Learning Through the Presidency of John F. Kennedy: How We Can Teach the Power of Television and Media
We are living through times as Americans where television and media prove to be dominant in our everyday lives. Even more so, the media, using exposure from the television, have shown they have immeasurable power when it comes to shaping the beliefs and ideals of Americans from all corners of the country. It should be up to us as teachers to begin to include the power of media and television and content because it is hard to ignore the impact both have had on our political landscape as a country. On top of this, presidents have shown that they are more than willing to use television and media to their advantage, especially when it comes to pleasing their base. This happens in the forms of rallies, commercials, press conferences, briefings, and interviews on new channels like Fox News and CNN. I believe that, in order to teach our students about the powers of both entities, we must go back to the president who made them a part of main stream American culture. This requires us to go back and analyze the presidency of none other than John F. Kennedy.
Content in many history classes shine light on many presidents like Abraham Lincoln, the heroics of George Washington, the groundbreaking policies of the New Deal era from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but John F. Kennedy is held to a different standard. JFK was a president the country lost too soon, that cannot be argued differently. However, he is also a president who has become a sort of mythological creature for many younger-generation Americans, deservedly so. As a man who is often remembered for that dreadful day in Dallas, Texas, I believe it is up to us as teachers to start to move towards a different narrative for Kennedy. Although it is challenging to analyze the presidency of JFK from a policy standpoint, since he just simply did not spend an ample amount of time in the White House, he should be remembered and taught in more ways that just his assassination. John F. Kennedy, through television and media, transformed the job of the presidency. He changed what it meant to be presidential because there had never been a president who had been displayed so much to the American public as Kennedy. Mary Ann Watson, a historian from the University of Michigan in her piece, “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F Kennedy”, echoes this sentiment, saying, “the symbiotic bond between television and the occupant of the White House was forever sealed during the Kennedy years” (Watson, 1986). We as teachers have been missing out on a key moment in American history when it comes to the analysis of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. The bond Kennedy created between himself and Americans using television explains the development we have seen play out between presidents and presidential candidates in history. It is time for students to learn about the impact he made.
If you asked a class full of your students when the last time they saw President Trump or President-Elect Biden on their televisions at home with their families, it could be assumed that many would raise their hands. This is an important development of the presidency that has not always been a part of the job title. While it would be ignorant to say that this would not have happened if not for Kennedy and his presidency, the way he connected to Americans so effectively through the exposure from television and the media created a blue print for every presidential hopeful after him to follow. Take it from Kennedy himself, who said in an address as a senator about the impacts of television on politics, “but for better or worse-and I side with those who feel its net effect can be definitely be for the better, the impact of TV on politics is tremendous” (Kennedy, 1959). Kennedy and the television boom the country experienced throughout the 1960’s created a perfect storm. It effectively begun the relationship we are all so familiar with having with our president or presidential nominee every four years.
The media in 2020 has seemingly unlimited access to presidents and nominees in the climate we find ourselves in. While this has created a transparency between presidents and citizens, it has also allowed for a dangerous dynamic to be created. Something that is often forgot about Kennedy and his relationship with the media is hypnosis he put many of them under during his time in office. Alice George, author of Awaiting Armageddon, said that, “Kennedy was too responsive to journalist’s opinions, and because he made journalists feel important, they became too susceptible to his charms” (George, 2003, p. 88). It could be said the relationship Kennedy and the press had together became toxic for the well-being of America. Kennedy greatly impacted what they told the American people, which created a lack of transparency for the administration. We have seen this playout with many presidents who succeeded Kennedy.
The current political climate when it comes to media coverage is dangerously partisan, and it seems to be getting worse, not better. Kennedy was insecure at times when it came to what the media was saying about him because he knew his image he had with many Americans was something he could not lose hold of. In Joseph P. Berry Jr.’s book, John F. Kennedy and the Media, he wrote, “despite Kennedy’s cooperation with the media, they sometimes wrote or aired reports with which he disagreed; he would then contact the source to let them know of his displeasure and to seek corrections.” And conversely, “whenever Kennedy read a favorable article about himself, he would not only tell the writer, but would then from memory quote direct phases” (Berry, 2002, p. 59). This type of relationship Kennedy had with the media has become more apparent for presidents in office today. Just in this administration alone, we have seen President Trump call every article or claim from the media he does not like “fake news”, while he will praise a Fox News piece that sheds any type of positive light on himself. This has created a dynamic around the office of the presidency where we cannot take everything we hear from the person in office as fact. This is a dangerous precedent, and one America must get off the path of. Our students must know that this has become a part of the presidency when it comes to trusting what they hear from the media. If they don’t, the political climate will become even more partisan because the younger generation will continuously support the channels and news outlets who are either trying to please or undermine the man in office.
Kennedy and the way he transformed the presidency by use of television and media fundamentally changed what it meant to be President of the United States. Every president after Kennedy has had to juggle both the exposure from television as well as intense scrutiny and judgment from the media. Presidents have dealt with it differently, we have seen some fail like Nixon, and some prosper like Reagan. Students must know about the way Kennedy impacted the presidency by shifting the presidency to a man Americans rarely saw to a man who was a part of their lives. Presidents today have a place in millions of homes across America through television and media exposure, it is time students realize the impact President John F. Kennedy had on this monumental change.
Berry, J.P. (2002). John F. Kennedy and the media: The first television president. Auburn, NY: Legend Books.
George, A.L. (2003). Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans faced the Cuban Missile Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Kennedy, J.F. (1959). “A Force That Has Changed the Political Scene.” Retrieved from https://www.museum.tv/debateweb/html/equalizer/print/tvguide_jfkforce.htm?
Watson, M.A. (1986). A tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy: An international special event. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/ERIC_ED295564/ERIC_ED295564_djvu.txt