1980: ‘Made for TV Election’ Explores Role of Media in Shaping Public Opinion


A William Brandon Shanley film available at Amazon.com.

“Pertinent, powerful, persuasive. Handsomely produced… Brilliant.” — Los Angeles Times.

“Profoundly enlightening. A devastation look at television’s impact on the presidency.” — Helen Thomas.

“This film should be seen by every American in every city and town.” — Norman Lear, TV Creator.

Hollywood star and activist Martin Sheen shows how broadcast TV networks create winners and losers in US presidential elections by typecasting the candidates in a drama of their own making in this long-suppressed and sabotaged documentary about the 1980 Presidential Election Campaign when Ronald Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter. Watch how network news shows use polls, gaffes, flip-flops, stereotypes, and show business values to pump the ratings and misdirect you from what you need to know to be an informed citizen and understand what’s really happening in America. The program dissects network coverage and reveals TV’s “hidden hand” in changing the outcome of the most important election since 1968, exposing the myth of the Reagan Revolution and the made-for-TV “conservative tide” that so tragically changed America’s course.

My Analysis

With so much media coverage of presidential campaigsn focusing on meaningless “polls, gaffes, stereotypes and other show business values,” it’s a good time for students of media to watch “The Made for TV Election.”

Using the 1980 election as a case study, the producers of this documentary contend that television distorted reality and manipulated public opinion to “to create winners and losers in a drama of their own making to pump the ratings–and distract you from what you need to be an informed citizen and understand what’s really happening in America.”

Watching this documentary, it’s very difficult to believe in a liberal media bias against Ronald Reagan or conservatives in the 1980s. It makes a strong case that the three major television networks enabled Reagan’s victory.

“By revealing TV’s role as catalyst, The Made-for-TV Election dispels the Made-for-TV myth that Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory represented a “rising conservative tide in America” mandating the “Reagan Revolution” and “a sharp right turn in 1980, both from its own previous half century and, perhaps even more tellingly, from the economic, social and political norms of other developed countries…”

“This detour into business values, privatization and commercialization of the commons “has come at profound cost to Americans’ common good. We work far longer hours, pay more for worse medical care, live shorter and more brutish (less educated, less leisurely, less informed, less equal, more polluting) lives than our European counterparts. That there are no easy solutions should come as no surprise…” From a review of Dean Baker’s “The World Since 1980” by Leslie Thatcher, Truthout.”

The documentary even tarnishes the image of Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman once viewed as “the most trusted man in America.” While I can certainly agree that it was not a good thing that so much political and media power was concentrated in the hands of a few TV network news executives, the implicit if not explicit message of the documentary is this:

For the sake of TV drama and Hollywood values, TV manufactured the gas crisis of 1979 by implicitly urging people to top off their gas tanks – there was a shortage but not a crisis – and then blamed Carter for it.

TV created images of Carter’s impotence and incompetence because he so heavily emphasized the importance of energy conservation and yet his energy bill stalled in Congress. It did not take final action on the bill until much later in his term. CBS News correspondent Ed Bradley says in the documentary:
“Jimmy Carter had no show business talent. He came across as a dud on television. He did much better with a live audience, in a small room. One on one, he could convince you to sell your socks and shoes. Very impressive man. You put him on television and he comes across very uncomfortably.”

The TV media forced Ted Kennedy into the race by talking constantly about meaningless polls and how weak Carter was, led Ted to believe winning the race would be “a piece of cake,” as he said. Then after Kennedy entered the race, for the sake of drama, TV news resurrected the 10-year-old story of Chappaquiddick, hyping it frequently, and portrayed Kennedy as making an unpatriotic gaffe when, in response to questions, he stated the facts that the Shah of Iran had run a brutal regime and routinely violated the human rights of Iranians.

TV news labeled and ridiculed a speech Carter gave as the “malaise” speech (though Carter never used the word “malaise,”), hyped the Iranian hostage crisis far beyond its importance, made Carter look impotent for not being able to free the hostages, forced Carter into a Rose Garden strategy to show his concern for the hostages, which embittered Kennedy who wanted Carter to at the very least debate him and validate his reasons for running.

TV news turned the losing Kennedy into a gallant hero who, though he couldn’t win, could greatly damage Carter. TV news manufactured the idea that Gerald Ford would become Reagan’s running mate for the sake of drama, let Reagan get away with going to ghettoes and talking about Carter’s broken promises though no president could have resurrected the ghettoes, hyped liberal Republican John Anderson’s candidacy enough to persuade him to run as a third party candidate (taking more votes away from Carter than Reagan), ignored the Republicans’ theft of Carter’s debate briefing papers (giving Reagan an edge) though the theft became a matter of public record during the campaign, hyped and ridiculed Carter’s off-hand remark that he consulted with his daughter Amy on foreign policy, called the election for Reagan before the polls closed and before Carter’s people in the West had voted, and declared a landslide for Reagan when in fact he won with just 51% of the vote.

While I can agree that the three major television networks had too much political power in those days to set the nation’s political agenda, and Jimmy Carter certainly looks better with time, even visionary. Still, it’s a big stretch to suggest, even implicitly, that Carter would have won and Reagan would have lost without TV “manipulation.” Given double-digit inflation, high unemployment, high gas prices, and his uninspiring speaking style, Carter was going to have a tough time winning re-election under any circumstances. The Democratic Party was deeply and substantively divided over the direction it wanted to take the country. It’s difficult to imagine Carter as anything more than a beleaguered president once re-elected — it’s hard to imagine him as a re-energized and successful president into the 1980s.

Even so, the “Made for TV Election” is a thought-provoking documentary on media distortions and political power.

Reader Comments

Thanks for the excellent report, Jim.

Just wanted to remind you that in spite of the problems with oil inflation, the split in the Democratic party and the John Anderson candidacy, the race between Carter and Reagan was dead even until the hostage developments over the weekend dashed expectations about an October Surprise. On top of that, after the network’s first anniversary America Held Hostage retrospectives on election eve, the bottom fell out for Carter. As I recall, one network, CBS, I believe it was, spent the first 7 or 8 minutes AND the last 5 minutes of the broadcast on the hostage crisis. As such, it is our view, that it was Carter’s failure to deliver the hostages by election day, plus television’s year-long and election eve retrospectives that ignited the virtually unprecedented shift in votes. The early characterizations about a Reagan victory election day, and the early official projections election night also worked to augment Reagan’s victory. Hence, the heavy hand of television made Carter’s defeat inevitable. And now, of course, we know that George Bush, William Casey and Robert Gates met with Iranian officials in October and cut a deal to hold the hostages back until Reagan was sworn in as president in exchange for weapons. This, according to Bani Sadr, the pilot who flew the group to Paris, Soviet intelligence, and documentation. All of this, of course, derails the myth of the Reagan Revolution and a conservative mandate to dismantle the New Deal. That’s one of the reasons this program has not seen distribution. This will be covered in a new postscript we’re taping for the DVD, as well as other statements to update the program. Thank you again, William Shanley, filmmaker.

6 thoughts on “1980: ‘Made for TV Election’ Explores Role of Media in Shaping Public Opinion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.