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newseum exhibit every four years A panel from the exhibition "Every Four Years" at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy Hannah Prensky)

Evolution of the Campaign Trail

Exhibit documents relationship between presidential candidates and the press

By Hannah Prensky | null null , null

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It may seem hard to believe now, but when Republican candidate William McKinley campaigned to be President in 1897 he never traveled farther than his front lawn on his way to the White House. Instead, hundreds of thousands of citizens regularly flocked to the front porch in Canton, Ohio, to hear him speak, while a handful of reporters gathered every day to record his comments for their newspaper stories.

In contrast, his unsuccessful Democratic opponent William Jennings Bryan traveled thousands of miles to deliver inspiring speeches. Thus, modern campaigning was born.

The process of electing a president and the ways in which reporters cover the phenomenon have changed a lot over the past 100 years. The Newseum in Washington, D.C., explores these changes in its new election-year exhibit, "Every Four Years: Presidential Campaigns and the Press."

The Newseum is a museum devoted to news. So Every Four Years is focused on how media coverage of presidential campaigns has evolved since 1896.

The rules of the coverage game change constantly to satisfy the public’s hunger for information, reporters’ rights to tell the stories, and the candidates’ need to get out their political message. The rise of big-city newspapers, then magazines, then radio and television all altered the relationship between journalist and candidate.

In the 1930s and '40s, for example, radio offered a way to avoid the editorial control of newspapers and address citizens directly. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a master at using radio. In 1940, using simple words and every day analogies, Roosevelt reached out directly to voters through radio broadcasts that he called Fireside Chats. These broadcasts bypassed hostile newspapers that refused to cover his run for an unprecedented third term.

In the 1950s, television became a major force in campaign coverage. In fact, the very first televised presidential debate had a tremendous effect on the outcome of the race. Many historians believe John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the 1960 election because he appeared to be more relaxed and confident than the visibly uncomfortable Nixon, who was sweating profusely during the debate.

Today, candidates use the Internet to reach voters directly without the filter of traditional media. In 2008, Hillary Clinton was the first to announce her candidacy for President on her website. But it was Barack Obama who revolutionized the cyber campaign.

Obama’s use of the Internet was a political game-changer. His digital strategy engaged voters as never before. It helped raise millions of dollars online and rallied support through text messages, e-mail, and the official campaign website. The Obama campaign generated direct contact with voters through Facebook and nearly 15 million hours of free advertising via YouTube videos.

In 2012, candidates and reporters alike use Twitter and other social media to break news and monitor public opinion. These new tools have yet again transformed the way candidates campaign, increasing the speed of news, and creating a shared space for scrutiny and ideas.

Those who visit the exhibit marvel at how campaigns have changed over time. Every Four Years uses campaign and media memorabilia, artifacts, news photographs, historic front pages, and archival television and radio broadcasts to show how campaign coverage has progressed.

But what hasn't changed is that journalists have always been there to bring news of the campaign to their readers.

The exhibit will be open until January 27, 2013. You can find out more about it on the Newseum's website.


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