Emergent Media and Presidential Politics (in the 1890s): A Conversation with Charles Musser (Part I)

A Conversation with Charles Musser regarding his recent book Politicking and Emergent Media: U.S. Presidential Elections of the 1890s (University of California Press, 2016).


When we think about presidential candidates ho are innovative in their use of new and emergent media, we might think of the Howard Dean meet ups, we might think about the various ways that the Obama people tapped grassroots video makers, we might think about Donald Trump’s transformative use of Twitter, or now, we might think about the centrality of selfies in the Elizabeth Warren campaign. Each of those candidates (and their team, more likely) realized something about a rapidly changing media environment and deployed these tools to transform the interface between the candidates and their supporters. Each allowed us to feel more connected with the campaign or to feel like we had a more intimate knowledge of who the candidates were.

What we do not think about are William McKinley, Grover Cleveland or Teddy Roosevelt!

Charles Musser is one of the most important historians of the dramatic media changes which took place between the late 19th and early 20th century. His work on the Nickelodeon era has transformed our understanding of early cinema. He has across his career helped to expand our understanding of the media environment into which cinema entered American culture. And he has written knowingly about early African-American filmmakers and about documentary films. I only recently discovered that he had written a book, Politicking and Emergent Media: U.S. Presidential Elections of the 1890s (University of California Press, 2016). which discusses how a range of new media — from magic lanterns to phonograph records — played in shaping electoral politics in the late 19th century. I was struck by the parallels to our current new media moment and as we dig ever deeper into the 2020 presidential campaign, I wanted to insert some of his insights into the conversation.

Your introduction (and to some degree, your title) signal potential parallels between the use of “emergent media” in the 1890s and the role of “new media” in the past few election cycles. What parallels might you draw?  For example, you make an unlikely (yet convincing) comparison between William McKinley and Barack Obama in your coda. Explain what similarities you see between the two candidates and their use of media. 

Yes.  These kinds of comparison are fascinating and can provide us with useful perspectives. Not unlike Obama, McKinley and the Republicans embraced the newest forms of communication technologies.  Specifically, McKinley’s brother Abner, a Wall Street financier of what we would now call technology startups, was one of many Republicans to invest in the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company, which would become the dominant motion picture company—world-wide--in the 1890s. The Biograph’s official debut was basically sponsored by the Republican National Committee. McKinley’s campaign also knew how to use the telephone for campaign purposes in ways that were powerful even if hard to imagine without reading actual accounts in the newspapers. Barrack Obama, of course, was a cosmopolitan figure whose campaign knew how to tap the potential of YouTube and related media technologies.  It was part and parcel of a futurist vision that captured people’s imagination: in some sense it was a key reason why he seemingly deserved to be president. McKinley and Obama shared an optimistic vision of the future where technology could implicitly or explicitly be mobilized to solve serious problems. It was their opponents—William Jennings Bryan on one hand and John McCain or Mitt Romney on the other—who embodied more backwards-looking visions of America. When it came to campaigning, these losers were comparatively awkward users of new media. They also appealed to Evangelicals whose attitude towards modernity was and is fraught.  

For those conversant with new media, McKinley and Obama were both inspirational figures. The Obama campaign benefited from the innumerable videos that were made by professionals and semi-professionals who were essentially independent of his campaign. Will.i.am’s Yes We Can video was undoubtedly the most successful campaign song in the nation’s history. It came at a crucial moment in Obama’s campaign; and without it, he might never have won the Democratic nomination and become president. Likewise, Thomas Edison and his Vitascope associates (Raff & Gammon) were Biograph’s chief rival.  Nevertheless, they were pro-McKinley and made pro-McKinley films completely independent of Republican guidance. When the Edison company shot a short film of Bryan, Bryan was delighted, but the Vitascope Company’s ownership and control of the film enabled it to successfully sabotaged its distribution: they delayed the exhibition of Bryan Train Scene until after Biograph had shown McKinley at Home and then screened it in a variety program that surrounded Bryan’s image by short films such as Feeding the Chickens and Wash Day. As coincidence would have it, Norman Raff was from McKinley’s hometown of Canton, Ohio. One might even characterize the Vitascope Company’s treatment Bryan as a “dirty trick.”

Another way to look at this:  The Republican dominated Biograph company was a direct precursor of FOX News.

You were writing the book in the midst of the 2016 campaign with the consequence that you write about Obama but not about Trump. To what degree do Trump's rallies look back to 19th century oratorical traditions? 

Although the publication of Politicking and Emergent Media was unfortunately delayed, it still came out a month before the 2016 election. So its release was timed to offer some historical perspective on the Trump-Clinton contest. Clinton’s defeat by Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries was not a good sign. She had so many advantages; but if you looked at her YouTube page, she and her campaign were obviously pretty clueless when it came to online media. It did not bode well. Of course, Trump seemed such a problematic figure that we thought she would sneak through. However, it turned out that Trump and his campaign were more media savvy than we recognized—both in ways that were familiar and––if we include the Russians’ mobilization of social media on his behalf––in ways that were highly unorthodox, illegal and certainly in the dirty tricks category. On election eve, I sat and watched a Trump campaign rally televised from Michigan: his performance seemed quite powerful in its appeal to disgruntled voters and I found it quite unnerving. I went to bed hoping the polls favoring Hillary were right.

Campaign rallies have been part of every campaign since the 1890s and well before then. These obviously staged events are designed to energize the faithful and perhaps convert a few of those who were undecided. Media, however, has provided the crucial echo chamber. In the 1890s, it was via the newspapers though three different motion picture companies filmed the final McKinley Parade in New York City, a few days before the election. Trump’s rallies had a raucous political incorrectness that produced extensive television coverage; they were also much commented on in the press. This produced a very successful feedback loop but one that was not as obviously hip as Obama’s. Trump seemed a little old fashion—tied to the older media of television in this way. As a reality TV star, he understood television and how it could work. As it turned out Trump also knew how to use social media. if Obama dominated YouTube, Trump proved a master of Twitter. And he knew how—or learned how––to make them all work together. It was during this campaign that news articles on the Internet began to quote political figures by reproducing and inserting a tweet. If one compared the Clinton campaign’s impersonal tweets to Trump’s twitter page, there is no doubt that his was far more dynamic and effective.

What makes election campaigns a particularly useful benchmark to check in on shifts within the media/ communication landscape?  

There are a number of factors. First, there is the regularity of our presidential elections. This allows for some reflection on the success and failure of the previous presidential campaign and how to correct or improve––and often innovate going forward. A second factor is the nature of the stakes. It’s a binary all or nothing. With the absence of a viable multi-party system, there are no runners-up. IN this context ‘winning is everything, it is the only thing’ and so it calls for maximum effort. A third is just the amount of money and other resources that are available. Perhaps crucially there has been a sense (often justified) that at least since the 1884 election when the “liberal media” (i.e. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World) was responsible for Grover Cleveland’s victory—that media often makes the crucial difference. Tied to this are the crucial dynamics of a changing media landscape. Pulitzer bought the New York World in 1883 and became the kingmaker the following year. It is worth noting, however, that rematches in which the incumbent is running for a second term–– Cleveland vs Harrison, McKinley vs Bryan or Eisenhower vs. Stevenson and more recently Obama vs Romney—are usually fought on similar media landscapes in which only small adjustments occur. Perhaps one of the Democratic candidates in 2020 will surprise us but it looks like that is likely to be the case again. If so, that will be to Trump’s advantage.  

Can you sketch out a bit the media landscape which would have confronted the candidates for president in the 1890s? How was media change tied to other shifts in the American economy and technological infrastructure? 

The campaign season was an occasion for male sociality as male voters had their evenings momentarily freed from the constraints of domesticity. Elections involved a kind of participatory democracy—even if it might mean heated discussions at a nearby saloon or local Republican club. But there were numerous rallies, meetings and speeches—some literally on the local street corner. Most newspapers were relentless partisan. They featured the speeches and doings of their candidates. They praised them and argued the compelling logic of their programs—of which the debates around high versus low tariffs were paramount in 1888 and 1892, sound money versus free silver in 1896 and American imperialism in 1900. Many papers ran calendars announcing meetings, rallies and speeches by the presidential candidates’ numerous stand-ins. 

One crucial factor in the 1880s and 1890s—and well beyond—was that New York was the crucial swing state.  Whoever won New York State won the presidency. And in this respect the size of the Democratic victory in New York City was crucial to determining the outcome. What New York State Governor and Democrat Grover Cleveland’s victory made clear was that New York’s largest daily newspapers were overwhelming Democratic and seemed to hold the key to electoral triumph. These included the New York World, New York Sun, New York Times, New York Herald and New York Post. The New York Tribune was the only prominent Republican daily—along with a few minor papers like The Mail and Express. Newspapers and a few magazines were the only forms of mass communication in the 19th century and this configuration had suddenly ended 24 years of Republican rule.  

Republicans were furious and have hated the liberal media ever since. They also began a search for new media forms that could counter the Democrats dominance in this arena. In a way, this is what Politicking and Emergent Media is all about—the search for and efforts to exploit new media forms—the stereopticon, the telephone, the phonograph and projected motion pictures. In the process they began to transform the very nature of US electoral politics.  

One parallel that you did not make but which struck me in reading your account of the illustrated lecture: Al Gore’s use of powerpoint as a tool for his public lectures on climate change. What similarities or differences might have existed between these two formats for enhancing public oratory? 

Of course, PowerPoint presentations are the most obvious and direct descendants of the illustrated lecture. Not all 19th century lectures were illustrated. Great orators like William Jennings Bryan didn’t need them. Likewise, not all 21st century orators utilize PowerPoint. Trump would find them far too constraining.  In the 19th century some saw the use of lantern slides as a way to enhance their somewhat limited oratorical talents.  In truth, I identify with that sentiment! So if Gore is at his best when giving an illustrated presentation, perhaps it helps to explain why he did not become our president.   On a more practical level, the illustrated lecture of the 1890s held a prominence in the media landscape that PowerPoint presentations clearly lack in a much expanded media world.  What made Gore’s PowerPoint presentation a powerful weapon was the documentary and its multiple medias platforms.  

The history of environmental audio-visual programs is long if uneven. The illustrated lecture as a practice that utilized lantern slides––the stereopticon lecture if you will—really congealed in the 1870s around an astonishing large number of presentations on Yosemite and Yellowstone National Park. Thinking in terms of dispostifs, these environmental programs were a catalyst for the formation of modern documentary practices. An Inconvenient Truth (2006) not only embeds a PowerPoint lecture within its overall documentary format, it was a catalyst for the environmental documentary to become one of the most prominent documentary genres of the last 14 years--—perhaps the most prominent. Of course, An Inconvenient Truth was also serving a Democratic political agenda and helped Democrats regain control of the Senate. Such an implicit purpose complicated its impact by making the environment a partisan issue—specifically a Democratic issue.  In the 1870s efforts to establish a system of national parks was more bipartisan but also very much a Republican issue. 


Charles Musser is a Professor of Film and Media Studies, American Studies and Theater Studies at Yale University where he teaches courses on the history of film and media as well as documentary (both production and critical studies). He recently completed a new feature-length documentary Our Family Album (2018), an essay film on Love, War and the Power of Photography. Its literary counterpart, Our Family Album: Essay-Script-Annotations-images is being published by John Libbey and will be distributed by Indiana University Press in late 2019.