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October 3, 2007

It all began with President Harry Truman

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Sixty years ago, on October 5, 1947, an American president delivered a speech live on television.

History reflects that the speech delivered by President Harry S Truman was hardly memorable. According to an article on the event in "American Heritage," by Christine Gibson, "the October 5 broadcast did have a large effect on the free world, just not in a way Truman, or anyone at the time, could have predicted."

Today, most people take for granted a world dominated by cell phones, instant messaging, computers, and cable TV. News and entertainment travels around the world in minutes, if not seconds; but in 1947 much of the news was disseminated by way of the radio or newspapers.

Ever since, television has played an integral role in politics, especially presidential politics. By around 1960, more people got their news from television broadcasts than newspapers - or the radio.

It has only been as recent as the 2000 presidential election that television's stranglehold on maintaining the dominant narrative which shapes much of public opinion on national politics has been slowly but surely replaced by the Internet.

In a parallel dynamic, television and the Internet - and newspapers - are slowly but surely merging. However it was President Truman's 1947 speech which set the political landscape on its head.

It was the subsequent 1952 contest between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson that first used television advertising. In an essay, "Political Processes and Television," Lynda Lee Kaid notes that was in "that campaign, Richard M. Nixon, as Eisenhower's vice-presidential candidate, 'took his case to the people' to defend himself on television against corruption charges in the famous Checkers speech.' "

In 1952 Mr. Stevenson "refus(ed) to participate in this type of electronic campaigning," according to Ms. Kaid. His unsuccessful campaign never recovered.

Beginning with the investigation of Alger Hiss in the late 1940's, and well into the early 1950's, the televised House Un-American Activities Committee hearings with Senator Joseph R. McCarthy riveted American audiences and forged the early marriage of politics and television by fire.

Historians will debate for decades to come as to whether or not that committee would have ever been sustainable if it were not for television.

Subject to less debate are the analyses that it was television in 1954, when the public was able to witness the hearings featuring the match between the Army and Senator McCarthy, which ultimately led to his inevitable fall from grace. It was one thing to have read in the newspaper that Senator McCarthy's bare-knuckles tactics appeared crude and unbecoming, but to watch it on TV made it unbearable.

As much as the Internet has risen in power in the last decade for being a primary source of information, several recent televised events have proven the continued value of television. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker spent two days in September on Capitol Hill testifying that the surge strategy in Iraq was working.

It was all televised. On its heels, the now-infamous presentation by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York on September 24 was live theatre.

Collaterally, it was not unnoticed that newspapers, in particular the infamous "General Betray Us" ad subsidized by the New York Times, have played a significant role in shaping the current dialogue on the war in Iraq - but not for reasons for which the New York Times would prefer.

It was the Internet in which most of us were able to view for ourselves that the New York "Betray Us" ad was truly offensive. It was the Internet that allowed us to see a replay of large amounts of the "General Petraeus report" and view for ourselves the antics of "Code Pink."

Not to overlook presidential candidate New York Sen. Hillary R. Clinton maligning General Petraeus with her infamous gaffe when she told him Petraeus that his progress report on Iraq required "a willing suspension of disbelief."

And it is the Internet which will replay these events over and over in the coming year in its role as the great democratizer of news and analysis that is forging public opinion.

It is apparently a dynamic that liberals have been slow to comprehensively understand. By refusing to recognize the fact checking facilitated by the Internet, liberals are doomed to the fate of Mr. Stevenson in next year's presidential campaign.

Just last week, when the liberal-leaning "Media Matters for America" attempted to smear Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly with cherry-picked, out-of-context remarks from lengthy radio broadcasts, it was the Internet that allowed access to "primary source" information so that we could fact check and then decide for ourselves whether or not their remarks were unseemly or disparaging.

Many of us read about their comments in newspaper accounts or viewed the drama unfold on CNN and were initially alarmed and dismayed. It was only after we did a "compare and contrast" exercise on the web, that we discovered that the Media Matters inspired controversy was manufactured and misleading.

Ultimately, many of these events are unnecessary setbacks for liberals, who for many decades have counted on a biased media to tell us what to think, without the scrutiny of being fact checked.

The October 5, 1947, live televised speech by President Truman set into motion a great democratization which continues to facilitate our ability to witness events for ourselves and then come to our own conclusions about the merits of an episode or an initiative.

In 1947, the year of President Truman's speech on "food conservation," NBC premiered "Howdy Doody" and "Meet the Press." Sixty years later, as the Internet continues to build upon the information dissemination power of newspapers and television, we can now understand that often there is no difference between the two programs. And we should never forget that we have the straight shooting, plainspoken President Truman to thank.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

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