Kathryn Cramer Brownell
Author, “Showbiz Politics”
by: John Stanton
There was a time before the 24-hour news beast had yet to be born. The news of the day was found in a handful of major daily newspapers, or on one of three network channels broadcasting the nightly news. It was written on typewriters, by political journalists who probably had more power than they should have.
There are a handful of books from those days, a timeline roughly 1960 through 1974, that tell the story of how political campaigns were run and reported on, and how we got from here to there. If you want to prepare yourself for this November’s election, you could do a lot worse.
“What I find so interesting is that during the 1970s there is a really dramatic shift in how people are thinking about the media,” Kathryn Cramer Brownell said. “These books documented and contributed to the shift.”
“At the end of the 1960s you see the introduction of analysis about why things are happening, rather than just reporting. It is easy, in retrospect, to point out the problems of that, but at the time they were trying to show how certain facts could be manipulated by the Nixon administration. There was a feeling that you had to interpret those facts.”
It is a short walk across a few decades to our current media, in which analysis and opinion often get confused with news.
Brownell is an associate professor of history at Purdue University, whose expertise is on the media and political history. She is the author of “Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life,” now available in paperback.
Her island credentials are just as impressive as her academic credentials. She is married to Jason Brownell, a Nantucket native whose family owns Hatch’s package store. They have two children: Lillian, who will be 3 years old this fall, and Jacqueline, who turned 1 in August.
She is on the board of trustees at the Atheneum. And in what may be the biggest island credential of all, she bartended at The Chicken Box while she was working on her Ph.D. from Boston University.
The attitudes of journalism, which you can see in these books, and the new tools of the trade, stemming from the rise of the Internet and cable television, changed the way things are done for better or worse.
“There used to be really powerful gatekeepers of the news, who decided what stories and sources were credible, and who had those sources, and it was tied to the power dynamics at the time,” Brownell said. “And those decisions were made from an overwhelmingly white-male-dominantculture viewpoint.”
You can begin with Theodore White’s “The Making of the President 1960.” The book let people see for the first time the shifting power dynamics that shape campaigns.
“It is a really fascinating book because it is one of the first books to try and give one of these inside accounts,” Brownell said. “White clearly admires JFK and the book celebrates him. It came out in 1961, so it was a big boost to JFK who had just started his presidency. It did launch this genre of trying to chronicle campaigns.”
Eight years later, a young journalist named Joe McGinnis somehow got the OK from Richard Nixon’s campaign to tag along. The result was “The Selling of the President 1968.” The cover art of Nixon’s face on a package of cigarettes told you all you needed to know.
“I think that was a turning point, Nixon’s victory. His campaign made use of media messaging and television and brought in advertising and entertainment executives,” Brownell said. “Joe McGinnis’ book was so influential because he tells this story. The difference between Nixon the loser and Nixon the winner was that he had this media team.”
One of the main characters in the Nixon campaign and in McGinnis’ book is Roger Ailes, who eventually became chairman and CEO of Fox News. Ailes died in 2017. His reign as the head of Fox News ended after a series of allegations of sexual misconduct.
“McGinnis’ book really helped make him famous,” Brownell said. “He was a leading character in the book and it made him look very savvy. Ailes capitalized on that. He wanted to get involved in the Nixon White House and came up with the idea of GOPTV. He ultimately didn’t make any headway with the Nixon administration. He never really had an official spot. But he ultimately was a key player in the 1988 George H.W. Bush campaign.”
Brownell’s next book, due out soon, is about the influence of cable television on the political landscape. The book begins in the days when network broadcasting had all the power.
“The three dominant networks were so powerful economically and politically,” she said. “They shaped how politicians thought about the news. Nixon is really the first politician to see that cable could compete with network television. His argument was about media access, that people have to have access to the media in order to have any voice.”
The payoff of the new communications landscape, she said, is the inclusion of more voices into the political conversation. She is quick to say that there is also a downside, as fringe opinions and groups move closer to the mainstream.
“The biggest challenge as an historian of the media is that I can understand how in the 1960s only official sources were seen as credible and that was deeply problematic,” she said. “Nevertheless we need to have a shared set of facts. We can disagree about their meaning but we need to have facts and they need to matter. Any conversation that will bridge the political gaps in our society needs to be working from some common ground.” ///
John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker and story editor of Nantucket Today.