As TV News Ratings Surge, Historians Remind That Media Can Be Weaponized During Elections

TV News Politics
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Reminder from the past: A media blitz can change history. And that’s not necessarily good news for democracy.

At a time of enforced distancing, ratings for news shows are presently at their highest levels in a generation, at both network and local station levels. ABC News’ World News Tonight with David Muir registers 13.7 million nightly viewers, a throwback to the Walter Cronkite era when nightly news became a dinnertime habit. ABC’s lead in the adults 25-54 demographic, of course, translates into important advertising support.

In trying to steer an objective agenda, the network news shows are reaping the revenues but not the controversy generated by their cable confederates Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, all of whose ratings have also been strengthened by ideological warfare.

Since the pandemic has bolstered news ratings, media analysts are now speculating about the impact of the 2020 election. For example, would Fox News have the most at stake, since several of its commentators have echoed the rhetoric of the Trump administration? Of course, Fox News, like the other networks, must navigate an electorate that seems evenly divided between left and right.

In theorizing about the impact of the elections, some historians lately are citing parallels to past times and places where similar conditions came into play. One example; Weimar, Germany, 1933. The news events of the period followed a roughly similar pattern in several ways: A flu epidemic triggered school closings, also causing cabinet resignations. Unemployment numbers rose sharply as a result of the severe economic downturn. The major political parties seemed stubbornly locked into positions that paralyzed Parliament, even as a suspicious fire burnt the Reichstag building to the ground. And, most important: An important election loomed.

In the face of all this, a middling party, the National Socialists, decided to adapt a radical new strategy that would create a media blitz around a new technology. The public had just discovered the new medium of radio, with 20% of Germans owning one and dealers struggling to keep them in stock. The plan: To stage a succession of massive rallies built around key radio speeches, with the roar of audience approval orchestrated to swell crowd emotion.

Speeches and music would come blaring over loud speakers placed in open windows in town squares, with crowds cheering their support. The “special effects” were pivotal: Attendance at party rallies lately had been sinking. Party leaders had learned that their media “star,” Adolf Hitler, was not a good speaker, often losing his way and blowing his punch lines. But all that could be remedied through acoustical tricks, with his rallies also embellished by book burnings and staged fistfights among left-wing intruders.

Could these theatrics work? Established leaders of the Weimar Republic were dismissive, arguing that Hitler was just a shrill hustler who would be blown away by the voters. The solid conservative regime, led by Paul von Hindenburg, would surely remain in power.

They were wrong, of course. As Peter Fritzsche points out in his new book Hitler’s First Hundred Days, the blitz succeeded in inventing Hitler as a charismatic media star. “The campaign magically developed an emotional connection between Hitler and his public,” he writes. ”The radio noise overwhelmed political reality.”

Fritzsche, a professor of history at the University of Illinois who has written 10 books on German history, declines to make allusions to present history — it is radio that interests him as an instrument of political power. “Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his fireside chats, also took advantage of the intimacy of radio,” he observes. “Radio advertised itself as bringing the world into the living room.”

The difference: In the U,S., the medium of radio became quickly available to voices both on the right and left. Isolationists and anti-Semites were also widely heard in the U.S. In Germany however, Josef Goebbels saw to it that “radio belongs to us, to no one else.” Political speeches had earlier been banned on radio, but Goebbels used a loophole permitting government ministers to make speeches and they quickly became the dominant voices.

In analyzing Weimar’s problems, Fritzsche and other historians point out that the economic frailties of the Weimar Republic of the ‘30s were exacerbated by the severe penalties imposed by the victorious allies at the end of World War I. Prof. Nicholas Stargardt of Oxford University reminds us that “the reparations imposed on Weimar at war’s end sewed severe distrust of democracy among the elites.”

“In the end, most German citizens in Weimar came to believe they confronted a choice between life and death,” Fritzsche observes. “To make Germany great was to narrate a great awakening.”

Their votes, to be sure, proved to be an act of mass self-destruction. And the shadow of Weimar will flicker in the eyes of some historians as they observe today’s media response to the warfare of the upcoming elections.

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