Patterson, Thomas E.

views updated



Male. Education: Graduate of South Dakota State University; University of Minnesota, Ph.D., 1971.


Office—Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government, 79 Kennedy St., Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138; fax: 617-495-8696. E-mail—[email protected].


Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, former professor of political science; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, visiting professor, 1991-92, currently Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press. Has also held faculty positions in Germany and Great Britain.


The Unseeing Eye: The Myth of Television Power in National Politics was named one of the fifty most influential books of the past half century in the field of public opinion by the American Association for Public Opinion Research; Choice award for outstanding academic book, 1980-81, for The Mass Media Election: How Americans Choose Their President; recipient of grants from the National Science Foundation, Ford Foundation, and Markle Foundation.


(With Robert D. McClure) Political Advertising: Voter Reaction to Televised Political Commercials, Citizens' Research Foundation (Princeton, NJ), 1973.

(With Robert D. McClure) The Unseeing Eye: The Myth of Television Power in National Politics, Putnam (New York, NY), 1976.

The Mass Media Election: How Americans Choose Their President, Praeger (New York, NY), 1980.

The American Democracy, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1990, 6th edition, McGraw-Hill (Boston, MA), 2003.

Why the Campaign Fails, Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.

Out of Order, Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.

We the People: A Concise Introduction to American Politics, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1995, 5th edition, McGraw-Hill (Boston, MA), 2004.

The Vanishing Voter: Public Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.

Contributor to books, including 1-800-PRESIDENT: The Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on Television and the Campaign of 1992, 1993, and to periodicals and journals, including Journal of Communication and Political Communication.


Thomas E. Patterson has written a number of volumes that address the relationship between media and politics, including his first two, with Robert D. McClure, Political Advertising: Voter Reaction to Televised Political Commercials and The Unseeing Eye: The Myth of Television Power in National Politics. For the latter, the authors selected several hundred people, all from the same Midwestern town, and studied their changes in attitude as influenced by the media during the last seven weeks of the 1972 presidential campaign between George McGovern and Richard Nixon. They concluded that television programming has little or no effect. Michael J. Robinson, who noted that the survey was limited, commented in the Washington Post Book World, "We have needed a clear, factual book to counter the outrageous claims, generally made by media consultants, about the magic of television. Candidates thinking about spending fortunes on TV campaigning should read this book. Media consultants should hide it."

Patterson also studied media coverage and voter response during the 1976 presidential campaign of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in the cities of Erie, Pennsylvania, and Los Angeles, California, in The Unseeing Eye: The Myth of Television Power in National Politics. He came to the conclusion that "today's presidential campaign is essentially a mass media campaign." Patterson studied the content of two daily newspapers in each city, three television networks, and the weekly magazines Time and Newsweek. He conducted seven sets of interviews, and the resulting book "provides a realistic profile of the continuous flow of messages to a partially aware audience," noted a Choice reviewer.

In OutofOrder, Patterson maintains that in other Western democratic nations, the political parties are responsible for shaping public opinion. Yet in the United States this role was diverted to the media through campaign reforms enacted in the early 1970s. He offers suggestions to remedy the resultant shortcomings in the country's political process, which include a briefer primary season and more televised debates between candidates. By employing these measures, he argues, the media's shoddy job of chronicling only the more sensationalist aspects of the candidates and their campaigns could be counteracted. Patterson writes in his introduction that "just as a properly functioning campaign cannot be based on the press, the campaign cannot work properly if the press does not have the opportunity to fulfill its watchdog role. The second situation is alarming, the first is foolhardy."

Before 1968, the selection of the presidential candidates was a function of the national conventions. "Pols dominated the system," noted E. J. Dionne, Jr. in the Columbia Journalism Review, "so political values dominated the nominating process. Ostensibly, the replacement of the politicians with direct primaries was designed to put the task of nominating candidates into the hands of the voters. But things were not that simple. Someone had to mediate between the voters and the candidates. The mediating role was taken on by the press. The problem, Patterson argues, is that the press does not operate on the basis of political values but of journalistic values. Journalism, he says, emphasizes storytelling and conflict, creating an appetite for what's new today, the slips and errors of the politicians, the 'game' or 'horse-race' aspects of elections, and the strategic moves of candidates."

Patterson writes that "in no other era has the course of presidential campaigns been so unpredictable or hinged so much on small issues as in recent years." Washington Monthly reviewer Jeff Greenfield felt that some of the "turning points" Patterson cites "may have been far less consequential than other, more substantial reasons for political success or failure." Greenfield noted that Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were successful in spite of gaffes and scandal, and that in 1992, "the American public found new connections to the political process and enveloped a renewed enthusiasm for politics that resulted in a huge increase in turnout."

Patterson's The Vanishing Voter: Public Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty, the findings of a study he conducted out of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, examines voter turnout and the lack thereof. Beginning one year before the 2000 election and ending two months after, nearly 98,000 Americans were asked about their knowledge of candidates and thoughts about political events in ninety-nine weekly surveys. What the author found was that most Americans were bored by meaningless news that was fed to them over a too-long campaign season. As Hugh Heclo noted in the Political Science Quarterly, "Induced by the winner-take-all aspect of the electoral vote system, an artificial division of public audiences into battleground and nonbattleground states distorts opportunities for citizen attention and involvement." Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote in the Policy Review that Patterson's concern "is that low voter turnout leaves American government susceptible to hijacking by particular, minority interests. Ross Perot, he argues, came pretty close to being president, and Patterson doubts that too many Americans really thought a Perot presidency was a very good idea. But Patterson has a more immediate worry, too. Low voter turnout, he says, means that groups of people who have problems with getting representative numbers to the polls are likely to have issues that concern them ignored: the young, for instance, and racial minorities."

Patterson suggests changes that he feels will engage more voters, including election day registration, later voting hours, and making election day a national holiday. He would also change the way in which the media covers both the primaries and general election. But as Wallace-Wells pointed out, Patterson's study reflects an overwhelming percentage of voters, seventy-four percent, who identify with a party but are unable to say anything about what that party stands for. Wallace-Wells addressed this issue by saying that "things are a lot more complicated now; party platforms are a huge mess of shifting affiliations and social, economic, and international concerns. There is a great deal of variability not only in position but also in emphasis among parties, and local candidates are very rarely a simple proxy for the positions of the national parties. There are good reasons why voters are uniformed and disengaged." Wallace-Wells described this as a "unique and useful project" but concluded by saying, "This is a knotty, difficult problem—and one that will not be solved by small measures."



American Political Science Review, June, 1994, Robert M. Entman, review of Out of Order, p. 484.

Choice, December, 1976, review of The Unseeing Eye: The Myth of Television Power in National Politics, p. 1360; December, 1980, review of The Mass Media Election: How Americans Choose Their President, p. 585.

Columbia Journalism Review, March-April, 1994, E. J. Dionne, Jr., review of Out of Order.

Journal of Communication, December 1, 2003, Richard M. Perloff, review of The Vanishing Voter: Public Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty, p. 729.

Library Journal, October 15, 1980, Edward C. Dreyer, review of The Mass Media Election, p. 2188.

New Yorker, December 12, 1994, Adam Gopnik, review of Out of Order, pp. 84-90, 92-94, 96, 98-102.

New York Times Book Review, December 26, 1993, Ronnie Dugger, review of Out of Order, pp. 12-13.

Policy Review, April-May, 2003, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, review of The Vanishing Voter, p. 82.

Political Science Quarterly, fall, 2003, Hugh Heclo, review of The Vanishing Voter, p. 491.

Publishers Weekly, August, 23, 1993, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Out of Order, p. 49.

Washington Monthly, January-February, 1994, Jeff Greenfield, review of Out of Order, p. 54.

Washington Post Book World, August 1, 1976, Michael J. Robinson, review of The Unseeing Eye, p. H7.*

About this article

Patterson, Thomas E.

Updated About content Print Article