John P. Cunningham, Paul Lazarsfeld, Nicholas Samstag

Television and the Molding of Opinion

VTR Date: October 19, 1958


October 19, 1958
NBC Television

Moderator: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Nicholas Samtag, John Cunningham, Dr. Paul Lazarsfeld

ANNOUNCER: THE OPEN MIND, free to examine, to question, to disagree. Our subject today, Television and the Molding of Opinion.” Your host on The Open Mind is Richard D. Heffner, historian, teacher, and author of A Documentary History of the United States.

HEFFNER: Earlier this year—to be precise on February 24, 1958—Broadcasting Magazine published a statement by John P. Cunningham, the President of Cunningham and Walsh. In it he said television now has become a firmly established member of the American family. It ranks with the automobile and even with the house in terms of family concern. Children spend more time with it than any other occupation except school. Adults spend more time with it than any other pursuits except work. That is why people today live it, love it, criticize it, and sometimes belabor it. And I think our experience over the past half dozen weeks or so as we’ve been doing this series on the impact of television on American life rather…out this point of view.
We have received and been belabored as apologists for the industry and we’ve been belabored as those who don’t understand the inner workings of an industry that requires greater forbearance.

Anyway, today we come to the end of that series, at least for the time being, and I’m going to ask my panel today in a sense to sum up what we have done and offer their opinion on the most important question—TV and the Molding of Public Opinion. Now let me introduce to you my guests.

My first guest is Mr. Nicholas Samtag who is the Director of Promotion of Time, te weekly news magazine and the author of “Persuasion for Profit.” My second guest is Dr. Paul Lazarsfeld, Chairman of the Department of Sociology at Columbia University and author of “The Academic Mind,” just published. The third guest is the man whom I’ve just quoted, Mr. John P. Cunningham, President of Cunningham and Walsh, a major advertising agency. I think, Mr. Cunningham that I’m going to, since I quoted you, ask you to begin the program by just throwing out my question… taking our TV and the Molding of Opinion—do you think from your experience and as an advertiser that TV can and does mold opinion?

CUNNINGHAM: I think it not only can but I think it does to a tremendous degree. I think the possibilities of its future are limitless and as yet undeveloped. It has two things that no other medium of communication has. In the first place, the set is turned on, as we all know, five hours a day in the average household. This exposure time gives it an obligation and an opportunity far beyond any other medium I can think of. Secondly, it has immediacy. You can look at a television and see your own destiny being shaped. You can peer into the United Nations. For the first time, man can sit by his fireside and look around the curve of the earth. He can see everything going on while they’re going on, whether it’s a cultural discussion at Harvard University or a discussion of football at the Yale Bowl. But with this terrific power it has perhaps more than any other medium an obligation of leadership in the effect of public opinion.

HEFFNER:I think I’d ask Mr. Samtag, who has written about “Persuasion for Profit”—would you advocate the idea or stand behind the idea that TV is the best persuader? Does it mold opinion to this extent?

SAMTAG: Well, it’s a difficult question, Dick, because what is opinion that is best seems to me that the amount of meddling or going on today because of television is not very different from the amount of molding of opinion that has been going on ever since the beginning of time when man started to talk to man. The only difference is that instead of listening to friends and teachers and ministers perhaps, people are spending more time in front of a television set. It seems to me that the word molding is a bad and dangerous word in this question.

SAMTAG: Because there are implications of sinister power behind the word molding. I think that people mold opinions all the time only we call it influencing opinions or helping people to reach their conclusions. When you talk to me about anything, you’re influencing my opinion, and I don’t think of you as sinister. I think of you as amiable.

HEFFNER: Well I’m glad you do. I think of you the same way and I know you wouldn’t be sinister in turn; but suppose you have a certain motive. Suppose you have an objective. Do you think that television is an instrument more powerful in the influencing—if you don’t want to use the word molding. The guests on my first program didn’t want to use the word impact. Do you think television is a more powerful instrument in the influencing of opinion than the other media?

SAMTAG: No I do not. I think it’s another instrument. I think that what happens in all impersonal instruments of influence is that the more widespread the instrument is the shallower its impact. I think this will always be true. Thus, if everybody is listening to television a great deal, then everybody is valuing television not as highly as things they do rarely. This seems to me to be human nature. Thus, if occasionally I read a book but always I listen to television, the book makes a deeper impression on my mind than the television program, weight for weight, minute for minute.

HEFFNER: Dr. Lazarsfeld, could I follow one question first and ask Mr. Samtag whether the implication of this would be the current trend to blame television for a good many things—and I’m thinking particularly of the current, and I’ll put this word in quotation marks, “campaign” on the subject of TV and violence.
Do you think this has been misdirected then because of the smaller degree of influence that you attribute to TV?

SAMTAG: Yes, indeed I do. I think mankind’s tendency to blame everything except mankind is well known to philosophers and this is just another example of it. This is people; this is not television that’s doing it.

HEFFNER: Dr. Lazarsfeld, I’m sorry I interrupted.

LAZARSFELD: No, no, I would like to agree with both of my colleagues here. Because I think you asked the question a little bit too general. You have to make a lot of distinctions but a major one is between immediate effect and indirect effect. I think the few serious studies we have show that Samtag is right, that television has little effect immediately. For instance, my friend Gus Levy has collected all the information on the famous McCarthy hearing and we know that they didn’t change anyone’s mind as far as McCarthy goes. But it probably had a very sharp effect because they encouraged the McCarthy enemies in the Senate to go ahead and to work on the censure, etcetera…Or, to give you another example, in one of your previous programs you studied the effect of television in regard to learning…the role of television in schools. My expectation is—we don’t have any study here on that of course—that the real effect of school television will be that it will greatly increase the prestige of the teachers who teach on television, who become better known to the community and one of the American intellectual problems is that the teacher has such low prestige in the American community and if he’s seen on television he becomes a more important figure, and that in a very indirect way might have a great intellectual effect on the American public, much more than the direct effect of teaching television in high school.

HEFFNER: We are talking about an indirect effect. Then I would ask Mr. Cunningham, how do…

CUNNINGHAM: Well the airwaves belong to the people. The people, most of them, want entertainment, entertainment, and more entertainment. And they have a right to get it. But there is an area of television and the people who want their opinion molded. They are entitled to their share and possibly more, and I believe they are getting it on television.

HEFFNER: Do you think they do in terms of commercial influence, influencing consumers rather than influencing public opinion?


HEFFNER: Dr. Lazarsfeld, do you think that that is true? We are not now talking about social thinking or reaction to McCarthy but rather what seems to be the prime function at this moment of television, of moving goods.

LAZARSFELD: Well, let me first say a little remark about this program called The Open Mind. I listened to a number of the features on television and I read all the transcripts, and I was most impressed by one thing: To one expert, not one participant in this whole series used the words “I don’t know.” Everyone has a definite opinion on everything. And I happen to know how many things we don’t know. So really I should answer “I don’t know” here just to set a precedent, but I agree with Mr. Cunningham that influence, the commercial influence of television, is very great and there is good reason why you cannot transfer this commercial effect to the molding of public opinion.

CUNNINGHAM: Professor, you said a little while ago that the McCarthy hearings you didn’t feel had molded much public opinion. I think a tremendous amount of public opinion was molded about McCarthy and also a lot was molded about a lawyer named Joseph Welch, an unknown man.

LAZARSFELD: Look, as far as McCarthy goes, I am sorry to say that nay evidence we had is to the contrary. It had effect on what we call the elite groups.

CUNNINGHAM: Do you believe it molds political opinions?

LAZARSFELD: Again, I would say very little and only in an indirect way if at all. We have a study of the famous 1952 campaign in Iowa.

CUNNINGHAM: We have a study too. Go ahead, what is your study?

HEFFNER: We will see how Madison Avenue and Columbia University disagree.

LAZARSFELD: In 1952 were the forays of television permitted us to compare where there was television and where there was no television, according to that we didn’t find in the end there was any difference in the amount of working or in the composition of it.

LAZARSFELD: Exactly…can be molded on abstract principles of justice and of the things that come up in an election campaign, particularly for a major office. Therefore, I think we can agree that television moves merchandise but it doesn’t move the convictions and feelings of people very easily from where they originally were.

CUNNINGHAM: The study that I was mentioning was one we made recently that was just completed, and eight percent of the people said they had switched their vote from one candidate to another during the last presidential campaign.

LAZARSFELD: Yes, but wait a moment. That is a very interesting phenomenon. If you study that a little bit further, and I offer myself as a consultant for that, then you will find those are compensated switches, that some people changed one way and some people changed another way, and the net effect is very small; and this phenomenon of compensating switches is something which is very often overlooked in this connection.

HEFFNER: I would rather not start us off into this realm of TV and politics too far because we have more or less covered this, although I admit, Professor Lazarsfeld, no man has said “I don’t know.” Our assumption is it is the person at home that has the open mind for watching the show, not necessarily the guests. Seriously let me get back to this question a moment of moving goods and not moving ideas. Mr. Samtag, you feel this is the way you would sum up the influence?

SAMTAG: Yes, I think basically it is a matter of people’s prejudices versus people’s choice of a thing. Actually—and maybe I am being unfaithful to my own profession when I saw this—I don’t think people value things very highly in spite of the criticism of our civilization as being material. I don’t think they really care whether it is an Oldsmobile or a Buick. It doesn’t take much to chance it one way or another. But it takes a great deal to change a Republican, particularly what we call a dyed-in-the-wool black Republican into a Democrat, any kind of a Democrat, and vice versa.

CUNNINHAM: I would agree with that.

HEFFNER: Go ahead, Professor Lazarsfeld.

LAZARSFELD: I agree with Nick, but must again make a distinction, and as you know Professors are in the business of making distinctions, that is a difference between old issues and new issues. I think one of the situations where television might have considerable influence even in attitude is if something completely new comes up. For instance, taking again your own program. Last time when you discussed the question of television in courtrooms, it is something which the general public has very little thought about, and therefore hearing it for the first time through television, and that was the only occasion to really hear it, it might affect the people very greatly. If some new issue comes up where the ego, as we call it, is not yet involved, where people have prejudices and where it plays a great role in their personalities, then televisions might have it.

HEFFNER: Why then—this is the same question I asked Mr. Samtag a moment ago—why do we have so terribly much criticism? Why are we all so involved in blaming this instrument? I know Mr. Samtag, you said that we have to blame something and this is the convenient whipping boy, but it is a sort of damned if you do and damned if you don’t affair. It is a peculiar thing.

CUNNINGHAM: Well, Mr. Heffner, I think television, as I say, belongs to the people and it is criticizable just as the whole theater is criticizable and the whole newspaper field, the whole press. A great many people who criticize it, as you know, they talk one way and they say it lacks educational programs, and then they turn the dial the other way, to “11 Colt 45” or “Restless Gun.” They want to appear a little more erudite than they possibly are so they criticize us fro not having things on the air that they will not choose to listen to.

SAMTAG: Mr. Cunningham, I like your phrase that television belongs to the people. I will try and match it with another phrase which perhaps is more applicable here, that television is elected every day all over just as a weekly news magazines are elected every week all over again, so that there is no point in saying television is or is not good, bad, or here to stay because all it is is a communication medium. But looking inside that medium it seems to me that the question of candidates for election is important. Maybe perhaps the right things are not being brought up, the right kind of programs.

CUNNINGHAM: I think that is true.

SAMTAG: because these programs are brought up only by one type of motivation that started documentary films. [OMITTED]…”The River” and what was the other one? Something about the plough for the Department of Agriculture in 1936 that suddenly showed Hollywood that people liked documentary films and so suddenly private enterprise came in after government showed private enterprise that here was something there was a chance of profit in. I don’t see any of that in television today. Maybe it’s occurring and I am not informed.

LAZARSFELD: It makes me a little nervous if both of you talk about people like… “they criticize.” I think you have to realize that one of the things which distinguish most of the educated and the less educated groups in this country is the attitude to television and all other things. Really the class struggle in this country is not so much about wages and hours but about television and that kind of things. You take, for instance, the question of commercials. Now you will find that in intellectual and educated groups, let’s say in the upper thirty percent, there is a great dislike of commercials. In the sixty-seventy percent less educated people love commercials. The problem therefore is who should decide? It is not so simple to say it belongs to the people, or the people criticize it, etcetera. It is educated groups which criticize and the uneducated groups which provide the mass audience.

SAMTAG: Well, if thirty percent of the educated then thirty percent of the programs ought to be for educated people, shouldn’t they be, in the best of all possible worlds?

LAZARSFELD: I have yet to hear that because if fifty percent of the people are democrats then fifty percent of the content of Time Magazine should favor democratic candidates. I would consider that a great progress over what the ratio is at the moment.

SAMTAG: I recognize propaganda when I hear it.

CUNNINGHAM: I think the programs are at least thirty percent of an educational nature. Before I came here this morning I counted the number of what I conceived to be shows that would mold public opinion on the air today. And there were thirty-seven of them, excluding this one, and there were such people today as Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt; two ambassadors, one from Sweden, and ambassador Grewe from Germany, Walter Reuther, and a whole bevy of politicians, by the way. I think they are getting it.

HEFFNER: Suppose we assume—I remember on the first program when Stockton Helffrich of NBC was on—and someone wrote him a letter and said your business about selective viewing is just so much baloney, and Mr. Helffrich wrote back, and I think in a very good form, took out of the TV Guide, forgive me for naming another magazine—the list of all the programs that could be considered molding opinion or influencing opinion or in an educational direction. But let me come back to this question that Professor Lazarsfeld talked about, indirect influence. I remember Miss Marya Mannes on this program, on the program on “TV and Learning,” talked about the image of Americans that is promoted in most television. Does this influence our thinking about ourselves to the extent that it becomes creative and molds opinion? DO you think it is possible that this is so?

LAZARSFELD: Well look, here I am really in the “I don’t know” business.

HEFFNER: That is why I say do you think it is possible.

LAZARSFELD: Pardon the expression, that is the $64,000 question to really answer the question. But you can go in a somewhat oblique way. The present television policy and maybe that is unavoidable—prevents really a great deal of influencing or molding. For instance, I mean it very seriously, but this program would become very dull if we were really to discuss seriously how we know something. I express opinions and you balance usually the program, so how can anyone be molded from these various programs when we (a) disagree, and (b) have no time to give our evidence? And that is not blaming you. Then you take the news supply. I think specifically about television that for understandable technical and economical reasons television has much less news analysis than radio used to have. So here is another sector, which cuts out the possibility of influencing.

HEFFNER: What about the desire for editorializing now on the part of many television people? Do you think this is going to swing the pendulum in the other direction?

LAZARSFELD: Well, that is hard to say. But it might be possible, especially if this editorializing comes early enough.

SAMTAG: What is editorializing? Let me ask this question in all innocence. Dr. Lazarsfeld said a minute ago if we all had different opinions and we express them and nobody’s opinion unduly in any direction but if Dr. Lazarsfeld has a more winsome manner than I have, and he may indeed have, his argument is going to register with the television public a lot more solidly than mine even if mine which is unlikely—is intellectually more solid; and this I think is what editorializing television consists of. It is not what is known as editorializing in the newspaper or the news magazine business; it is the editorializing of histrionics. The editorializing of the “charm boy” though carefully calculated—and why not I hasten to add, I am not against this—and the carefully staged production, and that is what happens. If I had a mustache, or if you had a small child with you, or if you had a dog along this would be a piece of propaganda. This would make a terrific impression. Anything you said the public would buy, within reason.

LAZARSFELD: You might be right. Again we have no evidence. But that is a point where I have a complete suggestion and will kind of try it out on you. I am quite sure that the largest minority of the people doesn’t know about prompters. Now in a newspaper when you have a paid advertising you have to mark it paid advertising. It will be rather interesting to try out an FCC regulation wherever a prompter is used it has to be shown.

HEFFNER: A device a politician can read off or anyone can read off.

LAZARSFELD: …the politician who sits leisurely at the desk and looks into the air and the great ideas come to him—

HEFFNER: What is…with this?

LAZARSFELD: Actually he reads it from a prompter.

SAMTAG: Well, what is the matter with…

LAZARSFELD: Well, no—now I am coming back stronger distortion of reality by television—I will not say that it is done very much, but the danger of distortion of reality by television is very great. The saying that a picture is more true than a thousand words of course the opposite is true. I have very good studies showing that, for instance, the entrance of MacArthur into Chicago where the camera went with him for an hour and a half so that it became a tremendous symphony of triumph as….to what the people in the…who had to stand around for two hours in order to see him for twenty seconds, the possible distortion of television is very big.

HEFFNER: Now we are really coming to a point where television can influence opinions.

SAMTAG: All right, but I don’t understand why Dr. Lazarsfeld would not object to some dumb Congressman being drilled and drilled until he memorized a speech and then being coached by a theatrical coach on the side and then getting up and making this glib speech—he doesn’t object to that. What you object to is a teleprompter for some reason. Why?

LAZARSFELD: I can tell you that by coincidence.

HEFFNER: In one minute.

LAZARSFELD: We know that people are more sensitive to sincerity. That the idea of spontaneity and sincerity in public figures plays a tremendous role.

SAMTAG: That is why people use sincerity.

LAZARSFELD: And if you can manufacture sincerity this is a much greater danger than if you can manufacture glibness.

SAMTAG: You mustn’t protect the people; have faith in the people, Dr. Lazarsfeld, they will find their way. I didn’t say that first.

HEFFNER: More cynicism I haven’t heard in a long, long time, but I gather, Dr. Lazarsfeld, you feel this question of sincerity, the potential of the television camera to manufacture it, is the important issue here.

LAZARSFELD: One important issue.

CUNNINGHAM: This will show up as something he has got to continue with, either being sincere or glib or charming. Maybe it will become part of his nature. After all, this is the person the people are voting for.

SAMTAG: He is drilled by his party.

CUNNINGHAM: And that is all right, apparently.

HEFFNER: All I can say is I am sincerely thankful to you charming gentlemen, Mr. Samtag, Dr. Lazarsfeld, Dr. Cunningham. We will be back with The Open Mind when we will have left the subject, at least temporarily, of the impact of TV on American life, and we are going to talk about America’s image abroad—next week on The Open Mind. See you then.