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Presidential Elections, the Media Literacy Way: A Conversation with Frank W. Baker (2)

…if you’re just joining us, I’m talking with Frank W. Baker, author of Political Campaigns and Political Advertising: A Media Literacy Guide. (Here’s the first part of the interview.)


In your book I love the part in the chapter on radio where you speak of “narrowcasting”—the ability of political campaigns to reach a very specific target audience. Is it possible that we’re seeing the same thing in terms of Web-based advertising, given how personal information is already collected and sometimes used to tailor which consumer ads we see on certain pages?

Yes, this is already happening. Both camps know which web sites are viewed by people of both parties, so, if you’re a Democrat, you’re more likely to see an Obama ad on “The Nation” magazine webpage and, if you’re a Republican, you’ll probably see a Romney ad on the “Fox News’” website. Those online ads are designed to be persuasive and the parties will be looking for “click-throughs.”

The campaigns have [also] revealed the list of prime time shows that Democrats and Republicans watch. So now the ad buyers know they can reach their constituency by buying time on that particular program, channel or station. I think local races will use radio more than TV, because of its lower costs.

Ad on The Nation's site, provided by FB:

Ad on The Boston Globe's site, provided by FB:

I also found it interesting that XM/Sirius (satellite radio) introduced the POTUS (Politics of the US) channel several years ago and like CSPAN on TV, here is channel that devoted political fans will gravitate to, in order to follow the latest news.

This brings us to an interesting curricular question in terms of media literacy educationhow valuable is it for librarians and other educators to spend time teaching, say, the decoding of newspaper and TV political ads if these are media that young people are not apt to pay much attention to? If you had to, how would you prioritize different media in terms of 6-12 curricula, given the sad fact that media literacy already isn’t a focus in U.S. schools?

Despite all of the attention that the Internet is given, TV is still THE medium of choice for political campaign ads. An ad in prime time, for example, is going to reach many more people than one online. The press is full of stories about how many broadcast TV ads are bombarding the battleground states, for example, and how much money is spent just prior to a primary in that state. Media literacy teaches us, among other things, that media are businesses designed to make a profit. This is a huge point that should be taught. Ask students who benefits when candidates purchase time for their messages, and they may not think to answer: the broadcasters themselves.

Although media literacy may not be the central focus in U.S. schools, elements of media literacy are the focus during certain times of the year, and I think during an election cycle, educators (and students) tend to pay more attention to the current events and issues that affect them. I would certainly continue advocating for helping students deconstruct/analyze a commercial. These are some of the most persuasive and influential messages ever produced and students should understand how words, images and sounds are used in these slick productions (websites like The Living Room Candidate and others are good resources for previous campaign ads). I also think we can engage students by having them create ads for candidates.

All right, so here’s a question about curriculum and pedagogy at the same time: how might librarians and media specialists team up with history/social studies teachers to teach the presidential campaigns of yesteryear–I’m talking about all the way back to “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”–from a media literacy perspective or at least with a strong ML strand? Would such an effort be worthwhile? Media messages are in the curriculum—political cartoons and so on—but “media literacy” often isn’t explicitly mentioned to kids, it seems.

In my book, I spent a good deal of time examining the rise of media itself (photography, radio, TV, etc.) in American history and its role in presidential campaigns. Here is a good example of how a media specialist can assist a history teacher by guiding students to those image-laden databases (The Library of Congress, as one example) but there are many others. The librarian is the expert: he/she can point students to the sources, but it is up to the student to apply some “visual literacy” and “media literacy” (critical thinking/critical viewing) to what they find. Asking good questions I think is central to learning. And critical inquiry is a central tenet in media literacy education. But as we all know, students don’t tend to question media messages, so we have a golden opportunity here to guide them along in this process. Why was it important to develop a slogan in the 1840 campaign? How have campaign slogans evolved over time? What’s the purpose of a slogan?

So a history teacher might ask: how did Abe Lincoln and his opponent use media during their time? Once students locate “primary source” documents (newspapers, photographs, election flyers, banners, etc.) they need to know how those were used. A good example here is that Lincoln sat in the portrait studio of photographer Matthew Brady. One image in particular was used and for the first time people got to see what “Honest Abe” really looked like, and some historians report it is that image which helped first elect him.

Looking ahead to the conventions, I’m thinking about the compelling quote from Bill Schneider that you use—that they’re like infomercials. But is there a challenge with taking that kind of critical approach in a classroom where young people might earnestly believe in the “truth” or “sincerity” of everything their party of choice presents?

I think most people realize that the conventions have lost a lot of their appeal and meaningfulness, but that does not mean they’re not worth our attention. Like every other ad on TV, this one has production, emotion and music, if not a little drama. I’m pretty sure MTV, VH1, even Scholastic will have some kind of student/youth presence at the convention because it only happens every four years, and the process IS important.

I am an advocate for giving students enough background about the conventions so that they know, in advance, that these events are highly orchestrated, scheduled and choreographed. Students could be challenged by comparing the 2012 event with previous conventions. If they dig deep enough, they might learn that events outside the convention locale made more news than what happened inside, and that might be the case this time. The cities of Tampa Bay (Republican Convention) and Charlotte NC (Democratic Convention) don’t want anything to happen that would reflect negatively, so you’re not likely to see protestors near the sites or the “live” cameras.


Thanks for joining us again. I should be wrapping up this conversation with Frank W. Baker some time soon, although Connect the Pop will have to make some detours for timely posts related to Batman and R.L. Stine. :D

About Peter Gutierrez


  1. […] a follow-up to my recent blog post on Satire, Politics, and Media, here is the second part of the excellent interview of Frank W. Baker by Peter Gutierrez in which they discuss politics and […]