Elijah Flerlage

Media Literacy (EMB 101-006)

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Final Paper (December 6, 2017)

The month of
March 1933 –  it was a horrendous time for the United States of America.
 Nearly a quarter of the nation’s working population was unemployed.
 Both farmers and bankers suddenly lost their livelihood.  Stocks
were down over 75% during the four years leading up to this month, and, in
those same four years, the national suicide rate had tripled.  However, on
March 12, 1933, former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt broadcast a world
first: his so-called “fireside chats”.  A time of panic and chaos,
described as one of the worst economic crashes in recent history, needed
Roosevelt’s hardy speech and collected manner to soothe a general public
experiencing the Great Depression.

Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933, facing the crippling depression and debt
that his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, passed on to him.  At the start of
his presidency, Roosevelt faced the Great Depression, which had spread across
nearly the entire globe, resulted in bank failure, crippled the industrial
production process, and left over thirteen million citizens unemployed.
 Also during the 1930’s, approximately 90% of the American population
owned a radio, so the ability to inform a widespread and encompassing
population of people was easily done and accessible to those whom had the
proper materials.  His first inaugural address hinted at the creation of
his “fireside chats”, instilling a new confidence in those who watched, and presented
his promise to the American people that he will build America to a newfound
recovery (and also stated his widespread quote that “the only thing we have to
fear is fear itself”).  This promise would hold its truth, for the
administration under Roosevelt enacted the New Deal, Roosevelt’s plan to save
America from collapsing under the adverse effects of the Great Depression,
piecemeal over the span of his presidential career.  

His first
informal speech was given on March 12, 1933, over public radio broadcast to
address his initial actions to reverse the effects of the depression.
 During this first speech, Roosevelt praised the public’s acceptance of
and respect for the “banking holiday”, which shut down all federal banks until
a series of rigorous inspections was completed.  Interestingly, the
reopening of these banks did not cause the rush of cash withdrawal that the
administration suspected; instead, the banking system returned to normal
operations with a relatively normal level of traffic.  This shocking result
seemed to show that the “fireside chat” succeeded and indicated that some
public confidence had been restored to some extent.  The radio speeches
that followed covered a wide variety of topics, each with personal commentary
on policies that could be understood by the most amount of people (Roosevelt
was keen in using simplistic terminology as to not scare any one person away
from his message.).  Topics ranging from the judiciary branch (March 1937)
and the coal crisis (May 1943) to nation defense (May 26) and the fall of
dictator Benito Mussolini (July 1943), these seemingly informal speeches were
great tools to show personality and to promptly inform the public.

The public’s
reaction to these talks were dominated by positive reviews.  Reaching an
average of 58% of Americans, the radio speeches resulted in a clear upward
trend in America’s confidence, shown by the barrage of letters to the White
House regarding them, an increased compliance, and Roosevelt’s extremely high
approval ratings while in office.  The level of familiarity in which
politics were presented made each citizen feel as if they were part of the
legislation process, and, due in part to the conversational diction used, many
began to have feelings that a relationship between them and Roosevelt was
formed.  Most importantly, related to America’s boost in confidence, the
general population began to trust him and his administration – the line of
communication was proved victorious.

Though the
direct effects of his chats can be seen in the effectiveness of the New Deal
and his unprecedented number of terms serves as President, I believe that the
effects could be seen in the methods that future presidents used to reach out
to the public and to seem more personable.  At the risk of using personal
opinion, I believe that each proceeding President took on more open-ended,
personal roles in educating the public.  The Nixon-Kennedy debates, the
first to be televised on national television, were ways that the public could
use media platforms to directly address citizens.  In addition, every
president since Roosevelt has public delivered addresses to American citizens
on radio, television, and now, the internet. 
In fact, I would argue that practices of issuing an addresses was a
direct result of the spread that Roosevelt’s chats had.   In 1982, Ronald Reagan began issuing
similarly styled radio speeches nearly every Saturday, for he too believed in
the value of connecting to the average citizen. 
Even Bill Clinton was a proponent of this style of colloquial speech.

Even in the
two most recent presidencies can we observe the effects that showing
personality can have.  I believe that social media, while somewhat
colloquial in nature, have amazing platforms that allowed administrators to
publically share opinions and views on public policy and current events.
 Former president Barack Obama is known for having an enormous following
on Twitter, being within the top ten worldwide most “followed” people.
 His creation of the official Twitter of the President of the United
States, aptly named @POTUS, allowed Obama to portray himself as an ordinary
citizen to seem relatable.  (Amusingly, this account’s first reply was a
humorous interaction between Obama and Bill Clinton.)  Similarly,
President Donald Trump’s use of twitter to discuss current events has amassed
an impressive reaction from people around the globe.  The current news
channels will often display screenshots directly from his Twitter account and
view these as primary news sources – whenever I tune into news channels at
night, I nearly always see a report one of Trump’s Tweets.  This ability
to distribute information quickly has resulted in a more educated public, but a
President’s ability and willingness to showcase personality and opinion can be traced
to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats”.

Famed novelist
Saul Bellow gave a recollection of his experiences with the “fireside chats”:
“drivers had pulled over, parking bumper to bumper, and turned on their radios
to hear Roosevelt.”  Like Bellow, many Americans
were moved by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speeches. 
They felted joined to him, not necessarily considering the former
president’s words but his nurturing and reassuring tone.  We can see that Roosevelt revolutionized the
methods that presidents used to communicate, starting with some humble chats
about public policy over the radio.