Sport, Politics, and the Media: A Defining Moment at the 1968 Olympics


The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City was the setting of one of the most dramatic symbolic protests in Olympics history.  Set during the turbulent 1960s, within the backdrop of the civil rights, feminism, and anti-war movements in the United States, U.S. track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, winners of the Gold and Bronze medal in the 200M, used the Olympic podium in symbolic protest against structural social inequality in the U.S. and abroad (Bass, 2002).  Their raised fists and shoeless feet represented the unfinished business of the civil rights movement and defied the dominant narrative of U.S. democracy, highlighting the continued need for structural change in the social and economic institutions of the United States.  As a result, there was an immediate backlash as powerful forces discredited the legitimacy and relevance of the act (Zirin, 2008).  While Smith and Carlos are largely revered in the popular media discourse today (Brown, 2012) for their courage and prominence in the civil rights movement, their symbolic act had serious economic and social consequences for the athletes (Small & Zirin, 2008).  Moreover, structural inequality remains a pervasive social issue in the United States.  Examination of the social, political, economic, and cultural circumstances, leading up to and following the protest have explanatory power to address important questions about the use of the Olympic media event as a force for social change.  What was the role of media as a force for change?  What forces shaped the symbolic moment and how do those forces apply today?  Finally, do the Olympics remain a platform for change by activist athletes?  Examining these questions using a critical cultural lens, this author contends that while the Olympics remain an attractive media platform for protest, the consequences of protest by activist athletes are higher than ever, with strong inducements to assure that the Olympic stage is preserved for state and commercial actors and their dominant narratives.

Background

            The now-famous black power salute on the Olympic podium was not a spontaneous event, but rather a carefully planned and orchestrated protest with roots in the Black Freedom movement, heavily influenced by civil rights leaders and sociologist Harry Edwards, a professor at San Jose State University (Bass, 2002; Small & Zirin, 2008).  Both Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos were track stars at San Jose State University, where they became radicalized by Harry Edwards and became involved in black militant groups (Small & Zirin, 2008).  Influenced heavily by Muhammad Ali’s use of sport as a platform for civil rights, chance remarks by Tommie Smith may have precipitated events by postulating the possibility of an Olympic boycott by black athletes during an interview at the World University Games in Tokyo (BBC, 2012).  This pseudo-event caused significant media controversy that played out over subsequent months, leading to the formation of Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organized effort advocating the boycott of the 1968 by U.S. black athletes (Bass, 2002).

The proposed boycott received considerable media attention, usually expressed in terms of national outrage, drawing the criticism and ire of Avery Brundage, head of the International Olympic committee (Hartmann, 1996).   In contrast, the proposed boycott received the endorsement and support of notable blacks athletes and civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., Lew Alcindor, Louie Lomax, Jacky Robinson, Stokely Carmichael, and Muhammad Ali (Bass, 2002; Earp, 2011; Hartmann, 1996).  With the support of the civil rights movement, the OPHR published a list of demands that included the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s boxing title, the removal of Brundage as head of the IOC, the exclusion of apartheid countries from the 1968 Olympics, desegregation of the New York City Athletic Club, and the placement of black coaches and administrators onto the U.S. Olympic Committee (Hartmann, 1996).  While the boycott and the subsequent demands attracted a great deal of media coverage and public outcry, the proposed boycott failed to receive the needed support from African American Olympic athletes and never materialized (Bass, 2002).  The reason that loomed largest “was that athletes who had trained their whole lives for their Olympic moment quite understandably didn’t want to give it up” (Zirin, 2008)  However, the stage had been set for the Olympic protest.

On October 16, 1968, Tommie Smith won Olympic gold in the 200M sprint and John Carlos won the bronze.  The athletes stepped up to the podium, in front of a global audience of nearly 400 million people wearing “black stockings but no shoes, a black glove on one hand, and Smith had a black scarf around his neck…as the Star-Spangled Banner began, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and simultaneously raised a black-gloved fist” (Bass, 2002, p. 240).  The pair received immediate condemnation from the crowd as the audience began to boo and hiss (Bass, 2002).  During an interview with Howard Cosell (1968), Smith would later comment on the symbology of the moment, explaining:

The right glove that I wore on my right hand signified the power within black America.  The left glove my teammate John Carlos wore on his left hand made an arc with my right hand and his left hand also to signify black unity.  The scarf that was worn around my neck signified blackness.  John Carlos and me wore socks, black socks, without shoes, to also signify our poverty.

Within two days, the IOC expelled the two athletes from the Olympic village and banned them from further Olympic competition.

Upon return to the United States, the athletes were greeted as heroes by San Jose State University and members of the black militant movement, but were largely condemned by the national press, and specifically sports journalists (Hartmann, 1996).  For example, Brent Musburger, a sports columnist for the Chicago American wrote (Zirin, 2008):

One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves at the expense of their country.  Protesting and working constructively against racism in the United States is one thing, but airing one’s dirty clothing before the entire world during a fun-and-games tournament was no more than a juvenile gesture by a couple of athletes who should have known better. (p. 1)

Moreover, Musburger described the pair as “a couple of dark-skinned stormtroopers” (Zirin, 2008, p. 1).  The near universal condemnation of the protest had severe social and economic repercussions for the athletes, as former job offers and career prospects evaporated (Small & Zirin, 2008).  According to Small and Zirin (2008), “Their athletic careers were ruined. For years, they received death threats and were treated like traitors to their country. They couldn’t find good jobs” (p. 1).  As a result of their protest, Smith and Carlos were to lead their lives without the cultural or economic capital typified by most successful Olympic athletes.

The Possibilities of the Olympic Stage

            The Olympics have long been an attractive venue for political statements and protests since the first modern Olympics were held in Athens (Cotrell & Nelson, 2010).  The venues attractiveness stems from of the high-profile nature of the global event, the events accessibility, the availability of transnational allies or supporters, and the “symbolic meaning that facilitates collective claim-making and widens political opportunity” (Cotrell & Nelson, 2010, p. 5).  As such, the Olympics of 1968 must have been a near irresistible opportunity for actors in the civil rights movement.  In particular, the list of OPHR demands suggests the activist organization was well aware of the opportunity, given their linkage of the U.S. civil rights movement and international apartheid.  Moreover, OPHR was likely well aware of the power of the Olympic stage, given lessons learned from the early civil rights movement in the South.

Indeed, the early civil rights movement was a brilliantly executed media campaign whose beginning coincided with the full penetration of network television and the rise of television news broadcasting (Bodroghkozy, 2008).  Television beamed dramatic images of racial injustice and civil unrest directly into the living rooms of most Americans, who hitherto had remained unaffected by the civil rights movement.  The non-violent direct action March from Selma to Montgomery serves as a case in point.  The event, labeled ‘Bloody Sunday’, with images of peaceful protesters being run down by armed troopers on horseback, spurred hundreds of individuals to head to Selma and prompted quick reaction by legislators (Lee, 2002).  Furthermore, the situation caused one network’s Washington news chief to remark, “Negroes are the architects, bricklayers, carpenters, and welders of this revolution. Television is their chosen instrument” (Monroe, 1967, p. 83).  In this sense, “television appears to put all aspects of social experience on show to all, without distinction” (McQuail, 2010, p. 125).  Undoubtedly, the new mass medium appeared to hold considerable power to raise awareness of the plight of African Americans and spur change, a lesson not lost on OPHR.

Forces Shaping the Symbolic Salute

            It is likely the OPHR was aware not only of the global audience reach of the Olympics, but also of the event’s symbolic power in the ideology of liberal democracy.  According the Olympic Charter, “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity” (International Olympic Committee, 2011, p. 10).  Despite the IOC charter, the IOC condemned the OPHR’s proposed boycott, arguing that there was no place for politics in the Olympics (Zirin, 2008).  Furthermore, the IOC used various tactics to shut down the boycott and silence OPHR, including sending Jesse Owens to attempt to discredit the organization. (Zirin, 2008).  Not only was the IOC a powerful organization, but in the eyes of the movement, a hypocritical organization.

In addition, the Olympics were an important symbolic event for the United States and African American athletes were an equally important part of the U.S. Olympic narrative (Earp, 2011).  However, Harry Edwards, OPHR’s leader, and both Smith and Carlos determined to undermine the hypocrisy of African American athletes being used to support a narrative that collided with their lived experience (Earp, 2011).   Moreover, the OPHR’s rejection of American Dream rhetoric was important in an international context, given 1968 was considered the height of the Cold War.  While both Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson were popular culture examples of the dominant narrative, OPHR challenged the narrative in their founding statement (Zirin, 2008):

We must no longer allow this country to use … a few “Negroes” to point out to the world how much progress she has made in solving her racial problems when the oppression of Afro-Americans is greater than it ever was. We must no longer allow the Sports World to pat itself on the back as a citadel of racial justice when the racial injustices of the sports industry are infamously legendary. (p. 1)

It is therefore, little surprise, that the protest took symbolic shape.

Bass (2002) described the protest in terms of symbolic violence, an action that “dislocated the normative staging of the nation as well as the sprinters’ own place as national subjects….it quickly became a powerful symbol that both inspired and intimidated and simultaneously acknowledged the lack of power of many more (p. 4).   However, the protest was made up of both powerful symbols, but brilliant staging.  For example, MacAloon (1982) notes that the Olympics hold no place to represent “subnational group identities of race, ethnicity, or ideology that are for many, the core of their beings” (MacAloon, 1982, p. 108).  It was into this gap, that Smith and Carlos were able to insert powerful cultural symbols, the raised fist juxtaposed over the playing of the ideological normative Star-Spangled Banner, forcing a global audience to consider the condition of U.S. African Americans for the entire length of the song.  It is little wonder the protest created such a backlash and yet, remains in collective consciousness more than forty-four years later.

Implications for Today

Despite the Olympics being notoriously political, the Olympic charter remains opposed to demonstration, ruling, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted” (International Olympic Committee, 2011).  Of course, the IOC’s stance is not surprising given the growing political and economic importance of the Olympic games.   As a case in point, the 2012 London Olympics had the largest global viewing audience for any event on record (CNN, 2012).  More importantly, the bulk of the IOC’s considerable revenue comes from the license of media rights; NBC for example, paid more than $1.2 billion for the exclusive right to broadcast the London Olympics in the U.S. market (Associated Press, 2008).  Cotrell and Nelson (2010) suggest that the scope and size of the modern Olympics has much to do with the IOC’s steadfast resistance to the politicization of the Olympics, noting:

Protecting the brand, some contend, is less about promoting the Olympic spirit and more about simply making money. From this perspective, the contemporary IOC acts as a corporate entity that is, in fact, very political — engaging in precisely the type of behavior that the Charter prohibits. (p. 16)

Viewed in the commercial sense, the IOC can be viewed as a corporate entity that has the exclusive right to commodify the Olympics and the associated international rivalry that plays out on the Olympic stage, the very commodification Smith and Carlos objected to.

Moreover, in the intervening years since 1968, the commercialization of sport in general has increased significantly (Earp, 2011).  In the post-Michael Jordon era, successful Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps can earn endorsement deals northwards of $100 million (Mackey, 2012).  That is 100 million reasons to be careful not to challenge the dominant narratives posited by the IOC or an athlete’s representative nation.  A great Olympic example of the power of the commercialization of sport over an athlete’s media behavior occurred during the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona with the media-savvy Michael Jordan.  As a Nike brand spokesman wearing an Olympic jersey made by Reebok, Jordan took care to mount the Olympic podium with an American Flag draped over the offending brand label, rather than risk the ire of Nike (Earp, 2011).  The contrast between Jordan’s symbolic gesture and Smith and Carlos’s black power salute testifies to the power of the commercialization of sport.

Of course, the growing audience and salience of the Olympics all but assure the venue will continue to be the target of protests.  Indeed, Cotrell and Nelson (2010) find that the incident of protests are rising, however, the character of the protests are changing from the nation versus nation boycotts typified during the Cold War, and protests seeking domestic policy change, like that of Smith and Carlos, to protest of transnational issues such as globalization or the environment.  In addition, while the IOC has maintained firm resistance against such activities, host nations are becoming more adept at managing protests by providing specific zones for activist to operate within (Cotrell & Nelson, 2010).  The changing nature of Olympic protest, the growing commercialization of sport, and the growing sophistication of protest management techniques, appear to negate the likelihood of a similarly powerful protest occurring in future Olympiads.  What does this say about the future of the tripartite public sphere that has emerged in sport, politics, and the media?

It seems the implications are grim for would-be activists that seek to use the Olympic stage as a platform for social change and participatory democracy.  The array of political and economic forces surrounding the Olympics, are oriented in such a way as to assure that the narratives remain shaped by commercial and state actors.  In this sense, there is little room for the collective action frames typified in the notion of participatory democracy, rather the environment is more suitable for the notion of limited citizenship (Gamson, 2001).  Even in the era of new media, this author wonders whether the networked public sphere enabled by new media can moderate the effects of the economic and political forces that shape Olympic discourse.  As a case in point, the most dramatic social media protest of the London Olympics had to do with the NBC broadcast and issues arising from their handling of time zones and web streaming of live events, (Deitsch, 2012); not exactly a call for sweeping social change.

However, despite the challenges of political demonstration at the Olympics, there is some reason for hope that Smith and Carlos’ legacy remains an example for others.  During the London Olympics, in the backdrop of the IOC’s refusal to permit a moment of silence for the victims of the Munich Olympic terrorist attacks, French swimmer, Fabien Gilot, sported a very visible Hebrew tattoo on his left arm in commemoration of his Jewish grandfather and Holocaust survivor, that said ‘I am nothing without them’ (Lebrecht, 2012).  While it is not known whether the tattoo was in direct response to the IOC refusal, the widespread coverage of the tattoo suggests that cultural symbols retain their power in an Olympic setting.

Source Evaluation

            While this author used a wide variety of sources from both the popular press and scholarly research, there were several scholarly sources whose inclusion informed the theoretical perspectives presented in this paper, and as such, warrant brief comment.  Bass’ (2002) work utilized a critical culturist perspective in examining the events leading up to and following the black power salute.  Likewise, Hartmann (1996) follows a similar path.  Bodroghkozy (2008) appears to examine the role of television in the civil rights movement using medium theory to illuminate how the specific attributes of network television supported the movement.  Finally, Zirin (2008), and the perspective Zirin shares in the documentaries by Small and Zirin (2008) and Earp (2011), are largely discussed from a social-culturist perspective in the examination of the media sport experience to identify the forces that affected Smith and Carlos.

Conclusion

                  The powerful symbol of Smith and Carlos’ defiant protest remains in the collective consciousness of U.S. culture even today.  While Smith and Carlos’ potent gesture during the 1968 Olympics was greeted with nearly universal condemnation by the American press, in the final analysis, the athletes were proven to be on the right side of history.  While the Olympics as a platform for protest is more attractive then ever, the economic and political consequences of such action are also more severe, particularly given the rising commercialization of sport.  This author wonders whether the courage of Smith and Carlos’ defining moment would be possible in the post-modern era?  It appears more likely that today’s would-be activist athletes would succumb to the forces that assure that the Olympic stage is preserved for state and commercial actors and their dominant narratives.

References

Associated Press. (2008, November 18, 2008). EBU urges IOC to stick with European broadcasters  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/wire?section=oly&id=3710990

Bass, A. (2002). Not the triumph but the struggle : the 1968 Olympics and the making of the Black athlete. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

BBC. (2012, August 14, 2012). London 2012 was ‘biggest ever US TV event’  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-19253273

Bodroghkozy, A. (2008). Television and the civil rights era. In T. Boyd (Ed.), African Americans and popular culture. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

Brown, O. (2012, July 12, 2012). London 2012 Olympics: Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ famous Black Power salute still resonates 44 years on  Retrieved September 1, 2012, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/9393260/London-2012-Olympics-Tommie-Smith-and-John-Carlos-famous-Black-Power-salute-still-resonates-44-years-on.html

CNN. (2012, August 13, 2012). Nielsen: 2012 Olympics most-watched event in U.S. TV history  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from http://marquee.blogs.cnn.com/2012/08/13/olympics-closing-ceremony-a-ratings-win/

Cosell, H. (Writer). (1968). Olympic Coverage, ABC Archives [Film].

Cotrell, M. P., & Nelson, T. (2010). Not just the games? Power, protest, and politics at the Olympics. European Journal of International Relations, 1-25.

Deitsch, R. (2012, August 10, 2012). Mark Lazarus responds to criticism. London 2012  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/olympics/2012/writers/richard_deitsch/08/10/NBCs-Mark-Lazarus-responds-to-criticism/3.html

Earp, J. (Writer). (2011). Not Just a Game: Power, Politics, & American Sport. In C. Boulton, J. Earp, S. Morris & J. Young (Producer): Media Education Foundation.

Gamson, W. A. (2001). Promoting political engagement. In W. L. Bennett & R. M. Entman (Eds.), Mediated politics : communication in the future of democracy (pp. xxvii, 489 p.). Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hartmann, D. (1996). The politics of race and sport: Resistance and domination in the 1968 African American Olympic protest movement. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 19(3), 548-566.

International Olympic Committee. (2011). Olympic Charter (pp. 1-103).

Lebrecht, N. (2012). French swimmer stuns Olympic Games with a silent tattoo.  Retrieved from http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2012/07/french-swimmer-stuns-olympic-games-with-a-silent-tattoo.html

Lee, T. (2002). Mobilizing public opinion : Black insurgency and racial attitudes in the civil rights era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MacAloon, J. J. (1982). Double visions: Olympic games and American culture (Vol. 4, pp. 98): Kenyon Review.

Mackey, M. (2012, August 6, 2012). Michael Phelps by the Numbers: Worlds Top Olympian  Retrieved September 2, 2012, from http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Articles/2012/08/06/Michael-Phelps-by-the-Numbers-Worlds-Top-Olympian.aspx – page1

McQuail, D. (2010). Mcquail’s mass communication theory (6th ed.). London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Monroe, W. B., Jr. (1967). Television: The Chosen Instrument of the Revolution. New York,: Praeger.

Small, G., & Zirin, D. (Writers). (2008). Black Power Salute. In N. Dack (Producer). London UK: BBC.

Zirin, D. (2008). The explosive 1968 Olympics. International Socialist Review(61).

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Framing Political Scandals: The Functioning of ‘Trial by Media’


The rise of mediated communication has fundamentally changed how the world is experienced by society, perhaps no more so than in the realm of politics.  In fact, “the media have become a main source of information and opinion for the public” (McQuail, 2010, p. 526).  As such, political actors have an increasing reliance on the media to shape their public image, set their political agenda, and to provide the arena with which political events are played out (McQuail, 2010).  While politic actors spend a great deal of time and energy using the media to provide “a basis of support for their power and policies…mediated visibility is a double-edged sword” (Thompson, 2005, p. 41), insofar as increased visibility also creates increased risk.  Of course, the most significant risk facing politicians is that of the political scandal, or ‘trial by media’.  Thompson (2000) describes a political scandal as a situation where previously invisible behaviors that violate social norms, become visible, are seen as contrary to the politician’s carefully crafted image, and are characterized by an ensuing public outcry or demand for justice.  Of course, Thompson’s (2000) definition of political scandal in a era of mediated visibility presumes that the media is the cause, in terms of increased scrutiny, visibility and construction of the scandal event, and also creates effects, in terms of audience reaction.  Arguably, Thompson (2005) does little to describe how the construction of the scandal event creates the effect on audiences.  However, recent empirical research by Kepplinger, Geiss, and Siebert (2012) describes how media-constructed frames of political scandals provide cues that determine how message recipients process the scandal information to draw conclusions and form behavioral intentions.  What follows is an analysis and critique of Kepplinger, et al.’s (2012) work to understand its explanatory power for how ‘trial by media’ affects audiences and discuss the implications of their findings.

Framing Scandals: Overview and Method

            Whereas the existing literature on framing effects infer a strong relationship between journalistic frames and audience influence, McQuail (2010) suggests that “it is not obvious how framing will work as an effect process” (p. 511).  To explore how media constructed scandal information influences the audience, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) used “three strands of research to develop a model of individual-level opinion formation in scandals: a) scandal research, b) framing theory, and c) appraisal theory” (p. 600).  The authors appear to use Scheufele’s (1999) process model of framing effects, whereby journalists construct the frames, the frames are transmitted to the audience, and the audience accepts certain frames “with consequences for their attitudes, outlook, and behavior” (McQuail, 2010, p. 511).  Moreover, the authors recognized that framing theory did not describe the link between specific media frames and the resulting inferences (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).  Therefore, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) ‘filled the gap’ with appraisal theory (Nerb & Spada, 2001) which identifies relevant cognitions that lead to the creation of opinion in negative events including five aspects, a) whether the damages are large or small, b) the degree to which the transgression was caused by human behavior, c) whether the people followed selfish or altruistic goals, d) whether they were aware of the consequences of their actions, and e) whether there was an opportunity to act differently.  These cognitions are understood to form the basis of people’s beliefs, and moreover, will influence an audience frame of guilt or excuse.  The author’s model integrating these theories were used to test how the type of frame, amount, and completeness of frames affected the audience to arrive at a guilt frame or an excuse frame (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).

With their model as the basis for the research, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) designed the research with the following hypotheses:

H1:  Media depict the cases using primarily fragmentary frames, blaming the public figure with regard to some components (e.g., selfish motives) but not with regard to all (e.g., prior knowledge).

H2:  Cognitive reactions of individuals result from a) learning from the media and b) conclusions of individuals, drawn from an overall impression.

H3:  Individuals will develop one of two polarized individual frames: a guilt frame or an excuse frame.

H4:  A person will call for more severe punishment if he or she a) believes the public figure is guilty and b) feels angry; an individual will call for milder punishment if he or she c) excuses the public figure and d) feel sad about the case.

H5:  Individuals will tend to develop a(n) (individual) guilt frame (a) the more complete guilt frames they receive and (b) the more fragmentary guilt frames they receive.

H6:  A model of opinion formation in scandals accounting for learning from the media and information processing of individuals will adequately model the relationships between cognitive reactions, emotional reactions, and calls for punishment. (pp. 662-663)

In order to test their hypotheses, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) conducted a content analysis of how the four political scandals were depicted by media according to the five aspects, damages, human agency, selfish goals, prior knowledge, and freedom of action, and combined them with individual survey data by calculating the individuals media input.  The combined data demonstrate the extent to which journalist frames influence audience information processing.

Framing Scandals: Findings

            Indeed, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) found support for much of their hypothesis.  Only rarely did the media portray complete frames across all five aspects, instead typically providing fragmentary guilt frames in one or more aspects, with human agency being the most dominant, resulting in support for H1 (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).  More importantly, the researchers found that learning accounted “for a low share of variance in cognitive reactions” (Kepplinger, et al., 2012, p. 671), whereas information processing to form a consistent impression explained as much as 92% of variance, suggesting that all five journalist frames positively and significantly influence the cognitive reaction, providing empirical support for H2.  In addition, the audience cognitions led to the formation of a guilt frame or excuse frame, depending of the audience perception of damages, which also influenced audience views on punishment, providing support for H3 (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).  The support for H4 was weaker, with some evidence of a relationship between the degree of perceived damage and calls for punishment, with cognitive variables accounting for 40% of calls for punishment, while emotional reactions of the audience did not significantly contribute to calls for punishment absent cognitions (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).

Moreover, the Kepplinger, et al. (2012) found the more guilt frames an audience received, the greater the tendency to develop their own guilt frame, with as much as 9% of the development of a guilt frame explained by guilt frames the audience received.  Furthermore, “although recipients received fragmentary frames, they complemented the picture and developed a coherent guilt frame by themselves” (Kepplinger, et al., 2012, p. 675), suggesting that audiences elaborate on fragmentary information to arrive at their own conclusions, providing support for H5.  Finally, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) were able to construct a structural equation model “spanning from media input, via cognitions and emotions, to behavioral intentions” (p. 675).

Implications

            Rather than supporting the notion of ‘trial by media’, whereby the media determine public perception of guilt during a scandal, Kepplinger, et al.’s (2012) findings suggest that the media provide fragmentary information, which is then elaborated on by an audience to create an impression of guilt or an impression that excuses the behavior.  These findings are therefore consistent with Petty and Cacioppo’s (1986) Elaboration Likelihood Model suggesting that people with will be motivated to achieve cognitive consistency drawing on both knowledge and experience, or ‘incidental cues’ to fill in information gaps.  In this sense, individuals as well as media are equally responsible for the formation of an individual guilt frame.

Insofar as the media operates on a 24-hour news cycle, scandal stories often begin with fragmentary information and are updated frequently as new information is discovered.  In such a setting, the audience is subjected to repeated fragmentary guilt frames increasing the likelihood that individual audience members will arrive at a guilt conclusion, despite the lack of a complete picture.  Therefore, in this sense, the 24-hour news cycle and associated journalistic business model contribute directly to the formation of public opinion in scandal events, contributing to the development of a ‘trial by media’.

Moreover, the initial framing of a scandal event can have serious consequences on the formation of public opinion, whereby reported levels of human agency or degree of damage can provide incidental cues to the audience that support the formation guilt or excuse audience frames.  In a situation with a perceived high degree of damage, the notion of ‘trial by media’ becomes a distinct possibility, much akin to the notion of a ‘witch hunt’, with serious potential consequences for political actors caught up in the scandal event.  Arguably, Kepplinger et al.’s (2012) findings raise serious ethical questions about the media’s coverage of scandal events, particularly in the era of 24-hour news.

Critique

            The research of Kepplinger et al (2012) is an important addition to media effects research, insofar as it demonstrates a relationship between journalistic framing of scandal events, audience cognitions and emotions, and the audience’s behavioral intentions.  However, there are opportunities to further their research to draw more conclusive findings.  First, the research focused on solely on political scandals, to the exclusion of financial, criminal, or sexual scandals.  This author wonders whether audience elaborations would exhibit the same consistency in the face of a sexual scandal, where audience morals may play a more salient role in the creation of guilt or excuse frames.  Moreover, would the same journalistic framing norms apply during a media investigation of powerful political figures, as they would for others with less power?

In addition, the research did not explore the role of confirmation bias in an individual’s elaboration process.  To what degree do political leanings affect the media effects described? Are individual’s more or less likely to elaborate according to their own established views?  To what extent are journalist more or less likely expand on the journalist guilt frames based on their bias?   In an analysis of scandal events, Puglisi and Snyder (2008) found that Democratic leaning newspapers provided relatively greater coverage to Republican scandals and Republican leaning newspapers provided greater coverage to Democratic scandals.  Given Kepplinger et al.’s (2012) findings, is greater coverage inherently biased?  More importantly, does the combination of greater coverage and the workings of confirmation bias all but assure an individual will arrive at a guilt frame?

In addition, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) suggest that their work could benefit from more investigation into how opinions form over time to understand their malleability.  Furthermore, the authors acknowledge that more work is needed to understand the sources, beside media content, upon which individual frames are based (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).  This author concludes the findings are sufficiently compelling to warrant further investigation to advance this line of media effects research.

Conclusion

            Kepplinger et al.’s (2012) research into how media-constructed frames of political scandals can cue message recipients to elaborate and draw conclusions in absence of complete information.  Moreover, the greater the number of guilt frames the audience receives, the higher the likelihood the audience will draw a guilt conclusion, a disturbing finding consider the character of the 24-hour news cycle.  Accordingly, the greater visibility of today’s heavily mediated reality is fraught with risk for political actors seeking to manage their image, where the simple association with scandal could very well minimize their ability to advance their agenda, or even destroy their career.

References

Kepplinger, H. M., Geiss, S., & Siebert, S. (2012). Framing Scandals: Cognitive and Emotional Media Effects. Journal of Communication, 62(4), 659-681.

McQuail, D. (2010). Mcquail’s mass communication theory (6th ed.). London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Nerb, J., & Spada, H. (2001). Evaluation of environmental problems: A coherence model of cognition and emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 15, 521-551.

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). ‘The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion’. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (pp. 132-205). New York, New York: Academic Press.

Puglisi, R., & Snyder, J. M., Jr. (2008). Media coverage of political scandals. Washington DC: The National Bureau of Economic Research.

Scheufele, D. A. (1999). Framing as a theory of media effects. Journal of Communication, 49(1), 103-122.

Thompson, J. B. (2000). Political scandal : power and visibility in the media age. Cambridge

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Thompson, J. B. (2005). The New Visibility. Theory, Culture & Society, 22(6), 31-51.


What Hath God Wrought: Commonality Between the Telegraph and the Internet


Often with the advent of new technology comes speculation regarding the technology’s social, political, and economic effects, both dystopian and utopian.  Such was the case of the telegraph, which caused Briggs and Maverick (1858) to opine:

National health can only be maintained by the free and unobstructed interchange of each with all.  How potent a power, then, is the telegraphic destined to become in the civilization of the world…It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for an exchange of thought between all the nations of the earth. (p. 22)

Indeed, their statement could have been made in 2000, rather than 1858.  Of course, similar utopian speculations abound with respect to the Internet.  For example, Shirky (2010) believes that social media will usher in a new era of human creativity and generosity, while Botsman (2010) sees the Internet enabling the rise of collaborative consumption in response to the world’s growing environmental crisis.   In addition, Benkler (2006) describes greater civic engagement in the networked public sphere.  In this sense, the Internet and the telegraph share a similar social response to the technology, as determinists attempt to shape the neo-technological ideologies of their day.  Of course, the Internet, as with the telegraph, will not inevitably alter society in some preordained manner based on the bias of the technology, rather, its social form will be the result of what Starr (2004) describes as ‘constitutive choices’ made today that are based on the foundation of earlier choices.  Therefore, it stands to reason, by understanding the ‘constitutive choices’ of earlier generations regarding the telegraph that this generation can perhaps begin to develop a perspective on upcoming regulatory, commercial, and political choices facing U.S. society.  Through an analysis of the consequences of decisions made during the development of the telegraph, this author finds that government must balance their regulatory efforts to continue to promote Internet industry growth, while protecting the public from commercial interests that would use their dominant market positions to reduce competition through industry consolidation, thereby exerting undue influence over network, and perhaps limiting freedom of expression in the process.

Early Development of the Telegraph

            Prior to the development of the telegraph, information was delivered by U.S. Post Office mail carriers.  Moreover, the U.S. Postal Service only provided service to a fraction of the country and was supplemented by private services such as Wells Fargo and the Pony Express.  Because information was delivered by hand and over enormous distance, news of distant events would arrive much delayed.  The semaphore system, was first developed by the French in 1789 was demonstrably quicker than postal services, however was labor intensive, expensive to construct, and the communication was not private (Holzmann, 1994).  The time delay of the postal service and the inefficiency and lack of privacy of the semaphore system set the stage for the introduction of the telegraph.

While Samuel Morse is popularly credited for the invention of the electric telegraph, others had developed a working telegraph prior to Morse (Mather, 2009; Scherer, 2008).  Rather, “Morse’s merit was to conceive once for all the apparatus by which electrical telegraphy became practical” (Mather, 2009, p. 1).  However, the development of Morse’s invention into a modern telegraph network was built on the foundation of earlier constitutive choices, including the development of a free press, a national Post Office, Congressional funding of schools, and most notably, property rights in the form of patent law (Starr, 2004).  For example, Morse’s invention was dependent on the work of Leonard Gale, an NYU professor that helped him extend signaling distance, through the use of relays (Smithsonian Institute, 2012).  Moreover, Morse patented his invention through the U.S. Department of State’s Patent and Trademark Office, protecting Morse’s ability to share knowledge of his invention and safely develop the technology (Smithsonian Institute, 2012).  Finally, after presenting his invention to the U.S. Congress, the Congress funded the construction of a demonstration line between Washington and Baltimore out of Post Office funds, from which the first message, “What hath God wrought”, was sent (Smithsonian Institute, 2012).  Thus, the development of the telegraph should be credited not only to Samuel Morse, but also to the ‘constitutive choices’ of earlier generations.

Constitutive Choices that Shaped the Development of the Telegraph Industry

            By 1870, a mere 26 years from the transmission of the first message, Western Union owned more than 112, 000 miles of wire and handled more than nine million messages annually (U.S. Census Bureau, 1975).  The remarkable progress of the telegraph industry between 1844 and 1870 is as much a result of the promise of the technology as it is the product of a number of notable constitutive choices that spurred the development of the technology.  Of course, not all of the choices appear to be deliberate.  There is ample evidence that Morse thought the telegraph ought to be an extension of the Post Office (Munro, 1891; Smithsonian Institute, 2012).  Indeed, most European governments ended up nationalizing the telegraph.  However, Morse saw things differently and took his invention and offered to sell the patent to the government for $100,000, but the Postmaster General declined, on the grounds that the proposal “had not satisfied him that under any rate of postage that could be adopted its revenues could be made equal to its expenditures” (Munro, 1891, p. 68).  In addition, it also appears that the U.S. Congress as a whole was somewhat skeptical of investing in Morse’s invention (Munro, 1891; Smithsonian Institute, 2012).  Thus, it appears that the U.S. proclivity to privatize the telegraph, a significant departure from U.S. historical precedent set by the establishment of the Post Office, may have been the result of skepticism rather than a strategic decision.

The decision to allow the telegraph to remain in the domain of the private sector proved to be a boon for economic growth of the nascent industry.  Following the rebuff of the government, patent holders like Morse, sought private capital to erect the needed infrastructure for the telegraph, however, they “had difficulty convincing capitalists of the commercial value of the invention” (Smithsonian Institute, 2012, p. 1).  Most resorted to selling licenses to use the patents, resulting in 50 different companies operating telegraphs by 1851, using a variety of incompatible technologies (Smithsonian Institute, 2012).  This wildcat period for the telegraph industry was paralleled by the introduction of legislation, first by New Jersey in 1845, and eventually by thirty-four states by 1860 (Nonnenmacher, 2001).  The legislation in this period varied state by state, however had common legislative elements and proceeded in two distinct phases, the first being legislation that helped nurture the nascent industry, and the second being legislation that exerted social control of the new technology (Nonnenmacher, 2001).

The earliest telegraph legislation provided right of way for telegraph companies to erect the telegraph poles and wires along public roads, in effect lowering the cost of development (Nonnenmacher, 2001).  In addition, early legislation enacted penalties or made criminal, the damaging of telegraph property (Nonnenmacher, 2001).  Both types of legislation paint a picture of a pro-telegraph, pro-business, legislative environment designed to spur the development of the telegraph.  In describing the legislative environment of the 19th century, Hurst (1956) suggest that the legal order was used “to protect and promote the release of individual creative energy to the greatest extent compatible with the broad sharing of opportunity for such expression” (p. 6).  Companies seeking to exploit the new technology found a willing partner in state legislatures.

However, over time, legislatures also sought to exact a measure of control over the fledgling technology.  In particular, state governments appeared concerned over the growing power and potential undue influence of telegraph companies, and introduced legislation to regulate which messages needed to be accepted and how messages were prioritized for transmission (Nonnenmacher, 2001).  In addition, legislation was also written creating penalties for the unlawful disclosure of the messages (Nonnenmacher, 2001), perhaps resulting from the growing influence of the Associated Press (American Telegraph Magazine, 1861).  These early efforts to exert social control would be only a precursor of legislative efforts to regulate the new medium given the rapid growth and eventual consolidation of telegraph companies.

While the decision to allow the private sector develop the telegraph proved wise from a standpoint of the country’s economic growth, that same decision would have unintended social consequences.  Two early patent holders, Hiram Silbey and Samuel Sheldon, after unsuccessfully attempting to compete with other New York telegraph lines, embarked on a strategy to begin acquiring and consolidating lines and technologies under one company that would eventually become the Western Union Telegraph Company (Smithsonian Institute, 2012), the nation’s first industrial monopoly.  Much of the success of Western Union stems not only from the company’s role as a consolidator, but also from the combined impact of a nationwide rail system, and a nationwide communication system, on U.S businesses and markets.  Yates (1986) describes how the telegraph affected existing forms of economic organization of the period:

In some cases, it favored the formation of large and efficient markets; in others, it favored the emergence of large, integrated firms. By functioning, along with the railroads, to enlarge market areas, the telegraph created the possibility of relatively efficient nationwide markets. (p. 160)

Of course, it followed, that the possibility of efficient nationwide markets attracted capital across a variety of industries to exploit the opportunity.

However, no industry would capitalize on the opportunity quite so well as the Associated Press.  The Associated Press was originally formed to pool the costs of telegraphy, but in short order become a dominant information monopoly.  The combination of a national news service and a national telegraph network, in the form of a two-headed monopoly, made broadcast possible and raised the concomitant concerns of the impact of commercial interests having to great an influence over the public sphere (Blondheim, 2004).  Indeed, lawmakers concerns were justified for a variety of reasons.  First, the AP and Western Union operated as a cartel, through their various commercial agreements; the AP’s contracts with newspapers forced the newspapers to not accept news from other news services, while Western Union’s contract with the AP forced AP to solely use Western Union (Blondheim, 2004).  “And so Associated Press and Western Union effectively created a criticism-proof information system that married content creation with a national network, and in which few competitors could surface” (Laser, 2011, p. 2). The agreements served to assure their joint broadcast network prevented the likelihood of competition.  Second, lawmakers were also concerned that the companies would use their position as the information conduit between businesses and to the public to serve their interests, rather than the public interest (Blondheim, 2004); a situation that became apparent following the ‘stolen election of 1876’, when Senate investigators found that pro-Republican Western Union was funneling information to the Hayes campaign, “while the AP constantly published propaganda supporting the Republican side of the story” (Laser, 2011, p. 1).  As a result of the growing media power of Western Union and the Associated Press, the U.S. Congress attempted a variety of strategies to regulate the industry between 1866 and 1900, introducing 96 bills or resolutions and publishing more than 48 reports, but failed to legislate a regulatory framework over concerns of infringing free speech (Blondheim, 2004).  Where the Congress had failed to find a rationale for the government’s regulation of the press, in 1900, the Supreme Court of Illinois, in a suit between Chicago Inter-Ocean and the AP, found (Blondheim, 2004):

“Associated Press was of vast importance to the public, so that public interest is attached to the dissemination of that news. . . . It has devoted its property to a public use, and has, in effect, granted to the public such an interest in its use that it must submit to be controlled by the public for the common good.

And so began the government regulation of the communications and news industry, despite Constitutional prohibitions to make no law abridging the freedom of the press, their argument instead being that regulatory control was required to protect a free press.

Discussion

             The introduction of the telegraph brought about sweeping changes to U.S. social, economic, and political institutions creating a series of ‘constitutive choices’ that persist well into the 21st century.  The initial choice to allow the private sector to develop the telegraph into a commercially viable technology, commensurate with a favorable regulatory environment that helped to nurture the nascent industry, would set the stage for the creation of a two-headed monopoly over the nation’s information and broadcast capability.

Indeed, the Western Union and Associated Press cartel was an opportunistic response to a new national market for information by capitalist enterprises, that allowed the companies to prevent competition, assure profitability, and generate wealth through the combination of monopoly power and agenda-setting.  The decision by lawmakers and the judiciary to determine the appropriate role for government and business in assuring freedom of expression and a free press was perhaps the most important ‘constitutive choice’ of the era that developed the legal basis for regulating information and communications.

The telegraph could have developed far differently in the United States.  Perhaps a skeptical Congress could have chose not to fund the initial demonstration line, allowing European countries to take the lead in the new industry, a scenario that could have had dire economic and even military consequences, given the telegraphs role in opening markets.  Another potential scenario could have been to place the entire enterprise under the direction of the Post Office, in which case the two-headed monopoly may never have existed.  However, considering the short sightedness of the Postmaster General, it is equally likely that the technology would have taken far longer to reach its full potential, due to the lack of innovation inherent in public administration.  Finally, the attempt by Congress to regulate the industry could have resulted in a public utility model given the similarity of infrastructure requirements in the power distribution and communications industries.  In any event, while there were serious political, economic, and social consequences based on the constitutive choices made by decision-makers of the period, it is equally clear that the development of the telegraph was critical to the political, economic, and social progress of the nation.

Western Union and the Telegraph Today

Telegraph usage peaked in the 1929 with more than 200 million messages sent and began a long, steady, decline in usage, supplanted by the telephone, radio, television, and eventually email and the Internet as the primary source of communication and news (Freierman, 2006).  The final telegram was sent on January 27, 2006, after which Western Union became a pure financial services company, focusing on money transfers (Freierman, 2006), a situation this author find ironic, given the heavy regulatory requirements in that industry.

Historical Perspective on ‘Constitutive Choices’ in the Internet Era

Like the telegraph, the rapid growth of the Internet has introduced a variety of political, economic, and social concerns regarding how, whether, and in what form the government should intervene in regulating the Internet and the communications and media industries.   Advocates of network neutrality wish to assure no government or commercial restrictions of the network, while commercial interests are seeking legislation like the Stop Online Piracy Act to assure the protection of intellectual property that favors traditional business models.  In addition, the communications and media industry continues to rapidly consolidate, not unlike the period preceding the formation of Western Union.  In particular, media and communication companies like Comcast are beginning to vertical integrate merging the content and network, a situation also bearing a striking resemblance to the Western Union/Associated Press cartel.  Finally, the International Telecommunications Union, an arm of the United Nations, is seeking to regulate the Internet.  With so many ‘constitutive choices’ facing the nation, and indeed, the globe, the public can look to the past to a degree to help formulate a perspective on the future.

Indeed, the narrative that describes the development of the telegraph is instructive, insofar as it highlights the delicate balance between private sector creativity and government regulation in the market for information.  The government should favor policies that continue to promote the possibilities afforded by the new technology, including outsourced manufacturing and services, creative destruction of established industry into new industries, like cloud computing or open source, and free trade agreements that favor countries with an information advantage, like the United States; policies that unleash the creative energy of individuals and businesses.

Moreover, the government should seek to regulate the communications, media, and high technology industries in order to prevent the accumulation of too much power or influence into to few companies.  For example, the Internet is dominated by several giant high technology companies including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and to a lesser extent Yahoo.  These infrastructure companies have become the de facto standard for consumer interfaces to the Internet and as such wield enormous influence in their ability to select, present, and prioritize Internet content.  It would be prudent to assure a level playing field for additional market entrants, and assure that these firms do not unduly influence the political process through their ability to influence content.

Finally, the government needs to consider carefully, whether to participate in an international regulatory regime over the Internet, given the close relationship between communication technologies and freedom of expression identified during the telegraph era.  In addition, the U.S. high technology and computing dominance is a source of economic growth and competitive advantage in the international marketplace worthy of protection from international regulatory requirements.

Conclusion

Upon examination and analysis of the development of the telegraph, a picture emerges that is neither utopian nor dystopian, and yet demonstrates vividly the link between communications technology and national progress.  19th century entrepreneurs, lawmakers, judges, businessmen, and citizens had to deal with the consequences of the first nationwide broadcast network and the ramifications of choices that defined the development of the technology without experience with broadcast networks or mass media.  However, 21st century scholars and lawmakers have a large body of scholarly work that describes the ‘constitutive choices’ made during the development of the telegraph that suggests that government must continue regulatory efforts to promote industry growth, while protecting the public from commercial interests that would use their dominant market positions to reduce competition, exert undue influence over network, and perhaps limit freedom of expression in the process.

References

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