An ever-changing role

On Sunday I took part in the Company Member Discussion after the matinee performance of Frost/Nixon — a discussion that is always one of my favorite events during each production. It is when the TimeLine Company Members — the group that collectively selects the plays in our season — come together to chat with members of our audience. That conversation, along with this blog, Facebook, Twitter and our other post-show discussions throughout the run of a show, always offer fascinating insight into how our audience responds to a play.

When Frost/Nixon premiered in London in 2006, it was received somewhat as a comment on the George W. Bush or Tony Blair administrations. Four years later, as TimeLine opened the play in the same week as the Blagojevich mistrial, echoes of Blago’s exploits and hubris rang through our theatre. Some of those issues are still coming up regularly in discussions with audience members, framed by the strong feelings about Richard Nixon’s presidency that are quite prevalent with the generations that still hold passionate memories about his administration.

The famous Nixon/Kennedy debates aired on television in 1960.

But recently, I have been most fascinated by discussions about how this play examines the ever-changing role of the media in the political landscape. Perhaps it is because I spent five months earlier this year working on and performing in The Farnsworth Invention. I became consumed with the story of television and how its creators envisioned the ways it would change how people consume information and news. The visionaries of television, Philo Farnsworth and David Sarnoff, had virtuous notions of its possibilities. But little did they know how the medium they invented would completely transform our political process, redefining how charismatic leaders could use it and catapult to power.

Ironically, Sunday was also the 50th anniversary of the first televised Presidential debate — that infamous meeting of Kennedy and Nixon broadcast from right here in Chicago — which would change the political playbook forever. After that day, TV became a tool to be leveraged, its reach and influence in the living rooms of America maximized.

As we brace for the November elections, it’s fascinating to see the role of the media in the political process shifting once again. There are numerous candidates from all political parties ferociously controlling their messages by only agreeing to interviews with sympathetic media outlets. No longer does a candidate need to go through a mainstream journalist to get their message across. With endless possibilities in the blogosphere and cable TV, many are hand selecting who they will sit down with in order to best deliver their talking points and come off in the best light.

David Frost interviews former President Richard Nixon in 1977.

Perhaps this is not unlike Nixon’s selection of David Frost as his post-resignation interviewer. With no network backing and a reputation as a puff-piece celebrity interviewer, Frost appeared to be an easier foil for Nixon to get across his message and rebuild his image. In the end, Nixon’s choice of Frost proved to be less successful than planned.

With five weeks of jockeying ahead before the November elections, I am curious to see how the role of the media plays out. Maybe there will be yet another shift in the landscape of how television can shape (for better or worse) the image of a candidate and his or her political ambitions. We’ll have to stay tuned!

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