The First President on TV and Other Key Moments in Politics and Media

How TV and the Media Became Key Players in Modern Presidential Politics

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt opens the 1939 New York World's Fair. FPG/Getty Images

The first president on TV, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, likely had no idea how powerful and important a role the medium would play in politics in the decades to come when a television camera broadcast him to the World's Fair in New York in 1939. Television eventually became the most effective medium for presidents to communicate directly with the American people in times of crisis, reach prospective voters during election season, and share with the rest of the nation the moments that bring a polarized nation together.

Some would argue the rise of social media has allowed politicians, particularly modern presidents, to more effectively speak to the masses without filter or being held accountable. But candidates and elected officials still spend tens of billions of dollars on television advertisements every election year because TV has proven to be such a powerful medium. Here are some of the most important moments in television's growing role in presidential politics—the good, the bad and the ugly.

The First President on TV

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt granted the most presidential pardons in history. National Archives and Records Administration

The first sitting president to ever appear on television was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was broadcast at the World's Fair in New York in 1939. The event marked the introduction of the television set to the American public and the beginning of regular broadcasts in an era of radio. But it also was the first use of a medium that would become common in American politics over the decades. 

The First Televised Presidential Debate

Republican Richard Nixon, left, and Democrat John F. Kennedy
Republican Richard Nixon, left, and Democrat John F. Kennedy took part in the first televised presidential debate, which was held during the 1960 presidential race. MPI/Getty Images

Image is everything, as Vice President Richard M. Nixon found out on Sept. 26, 1960. His pail, sickly and sweaty appearance helped to seal his demise in the presidential election against U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy that year. The Nixon-Kennedy debate is considered by most to be the first presidential debate to be televised; Nixon lost on appearances, but Kennedy lost on substance.

According to congressional records, however, the first televised presidential debate actually took place four years earlier, in 1956, when two surrogates for Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and Democratic challenger Adlai Stevenson squared off. The surrogates were former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the Democrat, and Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine.

The 1956 debate took place on the CBS program "Face the Nation."

The First Televised State of the Union Address

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union
President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on January 24, 2012, in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee/Getty Images Newws

The annual State of the Union gets wall-to-wall coverage on the major networks and cable TV. Tens of millions of Americans watch the speech. The most-watched speech was delivered by President George W. Bush in 2003, when 62 million viewers tuned in, according to the Nielsen Company, an audience research firm. By comparison, President Donald Trump drew 45.6 million viewers in 2018.

The first such speech to the nation by a president to be on television was on Jan. 6, 1947, when President Harry S. Truman famously called for bipartisanship during a joint session of Congress after World War II. "On some domestic issues we may, and probably shall, disagree. That in itself is not to be feared. ... But there are ways of disagreeing; men who differ can still work together sincerely for the common good," Truman said. 

The President Gets Airtime

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address in January 2011. Pool / Getty Images News

The president's ability to snap his fingers and automatically get airtime on major television networks has faded with the rise of the Internet and particularly social media. But when the most powerful person in the free world asks, broadcasters comply. Sometimes.

Most of the time, the White House requests coverage from the major networks—NBC, ABC and CBS—when the president plans to address the nation.  But while such requests are often granted, they occasionally are rejected.

The most obvious consideration is the topic of the speech. Presidents don't make such requests of the television networks lightly.

Often times there's a matter of national or international import—the launch of a military action such as U.S. involvement in Iraq; a catastrophe such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks; a scandal such as President Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky; or the announcement of important policy initiatives that impact millions such as immigration reform.

Even if the major television networks and cable outlets won't air the president's speech, the White House has plenty of other ways of getting its message out to Americans through the use of social media: Facebook, Twitter, and especially YouTube

The Rise of the TV Debate Moderator

Jim Lehrer of PBS
Jim Lehrer of PBS has moderated more presidential debates than anyone else in modern history, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates. He is pictured here moderating a 2008 debate between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News

Televised presidential debates just wouldn't be the same without Jim Lehrer, who has moderated nearly a dozen presidential debates in the last quarter century, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates. But he's not the only staple of debate season. There have been a bunch of debate moderators, including Bob Schieffer of CBS; Barbara Walters, Charles Gibson, and Carole Simpson of ABC News; Tom Brokaw of NBC; and Bill Moyers of PBS.

The First Reality TV President

Donald Trump on The Apprentice
Donald Trump is pictured here on the set of the hit show The Apprentice, on which he hired and fired people. At left is son Donald Trump Jr., and at right is daughter Ivanka Trump. Mathew Imaging / Getty Images Contributor

Television played a big role in the election and presidency of Donald J. Trump. It also played a role in his professional life; he starred in the reality television show The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice, which paid him $214 million over 11 years.

As a candidate in 2016, Trump didn't have to spend a whole lot of money trying to win the presidential election because the media—particularly television—treated his campaign as a spectacle, as entertainment instead of politics. So Trump got lots and lots of free airtime on cable news and major networks, the equivalent of $3 billion in free media by the end of the primaries and a total of $5 billion by the end of the presidential election. Such pervasive coverage, even if much of it was negative, helped propel Trump to the White House. 

Once in office, though, Trump went on the offensive. He called journalists and the news outlets they work for "the enemy of the American people," an extraordinary rebuke by a president. Trump also made routine use of the term "fake news" to dismiss critical reports on his performance in office. He targeted specific journalists and news outlets.

Trump was not, of course, the first American president to take on the media. Richard Nixon ordered the FBI tap journalists' phones, and his first vice president, Spiro Agnew, raged against television reporters as a "tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one.”

The White House Press Secretary Phenomenon

Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany holds Briefing At The White House
Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany holds Briefing At The White House. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The White House press secretary—an increasingly high-profile job—is a senior White House official who acts as the primary spokesperson for the executive branch, including the president, the vice president and their senior aides, and all Cabinet members. The press secretary may also be called to speak to the press regarding official government policy and procedures. While the press secretary is appointed directly by the president and does not require approval by the Senate, the position has become one of the most prominent non-Cabinet posts.

Former Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany is the current latest press secretary, having replaced Stephanie Grisham on April 7, 2020.

Until the early 20th century, the relationship between the White House and the press remained cordial enough that an official press secretary was not necessary. After the end of World War II, however, the relationship grew increasingly adversarial. In 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt named journalist Stephen Early as the first White House secretary assigned solely with dealing with the press. Since Stephen Early, 30 individuals have held the position, including the four appointed by President Trump during just his first three years and six months in office. President Trump’s propensity for replacing press secretaries in contrast to former two-term presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who had only four and three press secretaries respectively during their eight years in office. 

Updated by Robert Longley 

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Murse, Tom. "The First President on TV and Other Key Moments in Politics and Media." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Murse, Tom. (2021, February 16). The First President on TV and Other Key Moments in Politics and Media. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "The First President on TV and Other Key Moments in Politics and Media." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 8, 2023).