Voices of Democracy: Public Media and Presidential Elections


Long before the advent of broadcast media, the press has played an integral role in the democratic process in American political elections, insuring transparency, enabling timely reporting of results, and providing candidates a forum via which they can share their varied visions for our collective future. Amidst an era of cable network spin-cycles, and non-traditional, blogosphere journalism, media coverage of presidential campaign politics promises to be even more central to the election process and outcome.

Public media has had an especially strong role in modern presidential campaigns and elections in the United States, consistently offering media access to third party and minority candidates often ignored by mainstream outlets, giving a voice to disenfranchised voters and marginalized populations, and examining the electoral system and the media’s influence. This exhibit documents the relationship between public media and presidential elections in the United States, from 1961 through 2016, charting candidates and voters changing perspectives on topics like the economy, foreign policy, education, and equal rights, and illustrating stations’ informative and reflective role in promoting a functioning democracy.

A successful democracy depends on a knowledgeable and engaged public. In selecting a leader for our nation, the citizens of the United States rely on the press for data and analysis, as a source for logistical information, and as a monitor to detect and denounce corruption and malfeasance. The ACE Electoral Knowledge Network states, “[A] democratic election with no media freedom, or stifled media freedom, would be a contradiction in terms.”1 ACE goes on to identify fundamental roles the media plays in fair elections including educating voters on how to exercise their democratic rights; reporting on campaign developments; providing a platform for parties and candidates, and a platform for the public to communicate its concerns; providing a forum for formal and informal debates; reporting on and scrutinizing results, and the electoral process as a whole; and, avoiding “inflammatory language” that might incite civic unrest.2

There is perhaps no greater exercise in democracy--and test of the press’s position in upholding transparency and educating the electorate--than in the election of a national leader. Public media has been a crucial player in addressing these responsibilities, with member stations across the country developing interviews, call-in shows, and news magazines around candidates and voters’ key issues; providing coverage at events throughout the campaign cycle, such as speeches, conferences, rallies, live debate and election-night updates; and, offering in-depth, post-election analysis of voting results and the process, including reflection on the mainstream media’s impact on public perception of presidential campaigns and politics. Public radio and television programming surrounding presidential elections showcases unique regional perspectives, frequently providing third party and minority candidates with a forum for sharing their platform with voters, and in turn, providing a forum for voters, especially historically disenfranchised groups, to have their voices heard.

This collection highlights public media material spanning over 50 years, from a 1961 NEAB special on the Peace Corps, featuring excerpts of speeches by Sen. John F. Kennedy during his 1960 presidential campaign, to extensive primary coverage from New Hampshire Public Radio from the mid-90s on, to the commentary and analysis of Kennedy advisors Ted Sorensen and William Wilson for WGBH’s 2010 programming in honor of the 50th anniversary of the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debates. The collection documents our national conversation on topics like the economy, foreign policy, education, the environment, agriculture, religion, and equal rights for women, people of color, the poor, and the GLBTQ community in the climate of presidential elections.

The collection also features material that examines the media climate around which presidential election politics unfold and the rise of social media and digital outreach in the historic election of Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States in 2008. ACE notes, “The nature of the media landscape will largely determine the nuances of the role that the media play in an election.”3 It also could be said that the nature of the media landscape will largely determine many nuances of the election itself. The role that public media has played in reporting on presidential campaigns and elections will continue to be vital to promoting an informed public, a transparent process, and an engaged citizenry--all necessary components to a functioning, healthy democracy.

Robert F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson on the Campaign Trail


Lily Troia

Digital Exhibits Intern, American Archive of Public Broadcasting

Declan McBride

Digital Projects Intern, American Archive of Public Broadcasting