming” like a particular kind of person) can overshadow other aspects of the performance. This work foreshadows some current cultural sociological interest in the performance of politics (such as the work of Jeffrey Alexander and Jason Mast) and it is interesting to note that it predates Richard Fenno’s influential study of how congressmen present themselves in Washington versus their home district by ten years.

In raising “the question of actuality”, the Langs suggest that the television viewers they have studied in their fieldwork, interviews, and surveys generally compare what they see on television to (1) personal experience and already held beliefs (checking for what the Langs call “affective congruence”) and (2) other second-hand sources of information (“consistency”), but also note that when watching television, (p. 302), “People do not actually ‘see for themselves,’ but many still believe that they do.” (Surely an empirical point worth testing out sixty years later after many discussions of pseudo-events and media spectacles and much concern over “media literacy”.)

The book positions itself in opposition to Marshall McLuhan’s notorious assertion that “the medium is the message” and focuses on how a combination of technological properties, editorial practices, political logics, and audience responses together constitute what we call television and shapes its social consequences. Scholars interested in practice theory, institutional theory, or science and technology studies as approaches to news and journalism can find many precursors in this book, often couched in clear and straightforward English. Much of what the Langs do here is close to what is part of the contemporary mainstream of journalism studies, even as their approach is somewhat different from how political communication is most often studied today.

The Langs themselves were trained in Chicago School of sociology (the MacArthur Day parade study started in a seminar taught by Tom Shibutani) and worked, amongst other places, at Columbia University (and later SUNY Stony Brook and the University of Washington). They do not place themselves in opposition to the “limited effects” tradition of the 1950s and the 1960s represented by the influential work of Paul F. Lazarsfeld and his collaborators, but they do argue that media scholars need to move beyond the tendency to focus on media’s short-term effects on attitudes and behavior if they are to understand the full social implications of new media like television, and the studies collected in this book provide a series of concrete examples of how one can approach the question of the broader, more long-term, experiential and institutional cumulative effects of television in an empirical fashion (p. 305).

As they write—in a passage that could have written today—“Every time a new medium appears on the scene, we seem to expect revolutionary change. The optimists stress its potential for education the pessimists the possibilities for abuse. For every expectation, it seems, there is an equal and opposite expectation. Exorbitant claims are balanced by dire predictions, but most commentators agree that things will never be the same again.” (p. 14)

Against this extremes of utopianism and pessimism (tropes we recognize today), the Langs offer their own more modest and empiricist disposition, their basic view that “it’s complicated” and their interest in unfolding how it is complicated and what it means, their interest in the nuances of the long-term “structuring” effects of the emergence of television (and particular institutionalized forms of television) on American political processes and the relations individual American citizens maintain to these processes, and the way they experience them on the basis of evidence-based and nuanced analysis.

This basic disposition is worth highlighting today as we discuss the rise of digital media, often in terms of impacts on electoral outcomes or consumer choice, and helped the Langs produce a book with a heavy empirical emphasis that is still very much worth reading sixty years later—no small feat!

These are some of the highlights of the book. Half a century is a long time though.  Like all scholarship, other chapters of the book reveal its age. There are chapters on television debates, on the live reporting of election returns, and on the everyday practices of television news reporting that feel dated.  Other scholars have built on the Langs in the intervening years, and now seem more relevant to contemporary researchers.

This doesn’t change that Politics and Television is a classic in the study of political communication, of “new media” (then television), and of journalism, and a highly respected book. It offers examples of how nuanced empirical work on critical case studies can be done in a way that can help make more general and theoretical arguments. It also, upon closer scrutiny, seems slightly less conventionally influential than one might expect. A Google Scholar search (imperfect as it is) suggests about 300 citations, far fewer than for example Joseph Klapper’s The Effects of Mass Communication. Citations is a crude and incomplete indicator of academic influence, as providing examplars of how to do scholarship, personal conversation, and mentorship of graduate students and junior colleagues arguably often is more important, but it does suggest the Langs’ impact, even if great, has perhaps not extended as far as it could have.

Why? Why has Politics and Television, an early landmark study by respected scholars shedding genuine theoretical and empirical light on phenomena that has since become widely studied by hundreds of scholars around the world not been cited more often? Part of the reason seems to be that the book has been superseded by more detailed empirical and theoretical treatments of the subject matter. Herbert Gans’ Deciding What’s News, for example, offers a richer empirical engagement with the practices of news reporting—television or otherwise—than does the Langs’ single chapter sketch (and cites the Langs). Raymond Williams’s Television does the same for the larger theoretical account of television’s social impacts (Williams does not cite the Langs).

Another part of the story is simply that the academic study of communication has become more specialized – and that Politics and Television does not fit neatly into any of the current subfields. Is it a part of political communication research? Is it a part of journalism studies? Is it audience research? Yes on all accounts, but it does not fit fully within either, and specialists in each field will find some chapters of the book fascinating but will be inclined to ignore others. A final reason would seem to be that the specialized field—political communication—in which the book is arguably most at home has largely moved away from the kind of mixed-method mostly qualitative work represented here in favor of research examining the behavioral and attitudinal effects of media mostly on the basis of quantitative research. Sixty years on, Politics and Television offers an important complement to such approaches, a model of how mixed-method research can shed light on substantial problems, help develop theoretical understandings, and point towards more general findings, while also showing how hard it is to do so in practice.

References

Lang, K., & Lang, G. E. (1968). Politics and television. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

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